Whatever Happened to Play?

When browsing Bill Simmons’ new long-form sports site, Grantland, I found myself wondering two things. First, what is a “Grantland”? And second, didn’t the New York Times try this once?

Although it only lasted two years, the TimesPlay magazine was an early attempt at a print version of Grantland. It combined long-form sports stories with fun graphics about everything from stretching properly to Super Bowl betting.

The Times launched Play in 2006 as part of a scheme to publish several high-end magazines that would attract luxury products (the others were Key, a real estate magazine, and T Styles, a fashion magazine). The idea for Play was cooked up by Times editor Gerald Marzorati after he decided that ESPN: The Magazine and Sports Illustrated were directed towards teenagers and saw an opening for mature sports writing.

Marzorati recruited writers like Michael Lewis and David Foster Wallace to give Play a higher pedigree and allowed writers to pontificate on everything from Pete Carroll to offshore sailing. Play housed Foster Wallace’s must-read essay on Roger Federer (apparently the opportunity to write it was what drew him to the magazine) and even got the scoop on the creation of the UFL, an NFL knockoff that is still around today.

The magazine even took time to look at sports on the fringe, profiling juggler Vova Galchenko and his training regime that usually ended with him throwing clubs at a wall, or the America's Cup yacht race. Columnist Bryan Curtis even got in a profile of an 85-year-old softball player in New Mexico.

The magazine was especially noted for its graphics. Check out this graph of Super Bowl teams and how they performed against the spread (reprinted on 13pt.com) or this analysis of how Tiger Woods wins a major (this was back when Tiger Woods actually won majors).

Despite widespread praise and a nomination for an American Society of Magazine Editors award, Play folded just two years later. Editorial director Marzorati later told the New York Observer that the Times killed the magazine because it was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. In announcing that the magazine was closing, the Times said publicly that it had “more or less broken even,” although they attributed most of that success to an Olympics issue that sold out its all of its ad space.

“When it started, it was a quarterly and we wanted to get it to a monthly, but each year we kept saying ‘This isn’t the year. This isn’t the year,’” Marzorati said. “And the economy kept going in the wrong direction.’ We couldn’t see how we could possibly expand it.”

Lucky for us, the Times has the entirety of the Play archives on their website.

Oh, and as for my first question, it's a reference to sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was so prolific that he also had a college football bowl game named after him. Have any of you checked out Grantland.com yet? What do you think?

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On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alamy

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose," a writer for The Evening Sun in Baltimore put it in 1944. "People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities."

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.

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This Water Bottle Doubles as a Foam Roller
Mobot
Mobot

It hydrates and it massages. The MOBOT bottle, as spotted by Outside magazine, is being billed as “the world’s first and only foam roller water bottle,” and many outdoor and adventure enthusiasts swear by it.

The stainless steel bottle is wrapped in non-toxic EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam, which can be rolled along your calves, hamstrings, glutes, or arms to soothe sore muscles and relieve joint paint. It was designed with athletes in mind, but we could see it being used by stressed-out office workers with stiff muscles who could benefit from a little self-care. Plus, the lightweight bottle is great for keeping your beverage cold all day, whether you’re at work, at an amusement park, or at the beach. A top loop allows it to be hooked onto a backpack or beach bag.

The bottle is available in three sizes: the 40-ounce “Big Bertha,” the 18-ounce “Firecracker,” and the 27-ounce “Grace.” There’s a range of colors and patterns to choose from, including neon-colored camouflage for those moments when you can’t decide whether you want to stand out or blend in.

You can order it on Amazon, but some styles have already sold out. Check out MOBOT's video below to see different ways of using the bottle.

[h/t Outside]

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