Commentary

Bring back these bygone sports items!

Originally Published: July 21, 2010
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

Bygone Sports ItemsESPN.com Illustration

Put 'em on ice! Actually, take them out of the freezer: ice cream seller Baskin-Robbins recently announced plans to retire five of its famed 31 flavors, including -- no, really -- French Vanilla.

A sweet, creamy classic.

Gone.

Just like that.

We miss it already.

The good news? Baskin-Robbins' hasty, ill-advised kiboshing of French Vanilla -- coupled with the 65-year-old flavor's enduring popularity -- makes its triumphant return to the under-counter cooler downright inevitable. And that inevitability, in turn, led Page 2 to wonder: What things in sports ought to be brought back, revived or otherwise restored to their former glory?

Here, in no particular order, is our admittedly unscientific short list:

1. Two-sport athletes

Origin: The grade school playground, where the big, strong kid who can pitch also plays all-time quarterback.

Golden age: Not so much a golden age as a golden baton, passed from Jim Thorpe to Jackie Robinson to Jim Brown to Dave Winfield to Bo Jackson to Charlie Ward to Deion Sanders to Tony Gonzalez.

Cause of death: Still on life support in high school and college athletics; in the pros, felled by big money, which led to specialization and overcomplication. Also, Drew Henson.

Restoration rationale: The "Bo Knows" ad campaign was sweet. Seeing Allen Iverson play option quarterback in college would have been special. Summertime charity basketball games and "The Superstars" shouldn't be the only place to see an athlete such as Terrell Owens do something besides drop passes on a football field.

2. The NFL offseason

Origin: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a time when the NFL season ended, players took spring and summer jobs, the media packed it in, nobody cared about the draft, OTAs were an "I" away from earning you Scrabble points and the American public took six months to focus on non-football-related matters, such as baseball and presidential campaigns. Seriously. We're not joking. This really happened.

Golden age: More like a golden moment on June 17, 1994. The nation watches the NBA Finals, the New York Rangers celebrating their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, Arnold Palmer's final round at the U.S. Open, the opening of the World Cup in Chicago and a freeway police chase starring … a popular former professional football player.

Cause of death: It's easy to blame: (a) overcontrolling coaches and their "mandatory" workouts; (b) greedy owners charging for admission to training camp; (c) sycophantic media looking for content. In reality, however, our insatiable appetite for all things National Football League -- exhibit No. 592: the league's announcement of its 2010 schedule release date being a "most sent" story on ESPN.com -- bears full responsibility.

Restoration rationale: Sheer pigskin fatigue. Wouldn't you be a little more eager to welcome back football if you actually had a chance to miss it in the first place?

3. The coolness of wearing a batting helmet to a baseball game

Origin: The pure, unspoiled heart of every baseball-loving child.

Golden age: Between ages 5 and, like, 9½.

Cause of death: Puberty, caring what other people think of your appearance, interest in the opposite sex, the death of imagination and dreams, noticing that batting helmets are kind of itchy.

Restoration rationale: In the kingdom of hot pink Boston Red Sox caps and dudes incessantly checking their BlackBerrys instead of watching the damn game, a fan wearing a batting helmet is significantly less dorky than he seems.

4. Single-bar football face masks

Origin: Invented in 1953 by Cleveland Browns grand poobah Paul Brown to protect all-world quarterback Otto Graham's busted mug; eventually adopted throughout football, evolving into modern, multibar variants.

Golden age: The 1950s and early 1960s, though Joe Theismann and Garo Yepremian kept hope alive in the 1970s.

Cause of death: Banned by the NFL in 2004.

Restoration rationale: Sure, kickers and punters looked ridiculous with single bars -- thing is, they look more ridiculous with normal masks. (What are they going to do, tackle someone?) Moreover, here's Theismann's take: "It was challenging the opponents. It was somewhat daring. It was out of the norm. The face mask became a devil-may-care symbol for me. How far can you push the envelope? Now they do everything they can to protect the pretty boy faces. Those of us that lost teeth or broke our noses … I call them character injuries." Exactly. The single-bar mask creates character. And injuries. Everyone wins!

5. Wooden tennis rackets

Origin: Trees.

Golden age: Pretty much any and all tennis played from 1874 to the late 1960s.

Cause of death: High-tech composite boom sticks with string sweet spots the size of New York City manhole covers. First came the T200 metal frame, popularized by Jimmy Connors; next came the oversized Prince Classic, followed by wider frames, extra length, energy-redistributing microchips and a racket arms race that continues unabated.

Restoration rationale: Touch, élan and serve-and-volley play shouldn't be confined to tennis' historical dustbin alongside neon-pink compression shorts and American male Grand Slam champions.

6. Grits blitz

Origin: The demented mind of Jerry Glanville, who, as an Atlanta Falcons assistant, often had nine players -- the front seven plus both safeties -- rush the passer.

Golden age: 1977, when the Falcons allowed the fewest points per game (9.2) in NFL history.

Cause of death: Probably when offenses realized they could use additional blockers and max protect schemes to buy quarterbacks and receivers enough time to exploit empty secondaries and one-on-one coverage.

Restoration rationale: As actual in-game NFL strategy increasingly resembles a game of "Madden" -- see pass-happy shotgun spread offenses, Bill Belichick going for it on fourth down and Sean Payton's onside kick in the Super Bowl -- why not call a high-risk, high-reward defensive play that's straight out of "NFL Blitz"? Are we not men?

7. Organ music at NBA and NHL games

Origin: Good enough for medieval cathedrals, good enough for modern sports.

Golden age: Definitely peaked with the awesome music in "NHL '94." "Here Come the Hawks" still makes us giddy.

Cause of death: Jock Jams, Vols. 1-7,000. Y'all ready for this?

Restoration rationale: Because organic beats synthetic, live is better than canned and the increasing use of non-organ music at Madison Square Garden is an abomination before God and man. Besides, no organist in his or her right mind would play "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

8. Wishbone offense

Origin: Three running back football formation dates to the 1950s but was popularized by the University of Texas in the late 1960s.

Golden age: The Oklahoma Sooners averaged 472.4 rushing yards per game in 1971 -- an NCAA record that still stands -- and successfully ran the 'bone into the 1990s, and Air Force rode the triple-option offense to a 12-1 record and No. 8 national ranking in 1985.

Cause of death: Defensive coordinators figured out how to counter the system; hot-shot prep recruits decided the best way to end up in the NFL was to play for coaches who respect the forward pass.

Restoration rationale: College football's scheme du jour -- the spread offense -- is getting awfully monotonous. Another WR bubble screen? ¡No mas!

9. NFL coaches in suits and ties

Origin: The bygone era when working men aspired to look professional, and not like professional golfers.

Golden age: The 1950s and 1960s. Vince Lombardi. Tom Landry. Hank Stram. Sideline legends. Not a cutoff hoodie among them.

Cause of death: Officially? When the NFL cut a reported $250 million licensing deal with Reebok mandating that coaches wear garish, branded sportswear during games. Unofficially? When business casual and cell phone belt clips became the American norm.

Restoration rationale: Former San Francisco coach Mike Nolan shouldn't have been forced to fight a two-year battle to wear something more stylish and authoritative than a team-branded windbreaker. Also, a suit makes it harder to drop trou, a fact of possible interest to the 49ers' current sideline boss.

10. Spitballin' pitchers

Origin: Possibly invented by turn-of-the-20th-century minor leaguers Frank Corridon and George Hildebrand, who passed it on to popularizer Elmer Sricklett. And no, without Rob Neyer and Bill James, we wouldn't have any idea who those guys are, either.

Golden age: The early 1900s, when pitchers junking up the baseball with saliva, indeterminate goop and emery boards were relatively commonplace.

Cause of death: A 1920 rule change that disallowed ball doctoring. Just kidding! Subsequent hurlers Gaylord Perry, Don Drysdale, Mike Scott (supposed scuffball) and Kenny Rogers (mysterious brown substance on pitching hand) all messed -- or, ahem, allegedly messed -- with the horsehide.

Restoration rationale: Bending -- read: flagrantly disregarding -- the rules is the American way. Just ask Wall Street. If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'! Besides, although Neyer argues that modern photography and video replay make it too difficult to get away with baseball shenanigans, the Rogers incident shows that the same technologies make possible cheating more fun … because they give the rest of us something to analyze and dissect and talk about.

11. Basketball short shorts

Origin: Unknown. Possibly the first time someone decided it was too darn hot and cut off some pants legs.

Golden age: From the invention of basketball to the early 1990s. Also, Heather Graham in "Boogie Nights."

Cause of death: Michael Jordan and Michigan's Fab Five. The former opened the door for longer inseams; the latter group kicked it down, sporting baggy, free-flowing shorts that served as inspiration for today's below-the-knee, windsail-esque fashion.

Restoration rationale: Look, we're not asking for a comeback of 3-inch inseam, John Stockton-style shorts. Just a minor reduction in length so basketball shorts don't resemble oversized pirate pants. Avast, ye mateys!

12. Bullpen cars

Origin: According to an in-depth investigation by Page 2's Paul Lukas -- a real investigation, not the usual made-up stuff from our dubious network of sources -- bullpen cars were first deployed by the Cleveland Indians in 1950.

Golden age: The late 1960s, when Los Angeles Dodgers backup catcher Tom Haller drove pitcher Jim Brewer to the mound, dropped him off and then ran into him. Also, the baroque era giant baseball bullpen cars of the 1970s.

Cause of death: Someone realizing that 100 or so yards isn't that far to walk or jog, even if you're a coddled relief pitcher who can't possibly throw for more than one inning or come in with men on base without dissolving into a panicky puddle of sweat and urine.

Restoration rationale: Because it just looks cool. Because a restoration would exponentially increase our chances of driving and/or owning one. Because nothing -- not even drinking water bottled in plastic made from oil and trucked around in gas-guzzling big rigs -- more epitomizes our unthinking, unblinking, possibly planet-ruining addiction to petrochemicals. The bullpen car is the coal-mine-canary chariot of the modern age.

13. Muddy football games

Origin: The condensation of atmospheric water vapor; gravity; open-air playing fields.

Golden age: Everything pre-Astrodome (1965).

Cause of death: Roofs, improved field drainage, better groundskeeping, the rise of FieldTurf and the decline of multipurpose stadiums, which all mean fewer football games played on touched-up baseball infields.

Restoration rationale: Not to get all John Madden here, but muck and football just go together -- like peanut butter and jelly, or Jose Canseco and humiliating celebrity boxing matches.

14. Privately funded stadiums

Origin: In 1862, businessman William Cammeyer enclosed the Union Grounds in Brooklyn, N.Y., and began charging admission to ballgames.

Golden age: Pre-World War II, when, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis -- no, really! -- only five of 28 major league ballparks were paid for in part or in whole with taxpayer dollars.

Cause of death: Civic ego insecurity; our insatiable appetite for circus; owners and teams extorting municipalities by threatening to move elsewhere. According to the same Federal Reserve report, of the roughly 140 sports facilities that have been built or refurbished since WWII, only 14 did not use public financing.

Restoration rationale: Study after study shows that stadiums are a money-losing investment … unless you're a team owner, in which case they're like winning the lottery. More to the point: As America struggles out of the Great Recession, we're basically broke.

15. Pro football in Los Angeles

Origin: The Cleveland Rams moved to sunny SoCal in 1946; Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders followed suit in 1982.

Golden age: The 1980s, which saw the Rams field entertaining teams featuring Eric Dickerson and Jim Everett and the Raiders win the Super Bowl while becoming the unofficial uniform supplier of N.W.A.

Cause of death: The city's failure to renovate existing stadiums -- let alone build new ones -- resulted in the Rams bolting for St. Louis and the Raiders returning to Oakland. Who knew Angelenos took time out from reading screenplays to review stadium financing papers issued by the Federal Reserve Bank?

Restoration rationale: One of America's greatest and most important cities -- seriously, it's home to the Kardashians -- ought to be represented in the true national pastime. Besides, it's not as if sanction-slapped, Lane Kiffin-led USC is going to be a pro-grade franchise anytime soon.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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