Friday, December 18, 2009

A Weekend in the Toy Department of Life

This was something I started almost three years ago. It ends abruptly, so I don't think I ever finished it:

The owner of the concern that I work for during the day has a framed Baltimore Sun front page from the day he was born at the reception desk. While it was a neat gift from someone, it tells you what happened the day before he was born, not his birthday itself.

Over the holiday weekend in 2006, I decided to lookup the events from the day that I was born. It was a rainy Sunday, March 17th, 1968, in Hartford, Connecticut. I escaped the womb around 9 PM that evening, just as the Ed Sullivan Show was segueing into the Smothers Brothers (or Walt Disney was ending and Bonanza beginning, if you were watching NBC). “(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding was just named the number one hit in the land the day before. It toppled “L’Amour est Bleu” by Paul Mauriat. I’m sure that I’ve heard this easy listening hit at some point, but I doubt that I could identify it. Redding wasn’t around to enjoy being top of the pops. Redding and six others, including four of the six members of Redding's backup band, The Bar-Kays, were killed when the plane on which they were traveling crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin four months prior.

I was looking up stuff that happened the day and weekend I was born. The front page was a depressing. Vietnam was in full swing. The My Lai massacre took place the day before; although no one outside of the villagers or the boys in Charlie Company knew about it yet. The Gold Standard, established after World War II in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire was in trouble. And there was, ugh, a presidential campaign going on. But the sports page had some interesting stuff. Victor Neiderhoffer, who later became a lieutenant of George Soros, made a pile of money, wrote a book about how good he was, then lost the money, won the national squash championship with a partner. Bo Belinsky left the Astros training camp because they wouldn't let him stay out until 3 AM with Jo Collins; a former Playmate of the Year. They wound up suspending him, then shuffling him off to the White Sox. But Bo got the bunny and they lived happily... until 1975, when they divorced. Some Soviet apparatchik wanted the US out of the 68 Olympics because we were in Vietnam. Switzerland said that they'd go to Mexico City, whether or not South Africa did. There was a big hubbub about a new spitball rule. March Madness, while not as culturally significant as it would be later, was going on. And the NBA and NHL regular seasons were winding down. That's just a few of the things that were going on.

Probably a typical sports weekend for the era, but there were dozens of stories going on in what Red Smith called “the toy department of life.” These were just mere vignettes in the lives of the participants. These athletes were, obviously, much more than what happened the weekend of my birth. Some of them were famous, but others were less well known.

A 400 Mile Commute

SAN FRANCISCO, California - The Sporting News was still relevant in those days. This was in the days before the news cycle was compressed and a weekly publication could survive. That weekend, readers could have turned to page 35 and read a feature on NBA vet Rudy LaRusso. LaRusso was a 6’7” power forward from Brooklyn via Dartmouth College. He was drafted by the Lakers after he left college and was with them when they moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. While in LA, he made a guest appearance in the penultimate episode of “Gilligan’s Island” (#97 “Bang! Bang! Bang!). But the Lakers, without mentioning it to him, traded him to the Pistons in 1967. Because athletes didn't have many rights at that time, LaRusso made the decision to retire rather than leave Los Angles with his pregnant wife.

He didn't really want to retire, but returning to the Lakers wasn't much of an option. Then NBA President Walter Kennedy suspended him, calling him the property of the Pistons. A player good enough to average 13 points and eight rebounds for one of the League's elite teams was on the outside looking in. LaRusso filed a lawsuit, claiming that he was "in effect, blacklisted by all of the other teams ... a victim of a group boycott."

Two years later, baseball player Curt Flood would take a similar stand, one which would both end his career and the "reserve clause," allowing for free agency. But LaRusso's career was not over. Before the next season began, he dropped the lawsuit, saying, "I'd rather pursue a career than a lawsuit."

He joined the San Francisco Warriors, but maintained his home in the Los Angeles area, not far from the airport. He'd leave home at 9 am, fly to San Francisco at 9:15, get to the gym in San Bruno before the 11 am practice and be home by 3. (

LaRusso was also working for McDonnell and Company, a brokerage firm that probably got swallowed up by mergers in the ensuing years, in Beverly Hills and didn’t want to give up the lucrative side job. He lucked out in that Rick Barry had left the Warriors for the nascent ABA and there was an opening in the San Francisco frontcourt. Although he turned 30 early that season, it was one of his better seasons. He was named to the All-Star team for the fourth out of five times in his career. He was tenth in the league with 1726 points or 21.8 per game.

LaRusso played one more year for the Warriors (who weren’t named Golden State until 1971) before hanging up his Chuck Taylors. After his playing career, he embarked on a number of endeavors, including being GM of the NASL’s Los Angeles Aztecs in the late 70’s. After a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease he passed away in 2004.

Flog Scrambled, A Good Walk Spoiled

ORLANDO, Florida -While the bacchanalia known as Bike Week was going down in Daytona (more on that later), the traditional kickoff of the sports weekend is usually the golf tournament. Heading west on I-4, not for from where Walt Disney World was being built, you could see the PGA in action in Orlando in the Citrus Open. This was an event that was played at the Rio Pinar golf club on the east cide of that city until 1978. A team headed by Arnold Palmer won the Pro-Am and the first round was getting ready to start on Thursday. The purse, $115,000. 1968 was the first year that the PGA Tour was separate from the Professional Golfers Association, for what it’s worth. Miller Barber tied for the lead with Jack Nicklaus after the first round with a five-under 67. Five golfers were a stroke behind the two leaders.

On Friday, Nicklaus shot a 68 to pull away for sole possession of the lead. This was despite bouts of wildness with his drive. As for Arnie, he shot 76 for a two-day total of 147; bogeying five holes on the front nine. Palmer missed three putts of less than three feet. He missed the cut by two strokes. Gary Player was five back of Nicklaus at 140.

The final two rounds were televised nationally (on Saturday it was taped, but it was live Sunday followed by a repeat in the early evening). Rain hit central Florida that Saturday the 16th and left the course a quagmire. The leaderboard got rather tight with five golfers tied for the lead at 208(Nicklaus, Barber, Bob Charles, Bruce Devlin, and Dan Sikes) while eight duffers were just a stroke behind. According to PGA officials, never before had the last round started with five players tied for the lead. (Not sure if it’s happened since then.)

But Dan Sikes pulled away on Sunday with a 66 to pick up the $23,000 winner’s check. Who was Sikes? He was a native Floridian with a law degree from the University of Florida. He was one of the first golfers to use backers to finance his start on the tour. 50 Jacksonville businessmen formed a corporation known as “Dan’s Friends, Inc.”

Dan won the 1958 U.S. Amateur Public Links championship while in law school. He turned pro in 1960 and won six times on the PGA Tour. He played on the 1969 Ryder Cup team. He also won three times on the Senior PGA Tour. Sikes died in Jacksonville, Florida at the age of 58 back in 1987.

Fuck It Dude, Let’s Go Bowling

DEPREY, New York - The PBA Tour was getting underway in Buffalo. People may laugh today, but the PBA Tour was a winter Saturday staple for me as a kid, a prelude to the Wide World of Sports.

In The Hall of The Mountain King

OSLO, Norway - American John Bower won the 15 kilometer cross-country ski race on Thursday March, 14th, 1968 with a time of 50:22. This moved him into first place in the combined Nordic standings at the Holmenkollen Ski Games. Holmenkollen was big in Nordic circles and Bower was attempting to be the first American to win it.

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