With the FIFA World Cup in Brazil wrapping up this weekend much has have been written and said about the state of the game, not worldwide, where it remains the most popular game, but here in North America. While soccer, as we call it, still lags in terms of television viewership other than during the World Cup once every four years, it can’t be denied that the game has grown exponentially when participation is the indicator. An example of this increase in soccer play is evident on my very street.
Growing up in the sixties and right through the eighties, the field across from my home had two softball diamonds, a third had been removed by the time my memory kicks in. I still live on the same street, albeit no longer facing the field, but the softball diamonds are long gone, replaced by several soccer fields (football pitches if you prefer). At one time the suggestion that soccer would usurp softball as the sport of choice for boys and girls during the summer would have been met with derisive chuckles. Yet there it is.
These diamonds were of softball dimensions, maintained throughout the summer by student employees of the city’s parks department. In the spring the recreation department organized three or four children’s leagues for kids up to about twelve . Games were played every day after school until the end of June when participants scattered to camps and vacations. But right through the summer to about mid-August, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, both diamonds were used by the Senior Fast-Pitch League.
The history of this league goes way back to before the Second World War, however my recollection is of a more recent time. Teams made up of local residents and employees (with perhaps the occasional ringer to flesh out the line-up during vacation season when even avid players were likely to take a few days off), played fast-pitch softball, a game that seems to have become extinct in this part of the world.
Both the city police and fire departments entered teams, later amalgamating into one team due to the fire department having to leave many games in progress to answer a call. A fire truck would be parked on the street by the diamonds during games with a driver present. Should a call come in, he would sound the siren, and the players would abandon the game to answer the call, leaving their opponents to play Scrub. (Look it up!)
But the competition was only one aspect of the league. More importantly the games were meeting points for many people. Young families and senior citizens alike would gather at the diamonds to watch the game and catch-up on local news. Warm summer evenings were ideal for socializing for an hour or two while the game was being played. With the sometimes intense heat and humidity of the day reduced by late afternoon, many seniors would convene at the park to watch the game and meet friends.
In my neighbourhood the signs of soccer’s growth are evident in the replacement of softball diamonds with soccer fields, but around here that participation hasn’t yet involved adult players to any great degree. That may change in a few years as the “soccer” generation matures. I certainly hope the social aspect of the once popular softball league, that has fallen victim to the transition, will be recreated around a soccer pitch.