Ancient Gatorade Tastes Like Ash

Around the year 78 AD, Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundas, or Pliny the Elder, published his only surviving work, Naturalis Historia (Natural History). It was kind of like an encyclopedia, meant by its author to address pretty much everything a first-century Roman might need to know about “the natural world, or life.”

If you ask me, that’s a pretty bold claim, but the work is divided into ten volumes, consisting in total of thirty-seven books, and it does cover an impressive array of topics, including, among others: astronomy, mathematics, zoology, horticulture, sculpture, and Gatorade.

Pliny the Elder   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pliny the Elder
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
That last one, as my youngest son would tell you, is the most important. He’s seven and a pretty coordinated kid who I know would enjoy athletics if he weren’t so reluctant to try new things. When I occasionally push him, as I did with basketball this winter, I use an incentive. If he works hard in practice, or a game, he gets a celebratory red Gatorade, because the original yellow tastes like watered-down sweat.

It’s worked really well this basketball season. He’s made friends, had fun, and on the court he’s gone from completely clueless to a little less awkward, even scoring two baskets in his most recent game. All it took was some determination and the right recovery drink.

And if we can take Pliny the Elder at his word, that’s what it took for Rome’s gladiators as well. In Book 36 of Natural History he writes: “Your hearth should be your medicine chest. Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured. One can see how gladiators are helped by drinking this.”

He was quoting the recommendations of another contemporary writer, implying that this magical curative given to the gladiators was fairly common knowledge, but still it’s kind of a quick reference inside a work that covers the entire scope of “the natural world” and so serves as nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that add campaign never took off. By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that ad campaign never took off.
By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Fortunately, we don’t just have to take the author’s word for it. In 1993, a team of archaeologists working near the ancient city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey, found the remains of sixty-eight people who died between the second and third centuries, all young men, between the ages of twenty and thirty, and all showing evidence of having been pretty beaten up. With the remains were several grave markers depicting scenes of battle.

The discovery turned out to be the only known gladiator graveyard ever found, and the bones told researchers an interesting story. First, they confirmed that gladiators ate a mostly grain diet, similar to that of the general public at the time. Second, the gladiator bones contained significantly more strontium than did non-gladiator bone samples.

That doesn’t mean much to me, but what it means to people who know a thing or two about bones, is that gladiators must have ingested some sort of supplement designed to aid in recovery and healing. And thanks to Pliny the Elder, we know it was probably a drink made from water, vinegar, and plant ash.

Scientists claim that if made with a “good vinegar,” the gladiator recovery drink might not have tasted all that bad. I’m not so convinced. If I want my son to keep up on the basketball court, I’ll probably stick with the more modern version. With a whole lot of sugar (which is why this is only an occasional incentive at our house) and plenty of red dye 40, at least Gatorade doesn’t taste like ash.

Young Love, Teenage Angst, and One Very Angry Goat

On October 6, 1945, a Chicago tavern owner named William Sianis went to Wrigley Field to watch his beloved Cubs play in game 4 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Sianis opened his tavern in 1934, naming it The Billy Goat Tavern after a goat that had presumably fallen off the back of a passing truck and wandered into the place. “Murphy” the goat became the tavern’s mascot and “Billy Goat” Sianis’s good luck charm.

This is also where fans of Saturday Night Live can order a "Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, NO PEPSI, and a Coke." photo credit: jpellgen via photopin cc
This is also where fans of Saturday Night Live can order a “Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, NO PEPSI, and a Coke.” photo credit: jpellgen via photopin cc

So like all good baseball fans (who are known for their quirky superstitions), Sianis wanted to share some of his good luck with the team. He bought two tickets, one for himself, and one for Murphy the Goat. Trouble was, Wrigley Field had a strict “no goats” policy. Sianis went so far as to appeal to Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley who also denied Murphy’s entrance, saying simply, “The goat stinks.”

Murphy was offended. Right then and there Sianis raised his hands and declared: “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs lost Game 4 to Detroit and went on to lose the series, after which Sianis sent a telegram to P.K. Wrigley that read, “Who stinks now?”

As a St. Louisan and devoted Cardinals fan, I find this kind of hilarious, but I don’t know that I buy into the whole idea of curses. Still, there’s no denying that the Chicago Cubs started out as a solid ball club that more often than not was a force to be reckoned with. And that since that 1945 loss, have had the most rotten luck in baseball, having gone to the postseason only a few times since and with their mathematical elimination from contention this past weekend, have now experienced a 107 year stretch without a world series title.

Isn't this a great cover?
Isn’t this a great cover?

But even though this season panned out, well, kind of like most of them, I recently found some hope for the Cubbies in the form of a charming little book called Caught Between Two Curses by Margo L. Dill.

In this YA romance with a touch of magic, Chicago girl Julie is a typical teenager facing the beginning of senior year, torn between a sex-obsessed jerk of a boyfriend and a hot best guy friend who it turns out is a lot less of a jerk. But Julie’s situation is even more complicated than that. She’s been raised by her aunt and uncle since the tragic death of her parents. And now her uncle has become mysteriously ill as well, leading her aunt to reveal the secret of the curse upon the men involved in Julie’s family, a curse that is intricately intertwined with the famous curse of the billy goat inflicted on the Cubs by William Sianis and Murphy.

Much like the people (who I think can honestly lay claim to the title “most dedicated fans in baseball”) who have made several attempts to break the curse, from bringing Murphy’s descendants into Wrigley Field, to organizing an international “Reverse the Curse” aid program that provides goats to impoverished families in underdeveloped nations, and even to hanging a severed goat’s head from a statue in front of the ballpark, Julie sets out on a mission to break the curse.

Rumor has it the curse will only lift when Cubs fans come to truly appreciate goats and welcome them in their midst. photo credit: Tc Morgan via photopin cc
Rumor has it the curse will only lift when Cubs fans come to truly appreciate goats and welcome them in their midst. photo credit: Tc Morgan via photopin cc

The stakes are high, with her uncle’s life hanging in the balance and the future health of either her jerky boyfriend or the not-so-jerky love of her life endangered, but Julie is determined. She sets aside her own teenage angst (which rings embarrassingly true to life) and her indifference to baseball to cheer the Cubs to victory, the likes of which they haven’t seen in 107 years.

So, fear not, Cubs fans. 2014 wasn’t your year, but if Dill  can convince us that a teenage girl has within her the power to reverse the curse, then I believe there’s still hope. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you should read the book. I think you’ll enjoy it. If you happen to be a Cubs fan then maybe you should read it to a goat. In Wrigley Field. Because there’s always next year.

Why Sometimes Football is Worth Watching

Today marks the beginning of a special season in my household. It’s the day that the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers battle it out in the opener of the NFL season. As such, it’s the start of the five months of the year when my husband and I suddenly seem to have less in common.

Century Link Field, where the very long football season will get its start. By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Century Link Field, where the very long football season will get its start.
By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Actually, it really started this past Saturday with the beginning of college football. I don’t begrudge him this interest of his. With the exception of feeling some understandable loyalty toward our various alma maters, he’s not a big fan of any particular team on either the college or pro level. But he loves the sport. He loves the strategy of the game and he enjoys learning the strengths of individual players and coaches, watching their successes and failures throughout the long season.

And I wish I could catch his enthusiasm, because I genuinely would like to be able to share in it with him. But as much as I try to watch the games and pay attention to his tutelage, I usually just wind up getting lost in the details.

Still, I decided to give it another shot, and so I sat down last Saturday to watch the Croke Park Classic broadcast from Dublin, Ireland, partly because I was intrigued. As far as I know, American football isn’t really one of the things Ireland is most known for. And it wasn’t even the first time Dublin had hosted American college football. In 1996, The Midshipman of the US Naval Academy were defeated in Croke Park by, of course, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Now eighteen years later, indicating that the threshold of the Irish people for the sport is similar to my own, Croke Park once again hosted an American football game. This time it was a match-up between Penn State and the University of Central Florida. Because neither team has an Irish mascot, it was a close game, with Penn State winding up on top of a 26-24 score.

Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, host to Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and occasionally American football.
Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, host to Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and occasionally American football.

I enjoyed watching it, too, because in addition to the football, which I found as bewildering as ever, ESPN-2, which aired the game, also featured informative clips about fascinating Irish sports that are lesser known in the United States.

My favorite of those featured is called Irish Road Bowling. It dates back to at least 1728 when it gets a mention in the poetry of Jonathan Swift, but likely to many years before that. The sport is played most often in the Irish Counties of Cork and Armagh. Similar sports are played in the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Even some areas of the United States are starting to get into the action, just sadly, not here in Missouri. Yet.

canon ballWhat intrigues me about this sport is its simplicity. Basically, you get a bunch of players together, find yourself a 28 ounce cannon ball (because I’m sure you have one in your garage somewhere) and see who can launch it down the road to an agreed upon finish line in the fewest throws.

Of course, like American football, road bowling is a sport of some rules, records, and heroes. And since 1954, the Bol-Chummann na hEirman (roughly translated as the Irish Association in Charge of Throwing Stuff Down the Road), has been in the business of making the sport complicated enough to support championship play, both locally and internationally, successfully taking the sport of Road Bowling all the way from terrible road nuisance despised by local authorities to ESPN-2 featured international sport of awesomeness.

Frankly, if the broadcasters of American football made more of an effort to introduce me to fun sports I’d never heard of from around the world, I’d probably watch more football. As it is, I can promise to watch at least once every eighteen years.

 

Ending with a Bang: The Long Weary Road to the Last Out

One hundred years ago, on July 17, 1914, a weary baseball crowd at Pittsburg’s Forbes Field awaited the end of a very long game. For 21 innings the Pirates and the New York Giants battled it out. At last, Larry Doyle of the Giants sent a two-run shot over the wall bringing the game to a score of 3-1, devastating the remaining Pittsburg faithful. It had been a dreadfully long game. Pittsburg’s manager had long since been ejected for arguing a call. The mood was surely solemn. And to top it off, a storm was brewing above the city.

There would be no celebratory fireworks for the Pirates, but there would be an impressive light show when in what has to be the most spectacular baseball play of all time in the bottom of the 21st inning, New York outfielder John Joseph “Red” Murray caught a long fly ball for the third out and was simultaneously knocked unconscious by a lightning strike.

Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while.  photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc
Evidently even God grows weary of baseball after a while. photo credit: Michael Fienen via photopin cc

I love baseball, though I’m not a great sports fanatic in general. I only know who won the world cup because my Facebook feed briefly became the hooligan section (Germany, right?). As much as I have tried for my husband’s sake, American football is just beyond me. And all I know about hockey and professional basketball is that they have ridiculously drawn-out playoff schedules that seem to stretch into the next regular season of play.

But baseball captures my attention. So I was thrilled when both of my sons, ages 6 and 9 decided they wanted to play this summer. My 9-year-old had some previous experience. Last summer he played in a non-competitive coach-pitch league where he made some friends, developed some skills, and had a pretty good time. And as a little kiddo he played on a tee ball team where the two biggest highlights of his season were losing a tooth in the infield and handing it to the nearest parent volunteer (who took it quite graciously I thought), and dumping a glove-full of grass on the head of a little girl who had just run to third.

Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball.  photo credit: courosa via photopin cc
Consider carefully before volunteering to help out with tee ball. photo credit: courosa via photopin cc

Unfortunately this summer hasn’t gone as well. This season we tried a different, competitive league. I’m certainly not opposed to competition. It’s important to learn how to both win and lose well. And the kids have done well will that. But what has broken my heart has been seeing the way that my son and his teammates have been crushed by frustrated and inconsistent coaching and by bad sportsmanship from both parents and coaches (on all the teams).

With only one game to go, we’re nearing the end of the season, and my son doesn’t want to go to practice and doesn’t want to go to the game. I’m going to make him, because it’s a good lesson in honoring commitments, even when it’s tough, but I get it. I don’t really want to go to the game either.

It hasn’t been all bad, of course. He has made some friends, gotten much better at spitting sunflower seeds, and has learned that even in the midst of endless innings stuck in the outfield and pointless arguments between hothead coaches and umpires who aren’t bold enough to toss said coaches from the field, there are bright moments.

His team isn’t going to win first place, but they are well over .500 and my son’s still thrilled when he manages to field the ball well or when he has a good at bat. But I’m also afraid that this kid, who loves to watch this sport as much as I do, may never want to try to play baseball again. Frankly, he’s weary. It’s been a dreadfully long season and going into the last game, against the best team in the league, the mood is solemn and a storm is brewing.

I sincerely hope the game doesn't get called for bad weather because then we'd have to play a make-up.
I also sincerely hope the game doesn’t get called for bad weather because then we’d have to play a make-up.

So although I sincerely hope that none of the players get struck by lightning (and I suppose no coaches or parents either because I am trying to model good sportsmanship), I do hope that there’s something in this last game that sparks his excitement for the sport again and provides him with a good memory to carry into next time.

Nothing will stop this man from catching a fly ball. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
NOTHING will stop Red Murray from ending a 21 inning game. By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m not sure that Red Murray remembered the game winning catch he made that day in Pittsburg, but his legend certainly lived on. And so did he. Rumor has it he even played in the very next Giants game. In my book that either makes him the most dedicated baseball player ever, or perhaps this the biggest tall tale in the sport. Either way it’s a good story with a great ending.

Orange Balls and Red Gatorade

Like many American households, ours will be dedicated this weekend to the sport of basketball. My nine-year-old has his final game of the season on Saturday and unlike with other sports seasons he’s had, I’m a little sad to see this one end.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy being the mom who makes it on time to all the practices with a water bottle for my kid and an extra for yours in case he forgot (because I’m the super mom), brings after-game snacks complete with little bottles of red Gatorade (because I’m the cool mom), never argues with the bonehead coach or the most likely blind ref (because I’m the respectful mom), or chants elaborate rhyming cheers (because I’m the most embarrassing mom in the world).

Pardon me, sir, for daring to suggest that my grandma would be a better ref than you. I mean no offense, of course. She's really quite spry for 95 and only completely blind in one eye. photo credit: HPUPhotogStudent via photopin cc
Pardon me, sir, for daring to suggest that my grandma would be a better ref than you. I mean no offense, of course. She’s really quite spry for 95 and only completely blind in one eye.
photo credit: HPUPhotogStudent via photopin cc

It’s just that this basketball season was the first time my kiddo, who is brilliant, but also big for his age and a little awkwardly coordinated, has seemed to really enjoy playing a sport (now if only he could ditch his embarrassing mom). He’s always liked the social aspect of being on a team, but this is the first time that tiny details like rules, skills, strategy, and competition have entered the equation for him.

I’m grateful for a couple of reasons. First, I actually like and understand basketball. Second, it’s one of those great indoor cold-weather sports that keeps him active during even the most brutal winter (this one).

And it turns out, that’s exactly why the sport exists to begin with. Because in 1891, a teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts by the name of James Naismith, needed a way to keep his class of 18 young athletes in good physical condition, as well as a way to keep them from driving him completely insane during the indoor months of a brutal New England winter.

What he came up with was a game with 13 rules in which two teams of nine players each had to pass a soccer ball up and down the gym floor and score goals by tossing the ball into peach baskets nailed onto the edge of the gymnasium balcony. After having to stop play and get out a ladder to retrieve the ball a few hundred too many times, someone was finally smart enough to cut the bottoms out of the baskets and the game started to gain some traction.

And you thought the jump ball slowed down the game too much. photo credit: monkeywing via photopin cc
And you thought the jump ball slowed down the game too much.
photo credit: monkeywing via photopin cc

Actually, it spread incredibly quickly through the YMCA system and soon enough to college campuses where the rules were tweaked until on March 20, 1897, the first 5-on-5 intercollegiate basketball game was held between Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. In case you care (I don’t), Yale won 32-10.

Obviously basketball has grown and changed a lot since those earliest games. Players now dribble the ball (except in the NBA) and the sport can now claim its very own ball that though roughly the size of a soccer ball is much more orange. The peach baskets too have been replaced with metal rims on backboards and nets that make a pleasant swooshing sound.

Because nothing says "This is a real sport" like an orange ball. photo credit: arbyreed via photopin cc
Because nothing says “This is a real sport” like an orange ball.
photo credit: arbyreed via photopin cc

And as the players get more skilled and taller (the average NBA player is now well over ten feet tall), and the game becomes too easy and therefore boring to watch, the rules will continue to change. I’m sure my son will keep track of them all because he likes basketball. And he even kind of gets it, which is a great source of joy for my husband, because I hear that in addition to my son’s game, there may be a few other ones to watch this weekend as well.

Frankly, I probably won’t pay a lot of attention to those other games. I didn’t fill out a billion dollar bracket because I really only cheer for two, or possibly three college teams, when I happen to catch them on television. None of them are in the tournament this year. But I bet all the players who are participating will manage just fine without me because I have no doubt their moms will be there with extra water bottles, elaborate rhyming cheers, and a snack with a little bottle of celebratory red Gatorade for after the game.

The celebratory sports beverage of choice for kids with cool moms.   photo credit: Lorianne DiSabato via photopin cc
The celebratory sports beverage of choice for kids with cool moms.
photo credit: Lorianne DiSabato via photopin cc

Peanuts, Cracker Jack, and the Most Important Political Movement of Our Time

On Tuesday of this week, a movement of monumental proportions began in the United States. Sure we could be focused on political instability in the Ukraine, nuclear missile testing in North Korea, the ongoing saga of US healthcare reform, or even the hot mess that is Arizona politics, but wouldn’t we rather turn our attention to what really matters: baseball.

The opening of the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals world championship season is only about a month away and rumor has it there may even be some other teams playing, too. Obviously it’s time we start turning our national attention to how we plan to celebrate this wondrous event.

It's hard to disagreee with someone who nods all the time.
It’s hard to disagree with someone who nods all the time.

Thirteen gold glove winning Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith has an idea. He has teamed up with Budweiser (an originally American company now owned by the Belgian company InBev that is committed to demonstrating its all-American-ness) to start a petition that would require the Federal government to consider declaring baseball’s opening day a national holiday. The petition started circulating on Tuesday and the goal is to get the necessary 100,000 signatures within thirty days, giving Smith just enough time to deliver it to the White House before opening day.

And why not? I mean, obviously the federal government doesn’t have much else going on and I can’t think of any reason such a move wouldn’t garner bipartisan support. Because baseball is, after all, America’s Pastime.

But is it really all that American? The history of the sport is a little muddy. There’s evidence that there were bat and ball games played even in Ancient Egypt and the most likely direct ancestors of baseball come largely from England where games like Cricket and Rounders have developed and evolved over centuries.

But when in 1903 British sports writer Henry Chadwick penned an article claiming baseball was a derivative of rounders (which to be fair, is an incredibly similar game), Americans cried foul (or threw their  helmets on the ground, kicked up some dirt, and ejected Chadwick from the game). A commission was formed to ascertain the truth.

What they found was a likely made-up story by a thoroughly unreliable witness who insisted that the first game of baseball played on a well-defined diamond was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. So it was settled. Baseball was as American as apple pie and it still is.

I'm thinking of petitioning the US government to form a commission to ascertain the truth behind the American-ness of apple pie. photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc
I’m thinking of petitioning the US government to form a commission to ascertain the truth behind the American-ness of apple pie. photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc

Of course the “witness” was five at the time this game would have taken place and the only “evidence” he could provide was a sketch of Doubleday’s field that he himself reproduced more than sixty years later. It’s also proven unlikely that Doubleday was ever in Cooperstown in 1839, but now I’m probably just being picky.

Even the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has admitted that the opening of its doors in 1939 honored “the mythical ‘first game’ that allegedly was played in Cooperstown on June 12, 1839.” Commissioner of baseball Bud Selig on the other hand “really believe[s] that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball,’” which just goes to show you that at least one noteworthy baseball expert (my husband) is right when he says that Bud Selig should probably be considered unreliable on most things baseball.

The first truly concrete evidence of American baseball is from a 1791 ordinance in Pittsfield, Massachusetts banning play of the sport near a community building, the fine for which was to garnish allowance until any broken windows had been paid for by the players. So it’s safe to conclude that at least a similar sport to that which we now know as baseball, was being played (carelessly) in America.

And that would be really something if there wasn’t just as reliably recorded evidence that baseball (referred to separately from both rounders and cricket) was being played in England by British royalty as early as 1749.

Okay, so in rounders you swing a bat at a ball and score by successfully running around four bases. But she's clearly holding the bat in one hand. It's completely different. See?  photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc
Okay, so in rounders you swing a bat at a ball and score by successfully running around four bases. But she’s clearly holding the bat in one hand. It’s completely different. See? photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc

So, is baseball a quintessentially American sport deserving of its own national holiday? I’m not sure. It’s true that no one loves baseball quite like the US (except for maybe Cuba, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, just to name a few). And there can be no doubt that the rules of the sport as it is played today developed primarily in the United States (where it was decided in 1845 that winging a baseball at someone’s head for an out might not constitute fair play).

According to Ozzie Smith 22 million Americans claim to have at least at one time played hooky to enjoy opening day so he reckons we ought to make it official. And though I don’t think I’ll sign the petition, I’m sure he’ll get his signatures. At the time of this posting, it stands at  36, 612 with 27 days remaining. And regardless of what happens, my family will celebrate the way we always do, with hot dogs and nachos, with ice cream in those little plastic batting helmets, and with unbridled enthusiasm.

National holiday or not, I'll be getting my celebration on.
National holiday or not, I’ll be getting my celebration on.

Study Shows VD is Good for Your Heart

Tomorrow we celebrate “love,” on that most romantic of days commemorating a couple of martyrs, a massacre, some very poorly behaving Romans, awkward relationship moments, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate candies filled with who knows what. As you can probably gather, we’re not big celebrators of Valentine’s Day around here, although, I have to admit, I will likely make a heart-shaped casserole for dinner because I received a heart-shaped pan as a wedding gift and honestly when else am I going to use that?

Despite my own reluctance to celebrate VD, my children have been busy designing and filling out valentines to give to their classmates. They’re excited mostly, I think, to see the pile of candy they will bring home.

If you must celebrate, at least do so Pinterest style, right?
If you must celebrate, at least do so Pinterest style, right?

But I am delighted with their teachers and with their school because both classes are also trying to make this kind of silly holiday meaningful on a larger scale than simply fretting over cryptic Conversation Hearts bearing messages such as: “DARE YA,” “GOT CHA,” and “URS 4EVR.”

My oldest son’s third grade class will be spending at least some of their party time making therapy pillows to be donated to a local children’s cardiac unit. And my first grader’s class will be participating in Jump Rope for Heart.

I’m especially pleased about that because in fifth grade I participated in the program myself and not to brag, but I had some pretty mad skill. Over the years the Jump Rope for Heart Program has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the American Heart Association all while promoting heart-healthy activity and an attitude of service among elementary students.

It might just be me, but I'm pretty sure the conversation hearts of my youth were more innocent.
It might just be me, but I’m pretty sure the conversation hearts of my youth were more innocent.

Because though it’s a ton of fun, jump roping is hard work. Some historians even trace the roots of the sport back precisely to hard work in Ancient Egypt and China from where the earliest twisted or braided ropes are believed to have come. The theory is that rope-makers had to jump the strands as part of the process of twisting them together to make rope and that in imitation of them, their children developed a game of it.

Whether or not the theory has any merit, rope jumping games certainly did take hold early in China. There’s also evidence that similar jumping activities developed early among the Aboriginal population in Australia. But it is most likely the Dutch we have to thank (or blame) for the modern sport of jump rope.

When early Dutch settlers brought jump roping to New Amsterdam (later New York) in America, the English thought it was the most ridiculous thing they’d ever seen. When Dutch children doubled it up, the English (who were obviously jealous of the mad skills) knew they had been wrong and that this “Double Dutch” accompanied by silly sing-song rhymes was, in fact, the most ridiculous thing they’d ever seen.

Mad Skill
Mad Skill

The sport’s been though some highs and lows in its history, enjoying a resurgence in the 1970’s with the NYPD’s Double Dutch outreach to inner city youth that included the slogan “Rope, Not Dope,” a “rope skipping” campaign begun in Colorado by PE teacher Richard Cendali, and the Jump Rope for Heart program started in 1978 by Milwaukee PE teacher Jean Barkow.

And now, all over the United States, elementary students jump their hearts out around this time of year in order to do some good in the world and prove that Valentine’s Day, for all the angst and disturbing candy messages, can actually be pretty good for your heart.

jumpropeforheart

So in the interest of exhaustive (or at least exhausting) research, I felt it necessary to dust off my mad skills and jump a little rope. In the process I learned a few things:

  1. I am not at quite the same level of physical conditioning as my fifth grade self.
  2. My “Jumping Rope” list on iTunes needs more Pointer Sisters, Van Halen, and Kris Kross (sure to make me jump jump).
  3. I don’t know if this proves the Englishmen of New Amsterdam right, but my attempt to jump rope is probably the most ridiculous thing anyone could ever see. But won’t. Ever.
  4. Jumping rope is a fantastic way to work off all the empty calories in the heart-shaped box of chocolates filled with who knows what that I’ll probably scarf down in honor of Valentine’s Day.
The things I do for you.
The things I do for you.

Get a Bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.

In 1963, a leader for the Ozark Area Council of American Youth Hostels, Dick Leary, decided it would be a fun idea to take a nighttime bike ride through the city of St. Louis. He organized the event for a night in October and set it up to begin at midnight at Union Station. Unfortunately (because most people probably thought he was joking) Leary was the only rider to turn up.

Determined that it was still a good idea (and because I’m guessing he battled insomnia), Leary completed it himself and the next year managed to recruit a few more riders. Word started to get out and by the early 1970s thousands of participants were showing up to complete the ride every year.

Eventually, the event became known as the Moonlight Ramble, the longest-running nighttime cycling event in the world. Organized now through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the route has changed a few times over the years, but the full course is always around 18 to 20 miles through the heart of downtown St. Louis on the early Sunday morning in August that occurs closest to the full moon.

And despite the addition of a premier riding group (personally I’m not sure how anyone can take themselves all that seriously while sporting glow necklaces snaked through their bicycle spokes), the Ramble is NOT a race (shoe clips are not allowed, nor are they advisable). It’s a ride. All ages, all ability levels, and even all manner of wheeled, human-powered vehicles are welcome. I (typically sound asleep by no later than 10:30) rode in the Ramble for the first time this year, along with my sister and a handful of her cycling buddies, most of whom had participated in the event before.

Okay, so maybe "human-powered" isn't a strict requirement.
Okay, so maybe “human-powered” isn’t a strict requirement.

It was a gorgeous night, under the nearly full moon. The first riders took off from Busch Stadium at 12:10 (after a slight delay for traffic from the preseason Rams game). As there were probably four thousand riders, it took a while to get us all going and even with the best efforts of the St. Louis police department and an army of volunteer ride marshals, it took a bit for the remaining downtown traffic to adjust to the onslaught of bicycles (most drivers smiled to see us; a few were cranky). Once we were really going, though, I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the city.

Now, I realize that this is generally a (sort of) history blog and that this particular post has thus far come up a little short in that area (unless you’re really easily satisfied and a brief reference to 1963 is enough for you), but I think I can make a case for why it still fits. And to do so, I am going to direct your attention to the expertise of Professor Kenneth Jackson who teaches the History of the City of New York at Columbia University (and who is a much more reliable source of all things history than is yours truly).

Since he began teaching the class in the late 1970s, Professor Jackson has led his students on a nighttime, five-hour bicycle tour from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Promenade. Along the way, Jackson stops at various points of interest to deliver lectures through a bullhorn to the now hundreds of students that come along for the ride.

The professor admits, however, that it is not so much the knowledge shared in his lectures that sticks with the students, but simply the experience of seeing the city in this strangely intimate way, when the moon is bright and the streets are quieter (a little bit anyway, but of course this is New York we’re talking about). One student had this to say about standing in front of Federal Hall at 4:30 AM: “In this sleepy blur I catch myself imagining that I’m there, imagining that [Professor] Jackson is Washington and we’re getting ready to start this new republic.” Another student commented: “This is the first time I feel like I’m really living in the city.”

That's a lot of people "really living" in the city of St. Louis.
That’s a lot of people “really living” in the city of St. Louis.

I get that. I grew up not so far from St. Louis and I have been delighted to be back again, nearer still to what I consider “my city.” Since moving here this past February I have taken my children up in the Arch, explored the Zoo, wandered through the Botanical Garden, enjoyed the theater at both the Fabulous Fox and the outdoor Muni, and been to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play more often than I should admit (I lived two entire baseball seasons in Oregon and apparently distance really does make the heart grow fonder).

After riding the Ramble, all of these different places found a home in that mental map that I always wish I was better at carrying around with me (you may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that my sense of direction is, well, okay so I don’t actually have one). I may not have learned a great deal about the history of my city on this ride, but I did get to know St Louis itself better and be a part of it in a way I never had before.

Bill Emerson said it well in 1967 when he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: “A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”

Nighttime cycling is not perfect. The Ramble attracts all kinds of folks, the serious cyclists and the families out to make lasting memories together, but also the rowdies whose frequent beer stops make it best to avoid them.  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend a nighttime ride outside of an organized event. But late night ride events and tours are popping up all over the world (Paris, London, and Moscow are just a few of the cities that I discovered offer similar experiences).

I don't know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.
I don’t know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.

But even if you don’t own a bike (often they can be rented), haven’t ridden since you were a kid (you never forget how), or for some reason would prefer sleeping to rambling in the moonlight, consider taking some advice from Mark Twain who once learned to ride one of the old-timey high-wheeled bicycles of his day and had this to say of the experience: “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”

This blog post is NOT about the St. Louis Cardinals

Though sport has been a part of the human experience for about as long as history has been recorded, the concept of professional team sports is relatively recent. Until industrialization came along, people simply didn’t have time for much leisure activity, but  the mid-1800’s saw the emergence of the first professional football leagues (that’s “soccer” to all us uncultured Americans).

Then in 1876 professional sports, specifically baseball, arrived in the US with the establishment of the National League. The American League joined the fun in 1901. The NHL, with a slightly more complicated history, can trace its origin to 1909. 1920 brought us the NFL and the NBA started in 1946.

And with the rise of all these professional athletes came the rise superstition in sports. Why is this, you might ask? Well, historians have often noted that superstition is most pronounced in times when people feel they have little control over the outcome of their own lives. Professional athletes capable of competing at the highest level of their sport find themselves competing against others who are more or less equally capable.

The result of this kind of competition is, more often than we would like, dependent less on pure talent than on circumstance. Often miscommunication, questionable calls by officials, and poorly timed injuries make the difference between winning and losing. How can a team protect itself from such unforeseen problems? The answer is obviously to conjure the most luck.

Teams do this all the time. NHL teams famously refuse to touch their Conference Champion Trophies for fear it will bring them bad luck in their quest for the Stanley Cup and often the members of a baseball team will not shave during a post season run. My favorite team ritual by far, though, is that of professional rugby team, The All Blacks who perform a traditional war chant in front of the opposing team before each game.

But whereas team rituals can be attributed to increasing team camaraderie, the personal superstitions of many professional athletes are just plain bizarre. They range from the unwillingness of baseball players to change places in the batting order, to rubbing the head of the bat boy, or commonly the refusal or insistence of stepping on particular markings on the field of play. It seems there’s no end to what rituals professional athletes will try in an attempt to give themselves a slight edge. But not all players put much stock in such behaviors.

Babe Ruth, who once famously said, “I have only one superstition. I touch all the bases when I hit a homerun,” penned an article that ran in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on May 28th of 1929, about his response to a fan’s suggestion that Ruth was wearing the wrong number. That year the Yankees became the first team to consistently wear numbers on the back of their jerseys and the Bambino wore the number 3 on his. The concerned fan, a self-identified numbers expert, explained that according to his observations of Ruth (who was in a minor hitting slump at the time), the player should be wearing the number 7. If he made the change, the fan insisted, he would have a great season. If not, Lou Gehrig, who sported the number 4 on his jersey (the appropriate number for him according to the “expert”) would certainly outhit Babe.

In response, Babe had only this to say: “Somehow I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the number on a fellow’s back doesn’t have much to do with his hitting one way or another—and I’m a lot more interested in getting my eye on the ball right now than I am in picking out lucky numbers or studying the stars.” Turns out Babe Ruth probably didn’t do any harm by disregarding the fan’s suggestion. In 1929, he hit 46 homeruns, drove in 154 runs and had an overall batting average of .345. Not bad; and, notably, better than #4 Lou Gehrig.

English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United St...

The Yankees did have an off year, though. Their pitching struggled terribly and even with heavy hitters at the plate, they weren’t able to pull off a third consecutive championship, finishing up in second place behind the Philadelphia Athletics. If I know anything about baseball fans, I’m guessing numbers guy wasn’t surprised.

Because if professional athletes sometimes depend on a particular routine or good luck charm in an attempt to influence those factors that are largely out of their control, that is nothing compared to what their fans do. Fans are, after all, stuck on the sidelines, in front of the television, or tuned in to the game updates when our focus really should be elsewhere. Fans have no real control over the outcome of the game. All we can do is wish and hope and stress out.

So fans don good luck charms, eat specific foods, perform elaborate celebration dances, and generally engage in all manner of charm casting. Pretty much anything goes, because as a recent Bud Light commercial expresses: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

So for example, a practical historian known for rational thought and witty discourse (perhaps for her beauty and charm as well, but who can say) might convince herself that it is essential that she wear the same piece of jewelry every day of the playoffs as long as a certain flock of baseball playing birds from an undisclosed Midwestern city are still in contention. She might seek comfort during tense playoff moments by tightly hugging a plush toy of the team mascot. And perhaps she would even refuse to blog about her team until their postseason run is over. It wouldn’t be weird, though because it’s totally going to work.

Na na na nana na na. Nana na na…

We have a bad (or awesome) case of Olympic fever at our house this week. It’s not a terrible bug to have except for the fatigue. The late nights are definitely starting to wear on me, but it’s only a couple weeks every four years. And when I’m faced with the decision to either go to bed or to watch one more gymnastics apparatus or swim race, well, the choice is obvious.

The swimming is by far the hardest for me to turn off because I’ve always been a swimmer myself. I like to think I just missed qualifying for the US team (by 15 to 20 years and at least 10,000 hours in the pool). Okay so my strokes are inefficient (just means I work harder and burn more calories, right?) and my flip turns would make Rowdy Gaines guffaw, but still, I have always enjoyed my time in the pool.

As a teenager and into my early twenties while working at summer camps, I kept up my lifeguarding certification, completing the entire American Red Cross course twice as well as participating in refresher courses and in-service trainings. So even though I’m pretty sure I couldn’t out-swim Missy Franklin, if she were to cramp up in the water and need assistance, I could probably rescue her (and if she panicked and tried to drown me, I could totally break her nose and pull us both to safety. Thank you, Red Cross!)

And if the Olympics ever included an event in which athletes had to swim with their head out of the water supporting 150 pounds of dead weight on a large red buoy through the water and then up and over a rescue board, perhaps I could have been a contender. Alas, the Olympic Games have never included such a competition.

Or so I thought. But then what is a practical historian to do when she’s awake in the middle of the night in between events, waiting for the commentators to complete their super-informative interviews in which they ask hard-hitting questions like: “So, do you like Justin Bieber?” The answer to that question is that she Googles eliminated Olympic sports (as for the Bieber question, shockingly, I don’t hate him).

It turns out the 1900 Paris games featured a 200 m obstacle swimming event. True it included neither large red buoys nor rescue boards, but had it occurred 100 years later under the day’s official Red Cross guidelines, I’ve no doubt it would have. During the race, male swimmers (women didn’t compete in Olympic swimming events until 1912 because it’s hard to swim fast in an ankle length dress) climbed over a pole, over a row of boats, and under a second row of boats all while contending with the current of the River Seine. Gold was claimed by (probably not surprisingly) Australian swimmer Frederick Lane. I’m not sure why the event was discontinued after its brilliant debut. Maybe it just wasn’t Olympic-y enough.

And though the event never appeared in the games again (lucky for Lane who forever remains the Olympic record holder), a similar event does continue on the worldwide stage. Resurrected in 1955 again in Paris (though not in the Seine), a similar competitive event was organized by the Fédération Internationale de Sauvetage Aquatique or FIS (originally founded in 1910 with 18 member nations dedicated to water safety and rescue). The event, designed to encourage and celebrate the improvement of aquatic lifesaving skills, continued (somewhat sporadically) in pools throughout the world, until the organization merged with the World Life Saving organization (WLS), which focused largely on ocean and beach safety. In 1993, the International Life Saving Federation (ILSF) formed from the merger and the Lifesaving World Championship was born.

The event now occurs regularly every two years and one source I found claims that the ILSF supports the only worldwide athletic competition that truly serve a humanitarian purpose. That’s pretty noble, but I’m not sure it’s really true. But to defend my argument I’m afraid I’ll have to reference The Beatles.

You see I recently got into some small bit of trouble on Facebook by complaining about the inclusion of Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” performance at the opening ceremonies in London. I should stress that I have nothing against Paul McCartney or The Beatles. I appreciate their many contributions to the world of music (I mean they’re no Bieber or anything, but folks seem to like their music well enough) and I sing along to most of their collection just like everyone else. I just happen to hate that one song in particular because it doesn’t end definitively and so it sticks in my head. Badly. For days (or even weeks) at a time.

Seriously, I am only prolonging the agony by writing about it, but it’s worth mentioning because in the midst of the (mostly) friendly FB discussion/argument, I asked what the theme of the song had to do with the Olympic Games anyway. My brilliant (and occasionally snarky) niece replied: “In a world that lives in the midst of constant struggle and conflict, the Olympics serves as an opportunity to lay all of that aside and to come together through sport, thus it ‘take[s] a sad song and make[s] it better’” Okay, I can’t (or won’t because really it will only further drag out the incessant na na na’s in my head) argue with that. But then through that lens, Olympic competition sounds pretty humanitarian, doesn’t it?

So maybe 200 m obstacle swimming is pretty Olympic-y after all. I know I’d stay up to watch it.