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Why is it Called a "Wild Card" Game?

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Getty Images

Reader Mark S. asks about the etymology of the term "wild card" as it relates to professional sports and the playoffs.

In American professional sports, when a team enters playoff play without having won their division, they earn what is called a "wild card" spot. It's undoubtedly a snappy term, but why did we start saying it for baseball, football, and the like?

In 1970, after the merger that brought the AFL into the fold, the NFL became the first league to have designated wild card playoff spots. MLB didn't open up their playoff format to involve wild card teams until 1995, so the use of the term in baseball stems from football.

In that first post-merger NFL season, the press referred to the playoff teams we'd currently call "wild cards" with clunky monikers like "the second-place team in each conference with the best winning percentage." "Wild card" was already a football term at the time, but it wouldn't be used in the playoff context until the following season.

"Wild card" originally (and somewhat obviously) comes from poker, which, depending who you ask, started featuring wild cards in the late 19th century. In sports, "wild card" entered the lexicon in the 1960s with college football. It was used to describe a type of substitution that was experimented with throughout the '60s. Here's an early example of its use from 1960 when coaches voted on a new rule (that was later tinkered with and refined):

The college football rules-makers today voted coaches unrestricted use of the “wild-card” substitute for 1960…Under the rules in effect last season, substitutes in groups of two to eleven could be sent into a game twice during a quarter while the clock was stopped. A single player, referred to as a “wild card,” could be substituted only during a time-out and provided he had not used up his two charged entires in the quarter…’A wild-card player now can be substituted at any time while the clock is running, as many times as the coach chooses to sent him into the game.’”

Later that decade, the term made its way from the rulebook and into broadcast parlance. Networks referred to late-season college games that weren't originally scheduled to air but were chosen to be televised due to their importance as "wild cards."

"Wild card" first appeared in professional football shortly thereafter in 1970, but not as it's used today. The league used it to describe the Denver Broncos, who were the odd team out after the merger and had to play one more cross-conference game a season because of division re-alignment. In the season after that, broadcasters and the press began referring to "the second-place team in each conference with the best winning percentage" as "wild cards," and the term stuck.

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Shout! Factory
Original GLOW Wrestling Series Hits Twitch
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

When it premiered in June 2017, GLOW was a bit of a sleeper offering for Netflix. With the amount of original programming ordered by the streaming service, a show based on an obscure women’s pro wrestling league from the 1980s seemed destined to get lost in the shuffle.

Instead, the series was a critical and commercial success. Ahead of its second season, which drops on June 29, you'll have a chance to see the mat work of the original women who inspired it.

Shout! Factory has announced they will be live-streaming clips from the first four seasons of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), which first premiered in 1986, beginning at 9 p.m. ET on June 28. The stream, which will be available on shoutfactorytv.com and Twitch, will feature original footage framed by new interviews with personalities including Godiva, host Johnny C, and Hollywood. The show will air live from the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles.

Godiva, who was portrayed by Dawn Maestas, inspired the character Rhonda (a.k.a. Brittanica) on the Netflix series; Hollywood was the alter ego of Jeanne Basone, who inspired the character Cherry in the fictionalized version of the league. Basone later posed for Playboy and takes bookings for one-on-one wrestling matches with fans.

Shout! Factory's site also features a full-length compilation of footage, Brawlin’ Beauties: GLOW, hosted by onetime WWE interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund.

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Alamy
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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