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What’s a sports nut dad supposed to do when he has two daughters instead of two sons? Well, he oversees their development as girl jocks.
Ella Strauss, now attending Davidson College, and Sylvia, a sophomore at Haddonfield Memorial High School in New Jersey, grew up under the watchful eye of their father, sportswriter Robert Strauss.
I went to my first Phillies game in mid-July, 1957. It was only a week or two after my sixth birthday, and I had already been a diligent fan, memorizing and learning how to do batting averages and earned-run averages, and the spelling of even difficult ethnic names of players like Rip Ripulski, Ray Semproch, Stan Lopata and the immortal Go-Go Chico Fernandez.
Ella was just about that age when she curled up with me on the couch one night as I was idly watching a Philadelphia 76ers game. My ardor for sports-watching had cooled over the years, but I still felt a bit of the connoisseur about it. I was one of the lucky boys-cum-well-really-still-boys to become a professional sportswriter. I had worked as a small-town columnist, as a TV sports producer and even as a reporter for a year at Sports Illustrated, the premiere sports magazine in America.
Sportswriters, and especially ex-sportswriters, as I was by that point, can be a cynical lot. They watch games and comment on the nuances of the athletics, but then grumble about over-paid athletes and long road-trips and the lack of appreciation by those writers and editors in news and business and features, who considered themselves “real” journalists. Sports is the sandbox; news is Valhalla.
I didn’t think much about this as Ella curled up. I just put my left arm around her and let out a good kind of sigh. We watched silently for a minute or two, the Sixers and their opponents doing a host of insignificant things. Then Ella, still looking at the screen, but in a clear, bright tone asked me one of those inevitable five-year-old-daughter questions:
“Daddy, why is it that only boys play sports?”
I shot upward on the couch like a crazed animal, my arm knocking Ella forward almost to the floor.
“Well, no. No, girls play sports. Not only boys. Girls. Yes, girls play,” I babbled, but then I shuddered with the thought, “Don’t they? I mean, they must.”
Ella was satisfied with my answer and curled back in. I was disturbed, though. I think it was the second quarter of the game and I don’t remember seeing a basket clearly the rest of the way. Ella fell asleep about 15 minutes after her question, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
This is not hyperbole. I really was disturbed. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, girls really didn’t play sports – at least not with us. Even fourth grade kickball was a manly-man kind of thing. I broke my wrist trying to catch a huge kickball pop-up by Ronnie Eckert, one of the biggest and toughest kids in the class. Would you send a girl out on a mission like that? That would have been about 1960. Did women even have the vote then?
I dragged Ella up to her bed and took the sports section of the day’s paper out of the recycling bag. I ripped a couple of pages trying to find the local sports section and finally found it. Even when I was at my first job at the Mankato Free Press, the daily paper for the largest town, such as it was, in southwestern Minnesota, I was never inclined to read even the stories I wrote about local sports. Mankato was the pre-season training center for the Minnesota Vikings, so any chance I got to write about that, or at least the Mankato State University teams, I did so. I even volunteered covering the football games for tiny Gustavus Adolphus College, a few dozen miles down the road, once getting the privilege of an all-expenses paid trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to cover the Gustavus Adolphus/Augustana game.
So when I took to perusing the Philadelphia Inquirer’s New Jersey high school sports coverage, I did so with trepidation. Nonetheless, deep down there in the agate-sized type, I could make out that there would be a girls basketball game in the next town the following evening – Haddonfield would be playing Haddon Heights and Ella and I would be going, damn it.
Girls would be playing sports.
It was cold and Ella was quite bundled as we trudged from the car the next night into the Haddon Heights gym. Ella pined for a soft pretzel – a Philadelphia delicacy, especially slathered with mustard over the large-granules of salt seemingly pasted on top. I acquiesced and then saw the sign in nearly foot-high letters saying, “No Food Or Drink In Gym.” The game was about to start, but the pretzel was taking priority. Even though I was practically pretzel-phobic, I ripped off a piece and shoved it in my mouth to make it go faster. I was still that sportswriter at heart – you go to a game for the game. Mascots, food, half-time shootouts, exploding scoreboards, huge foam pointed fingers, that’s all for the hoi polloi. The game is the thing.
Well, maybe not, I discovered, for a five-year-old. The opening horn had sounded and the pretzel was still half-eaten. I peered in the door, looking back every so often at the pretzel progress. The Haddonfield girls seemed quite good. They could pass and make a shot or two from 15 feet. This wasn’t going to be too painful. I was a bit of a basketball junkie, playing pick-up whenever I could, sometimes six or seven days a week, and some of these girls looked almost good enough to be able to play in our manic full-court games.
It was midway through the first quarter when Ella burped and pronounced herself ready to walk in. I took a smudge of mustard off her parka and, hand-in-hand, we were off into our first girls sporting event. We bounded up to the top of the stands at mid-court.
“Best seats in the house,” I announced to her, though I was a bit disappointed that we were at a game where we could actually get the best seats in the house in the middle of the first quarter. I was getting pretty dubious about girls sports.
Ella, though, was enthralled. Not at the game, to be sure, but the Haddonfield Bulldog mascot. Actually, Haddonfield’s mascot is spelled Bulldawg and is thin, long and grey, unlike any Bulldog or Bulldawg I had ever seen. I had become, I thought, inured to mascots, having had to survive watching the most obnoxious of the breed, the similarly spell-check-challenged Phillie Phanatic, as a sportswriter and spectator. The Phanatic is green and oversized with a big stomach, bug-eyes and a tubular snout. It makes somewhat sexual gestures, like putting its hands on its rear and pushing the big stomach forward. It is some kind of animal, I guess, but mostly just, like I said, obnoxious. Kids love it, and would rather wave to it than watch the game, which no doubt rankled me as a purist even more.
Now my daughter was enthralled with a Bulldawg, rather than at least watching 16-year-old girls, presumably from the neighborhood, loft a few. The quarter break then brought on the cheerleaders. I never quite understood cheerleaders. Even in the era of hip-hop cheers and rhythmic stomping, they always seemed to have their timing off. They led cheers when no one was listening or, most often, got in the way of players actually trying to do something near the sidelines. In football, at least they were off the side in a big field and I could ignore them. In basketball, they were unavoidably in sight range. Further, it seemed like there might have been all of 40 or 50 people in the stands, presumably at least half of them rooting for Haddon Heights, so the dozen or so Haddonfield cheerleaders could have each had a fan or two of their own.
Fortunately, a few minutes of Bulldawg-watching was enough. Cheerleaders didn’t excite her. I didn’t have a rah-rah babe, and I was happy. Ella now did her cuddle-up with me and looked intently at the basketball girls. When one in a Haddonfield uniform made a shot, she didn’t immediately cheer, but moved her right hand up and outward in a shooting motion. She continued this for a few minutes at halftime.
“Daddy, I want to do that. I will learn,” she said. I was tempted to offer another pretzel as a reward for those words as we went out in the hall for a potty stop, but merely puffed my chest out in admiration.
Back in the gym for the second half, the Haddonfield girls began to crush Haddon Heights. Twenty points soon became 40, while the Heights girls – the incongruously-named Lady Garnets, as if stones had gender – stayed haplessly in single digits.
“We’re winning. We’re winning. We’re winning,” Ella screeched as she continued her shooting motion, getting closer to perfect, even with a follow-through, at every moment.
As the fourth quarter moved onward, it became a bit embarrassing. Haddonfield’s scrubbinis were now annihilating their opponents. With the score about 58-12, I could no longer bear Ella’s cheers, oblivious as she was to the impropriety of huzzahs during a wipe-out.
“We have to leave,” I said, throwing her parka at her.
“Why? Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t we winning? Can’t we stay?” she pleaded.
I couldn’t. The first lesson I had to teach was sportsmanship.
She tromped out to the car a bit unhappy.
“Why can’t we score as much as we can?” she asked earnestly.
“Sometimes you sort of go backwards,” I said. “Sometimes the more you score, the more you lose.”
She hugged my leg.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said. “I won’t ever lose.”
Copyright Andrews McMeel Publishing (April 26, 2011).