(This is not meant to be a factual presentation. Think of it more as a conversation in a tavern).
Our culture is sports crazy. A lot of us grew up with professional sports as an integral part of our lives. And as adults, young and old, they still might be. I find it easy to forget how much the games we watch have changed though. Change usually comes incrementally, even at a glacial pace, but once you get to be old enough, the distinctions, the evolutions and the devolutions become a little more apparent.
Team uniforms didn’t use to have names or numbers. Baseball was king a hundred years ago and the crowds and the parks were small enough that you could see the players’ faces and knew where they played from year to year. The Yankees were the first with numbers. And they were assigned by your spot in the batting order. Ruth, 3, Gehrig, 4. After that the prestige was to have the lowest possible number because it meant you would make the team. DiMaggio 5, Mantle 7.
The Yankees famous pinstripes came to rise because Babe Ruth couldn’t control his appetites and became heavy and unathletic looking. He missed a half a season in the twenties because it was said he ate too many hot dogs. It was known as the stomach-ache heard around the world. I think it was really syphilis.
Every sport had its traditions. I think football numbers were designated mostly by position. Running backs in the thirties, linebackers in the fifties, quarterbacks lower, to help the officials know who caused which penalty on what part of the field.
Hockey was similar. Goalies were 1, 29, 30 or 31. Defensemen were between 2 and 8, the top scorer was often number 9. Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe. The first weird number I saw was Phil Esposito’s. He was traded from the Bruins to the Rangers and he went from 7 to 77. Maybe that was the year of the trade. Then Gretzky and Lemieux made anything cool.
There was a time when a basketball number couldn’t contain a number with a digit higher than five. That’s because when the ref called a foul on you he went to the scorer’s table and told them your number with hand signals in case the gym was loud. Left hand then right. Fifty-five or thirty-three.
When I became a starter on my high school basketball team, there were five good uniforms that breathed and ten polyester ones that didn’t. The good ones were 11, 22, 33, 44 and 55. I was 44. That all changed when all the cool big afro-ed guys from the ABA dunked every which way and everyone wanted to be like them and there were no rules. Dr. J was number six. And there was a guy named World B. Free.
Sports change. They always do. In the fifties, the Cincinnati Reds were known as the Red Legs because the Communist scare made Reds a bad word. And that’s when singing the National Anthem became a regular thing. Sports wasn’t always about patriotism and the military. Sometimes it was just about the games.
If you’ve ever been to a ballgame in the States, you might assume that God Bless America always plays in the seventh inning stretch. Nope. Only since 2001. We used to just sing Take Me Out To the Ballgame.
Beards and sideburns, tennis whites, golf pants, short shorts. Nothing really ever stays the same.
Except the politics.
Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Curt Flood, Martina Navratalova, Caitlyn Jenner, Colin Kaepernick. It’s a mighty long line that doesn’t seem destined to end anytime soon.
It still shocks me that sometimes athletes with a social conscience have to drag the rest of us into the present. Some day, we’ll all look back and wonder what the hell we could have been thinking. At least I hope so.