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Pine Nuts: Four months without sports

McAvoy Layne

Well, here we are, alive and mostly well, after almost a third of a year without sports. I didn’t think it was possible.

Thank goodness I’ve had Mark Twain to keep me in a state of moderate good cheer. You might be wondering what sports Mark Twain got to watch in his day. Well, he attended an exhibition boxing match at Madison Square Garden featuring the newly crowned champion, “Gentleman Jim Corbett.” And subsequently wrote his wife, Olivia, about that pugilist, “Corbett is modest and diffident, besides being the most perfectly and beautifully constructed human animal in the world.”

Twain visited Corbett in his dressing room following the match…

“I said to him: ‘You have whipped Mitchaell, and maybe you will whip Peter ‘Black Prince’ Jackson in June, but you are not done then, no, you will have to tackle me.’”

Corbett would go on to make Nevada a state of attractions with his heavyweight championship fight against Fightin’ Bobby Fitzsimons in 1897. When the folks in Carson City added up all the money that was left behind after that fight, they had to ask themselves, “If 4,000 people will cross the High Sierra to see one fight, how many more will come to spin the French Wheel, get married, get divorced, visit a brothel?”

Yes, Nevada’s romance with attractions began with the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, and everything we see around us today, from casinos in Northern Nevada to volcanoes erupting in Las Vegas are a result of that fight.

So what other sports besides boxing did Mark Twain find to be entertaining? He said this about steamboat racing: “Imagine with me if you will: Two red hot steamboats racing along neck-and-neck, straining every rivet in the boilers — spouting white steam from the pipes, pouring black smoke from the chimneys, raining down sparks, parting the river into long breaks of hissing foam — this is sport that will cause a body’s very liver curl with enjoyment.”

And he did actually participate in one sport, in Hawaii, surfing …

“I tried surf-bathing myself. I got the board placed just right for a particularly prodigious wave to come along, and at the right moment too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck shore in three quarters of a minute, without any cargo, and I struck bottom about the same time with a couple barrels of water in me.”

And he adored billiards …

I emptied the balls onto the table and said, “Take a cue and a ball George, and begin.

“He laughed the laugh of the gay and the carefree, as became his youth and inexperience. Confidence is a necessary thing in billiards, but overconfidence is bad. George went at his task with much too much lithesomeness of spirit and disrespect for the situation.

“After a bad miss he became irritated with himself, and he thought he caught me laughing, and this increased his irritation. I suggested that a bet might tauten his nerves — a cigar if he were willing. Well this set him afire all over, and he said, “Make it a hundred!’

“He scored another failure and began to undress. I should have provided a clothes rack, but I didn’t. Near misses made him frantic, and I believe I was never so happy in my life.

“At last, when we were notified that a driver was at the door to take him to his train, George owed me 5,000 cigars at 25 cents apiece. I was so sorry I could have hugged him …”

In the end Mark Twain maintained, “There are only two sports, billiards, and steamboat racing.” So I guess, other possibilities aside, I might actually survive a while longer without sports …

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at http://www.ghostoftwain.com.


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