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Thursday, March 31, 2011 10:48 am

Big deals about little games

Looking back on high school sports rivalries

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Finally. The Springfield High girls beat Glenwood at soccer the other night, after nearly a decade during which Chatham girls played Mike Madigan to the conference’s legislative rank and file. The win was especially good news to your favorite columnist, who is a proud uncle of the goal-scorer and a nearly proud alum of SHS.

These days, games against Chatham Glenwood matter to the Springfield schools, but 45 years ago Chatham was just a country town, and Springfield’s big rival in all things athletic was Griffin. For instance, the two teams opened just about every football season against each other for 24 years beginning in 1958. In pre-playoff days, regular season games meant something, and this one usually decided who won the city title.

I loved sports, but I was anything but a rah-rah kind of guy. As a boy I went to the city basketball tournaments at the Armory to see good basketball, or, more accurately, to watch good basketball at the Armory. Which school colors the players wore meant little; I usually rooted for which team had the cutest cheerleaders. This was in spite of the fact that I was an East Side kid whose allegiance should have been to Feitshans.

Such ecumenism was out of place, as I learned when I arrived at SHS in 1963. There I began my tuition in fabricated animosities of the varsity sort that prepare us for our lives as the ultimate proprietors of pointless wars against people marching under different colors. In 1965, the service club I belonged to built a float for that year’s homecoming parade. The opponent was the Lanphier Lions, and we chose the rallying cry “Cage the Pussycats.” (Pity the club had no member with more of a flair for words.) The contraption bore a bird cage containing a live cat over which loomed a lion tamer equipped with nursery school chair, a whip and a pith helmet.

Ours was voted the best float, thus earning us the honor of riding in the first car (a convertible) in the parade from the school to Memorial Stadium for the afternoon game. It was probably the most fun I had doing something legal in a car during my teens. We won the game too, 25-0.

Ah, but games against the world’s Lanphiers did not get loyal Senators’ blood racing between math class and gym. That required games against Griffin. To me the excitement about these Big Games was a mystery. SHS in those days was on a poor run of form, and the occasion meant only that SHS would lose a game that night. We lost 13-7 that year, for example, and every one of those 13 points was stab in the heart of faithful Solons of every generation.

Or so I read the next day in the paper. I didn’t go to the game.

Some years later I wrote a feature article for this paper about the SHS-GHS football rivalry. (“The Big Game,’ Sept. 16-22, 1977.) The people I interviewed (most of them former players) explained that it was a big game because people wanted so badly to win it – which they did because it was a Big Game. The fact is that sports was and is merely a surrogate for the expression of other kinds of antagonisms, which in the case of these two schools were mostly about social class.

Today Glenwood is the area’s big rich white school but 45 years ago it was Springfield High. SHS was not where the richest families in town sent their kids – they went to boarding school, mainly in the East, where they learned that the Big Game was played on Wall Street – but the school’s boundaries then took in virtually every affluent neighborhood. A lot of the Griffin families in contrast had working class roots; many were recent immigrants who had found the doors to many a bank, many a parlor, and many a bedroom closed to them by Springfield’s WASP establishment.

Such differences had predictable effects on the personality of the two schools. The social events of the year at SHS were invitational dances; at GHS it was a mostaccioli dinner. Nothing must have thrilled the Griffin guys more than to strike a blow against what was seen as hereditary privilege.

I realize now that if we could not outmuscle the GHS teams of that era, we should have tried to out-clever them. Griffin had just built a new building in 1959. In the perfect senior year that exists forever in my mind, we Senators gathered on the bleachers for the Big Game and serenaded the Cyclones with a cheer:

We’re SHS!
We’re nobody’s fool
Our dads loaned your dads
The cash for your school

Too bad they didn’t give out trophies for that sort of thing. If they did, we would have been city champs every year.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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