Archive for June, 2011

Applauding Two Pioneers of Sport

June 29, 2011

The Boston Sports Museum inducted Willie O’Ree and Bobbi Gibb to its pantheon of lifetime achievers at the tenth “Tradition” on June 28, 2011.  Their inclusion was especially fitting and gratifying.  The evening’s other honorees are much better known around Boston – Larry Bird, Mike Lowell, Micky Ward, and Ty Law.  “Sports heroes” all they are, and we needn’t go into their stories here.

Willie and Bobbi were not quite as accomplished as those four, and certainly not as heralded, in their respective fields. But they deserve much more than a polite smattering of applause; those who take pride in being members of the sporting community in Boston should know their stories.

Willie O'Ree

O’Ree, from New Brunswick, Canada, was brought up by the Bruins during the late 1950s. He played a total of 47 games – most of which came in 1961 – in the “Original Six” National Hockey League. He broke the “color line” in the league, and in so doing endured racist taunts and slurs in much the same way that Jackie Robinson did in baseball.  In articles that you can find on the web about Willie, he mentions the steadfast support of Milt Schmidt, the Bruins’ coach at the time, and general manager Lynn Patrick. His team mates were always ready to rally round him as well – something that we’d just expect from hockey players.

Two more things on Willie. He wasn’t quite good enough, apparently, to stick in the big league permanently. The Bruins brought him up from the Quebec Aces of the American Hockey League. Most of his lengthy pro hockey career was played in Los Angeles and San Diego, out in the Western League. The high minors of those days were easily the caliber of today’s National Hockey League. If O’Ree was good enough to almost make it back then, one can only imagine how much of a star he’d be nowadays. The six-team NHL was probably the toughest society of all to crack as a full-time player, and O’Ree came very close to doing so.

Most remarkable, though, was his physical handicap. Two years before the Bruins brought him up, O’Ree was blinded in one eye by an errant puck. He never told anybody, and no one ever asked. Can you imagine playing hockey at any level, let alone in the National Hockey League, without sight in one eye? Simply amazing.

Bobbi Gibb

Bobbi Gibb was a child of the Sixties, and she still looks the part with wildly unruly locks that are right out of Haight-Ashbury.  I’d never heard her story, even though I’ve been fairly close to the BAA and the Marathon over the years. Early in her life, she discovered the joy of running. It was not the thing for girls to do, back then, so she tried to be as unobtrusive as possible about it as she trained herself to go longer and longer distances.  Women’s running, and girls’ athletics more generally, were on the outer fringes of society’s comfort zone.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, who introduced Gibb at The Tradition, tells a similar tale of her days as a young runner in Maine. When out for her roadwork, she’d pretend to be picking flowers or looking for recyclable bottles if strangers happened by. Gibb was told that the marathons didn’t allow women because running such long distances would be hazardous to their health.

Gibb was undaunted. She decided to run in Boston anyway, and rode the bus across country from San Diego in a four-day stretch to do it. She made her way to Hopkinton, wore a hooded sweatshirt, and hid in some bushes near the start line. Once she got into the race and the guys around her realized that she was a woman, she received a warm welcome. She was soon able to doff the sweatshirt and run along with them all the way to the finish. She had no official number, of course, but finished in a little over three hours and was in the upper one-third of the field.

It took a few years for the BAA to recognize Gibb and retroactively acknowledge her achievement. The better-known joust between Jock Semple and Katherine Switzer was yet to come. But Bobbi Gibb deserves the credit for being the Boston Marathon’s first woman finisher.

I don’t know about you, but these are the sporting stories that I like best. Sure, I applaud the singular achievements of Bird, Lowell, Ward, and Law. They all gave us championships. But O’Ree and Gibb gave us something more. They showed us what courage and determination, those over-used but right-on words, truly mean. Gibb and O’Ree didn’t get appropriate recognition at the time – no pioneer does. But it’s never too late, and the Sports Museum did itself proud last night in honoring them

The Summer Solstice

June 21, 2011

June 21, 2011: Today’s Fun Facts:

“Solstice” means “Sun Stands Still.” This year the summer solstice officially begins at 1:16 p.m. EDT

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” was all about events in and around the summer solstice.

Hippolyta remarks:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.”


And  Theseus, soon to wed her, directs his servant Philostrate:

“Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;

Turn melancholy forth to funerals;

The pale companion is not for our pomp.”


The ancients called the Midsummer moon the “Honey Moon” for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice. Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth“, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June.

They also celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, when couples would leap through the flames, believing their crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. The bonfires were also thought to protect against evil spirits, which were thought to roam freely when the sun turned southward again.

To thwart the evil spirits, pagans often wore protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of them was a plant called ‘chase-devil’, which is known today as St. John’s Wort and still used by modern herbalists as a mood stabilizer.  Some people believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.

Religious party-poopers couldn’t stay away, though. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (you remember the hospital named after him in St. Elsewhere) warned recently-converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations.  He said,  “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”

As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The Gospel of Luke said that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, and because Jesus was born right after the winter solstice, Saint John had to have been born right after the summer solstice. Saint John’s Day is June 24.

Many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. A hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.

So, as the Jamies sang, in the song written by long-time Red Sox public address announcer Sherm Feller,

“It’s Summertime Summertime Sum-Sum-Summertime!”

Happy summer!

The Ghosts of Causeway Street

June 15, 2011

Boston’s got the ghosts. Vancouver doesn’t. That’s why the Boston Bruins are the Stanley Cup champions.

The Canucks, excellent hockey team that they are, still have no ghosts of their own. They can’t look back onto chapters and chapters of stories past.  They can’t call on their memories, both sweet and bitter, to sustain and inspire them. Boston can, Boston does, and Boston did.

Many Boston titans of former ages, thankfully, are still with us in the flesh as well as in spirit. Franchise patriarch Milton Conrad Schmidt is here. Milt played on two Stanley Cup winners before World War II, went off to war with the Royal Canadian Air Force, came back, and played in two more Cup Final series. He coached the Bruins to the finals twice. His eye for talent and his mastery of the trade routes, in the years when he was general manager, built the last two Bruins Stanley Cup champion teams.

Vancouver will get its Stanley Cup eventually. But as long as they play hockey out there, they’ll never have a Milt Schmidt. Nor will they ever see the likes of Bobby Orr, the game’s finest player ever.  Orr is here, along with most of the members of his rollicking retinue from the last golden era. They were watching tonight. You know their names: Esposito, Cheevers, Stanfield, Hodge, Bucyk, Sanderson, Cashman and compatriots. Joining them were so many others – O’Reilly, Bourque, Middleton, Neely and their mates – who battled valiantly in more recent years, carried the tradition with pride, but did not bring home the ultimate prize.

Higher up in the Virtual Boston Garden this evening, in the Second Balcony that we used to call the heavens, it was Standing Room Only. Eddie Shore, Frank Brimsek, Cooney Weiland, Art Ross, Bobby Bauer, Woody Dumart, Lionel Hitchman, Dit Clapper, Tiny Thompson and Dutch Gainor all cheered lustily. They’ve already reserved a place of honor in their club for Thomas and Chara – and let us hope that it will be many decades before those two show up to claim their seats.

Over on the Vancouver side of the house, it was empty. A couple of series ago, that part of the Virtual Garden was well populated when Rocket Richard, Toe Blake, Doug Harvey, Howie Morenz, Aurel Joliat, George Hainsworth, Jacques Plante, Georges Vezina and Bernie Geoffrion all showed up to yell for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. On the lower levels, during that series, we saw a crew that included Cournoyer, Lemaire, Dryden, Lafleur, Laperriere and Gainey.  They matched Orr and his gang cheer for cheer, and this time they’re the ones who went home disappointed.

That’s the only thing missing from this wonderful Stanley Cup Final series. The ghosts of ancient rivalry. We cherish no memories of Boston against Vancouver in decades past. When we speak of Montreal and others, we bring back fond reveries, the tales of triumphs and tragedies that we tell and re-tell and have woven into the sporting soul of this great city. But these seven games, marvelous though they were, are like a summer fling, an intense and beautiful encounter that we know, deep down, will probably not ever be repeated.

The way that hockey has expanded and reorganized, it’s almost impossible to establish another traditional rivalry that’s appropriately rich and textured. Vancouver was capable of winning. But they didn’t, and I can’t help but wonder whether the Ghosts of Causeway Street gave the Boston Bruins an advantage that just couldn’t be overcome . We may never see the Vancouver Canucks again, in the context of a Stanley Cup Final series. No matter. Clap and cheer, my Boston friends, and know that you’ve got hundreds and hundreds more good and loyal Bruins hockey immortals clapping and cheering right along with you.

A Hockey Pioneer Shows Bruins Spirit

June 13, 2011

Today, as we prepare for Game Six of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, “The Starter” statue of my grandfather George V. Brown sports a Bruins’ sweater as he watches over the Boston Marathon starting line.

George V. is perhaps best know for his long affiliation with the sport of track and with the BAA Marathon, but he was a pioneer in ice hockey as well. BAA players made up most of the first teams that he organized to represent America in international play. George also managed the Boston Arena and Boston Garden in the days Eddie Shore, “The Edmonton Express,” was making mincemeat out of opposing forwards. Here is the story in the Hopkinton Crier.



Stanley Cup Finals

June 12, 2011

As I write this, the series stands at 3-2 in favor of Vancouver.  Sure, I’m rooting for Boston. They may yet win it.  Vancouver is a better team, but not by that much. But even if the Bruins don’t pull it out, I’m proud of them. I hope you are too. This memorable series shows why hockey players – fearless, selfless – are the Navy Seals of the sporting world.  In hockey, it’s all about the team and the mission.

I was there for the final years of the Original Six, those seasons when the Bruins and Rangers always finished out of the playoffs. I was there when Milt Schmidt’s Grand Theft Trade brought Esposito, Hodge, and Stanfield to Boston – and when Milt added Eddie Shack to the rollicking supporting cast for Bobby Orr, hockey’s greatest player ever. I was in the old Boston Garden when Orr scored his iconic overtime goal against the great Glenn Hall in 1970, suffered through the Dryden debacle in 1971, and cheered the return of the Cup in 1972. It seemed like the good times would never end. But end they did.

Good times have returned.  But take it from me. They may not stay. Enjoy and appreciate while you can.