1961 was a good year to learn about American sports. Roger Maris was chasing the home run record, the AFL had just started up, and basketball at our grade school was new to me and seemed so organised. We didn’t have any sports in our school in Glasgow, aside from kicking around a tennis ball at lunchtime. I quickly got into Little League when I settled into Peoria, but found things had moved on quite a bit when I took in games during my road trip.
That first winter my grandfather from Virginia was staying with us in Peoria and he took it upon himself to help me learn about American football. My mother had warned me not to mention the war (e.g. Civil War), as we were in the Land of Lincoln and grandfather’s father – Conquest Cross Harris – had fought for the Confederacy. But when we were watching the college post-season bowl games and my mom came down to ask who was playing, I replied was that I was supporting the North and grandfather the South – I could almost hear her jaw hitting the floor.
Sport in the US reduces barriers. Inside a stadium, fans mingle, needle each other, but have a friendly banter that does not get ugly with the copious amounts of beer on offer. The Raiders were playing the Saints in the Superdome and, while Larry sitting beside me wore a Raiders cap, there was no ugliness of the type you’d get at a soccer match in the UK if a visiting supporter was in the home team’s space.
I loved sports in school but was better at watching than playing. However, I did play to my strengths, playing soccer in the US and basketball in Scotland. Yet the Scots must have been so disappointed when they discovered that the 6’4” American who turned up couldn’t jump – there’s a movie in there somewhere. The beauty of team sports is that you can keep in touch or reconnect with team-mates, so at my Wabash College 50th reunion the defence of the 1972 soccer team reconnected.
On my road trip I’ve seen little league, high school, college, minors and pros, all equally fun and enjoyable. I’ve taken in football, basketball, baseball and hockey.
Though I’m a Bears fan, I had to take the tour of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, still named after the original owner and coach of the Packers, not the highest bidder. The Packers are an oddity in the NFL – the only community-owned team in the league. The millionaire team owners have ensured that there will be no other such arrangements, but the Packers have survived and prospered in the smallest football market in the US. American football is a minority sport, close to 100% white team owners running a league with 70% black players but only five black coaches. Colin Kaepernick was black-balled (allegedly) for taking the knee during the national anthem in 2016, and the league has only recently accepted blacks playing the marque quarterback position. There still appears to be structural racism in the NFL.
I was in the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field during the great collapse of the Cubs in 1969 – so when I left the US, I always said that I’d be at Wrigley if the Cubs got into the Series. After 108 years, I was there in 2016 and, of course, had to make the pilgrimage during the road trip. Likewise, I made the pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams, one of my favourite movies.
I’ve also taken in the Rockies, Tigers and Tincaps – Fort Wayne is not the MLB, but has a well-supported High-A minor league team, and is a great example of sports-led urban regeneration. Sadly, a feature of US sports is that teams move cities to get the best deal for a stadium, and it was the Dodgers and Giants moving to the West Coast in 1957 for new markets and stadia that really opened the floodgates for team relocation. My trivial question, which stumps most Americans, is: What’s the basis for the Mets’ colours?
The basketball highlight of my road trip was meeting Bobby Plump, or as aficionados of Hoosiers will know, Jimmy Chitwood. Bobby sunk the last shot in Milan’s 1954 win for the Indiana State Basketball Championship, and he’s been able to dine out on that for the best part of 70 years. Basketball is a religion in Indiana, and provides small towns with communal entertainment during the long winter months.
I also visited the Illinois equivalent in Hebron, where its team in a school of 98 kids won the 1952 state championship. Sadly, states now have divisions for sizes of schools, so the glories of Milan and Hebron will never be repeated. True Roy of the Rovers stuff.
Let me conclude with two observations. First is that a sports fan in the US will always have a hope that their team will get a chance to win – because the worst team gets the first pick in the draft of new players. The US operates a socialist sports system. In the UK, capitalist money talks – my Geordie friend is pleased that good, clean Saudi money has allowed Newcastle United to get into Europe for the first time. There’s hope for the Bears yet – here’s to socialism, and a decent owner.
Second is that while Americans get along inside stadia, they can’t outside. I’ll need to reflect further on the reasons, but the reverse is the case in the UK – fans trash each other inside stadia, but the political discourse is less polarised outside.
Finally, as I watched my first World Series in 1961, I nobody told me that the World meant the US.