As a newspaper writer, I've covered sports from coast to coast, but after a fourth martini, when I start reminiscing, it is an early-day marbles tournament that still grabs me the tightest.
It goes back to the late 1930s, when I was breaking in as a reporter for the Decatur, Ill. Herald-Review. I covered about everything nobody else wanted, including the playgrounds and parks. Shortly I was to learn that they were to be my most important beat. It was the beat that introduced me to an incredible little marbles champion.
I knew that the aging H. C. Schaub, president of the newspaper, was also chairman of the park board. But I didn't realize he cared so much for minor sports, particularly marbles.
One afternoon H. C. summoned me into his office. He was a short, kindly man, but now there were clouds of concern on his face. "Jim," he said, "I see the scores of playground games in the bulletin board in the parks. Why don't we have them in the papers?"
"I've brought the scores in," I said, "but no one wanted them."
Schaub rushed into the newsroom with me following meekly in his wake.
"Why haven't we been printing the playground scores?" demanded Schaub of the city editor.
"No room," said the city editor.
"Well make room," said Schaub. And that was the start of the marbles boom. Soon our papers were holding a marbles tournament—and you know who was covering it. Schaub had announced that the winner would be sent to Atlantic City for the nationals.
This brought me into contact with a park rat I had already known slightly. Let's just call him Lefty French. A slim, freckled kid, he always carried a scout knife for playing mumblety-peg, for cutting kindling and for opening pop bottles. He was even more versatile than the knife. Lefty, an anemic-looking 11-year-old, was a whiz at any game he tried.