Tuesday was National Sportsmanship Day, an annual event urging to “Dare To Play Fair”. As the saying goes: Really? Is this really necessary?

For decades, from school bells well beyond wedding bells, we engaged in baseball, basketball and football on grass, cement and gridiron. Not once was this an issue.


This is not, by the way, euphoric recall; it is fact.

“Swift-pitching”, we called it. The chalk rectangle on a brick wall outlined a batter’s box and from sixty, maybe seventy feet we’d hurl to the plate. Ground balls past the pitcher were singles; flies to certain points were extra bases and more. Easy stuff.

What of balls n’ strikes, you ask? No problem. From first grade to puberty it was never an issue. If the pitcher said it was in—it was in. No questions asked. So honorable was our cause that indeed, even schoolyard bullies didn’t cheat. Take Bobby Stain or Jerry Wolf, for example. They might get pissed striking out; they might seize our ball, hit it on the roof and leave—but they never cheated.

Same on the back diamond. Branches of a big tree hung over the right field line. By ground rule, a batted ball hitting any or all leaves meant an automatic “take over”. And if you said it hit it—it hit it!

Lazy pop ups, just beyond first, were easy outs. Still, if that ball flicked even one leaf—no questions asked—it was a nullity. We didn’t look to the sky for falling green nor did we study grass stains on the ball. If someone saw it, he saw it.

The sport, by the way, didn’t matter. We had honor.

In basketball we called our own fouls. Always.

“You got me,” we’d announce. No foul shots, of course—just our ball out. Sure, internally, we might question a foe’s manhood. Marvin, ( the “Poor man’s Will”), always thought he was fouled. Still, calls stood and games went on…no questions asked (aloud).

Perhaps there WAS more honor, more integrity back then.

Consider the Boobus Bowl, an annual football game played across the frozen tundra of Rowland School. By collegiate times, the nucleus of players had evolved from my brother’s peers. It was the highlight each Thanksgiving weekend. My team, the foundation of which was two Bogarts, Baskin and Cutler, ran the ball. (Go figure). The bad guys had a pure passer in Mandel, who was generally accompanied by a crew of nameless but fleet receivers. Even then–with all the pride and bragging rights at stake—even then we rejected out-of-hand Steve Freedman’s suggestion that we water down the field the night before. Win, lose, or draw, we dared to play fare.

Not only did the sport not matter, but neither did the level of competition. And…
not only did we play fare, but we were good sports.

I had the privilege of playing softball, year after year, for Sol’s Boys. We were perennial champions. Nonetheless, while winning made sportsmanship easy, it should be noted that our skipper was one Alan Vernon Wieder, the fiery pitcher-manager that long before Lombardi, thought winning not to be everything, but the only thing. Alan was, in no uncertain terms, the Jewish John McGraw.

Like most teams, we weren’t immune to bad calls. Umpires are, after all, human. Wieder, though, knew more than most umps. He really did.

I was the lucky one. As catcher, I had a bird’s eye view of our leader’s reactions if things displeased him. (It wasn’t always the ump, by the way. How he’d glare—forever it seemed—when Snyder’d run in five steps before sprinting back ten to snag a fly, or as Arthur’s throw to the cutoff man hit an adjacent field). But oh…when it was the ump! First his eyes would smoke, as he eyed the plate..silently. Then, after pregnant pause, he’d look left to first or right to Pollack at third. “Absolutely miserable” we’d hear. “Ridiculous”. Then, as I’d take steps to the mound, perhaps to calm him down, he’d growl (and I mean growl): “GET BACK THERE!”

Not one word, though, directed to the plate.

Oh…he’d take his glove off and slam it to the mound. He’d even kick it now and then, and even mumble unintelligibly as he wandered from the mound to pick it up. Worst case scenario, he’d eye the ump, exclaiming “Come on!”

Stare, yes; glare, yes. He knew though, that they can’t toss you out for what you’re thinking). So he took it out on his mitt.

It’s IS arguable that we did cheat here and there. Alan didn’t think so.

Some times a player just wouldn’t show and, needing nine to start the game, we’d use a “ringer”. Quietly, Wido found a hanger-on to play under a roster name, (just to field nine bodies). Ah—but I recall his reasoning on such things:

“We’re better with eight” he once told me, pointing to our ringer, “than with him out there. He has to bat.”

So what do I conclude…from all this reverie for the past? Perhaps nothing, other than I miss them: the days when every game was for the “world championship” and every player’s word was his bond.

That’s really the way it was—when the grass was greener—at least on the playing field.

One Response to “ALL’S FAIR”

  1. alan wieder says:

    So I can’t argue with your recollections but I will say that there are things that I don’t remember and while some people might think that I was such an asshole from your writing, I suspect that I was actually worst than you portray. First, it was fun remembering that I used to say “ridiculous” which I clearly did. I think that you are being very mild in terms of my treatment of both Snydo and Ronnie. As for Arthur, I still think of him as Sol’s Boys’ Vince Costello. In terms of the 9th player, it wasn’t as if we took somebody off the street. It was usually Marc’s brother Jeff, and sometimes Ricky Fine of even Roger Synenberg. Also, we even used a ringer, Paul Brooker, when we beat Angelo’s Pizza. It is one of the reasons why I will always respect Shelly Hoffman because he definitely knew and said nothing except to me just so that I knew that he knew. I don’t remember the “they have to bat” comment but you remember much better than I do. Anyway, thanks for the memories before one last comment about Bruce Bogart. I wasn’t that easy on you but you always knew that I knew that you were the best, most gutsy, catcher that ever played — ever played.

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