Watch for frequent updates!

Yale 62

Pre-Yale Sports Experiences
Sports Memories of the ’40s and ’50s

 Boys playing marbles in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1947

Boys playing marbles in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1947. Ed Westcott/United States DOE

By Lee V. Bakunin

As a kid of the 1940s, sports were ingrained in my psyche.

I looked up to local high school, college, semi-pro and pro star athletes who were more skilled and coordinated than we young’uns. A natural segue from playing marbles, bouncing a ball, playing pick-up sticks, flipping sports cards, skipping rope and learning yo-yo tricks from the Duncan Yo-Yo Schoolyard Rep, I soon grew to follow football, baseball and basketball.

Mom’s family grew up in Brooklyn, so we were Dodgers Fans and followed every player on the team, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and others.

My father was a Yale grad (’28S), so I knew all about Dink Stover, Frank Merriwell and Levi Jackson, the first black to captain the Yale Football team in 1948. Dad took me to my first football game at the Yale Bowl on October 25, 1947, when Yale beat Springfield, 49-0. I still have the Yale pennant he bought me for 25 cents.

After that, I followed Yale’s athletic teams by reading the local newspaper and the New York Times sports section. I kept statistics on their wins and losses as compared to other universities. Yale somehow would always come out on top, with a little creative help from me. If they flubbed in basketball or baseball, I’d look at squash and polo, sports at which Yale was a dominant player. Notre Dame, Michigan, Army, Stanford and Alabama did not compete in those areas, so the Yale victories would erase a loss. 25 wins and 5 losses beats 10 wins and 3 losses. The takeaway from this exercise is that statistics are not always the true indicator of a winner or a trend. It depends on the statistician or company reporting them – plus the criteria.

Two of my heroes were Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers and Levi Jackson, star halfback and Yale Football Captain 1948, and I had trading cards from both. (Note that my role models were multi-talented athletes, super competitive and financial successes in business and industry.)

My Dad loved sports; however, he was more sandlot and recreational, having learned to swim across a lake as a child to pick potatoes and produce; briefly played football in high school; lacrosse at Yale, pick-up softball; bowling with his mates; and later in life, golfing. He never won a trophy or a letter, but he became an incredible OBY-GYN, broke some barriers in the military, became a department head at Bridgeport Hospital and later worked in Uniroyal’s Medical Department.

Little league baseball, pee-wee football and biddy basketball didn’t begin until the early ’50s. My outlets were sandlot, radio broadcasts, newspaper sports section, sports cards and library books, with a ping-pong table and a basketball hoop at home. Also my cousin Nate, who played basketball for our local Jewish Community Center Team and then Ithaca College. He said my set shot was like All American-star athlete Wah Wah Jones of Kentucky.

Sandlot days of fun and enjoyment for us 8-14 year olds, where a game was just a game and the simple thrill of just playing was its own reward. We played softball, touch football, ping-pong, basketball and tennis, where you can make up your own rules, like playing “one-a-cat” in softball on our lawn.

One base, pitcher and batter, maybe an outfielder or catcher if we had 3-4 people. Put a screen in front of our sun parlor (which was center field) and we had a rule about the huge oak tree to the slight right of the base. If the ball hit the tree, you were out and if you broke a window in the sun parlor on a deep drive, the game was over and the batter paid for the replacement.

I can’t remember the scores or whether my team won, but I do remember just having fun in the competition, then going out with our opponents to have lemonade, ice cream sundaes or hot dogs with the works at the local greasy spoon.

Some of our teammates or competitors became high school varsity or college starting football, basketball, baseball or tennis players. Sam Heyman would go on to become captain of Yale’s tennis team and later, a successful millionaire entrepreneur. Another opponent (two years older than myself) was in a camp basketball tournament, and we younger guys almost defeated his team. That opponent was Izzy Stein, who went on to become a Rabbi and one of my best friends.

Ticket to the NBA finals court side? Nah, I’ll pass – I’d rather treasure those sandlot memories and watch my grandkids play ball.

We welcome your comments below.

2 comments to My Sports Experiences of the ’40s and ’50s

  • Jay Hatch

    Thanks for the memories! As a child raised mostly in rural areas with no near neighbors, my knowledge/involvement in sports (other than swimming, riding a bicycle and some tennis with my mom or brother) was nil. In 5th grade we moved to an urban area, Norfolk, Va., and I discovered what an outlier I was sports-wise as I hadn’t played basketball, baseball, volleyball or shot marbles. My classmates supported the Yankees or Pittsburgh Pirates; I chose Yankees, the team my closest friends supported. I learned yo-yoing and discovered kickball, which led to an interest in soccer but no opportunity to play until I was off to boarding school. There I picked up crew, soccer, squash, ice hockey (goalie as everyone else seemed to have played before, but not in that position), and a love of cross-country running. At Yale I was 3rd or 4th string goalie on the Freshman hockey team, and rowed and played soccer and hockey for Calhoun. I was amazed that I was asked, as College Aide, to be responsible for sports. So no sandlot memories for me, and really no professional sports interest now except tennis and keeping an eye on the Olympics; and pickleball has replaced tennis and squash and joined gardening as my exercise outlets.

  • Bill Weber

    Wrestling became an important part of my life at Yale. I was able to earn a Major Y sweater by winning the match at 165 pounds vs. Harvard. One year a bunch of us went to the Wilkes College open tournament, including me, Hardy Will, Bing Sherril and Andy Fitch. I believe Andy won at 123 pounds and luckily, I lost a preliminary match that, had I won, would have put me against Doug Blubaugh, a world champ and known to be brutal!