The Little Generalist
Thoughts on Naismith's rules, Florida coaching, NFL tripping and the Heisman
Editor's Note: Jeff MacGregor has been admitted to a sanitarium in the Alps, where he is currently under a doctor's care for neurasthenia and the dropsy. In his place this week we bring back distinguished guest columnist L. Hopwood Poteat to offer his thoughts about sports and life.*
His remarks here have been edited slightly for standard grammar and uncommon spellings.
My gee dee nephew brought me this portable electrical whatzit for me to type on. Gizmo like a stereopticon/gramophone or some such. So I do.
First thing I say is the following: You can't call me the Ol' Perfessor no longer. Those damned Stengels sued me but good. Even once I explaint it. So.
I am the "Little General®" now, least until them gee dee Bonapartes get wind of it.
Anyhow, a story.
I seen on the newsreels that a rich halfwit paid some millions last week for the typescript of Jim Naismith's old basket-ball instructions.
I knew Jim from barnstorming Massachusetts in my younger years, and he was a pleasant man. A good Canadian man as dull as a linen tea towel. Just like that gee dee game of his. Never could abide it. Seen it played, of course, and at the time of the first invention it was a dozen some-odd Christian youngsters flatfoot in singlets in a gym hot as hell itself with the steam heat and gaslights and no running or bouncing or cursing allowed. Slow down! Don't raise your voice! Usual score was 4 to 4 or somesuch after six, seven hours hard work, and if the purpose of that game was to exhaust the immoral appetites of a young man's lower extremities, then it was as big a success as saltpeter or a large tintype of Mary Todd Lincoln.
That's when I suggested to Jim that the ball be bounced upon the floor while running with it, and that's the birth of the game you and me now know. Speed and excitement were added by this, which meant that young ladies took a notice of them tall, muscular players in their scants, a phenomenon which continues into this day.
It was Jim's failing he didn't understand that sports -- like banjo music or Wall Street or the trapeze -- is about men impressing ladies, and Jim was sore disappointed in them wanton boys that chased after such things as money or women or whiskey. But what else is there? That is the sum of this world, all tolled, but sports especially, and I have been in it a long time and have no doubt of it.
In no case do I get thanks for this fix-up, nor a cut of the millions laid out for Jim's instructions, just instead that history forgets me again. But whenever you see some terrible ugly 7-footer walkin' a cheerleader home, remember me and what I done.
I seen on the radio-nickelodeon just now that they canceled a game of pro football in Minnesota for the snow, which is like camel racing canceled on account of sand. (And I done 20 years winter work in Cairo on just that circuit, too, so know what's what. Only thing so fixed as a camel race in Egypt is the vote for a Democrat mayor in Joliet, with the difference that the one thing spits and stinks and the other is just a camel.)
Anyway, I played ten seasons tailback and defensive half for the Bismarck Krauts of the Dakota Grassland Leagues and never was a game called for snow. Not oncet. (This was right after The Great War, mind, and it was a routine thing to get shot at during those games, too, so don't tell me how tough you got it being in the out-of-doors in the winter time, bub, with no gunfire or bombs lobbed. Them ex-doughboys just as soon put a bayonet through you as shake a hand.)
I recollect we played New Munich in '20 or '21 in snow so high the marching band was lost 'til spring. They survived by setting upon and roasting a fat majorette under the stands I was told later, but the game was played nonetheless. We just tunneled back and forth through the drifts this way and that until someone run into a goalpost and was concussed dead and that was that. Whistle blew 6-0 Bismarck. I lost four toes to frostbite and a cannibal trombonist, and there was an extra helping of spaetzle that night for any man made it back alive to the team train. Which was few.
I make remark on this because one of the eight or nine of us left alive on the train that night was our coach, Sprats Heilbronner, whose job it was to carry the salts and liniments, to massage us when called upon, to buy the cigars and newspapers when the train stopped for coal and to empty the spittoons.
That's it. Never did Sprats have no responsibility to the conduct of a game or to touch no pay envelopes nor to tell any one of us what time to get in bed or with who.
I make further remark upon this because I seen also on the teleradioleum that there's some upset down in Florida cause a college football coach thereabouts has give up his job, either cause he got a bad heart or no heart at all, and can't nobody say nothing for sure but that the local bugs and fanatics are up in their arms about it.
Why that is I can't say. Not a football coach anywhere in any setting ever been good for anything but unloading the baggages and pinching a waitress at the luncheonette. (Up in Denver just now they fired one who was no gee dee good at even them simple things, cause he had not yet suffered through his puberty. Why hire a coach can't buy liquor for the team? Stupid.)
That one fella tripped up a player on the sidelines the other night may be the most useful football coach I ever seen.
And Florida? Well, everything bad is worse in Florida. It is a flea-bit land swindle, a malaria waxworks and a mosquito swamp, so it gets everything it deserves. I fought off alligators and widows 14 winters down in Miles City, had a Packard stolen and lost four-and-a-half foot of small bowel there, and I will tell you that to move to Florida even now is to admit you have give up on life and that you will wander like a zombie until the Lord takes you up, sweating like a mule.
It is like California without the starlets or high IQ nor Chinese food.
Which reminds me, they wanted my comment on the Heisman trophy, too, and was it right to give to that young man who got a father maybe asked for money.
First thing is that football needs stars just like Hollywood needs stars, and Shirley Temple never worked for free nor Mickey Rooney nor Judy Garland nor any other young star ever. They got pait, and their daddies, too. Why anybody anywhere thinks college football is a "amateur" pursuit is just too dumb for words in English. It has been played for money by hard professional men from the dawn of times and will be forever. 'Cause it makes money for the boosters and the pimps and the school. Even me, back in youth, played for five or six colleges -- sometimes on the same weekend if I could hitch a ride and the schedule was right -- and played for money, too. Most of which was earnt at halftime by breaking into cars outside the stadium and fencing whatever we could lift to the provost or athletic director. Sometimes the dean would help us hijack a truck out on the highway, but that was rare except at Reno Teachers' College or Harvard.
But the second thing about that young man and his Heisman trophy: If you make a bad rule, it is still a rule. It'll be a rule until you change it, and if you can't abide your own bad rules or stomach your own lies about your own bad rules, then you got trouble. This is the way sports writers live, of course, by selling the bosses' line to the squarejohns and the suckers and by making rules for other people then cataloging the breakage. It is a real racket, and they collect coming and going. Better even than being a crooked preacher.
Broke Jim Thorpe's heart that way, back when. Maybe the greatest human athlete ever lived but me. Me and Jim was good friends on the tent show and Chautauqua circuit, too, which reminds me of a story about one summer we spent at Coney Island when I was still good-sized and right in all my parts. I recollect it vivid 'cause it involved identical twin bathing beauties down from Buffalo for the Mermaid Parade whose names was Vilma and Velma.
But it is late now and that was long ago, and I am tired and we can save it maybe for another time. I say farewell to you. The weather here is good. Cold, though. And still too many fish dinners. But thank you for your cable. I am fine.
*One of America's great sports thinkers, historians, and pop philosophers, famous for the wit, grit, and grizzled wisdom of his tall tales, Hop Poteat, now 113 years old, served in four wars; spent 47 years as a ballplayer, bench coach and equipment manager in the Carolina League; won eleven titles across five weight classes as a Greco-Roman wrestler, marathon dancer, 6-day bicycle racer and Silver Slippers boxer; earned gold medals in the now-banned Octathlon (knotted-sheet climb; underwater swim; Lindy Hop; 4-man Skin-the-Mickey; Eskimo burn; doubles' Rabbit Punch; pistol trick; sing-along) at both the 1936 and 1940 Great Lakes Games; and spent fifteen winters as a rigger, sharpshooter and sideshow tout with the Ringling Brothers.
He claims to have traded punches with Jack Dempsey and Gertrude Stein; to have saved the life of Calvin Coolidge; to have climbed the Matterhorn with Greta Garbo; and to have twice beaned Ty Cobb. Having worked twenty years in Hollywood as a stunt double to Harold Lloyd, he was briefly considered common-law husband to the late movie spitfire Lupe Vélez. He now lives at an assisted care facility near the home of his great-nephew, just beyond the jurisdiction of the truth. (From Wikipedia)
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.