by John Colgan-Davis
I don’t regularly write about sports in these columns. It just doesn’t seem quite appropriate most of the time. I do not normally talk to most folks about sports. My wife and family and I have discussions about the disappointment of the Phillies this year and the apparent re-awakening of the Eagles, and there are a few friends with whom I have the stereotypical guys argument/discussions: they shouldn’t have traded him, what were they thinking, who should be fired or let go, etc.
But I love sports, especially baseball and pro football, and I have for most of my life. I love them both for the games themselves and for what the games can show and reveal about our society, our culture, our times and our values.
I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when baseball was king and when blacks were just breaking into the big leagues. I have clear memories of Jackie Robinson’s last years with the Dodgers, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and many others who were personal heroes of mine, both for their baseball skills and as symbols of black excellence and as indicators of change.
It was about much more than just the score or the game. And as I grew older, I began to see more of the larger social patterns at play in much of our sports. Boxing and basketball reflected the ethnic and social systems of certain times with Irish, Jewish, Italian and black athletes dominating and becoming popular in those sports, reflecting who was struggling to move up in U.S. urban society during a given time period.
The decades featured Irish, Jewish, Italian and then African-American names as we moved through the 20th century, one group dominating and then being replaced by another. So sports is both games and a measuring stick and peek into aspects of U.S. society
I bring all of this up because one of the joys I have had during my summer vacation is reading the newspaper. I do not mean glancing at a headline or looking at one or two stories. I mean READING the paper — having the time to go from much of the first section through to most of the other sections as well.
And in so doing I have discovered the wonderful sports writing and analysis of Inquirer columnist Frank Fitzpatrick. Yes, he talks about the games, but like great sportswriters of the past such as Roger Kahn and Bill Conlin, he gets behind and underneath the stories to go into the places where sports reveal some greater truths, including those we may not want to look at.
He is a very effective writer, and he is able to make us see the people involved beyond the stories. His Father’s Day piece, for example, on the World War II veterans who were behind the growth of Little League baseball in the 1950s was wonderfully observed and generously stated:
“In retrospect, for our dads, that well-tended field must have been a shrine, a place that represented the deepest emotional bond they would ever have with their sons. For so many of them, World War II had turned off their emotional taps.
“Whatever horrific war residue they needed to deal with, they often did so inappropriately by drinking, philandering, raging, or most commonly, retreating … For them, Little League served as a welcome conversational surrogate.”
Clearly this is a new way to look at Little League, but it is also a new way to think about the lives and roles of fathers in the 1950s. And that is something one does not expect to see in a sports column these days.
There has recently been a lot in the news about use of mascots and sports teams’ names with the debate over the Washington pro football team’s use of “Redskins” and the Cleveland baseball team nickname of “Indians” and their home run mascot and logo, “Chief Wahoo.” There is a lot of passionate debate about this but little historical reference. In his column on the controversy, though, Fitzpatrick provided some of that reference:
“There was a time in American sports, predominantly in early 20th-century baseball, when deformed or degraded mascots were the norm. In Philadelphia, for example, both the Phillies and Athletics employed humpbacked youngsters as batboy mascots. The custom grew out of a patronizing society’s ignorant belief that the more socially outcast one was, the greater his worth as a good-luck charm. Humpbacks, dwarfs, those with crossed eyes, the mentally ill and, of course, blacks and Indians were widely seen as talismans. It wasn’t long until superstitious sports teams were cruelly using them for that purpose.”
It is such a treat that in the world of “man-caves,” 24-7 sports coverage, obsessive fans and egomaniacal athletes, there is sports commentary that can make you think and feel, that makes you want to go beyond the scores. Frank Fitzpatrick does that … Even if the Phillies are still not driving in runs.
Here is a link to some of Fitzpatrick’s columns: www.philly.com/philly/columnists/frank_fitzpatrick
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher and harmonica player for Philly’s top rockin’ blues band, Dukes of Destiny.