I was only a little kid when my father took the whole family to an ice hockey game. Midway in the second period an awful fight developed. Over the screams and yells of the home-town crowd I could hear one blood-curdling, semihysterical voice shouting, "Kill the son of a bucket! Kill him!" It was my father.
I know the reader will find it hard to believe that Harvey Rhoades, friend to small animals and sick birds, giver of bubble gum to little children, secret Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy, could be standing up waving his program and calling for the annihilation of some poor son of a bucket from Boston. But he was. My mother was as perplexed as I. "Harvey!" she said. "You sit right down this instant and compose yourself!"
"What?" said Father. "What? What?" He turned around like a man coming out of a dream. He looked sheepishly from Mother to me to Susan to Charley, as though seeing us for the first time in his life. Then he sat down and said to Mother, "I didn't mean for anybody to kill anybody, Caroline. I mean I only said it in a sporting way."
Well, I spent many a long and sleepless night trying to figure that one out. How do you kill somebody in a sporting way? I finally came to the conclusion that people are not themselves at sporting events. Twenty-five years have now gone by, and I have been forced to revise my conclusion only slightly: People are themselves at sporting events. It is when they are away from the arena that they are putting on an act. In fact, I would say that the best way to find out what people are really like is to study them in battle or at an athletic contest. Of the two, I have always found the second to be more enjoyable.
The thing is, we Americans throw our own egos and psyches into the games we see. We tend to identify with the bruised and battered quarterback, standing up under that awful red-dogging attack from those rats on the other team; we put ourselves into the shoes of that stout-hearted little left-hander who has gone 3 and 0 on the hitter, with the bases loaded and nobody out in the ninth; we see a little bit of ourselves in that valiant horse lying 10 lengths back at the stretch turn. (For that matter, my wife says that there is a little bit of me in every horse I bet on, or maybe vice versa.)
This all became clear to me as I grew older and Father and I attended more and more sports activities together. I realized that this quiet, subdued man saved up his emotions for the day of the game. The simple words "Play ball" or "They're off" or "Gentlemen, start your engines" would turn him into a volcano of passion and violence and noise.
At the race track, for example, Father would treat each $2 bet as though he were risking the equity on our house. If Father's horse won, he would jump up and down on his chair, hug old ladies sitting near by and blow kisses to all the men. The horse hadn't won; Father had won. Normally, this would not have been offensive, but you have to remember that most of the people sitting around you at a horse race have just lost money. They are not in a mood to sing jolly songs or propose a toast to your $5.20 worth of good fortune. Father could never catch on to this idea. "I don't know, Sonny," he said one day after a man had told him to siddown-and-shuddup-yeh-dumb-jerk-yeh. "People just don't know how to lose gracefully."
Father was certainly right about that, and he proved it himself many a time. If the horse carrying our huge $2 investment on his nose failed to win, Father took it as an offense of the most personal sort. In the first place, he had always nursed a suspicion that all sports events were fixed. To Father, every baseball game was a Black Sox scandal, and every horse race was a boat race. It was merely a matter, Father said, of figuring out which horse had been given the most cocaine. Furthermore, he often suspected the horses themselves of being the fixers. He would watch them as they turned onto the track, and if he saw two of them hanging together head to head, he would turn to me and say, "See? One of those two horses will win. They're working it out right now." Strangely enough, he was often right.
Father's antic behavior at horse races became so disturbing that we finally talked him into simply sitting in the paddock area during the running of the race. There we could hear the progress of the race over the loudspeaker, enjoy the sun, eat popcorn and chart the next race. On the whole this worked out better, but not for the horses. If Father had a loser, he would walk up to the paddock fence and wait for the offending animal to appear. He would say in his angry, high-pitched voice: "How could you do this to me? How could you?" He would fling the torn-up $2 ticket in the horse's face and stalk off. I always felt sorry for the poor horse—it was bad enough to lose, without being criticized for it—but Father was unrelenting.
Father had the traditional American approach to spectating at a bullfight, but he took it (or it took him) a little further than most. One summer we were visiting relatives in San Diego, and on a Sunday afternoon Father drove the whole family down to see a corrida in Tijuana. None of us even had much of an idea what it was about, except Father who, of course, claimed to be an expert. He explained to us that the bullfighter usually won, but if you could get the right odds—say about 12 to 5—the bull wasn't a bad bet and could even be an overlay.
Soon we were sitting on the sunny side of the bull ring, in the middle of some of the wildest-eyed fans in the world, and Father was on his feet shouting at the top of his lungs: "Come on, tor-ro, let him have it, baby!"
The bullfighter swirled his cape and passed the bull by a fraction of an inch. "Attaway, tor-ro!" Father cried. "You're getting the range now!" This might have gone on all afternoon, and some of the bilingual fans in our section might have given Father a moment of truth of his own, but a kindly trio of ushers rushed down to our seats and escorted us out. I will never forget Father's closing shot. "Hey, tor-ro," he hollered, just before we were whisked out of sight of the ring, "stick it in his ear!"
Father's favorite spectating passion was tennis, a game he had played middling well in his youth. The first rule of tennis viewing is, "Don't cheer during a rally." If one is wearing soft gloves, one may politely slap one glove against the other (gently! gently!) to denote one's exuberance, but anything louder than that is considered gauche. Father knew all this, but he was simply unable to restrain himself. "Listen, Sonny," he would say to me before a big match, "if I get up and start rooting, you pull me right down."
Then a rally would begin, and Father would squirm, and all of a sudden he'd be on his feet screaming, "Way to hit it, baby! Oh, beauty, beauty, beauty! Now kill it! Kill it! KILL IT!" Down on the court Father's hero would slam a shot, and the opponent would make a brilliant recovery and Father would shout, "He was lucky that time, Ellsworth, baby. Now give it to him, right on the baseline, attaway, baby!" All this noise sounded exactly like a string of cannon crackers going off at High Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral. I would pound and pummel Father and climb on his back to pull him down, but he couldn't even tell I was there. Then the set would end, and there would be nothing for Father to shout about, and he would suddenly realize that everybody was glowering at him. At such times he would look around embarrassedly, slump back into his seat and stare straight ahead. Soon he would nudge me, and without turning his head he would say out of the corner of his mouth, "What'd I say, Sonny? What'd I say?"
I always soft-pedaled my answer. "You just gave him a little encouragement," I would say. "Nothing much."
I was very pleased last year when the high officials of tennis announced that they would permit a "reasonable expression of excitement" by spectators. History had at last caught up with Father, and not a minute too soon. The week after the announcement, he was at Forest Hills shouting at a chubby linesman: "You really blew that one, Fatty. Yes, you, Rabbit Ears!"
It was difficult to argue with Father about such matters; he was one of those fortunate human beings who are born with the knack of always being right. When first and second base were occupied and there were less than two out, Father would jump up and shout "Out!" as soon as the batter hit an infield fly or, for that matter, a home run. When a left-hander would start to work in the bullpen, Father would say instantly, "That's Asuza warming up." If I pointed out to Father that Asuza was a righthander and had been sent to the minors three months ago and then had retired from baseball, Father would simply say, "Well, he's back tonight. I'd know that motion anywhere." Father was equally expert at basketball games, where he would call all fouls, except those called by the referee.
I suppose it will come as no surprise that the son of so bizarre a fan should turn out a little strange himself. I do not refer to myself (I am the epitome of grace and dignity at a sports event) but to my brother Charley.
Charley was not the athletic type. He was the only kid in our neighborhood who had to have a five-minute rest period after a game of jacks. If he got into a baseball game it was an event, and if he got any wood on the ball at all, even to hit into a fielder's choice, it was discussed in the neighborhood for days. The result was that Charley was always the last player chosen in our pick-up ball games. He would stand there feigning nonchalance, looking around and whistling softly, while the other kids were selected one by one. Once in a while a captain would say, "O.K., I'll take Charley, but his outs don't count." More often, he wasn't chosen at all.
The result of this sort of trauma is predictable; every kid has to eat a peck of dirt and every kid has to take part in so many games. If he doesn't take part in them in one way, he'll take part in another. So it was with Charley. Denied a chance to play in the neighborhood games, he played instead in the games at Shibe Park. That's right, Shibe Park, now known as Connie Mack Stadium. Charley would sit along the left-field foul line and reflect the sun into the outfielders' eyes with a 10¢ mirror. In 1938 Charley and his mirror had six errors, two triples and an inside-the-park home run for the season.
Thus encouraged, Charley started going to golf tournaments, where he would drop an extra ball or two far down the fairway before the golfers teed off, thus causing a small but significant amount of confusion later. Then he bought one of those booklets that offer to teach you how to THROW YOUR VOICE! and became a fairly competent ventriloquist. Armed with this new skill, Charley began to make the rounds of the tennis matches. He would sit at the end of the court and shout "Fault!" on service, without moving his lips. He did not do this on every serve; merely on the ones that were in. He was finally caught and thrown out of the Merion Cricket Club, but not before he caused three players to file complaints about the officiating.
Charley especially enjoyed intruding in upper-class sports events and often visited the Rose Tree Hunt Club, where that thrilling and unpredictable athletic contest, the fox hunt, took place. There was a meadow where the dogs crossed. Charley would hide in the high grass, his ultrasonic dog whistle at the ready, and when the hounds would come into range he would let go a big, silent blast. Those dogs would stop as though they had hit a cement wall, and a few seconds behind them would come the brave hunters, almost catapulting over their horses' heads in the sudden halt, interrupting their silly shouts of "yoicks" and "tally-ho" and "pip-pip" or whatever it is they holler as they prepare to lynch the fox. By the time the hounds got back into action, the fox would be all the way into the next county and there would be no meat on the hunters' table that night.
You might think that a man would outgrow tendencies like these, especially after becoming a success in business, but not Charley. Every week he comes up with some new idea for infiltrating an athletic event in which he is not welcome. He sits in the bleachers, wearing a glove and mask, and if he catches a ball (about twice a year) he does not merely take it home. He waits a few innings until some crucial play is going on, then throws this supernumerary ball smack into the middle of the action. He shows up at track meets packing a starter's gun with blank cartridges. He likes to stand in kibitzing crowds at bridge tournaments and say "double!" and "redouble!" through clenched teeth the way he used to say "Fault!" Once he carried a big gong to a prizefight and foreshortened several rounds before being invited to leave. You would think that all these successes would give Charley a warm glow of satisfaction as he looks backward at 25 years of accomplishment in sport. But no. Charley does not reckon himself a success, and all because of one happening:
You will recall that a few years ago the Cleveland Browns were sending their plays in from the bench via a transmitter on the bench and a short-wave receiver in the quarterback's helmet. When Charley heard about this he couldn't sleep. He spent every night for a month in his workshop. When the Browns arrived in town, Charley was ready. He had rigged up a miniature transmitter; he was going to send in a few plays himself. "Think of it," he said to his wife. "Me, Charley Rhoades, a pro coach!"
The big night came. Charley sat in the end zone, practically alone with his transmitter. "All right, boys," he said into the microphone. "Let's open up with a triple reverse!" The Browns threw a pass. Charley ordered them to throw another pass. The Browns worked the draw play. Charley sent in a quick kick; the Browns passed for a touchdown.
"All right, you guys, now pay attention!" Charley snapped when the Browns had the ball again. "Let's have a center plunge right up the center. C'mon, gang, hit 'em hard, rock 'em and sock 'em!" The Browns spun up to the line of scrimmage and executed a beautiful flare pass good for 37 yards. Charley made a few more half-hearted tries, but finally stomped out in disgust. The Browns just wouldn't pay any attention to him. It wasn't until the next day that Charley found out what had gone wrong. A fuse had blown in the Browns' radio, and they had gone back to their old system of sending in plays by rotating the guards. Nobody had heard Charley, except maybe a few ham radio operators and some ships at sea. It was a bitter blow for one who had devoted his life to athletics. But Charley will come up with something. That son of a bucket always does.
Other adventures of the Rhoades family, some of them first published in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, are chronicled in a book, Over the Fence Is Out, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston ($3.50).