As an all-round
nonathlete, one of the questions I am frequently asked is: Why are you invited
to take part in so many sporting contests? It is a good question. Tennis
weekends at Southampton, polo matches at Meadowbrook, golf at St.
Andrews—invitations to bucket along on such snazzy athletic jaunts are always
coming my way with no effort on my part.
And these are only
three of perhaps 114 sports at which I display no proficiency whatsoever. Just
the other day, over cold expense-account lobster and baby peas at the Plaza, I
was urged to play on a field hockey team that was meeting the following
Saturday at Greenwich, Conn. As usual, I accepted. I do not, of course, have
the slightest notion of how to play field hockey. I cannot recall that I have
ever seen the game played. Certainly this was no time for me to learn.
In the car going
up, I said casually that I played field hockey the way the British did—I hoped
they didn't mind. This caused appropriate consternation and uneasiness among
the team members. The day was drizzly and damp, which put the weather decidedly
in my favor. When we arrived at Greenwich I made a few rapid-fire calculations.
The field looked soggy, and I said so, but added cheerfully, "Well, who's
afraid of a little mud?"
There were, on the
faces of some members of the team, looks which seemed to reflect grim
resignation. Possibly there were those to whom the prospect of playing in the
rain was less than merry. However, since the only ones who had showed up on our
side were the 11 players, plus one spindly and unusable-looking manager, I knew
that if I used a technique which took me out of the game personally, but left
the team short-handed, I would be marked unmistakably as a rat. So whatever I
did would have to be in the direction of getting the game called off
altogether. In a loud voice I said, "You know, I've played this game so
much lately that frankly I'm a little sick of it. Darn near threw my stick
away. Anybody here get as bored with it as I do?"
and a few minutes later, as we were lacing ourselves into our uniforms and the
rain was coming down with increased velocity, I was wondering desperately if I
would be forced to demolish a shin guard with a spiked shoe. "Say," I
said suddenly, "we can play hockey any time. But look—here we are, with 12
men on our side, and 12 men on their side. How often do you get a perfect setup
like that for six tables of bridge?"
As we sat down at
the table, I said, "Of course, I only play the South African transfer."
Thus I made the Greenwich trip, had a wonderful time, returned to New York with
my friendships unbroken as my shins, and no one guessed that I did not know how
to play field hockey—or bridge.
How do I manage to
get so much fun out of sport with none of the effort it ordinarily requires?
Simple. I have taught myself to talk a good game. Field hockey, I tell
everyone, is a wonderful game. I like it almost as much as Belgian pigeon
flying. I find the trips to far off places that you get when you play field
hockey are every bit as exciting as the annual Toulouse-to- Brussels pigeon
race. Of course, talking a good game has its own variety of thrills, spills and
rewards to the victor. At the last moment, when all else seems to have failed,
and you are about to pile out onto the field and disgrace yourself, great
resourcefulness is needed if you are to extricate yourself from the situation.
To avoid playing field hockey in Greenwich, I used a variety of techniques to
create the illusion of playing without actually doing so. This is not so
difficult as the bruised noninitiate might think.
example, that like many of us (more than will admit it) you are not a skier.
Well, you are still fond of weekends in the country, aren't you? If a friendly
voice booms over long distance, "Come up to Vermont for a little
skiing!" the invitation will be summarily withdrawn if you mutter lamely,
"Yeah, but I can't ski."
What you must do
is go, and create the impression of skiing without actually skiing. Of course,
in talking a good game, some care is necessary. Certainly there is no sorrier
gaffe than a sports gaffe. I am thinking of the North Shore debutante who,
during a discussion of the Patterson-Johansson fight, inquired, "Let's
see—is that Sugar Ray Johansson?" Or the fellow who said, in reference to
Bob Feller's 1940 no-run, no-hit game: "I've never followed football too
closely." My mother put down the newspaper a few afternoons ago and said,
"They're talking about the World Series. I thought they had that last
year." It is hard to say which is the more disgraceful—admitting total
ignorance of a sport, admitting one can't play it, or using incorrect terms
while pretending one can play it. But if you know how to talk a good game you
need face none of these distasteful alternatives. To show how simple it all is,
I have set down a few easily-remembered rules:
I. SHOUT. Nothing
creates a firmer impression of athletic ability and knowledge than a confident,
even strident, tone. Explosiveness throws your questioner off, makes him think
he has accidentally stumbled on the one sport at which you really excel, and
causes him to wonder if you aren't a good deal better at it than he is.