SportsMonday Column: My bubbie and sports
CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Two Michigan shutouts bookended my grandmother’s life. Sylvia Cohen was born on Oct. 13, 1927, two days before Elton Wieman’s Wolverines shut out Wisconsin. She passed away Friday at the age of 87, six days after the Wolverines defeated Brigham Young, 31-0.
She was never the biggest sports fan, a fact she readily admitted. But of all the people in the world, my grandmother (I call her Bubbie) might be the biggest reason I’m in the position to write this column every other week.
Bubbie could tell a story like nobody else. She could wax poetic for hours about being a child during the Great Depression, growing up in Brooklyn or summers in the Catskill Mountains. Sometimes, her stories even involved sports — she spent her entire life surrounded by sports lunatics.
In Brooklyn, everyone was crazy about the Dodgers before they moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Bubbie always told me about how people called them “The Bums” because the players made little money. Times were different back then, she’d say.
Bubbie never attended a game at Ebbets Field, though, until after she met my grandfather. They went on a date to a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, my grandfather’s favorite team. The date worked out well, I guess. They were married for 66 years.
My grandfather is an enormous sports fan, the most knowledgeable one I know. He remembers the first game he ever went to, when the Chicago White Sox defeated the Philadelphia Athletics, 5-3, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia on May 26, 1935. Jimmy Dykes, the White Sox third baseman, hit two home runs that day. My grandfather remembers the details of the game 80 years later.
He has held Eagles and Flyers season tickets for more than 40 years, and he taught his sons — my father and my uncle — to love the same teams he did. That much was evident from their dinner conversations.
Bubbie cooked her family dinner nearly every night when my dad was growing up. She put the food on the table, and the conversation immediately turned to sports.
My dad, my uncle and my grandfather then went on and on about the latest happenings in Philadelphia sports. When they weren’t talking about Philadelphia sports, my uncle jokes, they talked about fellow Jews who played sports. Bubbie sat and listened through it all. Sports, however little she was interested, were a constant in her life.
One week, during what my dad believes was 1978, his cousin came to visit the family. The son of a Holocaust survivor from Germany, he had little interest in sports.
After a week filled with talking about baseball, listening to baseball on the radio and attending baseball games with Bubbie’s family, he was hooked. He spent all of his time in the aftermath of the visit walking around his home with a radio to his ear listening to baseball games.
Bubbie’s sister called her after the visit with one question: “What did you do to my son?”
When it came to the sports talk, my Bubbie always referenced a quote from her own mother, who came to live in the United States from Europe. After spending time with Bubbie’s family, she once said, “I know they’re speaking English, but I have no idea what they’re saying.”
Most of the time, neither did Bubbie. My dad and my grandfather have had a fantasy football team for 26 years, and every year from when I was three years old until I left for Ann Arbor, my Bubbie and I would come to the draft as guests. When I was young, we ate pizza together and talked while my dad and my grandfather made their picks. But as I got older and became more involved in the team, she always smiled and reminded me that she was there, “just in case we needed help.”
Sometimes, shockingly, we took caring about sports too far. Bubbie hosted many family dinners in my lifetime that devolved into shouting matches about the Eagles, Donovan McNabb and whether making it to the NFC Championship Game every year but never winning the goddamn Super Bowl was enough. She never batted an eye. I don’t know how she put up with it all.
Because games were always on in the house, Bubbie did know enough to pick a few favorite players. She loved the scrappy bad boys, the ones who gave it their all on the field but were prone to trouble off of it. She became a fan of Allen Iverson and Pete Rose in particular, two players who, to say the least, were quite interesting. She always said she found them exciting to watch.
It wasn’t until the last few years that Bubbie became a regular viewer of sports. She started to tune into the Phillies, putting down the books she loved to read to watch the games with my grandfather. Chase Utley became her favorite player, to the point that she was adamant the Phillies never should have traded him this summer. No matter how hard I tried to convince her that the Phillies needed to get younger, she would have none of it.
Luckily for me, Bubbie was the only Jewish grandmother in the world who was just as proud of her grandson who wanted to be a sports writer as she would have been had he wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer.
The day before she died, my sister — a freshman at Michigan — and I flew home from Ann Arbor. We went to the hospital to visit Bubbie one last time. In a way, it was a great day, time to spend a few last moments with someone we loved.
We told her about our lives at school and how everything was going. My sister showed Bubbie pictures of her friends hanging out in the Big House, all of them grinning and decked out in Michigan gear from head to toe.
It was the last time I saw Bubbie smile.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.