Thursday, February 12, 2009

Peak Eras For Various Sports (A Personal View)

That's right. All the major sports aren't as good as they used to be either. Just to prove that I am not an absolute fuddy-duddy, I know that are many things going on right now which are in their golden ages, where you can find the real genius and spirit of the age. Unfortunately however, I have no idea what any of these things are.

Pro Football's aesthethic peak spanned roughly the era of the 14-game schedule, 1961-1977. I might even restrict it to the 60s, before the AFL-NFL merger, because I like smaller, exclusive leagues, and the 70s saw the debut of a lot of new and ugly stadiums, but there was also a lot of interesting stuff going on in the early-mid 70s--the George Allen Redskins, the colorful Raiders teams, the great Miami teams, the great early Steelers teams, the very good Minnesota teams back when that franchise played outdoors in what wouldn't be an acceptable stadium for a Division II college team today. The outstanding work of the NFL Films company in this era, when the corporate arm of the league as well as the coaches and players took themselves considerably less seriously than they do today, reveals all kinds of fascinating nuggets of detail about both football and everyday life in the 1960s and 70s that are astounding to see, or in some cases be reminded of, now. Everything was comparatively so small-time, or perhaps I would better say, on a reasonably human scale. The stadiums, the media coverage, the money, the players' bodies, the locker room amenities, are all phenonema well within the realm of ordinary experience. The crowd at a modern game is so individually insignificant and stifled, overwhelmed by the spectacles of technology, money and modern security, as to be little better than ants. In most of the stadiums (stadia?) of the 60s they tended to be closer to the field, in more intimate communion both with the players and other people around them, less distracted by other demands on their attention; the filmed crowd shots of the era reveal livelier and more engaged expressions (as well as better clothes) than fans have nowadays, who if they are acting in an energized manner are probably responding to television or some other media provocation than anything they can see with their eyes. When the Eagles used to play at Franklin Field (which is still used, by the way, as the home field of the University of Pennsylvania), or the Colts at Memorial Stadium, even the grass and mud were recognizable as the same sort you had in your backyard if you lived in the area. Now the grass is grown in a lab and flown in, because the local stuff isn't good enough. The whole enterprise descends more and more into fakery every year. I could go on, but I must proceed to the next sport now. Baseball. The heyday of baseball all around, as a participatory as well as professional sport, was probably from 1880 up until around 1918. By the 1920s you finally began to get modern parents like Bob Feller's who actually aspired for their children to be professional ballplayers, which was simply unheard of before World War I, and made calculated decisions to achieve that goal, as well as much more sophisticated methods of scouting and developing young talent by the pro teams, which sorts of developments inevitably suck some of the joie de vivre out of any enterprise, however unintentionally. Pro baseball remained essentially conservative however--from the 1910s to the 1950s there were virtually no new stadiums, no franchise shifts, no changes in the playoff system, no expansion, after the advent of power hitting in the 1920s few major changes in the way games were played, strategies employed, etc. After 1947 of course there was an infusion of black players, though this was primarily limited to a handful of teams and did not immediately lead to major shifts in the way the game was played. The game became really a contest of pure talent, whose players could best execute the time-tried methods (usually the Yankees, as it were). In this regard baseball had a second classical period from around 1920 to 1957, when the Dodgers and Giants abandoned Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds for California. Though these moves were for a long time often lamented, and definitely demarcated the end of an era that will never return, there was really nothing else to be done. The old neighborhoods around almost all the old ballparks were in terminal decline by the late 50s (though the swiftness of the decline in Brooklyn and New York--the atmosphere in those neighborhoods and stadiums even in '51 and '52 had still been so intense bustling--perhaps amplified the shock) and it was absurd that in 1957 there were no major league teams west of Kansas City or south of St Louis, however much those of us in the northeast like to pretend those regions aren't really part of the country. The world that had nurtured classical baseball was suddenly gone, and had probably been prolonged about as long as it possibly could have.

Baseball in the 60s, for all this, was not that bad. Looking back it seems a little bland now, pitching-dominated, no offense, still overwhelmingly white, but unlike in the 20s and earlier decades, of the increasingly homogenized, boring, bourgeois strain of whiteness that no one interesting likes, boring new stadiums (except for L.A.), scary, crumbling old stadiums (+ Shea, which was scary and crumbling even when it was new), very behind the times on issues like marketing, playoffs, night World Series games, statistical savvy (though the decade saw the first rumblings of this coming tsunami). These faults and blindnesses make the era seem endearing now though. The 70s are remembered unfondly for astroturf, domes and polyester uniforms, as well as the emergence of agents, batting gloves, pitchers who had no intention of completing games and other elements that removed us even further from the cornfields of the baseball ideal. On the positive side, there were some truly outstanding teams in the decade, the Orioles, the A's, the Reds, the Yankees, which were excellent top to bottom with largely the same cast of players over a period of several years. As baseball is, after all, a team game, one of its greatest--perhaps its primary--pleasure comes when it is able to produce a great team, which the dynamics of the modern game, expansion, free agency, etc, seem to have made increasingly difficult. The 80s were rather blah, memorable to me mostly for a series of pitchers breaking out with incredible one-season runs (John Tudor & Dwight Gooden '85; Mike Scott '86; Orel Hershiser '88, etc). Nowadays even if a guy gets that hot, they shut him down out of fear he's going to hurt his arm rather than let him ride out whatever magic has possessed him, and likely won't possess him anymore after the winter anyway.

Problems with the game now: Way too many teams. Not near enough good pitchers; even bad teams should have one or two good pitchers who battle to 16-14 or 14-17 records with otherwise good stats. Interleague play further dilutes the schedule. Expanded playoffs too much of a crapshoot, renders the long regular season less meaningful & destroys its natural flow, way too much organization/parental/adult involvement at the amateur level, way too many mediocre relief pitchers deciding games. The passion of the unselfconscious people of the nation for the game, at least in America, seems to have been declining since World War II. It's a very bourgeois sport now, in America (there is always the Dominican Republic, I guess) which is always deadly to anything's spiritual vitality.

One thing I wanted to fit in, but couldn't, was about the economics of baseball in say, the 1930s and 40s. The St Louis Browns, traditionally a woeful team, drew about 2,000-3,000 fans a game for the better part of 2 decades, in a era before TV, before merchandising and modern concessions, before there were many opportunities to bring in income. If they had a radio contract--and I don't know that they did--there is no evidence that there would have been a large audience for the broadcasts. How did they survive at all? The only thing is that I know they owned the stadium from way back and rented it or leased it out to the Cardinals (both teams shared the park), who were after 1925 or so always the main team in town, for them to use to. That must have been what kept them afloat.

Pro Basketball. 1970-1979. This is when the NBA was supposed to be dead, of course, before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and then Jordan, saved it in the '80s. Like most things in this world, the league was much more interesting when "no one" was paying any attention to it. Similarly the defunct ABA, though always a shoestring operation on the brink of collapse in its time, is now often lamented, especially by people my age who can't have much memory of it, let alone followed any of its seasons in a serious manner. Again it is a matter of smaller/better-looking and more interesting gyms, construction/competitiveness of teams, manner of play, and manner of presentation. With regard to the arenas, this was the period when the NBA began making its move towards trying to attract a more upscale clientele, since in the some cases the fan base coming to the games had gotten a little more urban than the right kind of people liked. The Pistons used to play in a place called the Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit; the typical crowd at a game in the '70s consisted primarily of white auto workers and black people. Wildly dressed pimps, drug dealers, and other hustlers and their entourages occupied a lot of the best seats near the court. The team relocated, with the league's enthusiasm, to the enormous, suburban and calculatedly impersonal Silverdome in 1978, and has never returned to the city since. The number of teams was probably about right at this time. Most of the good teams in the decade were not of the two-superstar-and-three-warm-bodies-who-stay-out-of-the-way model that has predominated in recent years, but had six or seven really capable, multidimensional players who were essential to the personality of the team (think of the beloved '70-'73 Knicks, or the '74-'76 Celtics, neither of whom were clearing out the floor for one superstar to put up 35 shots a game). The pregame activities in this era involved rolling a rack of balls out onto the floor, taking some layups, shooting around, and watching the crowd file in. No dimming of lights, fireworks, player introductions modeled on the coronations of Roman Emperors, and contrived music blasting from the sound system at choreographed intervals were necessary.

Real Hockey fans--i.e. Canadians--seem to long for the days of the original 6 teams, which lasted from the 20s all the way to 1967! Like baseball, hockey is a game that sees itself, and is seen by its fans, as central to the life and history of its people, so it was conservative for a very long time and thus woke up one day perceiving itself to have been left behind more market-savvy sports. In trying to catch up it has overcompensated and finds itself currently in a rather ridiculous state--the spectacle of the shootout, and even the 5-minute overtime, that the players despise so that parvenu fans will not have to endure a tie, while at the same time appeasing the players by awarding a point for the tie in the standings, is the most glaring, but not only example of this. Having teams in so many cities where hockey has never been part of the culture isn't giving the sport any positive energy. Montreal never took to big league baseball wholeheartedly though the sport actually had a long tradition in the city; why does anyone think hockey will blossom in Phoenix? Philadelphia is something of an exception to this, in that the sport has been able to nurture a pretty intense fan base for the local franchise really out of nothing. The team had the fortune to be both very good right away, and at a time when all the other local pro teams were terrible, and nasty in a way that appealed greatly to the Philadelphia psyche. The Flyers franchise is still riding on the goodwill generated by the championship teams of '74 and '75. A similar level of enthusiasm never took root in Washington, for example.

I don't know enough about the days of the original six and Hall of Famers being discovered on the frozen ponds of the syrup country of eastern Ontario to lament this period with proper feeling, so I am going to default again to the period of 1970-1980 as my favorite in the annals of a sport. I love the configuration of the league at this time. By the end of this period you had a 21 team league in which 16 teams made the playoffs. All the teams except the L.A. Kings and arguably St Louis and Washington were in Canada or plausible hockey cities in the northern U.S. Best of all, for the playoffs there was no rigid adherence to division or conference alignments. Teams were seeded 1-16, which allowed for such Stanley Cup finals as Montreal-Philadelphia, Montreal-Boston, Montreal-New York Rangers, and New York Islanders-Philadelphia, which could never happen now. Also the good teams and serious fans were in the same places for the most part, without which you can't have a great era.

I'm not really a big hockey person at all, but...there is a lunch counter-type restaurant in Montreal that I have gone to a couple of times when I've been there, the walls of which are a shrine to the many great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s-1970s. Montreal is often celebrated as a cosmopolitan city, lots of bilingualism, beautiful women, cool students, fine dining, bars open till 4am, European attitudes, etc, but it is also one of the great provincial cities in all North America when you stumble into such places, bars, restaurants, shops, etc, as will take you back 30 or 40 years to a mindset that is vaguely familiar from reading or films or other remote experience but that you have not been conscious of for some time. Anyway this poutine-serving lunch counter with all the pictures of lost hockey players evokes this kind of feeling. I also have to wonder if the increasing presence of European players from a variety of nations has not had additional effects on the cohesiveness of teams and the connection the fans can feel with players, in addition to the greater money, earlier estrangement from a common culture, etc, for NHL teams are really heavily European in make-up now, and their devotion to the Canadian hockey mythology is, one senses, not a very significant part of their psyches.

The main problem with College Football for anyone in the northeast in the last 50 years is that all the major teams are in faraway states, of many of which we know nothing (Oklahoma? Alabama? Boise State?) and others of which (Texas, California) are psychologically analagous to Russia or Japan. I tend to think of the 20s, 40s and, surprisingly, most of the 60s, as fun periods for college football. The 1910s look pretty raucous too, judging by the drinking-oriented and other high-spirited songs that sprung up during that era around the football scene, but I have little sense of the drama of the actual game itself as it existed in that time. One thing these eras have in common is that they were periods when middle class people, both adults and students, were not as cynical in general about colleges as they are at many intervals of our history, including, I think, today. There seems to me to have been more enthusiasm and optimism, in much of the popular media of the day anyway, that happenings of great moment, both intellectually and in the drama of life (I am thinking of Animal House here), could be expected to occur on college campuses. This general enthusiasm combined with the natural high spirits of youth probably had a spillover effect on the atmosphere surrounding football. I don't think it was so much that people actually cared more about football than they do now--probably they didn't in fact--but their relationship to and involvement in its rituals was different. Again, the football was more rooted, more connected with the idea of the university, its particular social life, its dining halls even--people are drawn to that kind of thing--rather than ESPN and the corporate world. Football players as a whole were no more scholars than they are now--the Gipper himself, it is well known, never went to a single class his last season and spent his afternoons in the pool halls of South Bend, or more likely, Chicago--though in the WWII and postwar era especially, there did seem to exist a sense on the part of the colleges that they had some responsibility to educate athletes.

I touched some on what I think are the woes of college sports in this up-and-down post of a few years back.

The omphalos of College Basketball is without any doubt the Palestra in Philadelphia, Saturday afternoon, Big 5 doubleheader circa 1965, the streamers flying on the court, half the people in the gym know each other one way or another, either from the neighborhood, or the parish, or high school. Well, that's all over now. The Big East however had a good thing going on back around 1983-87 or so. There used to be games on ESPN every Monday (there still are, actually) and Wednesday nights, and I followed the league quite closely. At that time the league was very Catholic (Pitt was mediocre and Connecticut was one of the worst teams in it). You had St John's with Mullin and Carnessecca and the whole New York vibe, Georgetown in its heyday, Villanova was good, Providence had Rick Pitino when he was still an up and coming guy. If Georgetown wasn't visiting most of the teams still played home games in their ratty little on-campus gyms--St John's was like a high school gym, there were no seats behind the baselines, just a wall at either end of the court. The schools were not displaying huge amounts of wealth and outlay on their b-ball programs--the recruiting was heavily local too in that era--yet they would get into the tournament and regularly drub their larger and more lavishly funded opponents (I'm talking to you, Kentucky). Naturally that couldn't last. Three important league teams played big time football, and they threatened to leave the conference. They are appeased by bringing in (freaking) Miami, which, even though they aren't any good at basketball, completely changes the whole personality of the league. Rutgers and West Virginia I'm OK with. Where else are they going to go? And besides, I kind of like West Virginia--I used to go to summer basketball camp there for one thing because one of my high school coaches had played there, and it's actually a nice place--and also they get no respect from the big forces in either football or basketball yet consistently field top 25 or higher teams. But then you have all those midwestern teams, not to mention an absurdly gargantuan league. It's a joke. Marquette? DePaul? Yes, they're Catholic, but can't they start their own geographically appropriate league? South Florida, same league as Syracuse and Seton Hall? And I like Notre Dame, but they don't belong in the Big East either.

I apologize for the various incoherent paragraphs here, especially at the end. I am very tired, and I want to be done with this post.

1 comment:

Peter Relic said...

Highly interesting, evocative opinions. I agree as far as hockey being awesome in the 1970-80s. (Who knows, maybe even as exciting and listening to my father tell stories about the '50s and '60 complete with impressions of Gump Worsley and Terry Sawchuck.) Tickets were affordable with paper route money, and in the '80s the first big influx of Finnish and Swedish players into the league elevated the passing game. I would contend that enthusiasm *did* take root in Washington during the Carter Administration (Hi Amy!). The Capitals set Washington on fire. Caps curly haired heartthrob Bobby Carpenter became the first U.S. born player to score 500 goals. The New York Rangers had a fantastically entertaining at that time as well, I remember seeing Ron Dugay in Jordache jeans ads...this was a time before helmets were mandatory and Dugay would boogie across the ice during games with his giant curly perm billowing. In Philadelphia, the Flyers became even more notorious on the '80s, with mustachioed goaltender Ron Hextall the most violent goaltender in NHL history, wielding his goalie stick like a scythe against opponents who dared wander into the crease. There are great players in every era, but the *personalities* of standout players at that time added to the humor and heroism of the NHL. Hockey's largest expansion was in its absorption in the '80s of the WHL, bringing the Edmonton Oilers (and Wayne Gretzky into the league), great for the NHL. [Essential viewing is the documentary BOYS ON THE BUS following the Oilers during the 1986-87 season...someone posted a clip of the cheesy musical sequence:] Another WHL team that survived the Hartford Whalers featuring the father/son threat of Gordie and Mark Howe (other brother Marty Howe was in the mix too). In fact I was at a Whalers game at the Hartford Civic Center around 1985 when Mark Howe went sliding into the opponent's goal. At that time, goals were still held in place with iron bars and a long slender stem bisecting the goal. This stem went right up Mark Howe's rectum and came within inches of piercing his heart. The amount of blood he lost was incredible, pouring onto the ice, dark arterial blood. Howe didn't die, but he was never the same after the incident. After they carted him off, a maintenance team came out and scraped away at where the blood had soaked into the ice...but still a large ominous red stain remained for the rest of the game. Soon afterwards the league began using goals held in place with magnets that would give way if a player slammed into the goal. Hockey is still a fantastic pro sport, sure there's too many teams, the economy will settle that, but players like snaggletooth Alex Ovechkin of Washington and Pittsburg's Sid "The Kid" Crosby create electro-kinetic ice poetry with their play night after night. Having a five minute overtime is exciting, it doesn't diminish the game in the slightest, and the shootouts are exciting too, though good point on how the way its reflected in point standings feels a little screwy. However, even though as a kid I always enjoyed a good hockey fight, I would say that fighting in hockey should not be permitted. NHL refs wait way too long now to break up fights. A couple dudes huggin' and sluggin' in some attempt (co-signed by the league, no doubt) to attract fans who'd rather be watching WCW anyway is dumb. After all nothing's as exciting as: ***He shoots he scores!!!***