Finding Mudville: A Sporting Christmas
Above and beyond the normal reasons for loving Christmas as a kid, I loved Christmas for the specific reason that under the Christmas tree each year was how I replenished my sporting goods.
Usually by December my baseball and bat had more electrician’s tape holding them together than cowhide or tempered ash, and because we played in all kinds of inclement weather and baseballs always seemed to find their way into the deepest mud puddles, by Christmas Eve, throwing these things was like competing in the shot put.
I had to rely on Santa Claus to bring the new baseball bat, or baseball, or even baseball glove so I wasn’t too ardent in my efforts to catch Santa in the act of leaving presents under the tree.
You never wanted to run the risk of getting nothing but clothes for Christmas and we took that threat seriously.
What we got as presents under the tree was also a coordinated community effort up and down the street among the neighborhood gang.
If Tommy and Roger next door got a football for Christmas, I usually wound up with the baseball and bat. Rick and Greg from down the street would get the basketball.
Moose and Skeeter up the street would get the new basketball net every year and by noon on Christmas Day, rain, sleet or snow, somebody’s dad was on the top end of a ladder attaching it to the basketball goal nailed to the McDonald’s roof above the driveway. The ladder would barely be out of the way and we’d be firing jumpers from behind the shrubs.
The basketball had to be a special outdoor ball so it could bounce in cold weather. In the event we lacked a good VOIT basketball, we’d take the new leather Wilson and let it sit in a bucket of hot water while we played with last year’s ball.
After a good soaking we’d take the new Wilson out, all warm and expanded and it would bounce great.
Tommy and Roger’s mom worked at MacGregor’s Sporting Goods so we could count on getting great deals on irregulars that were rejected off the production line.
My first two baseball gloves were MacGregor rejects.
I didn’t care.
These were baseball gloves.
We also made it a point every summer to attend Bat Day with the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field. That’s the only way we were able to replenish our supply of Louisville Sluggers in the event the bats we had from last year had been broken too many times.
“Trademark up,” was the Golden Rule. If you didn’t hit with the trademark up and wound up breaking the bat, you were banned from using the good bat until you proved your worth.
To this day I can’t pick up a baseball bat – even the aluminum ones – and not make sure I’m swinging with the trademark up.
Christmas Day football games were a time to show off our latest Cleveland Browns jerseys. Teams would be divided between whomever got the brown jerseys or the white jerseys on Christmas morning. You might find the occasional renegade Packers or Cowboys jerseys thrown into the mix, but it wasn’t so much the jersey as the number we coveted.
We all wanted number 32, Jim Brown’s number.
I tried to claim a genetic link with Jim Brown because we shared the same last name but the guys on my street didn’t buy that one for a minute.
Pass plays rivaled anything dreamed up by George Patton and there was no better pass pattern run that didn’t include a screen off the forsythia bushes.
We played whatever sport was in season - baseball in spring and summer, football in summer into fall, and basketball from winter into spring. Our games transformed our back yards and driveways into whatever basketball court, football field or baseball park we saw on TV that Saturday, and of course we all did our own play-by-play calls, including the roar of the crowd.
You try running a pass pattern, catching the football, outrunning the defender, calling the play – “Jimmy Brown! He’s at the forty, the forty-five, midfield!” – and provide accompanying crowd noise.
Do all this without hanging yourself on the clothesline, too.
Talk about complicated.
Man, I miss it more every day.