Vintage Y.M.C.A.—Postcards and Memories

YMCA Magazine

Regardless of whether it was necessarily “fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.,” for many folks it was necessary—especially during peak years of influence, such as the Depression-wracked 1930s. Despite the Y.M.C.A.’s widespread influence and notability as a community institution advocating good health and exercise, misconceptions about its name or even its mission are nevertheless plausible. Recently, I myself needed to revise at least a couple of false assumptions regarding some basics about this historic organization.*

Oddly enough, much of my misinformation about the Y.M.C.A. stems from and relates directly to its very name and branding. My own limited though still formative time spent participating in youth sports at a local Y likewise has bearing. But for years now, perhaps decades, I largely assumed that the acronym stood for Young Men’s Community Athletics, which of course is incorrect on multiple counts.

First, to explain the mistaken “Athletics”: like many other children raised in more urban areas (in my case, in Maryland), my first-hand experience with the Y.M.C.A. dealt primarily with its athletic facilities. To a scrawny seven-year-old, the massive complex and expansive playing fields were indeed impressive in their seemingly sprawling nature.

In fact, the Y.M.C.A. was where I first learned some disappointing yet important lessons about team sports. Mainly, I disliked them immensely, as a participant at least. (I would later prefer the more individualistic sports, such as boxing or tennis, though I was by no means brave enough for the former.) Specifically, I found that the defensive positions on the soccer field generally were fairly tedious postings best suited for watching the grass grow around my cleats—until opponents suddenly raced by to score on the goalie whom I repeatedly let down.

Nonetheless, I learned another active and more useful skill (an actual, life-preserving one) when I also received swimming lessons at the Y.M.C.A. Yes, I’ll forever remember that Olympic-size pool and one such early yet pivotal lesson: the very first time when some instructor encouraged me with patient optimism as I prepared to slip under water with my eyes shut tight, that literal blind faith in the coach as I held my breath and went below the surface. It was a small but significant step, and swimming would turn out to be a key bonding activity for my family. So the membership and whatever fees or donations were not an entire loss. In sum, with these types of activities as the full extent of my experiences at the Y.M.C.A., it’s understandable how I might assume that the last letter stood for Athletics rather than Association.

Next, and the even more surprising point of confusion: I only just discovered that the “C” represents Christian, not Community. This felt like an additionally striking revelation—in that I recall nothing other than a secular though of course supportive quality about my time and experiences at the local Y.M.C.A.

Moreover, not unlike these vintage promotional postcards from the East Coast, any emphasis on the literal “Christian” with my local Y.M.C.A. was in all probability scarce or at least less than prominent. (The organization’s full name and thus the word Christian are likewise wholly absent from the front cover of the widely circulated Y.M.C.A. magazine publication.) The purposes of this I can only assume pertain to branding—branding with as little alienation and as broad an appeal as possible.

YMCA postcard, front

In any case, these particular vintage postcards interest me for a number of reasons. Again, they help clarify some of those long-held basic misconceptions that I had about the Y.M.C.A. And while they’re admittedly not the most visually stunning, the Trenton, New Jersey, Y.M.C.A. postcard front is handsomely colorized, more like an illustration than a photo.

YWCA, front

Meanwhile, for the Y.W.C.A.—after all, these associations existed for women, too—one such postcard opens as an attractive, tri-fold pamphlet with an old map showing a section of downtown Philadelphia. This same Y.W.C.A. building still sits nearby the Schuylkill River’s east bank, not far across the way from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.

YWCA, tri-fold, 1

YWCA, tri-fold, 2

As artifacts, the postcards are additionally informative (and on different anthropological levels). For example, check out those bargain lodging rates for the Philadelphia Y.W.C.A. Even when adjusted for inflation, those prices must be very reasonable still. Then the Trenton Y.M.C.A.: the note on the back of the postcard reveals just one of the many reasons why someone might seek temporary housing at the Y, such as a presumably young man named “Ray” being forced to quickly find shelter on account of another person, whom we’ll only ever know as the formidable “rita” [sic], who once “broke up the house.”

YMCA postcard, back

Lastly, these relics feel personally relevant, too. Recalling the frequent, much-anticipated family jaunts up I-95 North to the City of Brotherly Love—to visit perhaps my closest childhood friends, my cousins—I now wonder how many times I might have been near or even passed by this very site of the Philadelphia flagship Y.W.C.A. building (its origins, circa 1870). At its best, for years it served as a much needed place of learning and as a shelter for women and children. No longer: it closed down years ago, but more recently it has served as a charter school. That’s a far better fate for an aging city building when considering the demise of the Philadelphia Y.W.C.A.’s neighboring annex, which stood abandoned for years before it was demolished to make way for some high rise apartments.

Ultimately, I genuinely hope that both the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. continue to succeed in their respective missions. The goals feel like more than charity for charity’s sake; rather, this brand of altruism wants to provide a means for change, in order that those who receive help may subsequently help themselves and, ideally, others as well. So even if I never developed into much of an athlete, I still maintain fond memories and respect for the always generous public service of my local Y.

YWCA, map

*Remarkably or not, none of these misconceptions had anything to do with the Y.M.C.A.’s reputation of being “associated with homosexual subculture through the middle part of the 20th century,” certainly a status that many listener’s interpret in the popular song by The Village People and later parodied with a memorable dance sequence in Wayne’s World 2.

**Postscript: These YMCA postcards continue to show up in the local thrift shops in my area. For the time being, I’ll add any new picks below here. . . .

YMCA Hotel, Roof Garden--Chicago, Illinois

YMCA Hotel, Cafeteria--Chicago, Illinois

(Poor) Nap: 1913 Napoleon Lajoie Card Game, Red Tint

1913 Napoleon Lajoie Card Game, Red Tint

If you’ve ever seen these rosy hued lovelies floating about the scattered cards and carddust of the universe, then you might wonder why a pre-1920s card of a Hall of Famer from the dead-ball era can easily be found for the paltry ballpark figure of thirteen dollars and fifty cents.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that his name isn’t George Herman Ruth or Ty Cobb—or that a self-titled Hollywood biopic has yet to be filmed. Maybe it’s because of foolishly xenophobic prejudices against anything European and his background as a Frenchy (or at least a French immigrant’s son) who nevertheless excelled in, nay, dominated the “National Pastime.” Perhaps the card value is also diminished by its condition being a little rough around the edges, as well as by the characteristic chicken-scratch handiwork of some surely long-since deceased juvenile delinquent who saw fit to deface the card’s back with uninventive profanities and bawdy stick figure sketches (or maybe that last detail suffers from a bit o’ embellishment). More likely still: maybe the average seller of ungraded cards is restrained from advertising lofty asking prices on these Napoleon Lajoie card issues primarily on account of that age-old law in the land of misfits and cardboard—a fickle dynamic known as supply and demand. In as much, that purveyor of family fun and trusted household name in the realm of board games, Parker Brothers, didn’t manufacture just hundreds of these cards for their popular Napoleon Lajoie Card Game; in fact, as each game came with a set of fifty cards or game pieces with Lajoie’s likeness printed on the front, well, you needn’t even bother with the math. The population count is probably in the thousands. And despite whatever its relegated status as an “oddball” card, suffice to say that’s a lot of Naps flooding the marketplace.

So why do I value this flimsy game piece all the more? Call it nostalgia, nonsense, or simply respect for the past and a player well worth his weight in silver slugged (or perhaps that’s an anachronism, as the Silver Slugger award only began in 1980). In any case, when Lajoie batted a .426 average during the season of 1901, he set a mark that has gone unsurpassed to this day by any subsequent player in major league ball. In that same season when “he abandoned the National League in favor of [the American League], Lajoie almost single-handedly legitimatized the AL’s claim to major league status,” as his SABR biography explains.[1] Lajoie’s career numbers remain equally impressive, too, with 3,252 hits and an average of .339.

However, there’s much more to love about Lajoie than merely what’s in the record books. His power was the stuff of legends, except that these legends are true: in fact, “Lajoie swung so hard and met the ball with such force, that on three separate occasions in 1899 he managed to literally tear the cover off the ball.”

Whether by his own foolhardy stubbornness, bad luck, or a little of both, Lajoie also went through just about everything that a ballplayer can in the bizarre spectrum of possible experiences on and off the field, as his SABR bio again attests:

In 1900 Lajoie lost five weeks after breaking his thumb in a fistfight with teammate Elmer Flick. Two years later, legal squabbles between the American and National Leagues cut into his playing time. . . . [Then] in 1905, Nap’s leg nearly had to be amputated after the blue dye in his socks poisoned a spike wound.

And who doesn’t love a ballplayer with an absolute disdain for authority? Actually, Lajoie’s behavior is probably worthy of some psychological case study. Indeed, considering his antics and “famous run-ins with umpires,” I doubt that a better example of chronic ump rage exists:

In 1904 he was suspended for throwing chewing tobacco into umpire Frank Dwyer’s eye. After one ejection, Lajoie, who stubbornly refused to leave the bench, had to be escorted from the park by police. And in 1903, Nap became so infuriated by an umpire’s decision to use a blackened ball that he picked up the sphere and threw it over the grandstand, resulting in a forfeit.

Perhaps befitting his uneven temperament, did I mention that Nap’s card also comes in assorted hues of cool blue and angry red?

[1] And while some may argue that Lajoie’s incredible success had much to do with an uncompetitive American League, it seems prudent to note that the AL did have some other strong talent, including an utterly exemplary pitcher by the name of Young, first name Cy, who also threw one of the best seasons of his career that same year.

More player info: Napoleon Lajoie at SABR’s Bio Project. Batting records at Baseball-Reference: Single-Season Batting Average and 1901 American League Batting Leaders. Card info at PSA Card Facts.

(Poor) Bob Darnell, 1955 Bowman

1955 Bowman, Bob Darnell

I amuse myself in imagining how on one early crisped, freshly mown morn during the spring training session of 1955 some nameless Bowman photographer likely set up his tripod and checked his Logaphot light “extinction” meter—unawares he was about to lose his job later that year in what would be a monopolistic harbinger in the acquisition of Bowman by the notorious Topps company. But before that happened, this Kodak-wielding idealist spectacularly captured the magical moment wherein Bob Darnell defied the laws of physics and threw his fastball so fast that it subsequently vanished in flames and traveled the way of a nuclear-powered, time-bending DeLorean. And now—nearly sixty years later—it just crashed straight through the television screen!

That’s not all: Bob’s career stats also boast a lossless pitching record during his time in the majors. On the other hand, Darnell’s time in the show was so brief that he never won a game either. Yes, that’s right: poor Bob held an 0-0 record during his two-year stint with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team who subsequently up and left town for sunny California by 1958.

Darnell’s minor league numbers tell a slightly different story. After playing roughly nine years and almost exclusively in AAA, kicking around from St. Paul to L.A. to Montreal and elsewhere, he amassed 778 strikeouts. Sure, his career ERA of 4.06 wasn’t exactly exemplary, but to have experienced that rush of fanning so many batters must count for something, right?

In any case, with the 1956 season—his second and last time called up from the minors to play for Brooklyn—Darnell only pitched one major league game (indeed, only “1.1” innings), during which he failed to strike out any batters and then allowed a hit.

But he tried, didn’t he? Goddamn it! At least he did that.

♦ ♦ ♦

Bob Darnell major league and minor league info and stats found at Baseball-reference.com.

Image courtesy of COMC.com.