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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XVIII: Sports

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Every week, mental_floss wanders into the archives of The New York Times to find the first time The Times covered a particular subject. This installment is of the greatest hits variety, with a focus on the world of sports. If you have a suggestion for a future edition, leave us a comment.

Lance Armstrong

May 13, 1991

Armstrong May Not Win, But Watch This Space
lance.jpgLance Armstrong is a boy doing a man's job, a 19-year-old American amateur racing against some of the world's best professional bicycle riders. He will not win the 11-day Tour Du Pont, which stopped here today for a circuit race. At the end of the 1,100 miles, however, he may be among the leaders. But he will certainly leave an impression. He has already. He is the star of the United States national amateur team, one of the 15 international teams in this race.

* * *
Many racing people liken Armstrong to Greg LeMond, the American who has won three of the last five Tour de France races. Not Armstrong. "I'm not the next Greg LeMond," he said. "I'm the first me."

Keep reading for Kobe Bryant, Gatorade, George Steinbrenner, Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and more. Plus Twister, which is sort of sporty, I guess.

Gatorade

August 27, 1967

Chocolate-Flavored Soft Drinks And Slush Are Selling Briskly
gatorade_bottle.jpg Perhaps the most unusual soft drink to be announced in some years is a lemon-lime- flavored product called Gatorade, which will be produced by Stokely-Van Camp, Inc., food packer of Indianapolis. The new product, not yet on the market, is a water solution of glucose, inorganic salts and flavorings and was designed to quench thirst, particularly during periods of physical exertion. It has been tested in Florida by the University of Florida athletes to quench their thirst in training periods and during actual competition. It is said by Stokely-Van Camp to be absorbed by the body 12 times faster than water.

Jackie Robinson

October 29, 1939

jrobinson.jpgUCLA Triumphs Over Oregon
Two spectacular plays marked UCLA's 16-6 victory over Oregon before 40,000 in Memorial Coliseum today. The game knocked the Webfoots out of the undefeated group in the Pacific Coast Conference.

A 45-yard forward pass by Kenny Washington to Jackie Robinson, good for 66 yards, brought one touchdown, and Robinson broke the Oregon spirit with an 82-yard spring for the second Bruin tally.

George Steinbrenner

December 13, 1955

steinbrenner.jpgWildcats Dismiss Saban And Staff
The new broom swept clean today at Northwestern as Stu Holcomb, hired as athletic director three days ago, dismissed the head football coach, Lou Saban, and his entire staff
* * * * *
The 34-year-old Saban was let out along with the line coaches, Bud Svendsen and Nathan Johnson; the backfield coach, Al Pesek, and the end coach, George Steinbrenner. All were told their one-year contracts would not be renewed when they expire March 1.

January 4, 1973
(the first mention after buying the New York Yankees)

CBS Sells The Yankees For $10 Million
"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," Steinbrenner said. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."

Nerf

December 13, 1970

nerf.jpegToy Industry is not Child's Play
Topper's Dawn doll was one of the year's best sellers in toys, as were other toys heavily advertised on television like Mattel's Hot Wheels (miniature cars), Parker's Nerf ball (an "indoor" ball), Remco's Dune Buggy Wheelies, Marx's Big Wheel (tricycles) and Kenner's SSP Racers.

Kobe Bryant

February 27, 1996

kobebryant.gifA High School Star Ponders His Future
Much of the anticipation was for a slender, 6-foot-6-inch, 17-year-old senior for Lower Merion, Kobe Bryant. Bryant is the highest scorer in the history of southeastern Pennsylvania preps, recently passing Overbrook's Wilt Chamberlain, among others; a player whose coach said could become the next Michael Jordan, and one who, the school's athletic director said, has attracted as many pro scouts to his games as college scouts.
* * *
Will he become the next Kevin Garnett? Last season Garnett, a 6-11 forward, went directly from Farragut High School in Chicago to the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball Association, one of only a handful of players to make such a leap over the past 20 years"¦.Garnett failed to make the requisite 700 score on the Scholastic Assessment Test and would have been forced to sit out a year if he had decided to go to college. That, he said, was the reason he turned pro. And now, at age 19, and after some uneasy early going, he is averaging 23 minutes a game and appears to be adjusting nicely in the pros.

New York Jets

April 16, 1963

Titans Get A New Coach (Ewbank) And A New Name (Jets)
NYJets.jpgWilbur (Weeb) Ewbank, as expected, was appointed yesterday as coach and general manager of New York's American Football League team for three years. But the name he will be expected to cover with gridiron glory was, unexpectedly, announced as the Jets. It used to be the Titans. The Jets, which rhymes with Mets, was selected from more than 300 possible names submitted by friends, enemies and advertising agencies.
* * * * *
The Jets symbolizes the site of Shea Stadium (where the Jets think they'll play this fall) between two major airports, the spirit of modern times and the speed and eagerness of all concerned. Gothams, Borros and Dodgers were other leading contenders. Dodgers was discarded because the baseball people were not in favor. Borros (a pun on boroughs) was discarded because there was fear the team would be called the jackasses, and Gothams was dismissed because someone said that it would be shortened to Goths "“ "and you know they weren't such nice people."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

June 4, 1971

Biggest Name in NBA: Jabbar
kareemBucks.jpg For Oscar Robertson, it will be a chance to "listen and learn"; for Lew Alcindor, a "return to the fountainhead."

These were the terms in which the two basketball stars today described their upcoming tour of six African countries on behalf of the state department.
* * * * *
Twice during the short news conference Alcindor asked to be called by his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

"I first used the name in 1969," he said, "but now that I am going overseas to represent my country, I would appreciate that courtesy.""¦.Alcindor said he didn't expect the [Milwaukee] Bucks to change his name in their advertising "because I've become famous with it. I do expect people to use my Islamic name when they're talking to me."

Yankee Stadium

December 18, 1921

Yankee Stadium to Seat 80,000 Fans
YankeeStadium.jpgThe structure will represent the most recent "“ in fact, the up-to-the-minute "“ discoveries and developments in stadium construction, with drawbacks noted in other stadia eliminated. Particular attention will be given to looking after the convenience of women patrons and making them as comfortable as possible. The tribe of female fans is expected to increase speedily as soon as the new park is thrown open.
* * * * *
All around the outside of "Yankee Stadium," which is to be the official name of the place, an areaway seven feet in width will be left in order to provide for future development of stores and storage places. This is a novel feature in such plants.

Don Mattingly

September 2, 1980

Yankee Hopefuls Face Crossroad At Greensboro
mattingly1.jpgDon Mattingly, a 19-year-old outfielder from Evansville, Ind., hit in the vicinity of .370. He has a knack for turning fastballs into line drives. Mattingly's fielding has been questionable, but he improved after working with Ken Berry, the two-time Gold Glove winner who is now a Hornet coach.
* * * * *
Kim Mattingly, 17, left high school to marry Don"¦.Being married to a minor league player is lonely, Kim says. There are so many bus trips and so many days with nothing to do. Some of the wives look forward to the games as much as the players do. Kim Mattingly likes to get out and walk around the stadium and talk to fans and the wives and girlfriends of other players. She says she realizes that hers is strictly a supporting role to her husband. "When he's happy, I'm happy," she says. "When he goes 0 for 8, then he gets grumpy and he's grumpy to me too."

Twister

September 13, 1967

twister3.jpgAdvertising: Liquor and Games

"Twister," by Milton Bradley, described as "a rather zany stocking-feet, body-action game for adults," is about to become involved in a nationwide tie-in with Seagram's 7-Crown, and you know what that is.

Into 15,000 liquor stores are going 48,900 pieces of display material that will include a "Quick As A Flash Party Book" and recipes based on the Twister theme.

This is reputed by the first tie-in between game maker and distiller. Next step "“ hotels on Park Place, Boardwalk and Skid Row!

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
iStock

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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