The last episode ended with a story of how I, in an act of pure elation, broke my big toe watching the New York Mets win a baseball game in 1966. That was just the first of my toe mishaps.
My second broken toe was a true athletic injury, but much less interesting than my first and third. During soccer practice one fall day at Lancaster Bible College I attempted to kick a ball at the exact moment a scrimmage opponent slide tackled the ball. My foot slammed into his hip, breaking the middle toe. Just your basic soccer injury. I rested the remainder of that day and returned to practice the next, my toes taped together.
My third athletic injury, and third broken toe, may go down in the annals of sports as the world’s first somnambulant volleyball mishap.
Sandy and I were living outside Greenfield, Indiana, at the time, where I pastored a Quaker meeting. (A Quaker meeting is almost exactly like a church, but don’t tell Quakers that.) One night I had an incredibly exciting dream wherein I was playing volleyball in a gym with hardwood floors. In an attempt to defend against an opponent’s spike, I dove for the ball. Although the gym was brightly lit, in the instant before I hit the floor I realized everything had gone dark. For one split second I grasped reality. Then I felt the impact as my body landed on the hardwood, but not in a gym.
I had dove out of bed, landing hard. As usual, a toe got the worst of it. This was my middle toe again, but on the opposite foot from the old soccer injury. Hurt like hell though.
Volleyball, the wide awake kind, was one of the things Grace Church’s Men’s Fellowship group did regularly. We didn’t have our own gym, but a church in Lynbrook did, and three or four church men’s groups played there. The games were fun and very competitive. But there was no swearing at muffed digs, blocked spikes, or bad calls. Christians, at least “real” fundamentalist Christians like us, never swore—ever.
Men’s Fellowship also featured ping-pong and shuffleboard. Grace Church had two tables for the former and numbered tiles built into the fellowship hall floor for the latter. Pop was a pretty good ping-pong player, but Turner Kidd was the champ.
Turner, Babe Kidd’s brother, was almost unbeatable. When, as a high school sophomore, I was old enough to join the Fellowship, Turner made my ping-pong education his priority. He could put topspin, sidespin, backspin, and sometimes combinations of two spins on the ball.
At first, playing against Turner brought me embarrassment and the laughter of the older men. But I didn’t give up. Over the three years I was in Men’s Fellowship I learned so much about ping-pong. By the time I left for Bible college I could beat all the other men regularly and, occasionally, Turner himself.
The most fun times at Men’s Fellowship weren’t the games during meetings. And they certainly weren’t Pastor Watt’s Bible studies, although he did make them interesting enough to appeal to my Jewish friends who tagged along on Friday nights for the ping-pong and coffee. The most fun thing we did was going to minor league hockey games a couple of times each winter.
In the 1960s, Long Island didn’t have an NHL team. This was before the Islanders. Manhattan had the New York Rangers, and they were our heroes, but we couldn’t afford tickets to see them; and anyway, the subway was for baseball, not hockey.
What Long Island did have was the Long Island Ducks, the living breathing incarnation of the old sports joke, “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out.”
The Ducks played at Commack Arena, a pint-sized venue in Suffolk County. It was a free-wheeling arena where kids could wander unsupervised all the way around the ice rink, being careful not to get in the way of the Zamboni. The games were free-wheeling as well. The skill level was minor league, but the desire was
I only remember one Long Island Duck. I don’t know if any ever made it to the NHL or even to higher minor leagues. But the teams they fielded during the 60s, led by the incomparable John Brophy, were a kid’s dream.
According to Wikipedia, during Brophy’s playing career he amassed more penalty minutes than any other player in Eastern Hockey League history. He didn’t seem to be especially large—the enforcer type—he simply had a perpetual chip on his shoulder. If an opponent wronged him or a Duck teammate, Brophy skated in, grabbed the enemy’s shirt, and tried to yank it over his head while pummeling his body. We loved Brophy. Eventually, in a long minor and major league coaching career, our hero garnered over a thousand victories, second highest of any pro hockey coach.
When I was very young, even before I appreciated Brophy’s fists, I think I still loved hockey. It was the Zamboni. The magical way it turned a rough skate-gouged surface into frozen glass was captivating. And when Billy Knudsen and I waited for it to clear the ice, standing in hushed silence in the tunnel behind one of the goals, we knew we were about to glimpse Behemoth, the monster described in the Book of Job. Everything seems bigger when you’re a little kid. Not Zambonis. They were, are, and always will be the giant machines that make indoor ice hockey possible.
If baseball was our field of dreams and hockey our magical playground, then football was the spectator sport that was both unattainable and close.
We played football in the street. We watched college football twice a year; on New Year's Day, when almost all the “big games” were played, and on the last Saturday of the regular season, when the Cadets of West Point played the Midshipmen of Annapolis in the Army-Navy Game. We always rooted for Navy because of John’s service as a Marine. Our passion, however—mine, my family’s, my neighborhood’s—was the National Football League, even though we never saw a game in person.
The New York Giants were one of the earliest teams to enter the NFL, and they were our team. Pop would tell stories of the great Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, and Y.A. Tittle. I still have a little plastic football the great quarterback Tittle autographed for Pop when he appeared at a convention in Pop’s building on Eighth Avenue.
As I was growing up, the Giants were “rebuilding,” which is a polite way of saying they stunk. Every once in a while, there’d be a glimmer of hope, like when Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy teamed up in the backfield, or when it appeared that Homer Jones might be the fastest wide receiver in the League. When they acquired Fran Tarkenton from the Vikings I thought they might finally have a great quarterback again. Well, the “Scrambler” was great, but the Giants overall were not.
When the American Football League came along, we added the Jets to our favorite teams. They stunk too, for a while. Then “Broadway Joe” Namath hit town and lit a spark that resulted in the Jets beating Baltimore in Super Bowl III.
Secretly, I loved the Minnesota Vikings. In our electric football games, I always called my team the Vikings. Scott even gave me a hand-painted set of electric football players in purple uniforms so I could actually “own” the Vikes.
My not-so-secret love of the Vikings extended to fantasy. I often daydreamed about being a Viking flanker back. I’d wear number 25 and line up in the backfield between Fran Tarkenton (who was back with the Vikings after a short time with the Giants) and my hero, wide receiver Paul Flatley, #85.
Flatley and I were the Vikings’ one-two offensive punch in my dreams. We could outrun or outmaneuver every defensive back in the League, giving Tarkenton two targets for the inevitable touchdown pass.
While pro football filled our dreams and street football filled our afternoons, the NFL was unattainable due to ticket prices we couldn’t afford and the fact that they played on Sundays. One didn’t miss church, or leave the service early, to watch big guys crash into each other on a grass rectangle. It just wasn’t done. Even the argument that born-again Christians like Fran Tarkenton played on Sunday, didn’t sway my parents. So NFL games were out of reach, but not the players.
One winter day in junior high, Scott came over with a treasure he’d just received in the mail. It was the official—you knew it was really official because it didn’t say it was official—public relations book for the National Football League, and it was called The NFL and You. It gave the previous year’s stats for every team, contained some great photos, and included the mailing address and phone number for every NFL team.
“You know what we can do with this information?” Scott exclaimed. “We can write to the players. Maybe they’ll write back.”
It sounds absurd now, in the days of autographs for a fee, that at one time pro football players were accessible, even wanted to interact personally with their fans; but back in the 60s, multi-million dollar contracts and layer after layer of lawyers, accountants, and other hangers-on did not separate sports idols from their fans. Having an NFL player for a pen pal didn’t seem far-fetched.
That’s pretty much the way it was for pro footballers in those days. You had your Jim Brown, who was utterly unapproachable, but other superstars like the Packers’ Paul Horning, Jim Taylor, and Bart Starr wrote back.
And then there was Gale Sayers.
Sayers’ rookie season with the Chicago Bears established his greatness even before he amassed Hall of Fame stats and became even more famous as a character in the 60s tearjerker Brian’s Song, a film about the illness and death of Sayers’ teammate, Brian Piccolo.
I didn’t get a manila envelope from Sayers, just a white #10 envelope with a 3x5” B&W photo wrapped in a sheet of paper. On that paper, Sayers had written the most beautiful words of gratitude I’d ever seen. He was genuinely impressed that I’d take the time to hand write a letter to a rookie football player. He signed the letter and the little picture.
I was so enamored with Sayers’ response, I wrote back to him. Unfortunately, figuring he’d forget what he’d written to me, I included his letter to me with my letter to him. I never heard from him again. I still have the original autographed picture, though; and it’s me, not him, I’ve never forgiven.
I finally got to a pro football game in the early nineties: the Steelers versus the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It was fun being there with my son, Stephen, and some editor friends. By then, however, the idea of meeting a player before a game, or getting a free, personally-signed photo, was a relic of bygone days. But sometimes miracles happen.
A few years ago I was sitting on a stool in the bar of my favorite Richmond, Indiana restaurant. I go there mostly to read and enjoy a Jack on the rocks and a nice Italian dinner. I pretty much keep to myself, but on this particular night there was a hockey game on TV. You know how Baisleys can’t resist a hockey game.
The white-haired gentleman beside me struck up a conversation, remarking that he didn’t grow up with hockey but had learned to love the sport. I told him about my lifelong love of the game. I probably told him one or two of these same stories.
He said, “I got into hockey when I was coaching football at Northwestern. My wife and I went to a lot of the home games. I really enjoy it.”
Then he angled toward me on his barstool.
“Sorry. I never got your name.”
“Phil Baisley.” I replied.
He grasped my hand.
“I’m Paul Flatley.”
And once again I was a kid standing in a stadium parking lot shaking hands with his hero.
Some things, ya’ just don’t talk about when you’re a thirteen-year-old boy. You wait until you’re too old to care, as you’ll hear in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.