Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why another Hall of Fame? See below.

Wide World of Sports

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, November 30, 2006:
This morning’s sports headlines and talk radio were dominated by Headbandgate, the struggle for power in which Chicago Bulls’ head coach Scott Skiles benched star center Ben Wallace for wearing a headband, in violation of club policy. This may serve as, if not a sure sign of the impending apocalypse, then a defining moment in my life as a fan. The sports world is too much with us, making the lost world of pushball, subject of my previous column, seem appallingly attractive.

Sport matters. So do the individuals or teams of high character and winning ways whose exploits may move multitudes to raise them to the level of heroes, and in the process stand a bit taller themselves. But in the cult of celebrity that grips us now, the routine activities of ordinary men are more amply analyzed than the greatest feats in all the world’s history of sport.

For sport to retain its power to inspire, we may now wish to squelch the noise of what any fan, upon a moment’s reflection, will agree doesn’t matter. One institution has sprung up that is dedicated to cutting through the clutter to recognize the great champions of sport, in some cases famous long ago but little recalled today. The World Sports Hall of Fame (WSHF) launched its website last week and invites global participation in a selection process for the greatest athletes of all sports, all nations, and all time, from Milo of Krotona to Michael of Air Jordan. [see:]

The WSHF, a not-for-profit institution incorporated in Canada, aims to bring attention to the single activity that links all mankind in passionate interest and good feeling. With a mission of “building mutual respect for national cultures through the international love of sport,” the WSHF will also, in the language posted on its home page, “serve as a supporting body for national and regional sports archives, websites, and recreational organizations for purposes of education and community development.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, I serve on this body’s executive committee.)

There are halls of fame for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and almost any other sport you can name ... but until now none for the world of sport. Why, one might ask, do we need another? The quick A-to-Z quiz below may provide an answer: match the athlete, in each case a famed champion in his or her day and thus a candidate for WSHF enshrinement, with sport and nationality; the guess is that you will fall far short of a perfect score. [Answers are provided at the end.]

Vasiliy Alekseyev Wrestling Poland
Aleisha Cline Cycling USA
Alfredo DeOro Cricket France

Pierre Etchebaster Track & Field Spain
Niki Lauda Skiing Sweden
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Billiards India
Ingemar Stenmark Auto Racing Austria
Major Taylor Extreme Sports Canada
Qu Yunxia Tennis China
Stanislaus Zbyszko Weightlifting USSR

The first WSHF induction class consists of far more celebrated names than these — from Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth to Gordie Howe and Bill Russell and more — but the quiz illustrates the point that great athletes come from everywhere, and that the heroes of other nations may well have stories to tell us that are more compelling than Headbandgate or Steroidgate.

How do the WSHF organizers unearth not only the athletes but even the sports that may one day be honored in its Valhalla? There are many sources, of course, but a surprisingly fruitful one has been the world’s trading cards, an infallible guide to who were the heroes of bygone days. The cards provide a veritable archaeological site for understanding sport and society.

The big four American team sports, plus tennis, golf, NASCAR, and other individual pursuits, have not always been the focus of this nation’s ardor, let alone the world’s. (We will set to one side for this column British cigarette cards celebrating stars of cricket, soccer, tennis, etc.) Only a century ago, when trading cards were given away with cigarettes rather than with candy or bubble gum — and never sold by themselves — football, hockey, golf, and tennis were barely represented and basketball not at all. Baseball was dominant, but card sets to then had featured champions of billiards, boxing, sharpshooting, pedestrianism, sculling, bowling, and horseracing.

Before the turn of the century, champion walker Edward Weston or sharpshooter Annie Oakley, jockey Isaac Murphy or oarsman Ned Hanlan were culture heroes of a greater magnitude than any baseball or football player. And boxer John L. Sullivan was the most famous man in North America in any field of endeavor. Collegiate football was becoming a national obsession by the late 1880s, but aside from an 1894 set of 36 players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the only football player depicted in a card set was Captain Henry Beecher of Yale in the 1888 Goodwin Champions, a 50-card set containing only 8 baseball players.

Forty-five years later the Goudey Gum Company issued a 48-card “Sport Kings” set that spoke to the country’s changed tastes while honoring stars of the past, too. The checklist includes the first basketball cards ever (Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joe Lapchick, Eddie Burke); the first pro football cards (Red Grange and Jim Thorpe, although both were honored more for their amateur accomplishments); the first U.S. issued hockey cards (Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Ace Bailey, Ching Johnson); swimmers Helene Madison, Johnny Weissmuller, and Duke Kahanamoku; skater Irving Jaffee and hurdler Babe Didrickson. There were tennis players, aviators, jockeys, cyclists, wrestlers, golfers, billiardists, skiers, even a speedboat racer and a dogsled champion.

If the WSHF has a compact model for its eventual composition, this card set is it. Today’s arena of sport stars seems impoverished by comparison. Think of how one might compose a 48-card set of today’s North American “sport kings” and queens ... and then there are the sports the rest of the world plays!

The World Sports Hall of Fame may just be what we need now.

Vasiliy Alekseyev Weightlifting USSR

Aleisha Cline Extreme Sports Canada
Alfredo DeOro Billiards Spain
Pierre Etchebaster Tennis France

Niki Lauda Auto Racing Austria
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Cricket India
Ingemar Stenmark Skiing Sweden

Major Taylor Cycling USA
Qu Yunxia Track & Field China
Stanislaus Zbyszko Wrestling Poland

--John Thorn

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tattered but fabulous--the hunt started with this.

Who Remembers Pushball?

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, November 16, 2006:
I knew that hockey was the ancient game of shinny transplanted onto ice, that baseball had evolved through bat and ball games dating back to the banks of the Nile, that football was a game even more ancient. But I had always believed that James Naismith was the lone true “inventor” of a major sport, when he nailed peach baskets at opposite ends of the overhead track at a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 15, 1891. As a physical-education instructor he felt that his students needed a vigorous indoor game for the winter months, and so — boing! — basketball.

This week, however, I have learned that the idea for the game of basketball did not alight on Naismith’s pate in a Eureka moment. An Associated Press story about a current auction of his recently unearthed relics indicated that he had been inspired to invent basketball by recalling a game he had played as a boy in Canada — “Duck on a Rock,” a medieval game of rock-throwing and tag. More interestingly to me, it reported also that before coming up with basketball he had invented other games in that winter of 1891: “He tried to adapt lacrosse and football to be played inside. He even introduced his students to a slew of invented games like Hylo Ball, Scruggy Ball and Association Football. None of them took.”

Hylo Ball? Scruggy Ball? These innovations had been lost to history until now. For an opening bid of $10,000 at Heritage Auction Galleries, one might purchase Naismith’s crudely typed rules for these heretofore hidden bypaths of basketball.

Too rich for my taste, as just one week earlier I had purchased much more modestly an Open Sesame to a whole lost world of sport: auto pushball, a variant game deriving from one very nearly as strange and obscure. The original game of pushball had been invented by Moses G. Crane of Newton, Massachusetts in 1894, barely before the age of the automobile and only three years after Naismith’s brainstorm. But I get ahead of myself.

I was on my way out of an antique shop on Catskill’s Main Street that has long been a favorite haunt of mine when I spotted a cardboard poster depicting three 1930s hot rods maneuvering around a huge ball. There wasn’t much left of it — mice had had their way with it long ago — so the proprietor, who said the placard had come from a barn in Coxsackie, let me have it for $8.00.

Bringing it home and prowling the internet, I was able to reconstruct the wording as:

B. WARD BEAM’S New 1933
Auto Push-ball [image]
... JULY

B. Ward Beam and Company were probably entertaining crowds at the Greene County Fair, but I guessed that an “International Congress of Dare-devils” was not designed to be a local phenomenon. It turned out that Beam was a thrill-show racer and entrepreneur even more important historically than the names that may have greater resonance today—Barney Oldfield, Aut Swenson, Earl “Lucky” Teter and his Hell Drivers, the Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers, Jack Kochman's Champion Hell Drivers, Joie Chitwood’s Chevy Thunder Show. All that Beam did was to invent the auto thrill show, when he launched his Congress of Dare-devils in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. Soon he was playing county and state fairs in Michigan, Indiana, and parts west. The Chicago Tribune of February 18, 1925 reported that “Country people will not attend an agricultural exhibit unless they are assured of plenty of entertainment.... Auto push-ball is a new form of amusement offered that is meeting with favor.”

Did Beam invent auto pushball as well as the auto thrill show? Almost certainly not, as the Washington Post of May 9, 1922 features an image of auto pushball — the only other one I have come across besides my poster — at San Francisco, and Beam appears not to have taken his show to California. “The latest sport to be inaugurated on the Pacific Coast is auto pushball. In it one gets many a thrill, for it is more exciting and hazardous than polo. Six autos are needed to play the game, three of them constituting a team. The same rushes apply that are used in polo. The game originated in San Francisco.”

Beam’s troupe may have been in Davenport, Iowa for a “motor rodeo” on Memorial Day in 1926, when, according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, “the champion Canadian and American push ball teams are slated to play their [tie-breaking] thirty-first game on the 1926 championship schedule.” Surely this was Barnumesque promotion to inflate interest along with the Spalding-Goodyear ball used for the occasion, as auto pushball was just one of many attractions, from motorcycle racers to aerial acrobats. Auto pushball was tame entertainment when contrasted with the staples of the Beam show: demolition derbies, leaping buses, flaming barriers, and sundry death-defying stunts.

The August 6, 1931 Amherst (NY) Bee contained this telling advertisement: “Wanted: Single man, not over 25 years, to drive automobile in head-on collision with another car at the Albion Fairgrounds in connection with the Congress of Daredevils on August 19. Must crash with another car at 40 mph and give unconditional release in case of injury or death. Name your lowest price. Write B. Ward Beam, Albion, N.Y."

His traveling shows continued into the 1950s but biographical data about B. Ward Beam has proved hard to come by. From his 1917 draft card I learned that he was born November 18, 1892, had a wife and two children as of that time, and was a student at an aviation school in Celina, Ohio. His Social Security data indicates that he died in September 1979 (no precise date given) in Goshen, New York.

Even after his thrill-show days were done (he played the Orange County Fair in the late 1940s and early 1950s), he continued to book acts for county fairs through the Ward Beam Agency in Goshen as late as 1973. And there the trail ends for now, though I would certainly like to hear from any reader who knows more about this fascinating auto-race pioneer.

Pushball’s pioneer, Moses G. Crane, is known today instead as an inventor and manufacturer of the fire alarm box. What bit of whimsy drove him, as a member of the Newton Athletic Association in 1894, to devise the game of pushball is beyond my reconstruction. However, he did not live to see its rapid progress in the first decade of the next century, as he committed suicide July 7, 1898 in Newton.

Photographs survive of teams grappling with the six-foot-diameter leather-covered ball weighing 50 to 100 pounds, reminiscent of the giant breast chasing Woody Allen through the fields in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. There is even a 1903 documentary short, produced in England but distributed in the U.S. as well, described in the catalogs as “A splendid and most interesting picture of a new game by two teams using a ball 6 feet in diameter. Taken at the Crystal Palace, London.” The game depicted in the film had been played in the previous October; a game two months earlier at Headingley had been between two eight-man squads representing England and America.

Such a grand international setting ... and not even a decade after its first media splash, when pushball was played between the halves of a Harvard-Brown football game played at Soldiers Field in Cambridge. The Boston Globe of October 20, 1895 reported: “It was very amusing yesterday to see the large ball rolled from side to side. Now and then a man got under the ball, and sometimes the ball was raised way above the heads of the men. The players got into very amusing attitudes.... every one who saw the exhibition was highly entertained....” The student newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in its report of the game that day, added, “Although the game is said to be conducted on carefully studied scientific principles, the first impression on the spectators was irresistibly comical.”

Adding to the comic effect, in 1902 pushball was played on horseback in Berlin and at Durland’s Riding Academy in New York, where basketball on horseback had also made its debut that year. In the following year pushball was played for laughs at Madison Square Garden. At some universities the game replaced class rush as the favored ritual clash between freshmen and sophomores. An Iowa City postcard from 1909 depicted a riotous pushball contest on “Farmers Day.”

The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, however, played it straight when describing pushball as a “game played by two sides on a field usually 140 yds. long and 50 yds. wide, with a ball 6 ft. in diameter and 50 lb in weight. The sides usually number eleven each, there being five forwards, two left-wings, two right-wings and two goal. The goals consist of two upright posts 18 ft. high and 20 ft. apart with a crossbar 7 ft. from the ground. The game lasts for two periods with an intermission. Pushing the ball under the bar counts 5 points; lifting or throwing it over the bar counts 8. A touchdown behind goal for safety counts 2 to the attacking side.”

Oddly, pushball continued to flourish into the 1940s in military training environments. In 1916, on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, a British short film depicting pushball offers a title card that reads: “Yale students engaged in an exciting game of push ball. This game has been recommended as being particularly suitable for soldiers who have lost their sight at the front.” U.S. Marines in training played it in 1918 at Camp Lewis, American Lake, Washington and in the 1940s at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Revived in Australia in 1971 as “sogball,” the game featured a vinyl-covered ball that punctured within minutes. The game was described by one of the organizers of the intravarsity contests as the “stupidest occupation possible, involving the greatest number of participants.”

All the same, it sure looked like fun, which is more than can be said of many of our sports. Requiescat in pace, pushball.

--John Thorn

Friday, November 10, 2006

Where the twain shall meet?

Conflating Instruments and Music: “The Piano Controversy” in Cairo

This essay is by Mark Thorn.
In 1932 Cairo hosted a conference at which ethnomusicologists of the West and East gathered to assess the condition of Arab music and to determine its proper fate. They deliberated upon manifold aspects of the culture’s music, from its preservation through recording to its inclusion in a standardized musical curriculum. In each area of debate the Western ethnomusicologists espoused views somewhat different from those of their Eastern counterparts, but upon no issue was there a divergence more marked than the “piano controversy.” This topic, whether or not Arabs should appropriate Western instruments[1]—specifically the piano, as it is perhaps most representative of Western music—elicited such fundamental heterogeneity of opinion that those discussing it were unable to reach unanimity and had to defer the issue to a plenary session. Precisely because the “piano controversy” yielded such obdurate disagreement, however, its analysis reveals with clarity the various basic ethnomusicological ideologies present at the conference.

Many Egyptians viewed the piano as an integral Western instrument whose introduction into Eastern culture would there regulate intonation and consequently facilitate music education and enable the creation of Arab polyphonic music. And if the piano were retuned to accommodate the pitches unique to Arab music—especially quarter-tones, as opposed to Western half-tones—it could lead to the formation of a fixed Arab scale.

Several Western ethnomusicologists, however, argued that despite any benefits that the East might derive from its adoption of the piano (or any Western instrument), such a decision would compromise the indigenous beauty of Arab music. This sentiment is clearly linked with the “relativist”[2] view of cultural evolution promulgated by such figures as Sachs and Lachmann. From this perspective, each culture evolves in its own manner and thus to disturb a culture’s natural evolution, even with the purest intentions and the most careful considerations, is to wreak havoc. Hence such Westerners considered the forced introduction of the piano as an inappropriate disturbance of the East’s natural evolution.

Muhammad Fathi, whose speech during the plenary session represented the climax of the entire conference, questioned the very premise of the argument put forth by this Western contingent—the beauty of Arab music. He complained that the inadequacy of Arab instruments limited the emotional spectrum of Arab music to “whining and pining” which Western ethnomusicologists disingenuously glorified as the expression of “love and romance.”[3] He asked, “Would you [a Westerner] exchange … our [Eastern] music with what you consider charmingly beautiful in your own music …?” to which the answer was an implicit but certain “no.” Thus Fathi was accusing the Western ethnomusicologists of subscribing to a brand of exoticism whereby any music unfamiliar or foreign was blindly—and less than genuinely—considered precious. Accordingly, Fathi begged for the piano’s admission to the East, where it would not so much promote the development of Arab music as much as it would prevent its imminent demise.

Fathi’s plea was not without support from the West. One group of Western ethnomusicologists also approved of the Eastern incorporation of Western instruments, particularly the piano, but for reasons dissimilar to Fathi’s. They spoke of the “advanced” state of Western instruments and the “progress” they might inspire upon their arrival to the East.[4] This language evinces the Social Darwinist ideology upon which their reasoning was founded. They presumed that cultural evolution is unilinear and thus pictured it as a spectrum on which all cultures lie, some—the “advanced” cultures—toward the front, others—the “primitive” cultures—toward the back. Accordingly they viewed the exportation of Western instruments to the East as the West’s duty as a superior cultural body. And many from the East supported this view with their acceptance of the Orient-Occident dichotomy; they felt that the Orient, of which their countries were constituents, should emulate the more advanced Occident, or the Western countries.

Others advocated the creation of a piano compatible with Eastern tonality simply because it seemed to them the lesser of two evils. If this were not done, they feared, Arabs would simply adopt the Western piano, the use of which would hasten the disappearance of their indigenous music. In this way, the Eastern appropriation of the piano would be a prophylactic measure designed not necessarily to stimulate musical development but rather to evade or merely postpone cultural decay.

In his final statement, Fathi propounded additional justifications for the Eastern adoption of Western instruments. He reasoned that musical “instruments, like scientific inventions, transcend culture and nationality,”[5] implying that the West’s presumed ownership of their instruments was perhaps ill-founded. Lachmann, however, contested this view, claiming that unlike science, whose laws and tools function irrespective of culture, music “is the spirit of a nation and can change only when such change emanates from the depths of the very source of that music.”[6] This disagreement might be indicative of a broader cultural divergence regarding art and its relation to property; perhaps Easterners place forms and productions of art in the ether, belonging to no one (or to everyone), while Westerners view them as direct extensions of physical reality, belonging to the person or people from whom they arose.
Fathi tried also to appeal to the Westerners’ sense of fair trade; during the Middle Ages, the East lent its instruments to the West, so why should the West now refuse to reciprocate? He further suggested that such cultural diffusion could eventually prove profitable for the West, as the Arabs might improve the instruments and “return them to you [the West] with the highest level of perfection.”[7]

It seems to me, however, that there are several simple yet powerful arguments that Fathi and the other proponents of the diffusion of the piano failed to employ on their behalf. They could first object that people, not instruments, create music. Regardless of what instrument an Arab is using, any music that he produces will be Arab. Similarly, if Arab music undergoes a transformation, even Westernization, because of the introduction of the piano, it will remain Arab simply because those producing it are Arab.

As Fathi mentioned, some of the Western ethnomusicologists justified their opposition to the East’s incorporation of the piano with the insincere glorification of Arab music. They at once presumed the superiority of their “advanced” Western music and yet advised the Arabs to retain the “primitive beauty” of their music. The use of such Social Darwinist language, however, must have had an effect contrary to the goals of those who used it—implanting in the Arabs a desire for development. Comparing the profound grandeur of Western music with the simple charm of Arab music must have appeared as an invitation, or perhaps a challenge, for Arab improvement. These Westerners seem to have viewed the musical world as a bell curve, the lower end of which must be occupied by such peoples as the Arabs. But, as Fathi perceived, such is not the case; the uninhibited development of a culture leaves no victims.

One could also ask why there is no parallel concern about the introduction of Eastern instruments into the West. Would their presence not jeopardize the complex beauty of traditionally Western music? Or do the Westerners simply presume that Eastern instruments are so undesirable that they could not inspire such a cultural transformation? Furthermore, to illustrate the absurdity of the piano’s exclusion from the East, one could describe the prohibitions in other art forms that would correspond to the prohibition of the piano: Western artists would forbid the use of linear perspective in Eastern art, as it, like the piano, is a distinctly Western development; and Western culinary artists would proscribe the modern oven from the East, as its use, like the piano’s, might encourage the desertion of traditional Eastern practices.

Finally, and obviously, one should ascribe great import to the words and opinions of the Arabs. If they perceived a deficiency in their music and felt that it could be rectified by the introduction of the piano, why would one deprive them of that opportunity? Many of the Western ethnomusicologists assumed a paternal role—a role reinforced by some Eastern ethnomusicologists’ professions of the inferiority of their own instruments and music—and, showing little regard for the Arab perception of Arab music, presumed that “father knows best.”

But amidst all the discussion of the contrast between Eastern and Western music, between Eastern and Western instruments, many of those at the conference forgot—or simply failed to acknowledge—that a piano, like a hammer or a paintbrush, is just a tool. Thus while many viewed the Eastern incorporation of the piano as the Eastern incorporation of the Western musical tradition, they should have recognized it as merely the incorporation of a new vehicle through which the Arabs might attain a superior clarity of musical expression.

--Mark Thorn

Works Cited

Racy, Ali Jihad. “Historical Worldviews of Early Ethnomusicologists: An East-West Encounter in Cairo, 1932.” Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History. Ed. Stephen Blum. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991. 68-91.


[1] As the piano is a Western instrument, all arguments pertaining generally to Western instruments apply also to the “piano controversy,” which is a mere subset of the broader debate.
[2] Racy 85.
[3] Ali Jihad Racy, “Historical Worldviews of Early Ethnomusicologists: An East-West Encounter in Cairo, 1932”. Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, ed. Stephen Blum (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 79.
[4] Racy 76.
[5] Racy 78.
[6] Racy 80.
[7] Racy 79.