Sports are no game in America.
Sports are a way of life for many people, and that fascination with sports has changed life, popular culture and even language in America, as the Smithsonian Institution entertainingly demonstrates in an exhibit running into early May in Atlantic City.
“Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America” is open five days a week at the new Noyes Arts Garage, in the city’s Ducktown section.
And the national show, which is traveling around New Jersey, comes in a double-header with an exhibit on Atlantic City’s favorite hometown team: The city’s own sports history is interspersed in the form of an exhibit called “Devotion and Determination,” put together by researchers at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.
When a couple of library staff members gave a scheduled tour the other day, a few people came from Little Egg Harbor Township, and one came from down the hall at the Arts Garage — a collection of art galleries and businesses in storefronts on the first floor of a freshly opened parking garage for The Walk, the outlet mall.
The curious visitor from inside the building was Shari Austin, who didn’t even need to take off her apron from Ivy Cottage Baskets to enter the wide world of sports.
Heather Halpin Perez and Beth Ryan from the library stopped by the arched entrance to the exhibit to describe how the entryway is broken up into several sporting categories. They include a group of water sports that are especially popular locally, among them crew, swimming and surfing.
“One of the (organizers) is a big surfer,” Perez told her tourists.
Another pillar shows off ball sports, such as football — and that has another local link, Ryan added.
“I think every one of these has been played in Boardwalk Hall at some point,” she said. “I think there was even a ski-jump in there at one point.”
The tour includes a stop on how sports have affected American English, adding such now-common phrases as “play hardball,” “jockey for position,” “Monday morning quarterback” and “throw in the towel.”
Another bit shows the strength of sports in America’s entertainment culture, simply by displaying a collection of DVD boxes for movies from “Hoosiers” and “Remember the Titans” to “Friday Night Lights” and “Seabiscuit.”
But what made Austin really perk up was when the tour moved into the local section, and she saw an Atlantic City High School yearbook from 1949. She thought she recognized the handwriting signing a picture of the school’s baseball team — as her own father’s.
Austin’s maiden name is Clark, and the picture was of a guy named Sonny Clark. So now she and her cousin, the unofficial family historians, are planning a trip to the library’s history archives to see if she stumbled over a forgotten relative.
“My dad (wrote) his C’s like that and everything,” Austin said, sounding amazed to see that penmanship 65 years after the fact. “That’s what caught my eye.”
Ken Sullivan and Dorothee Sonnet, of Little Egg Harbor Township, arrived a bit late for the start of the tour. But Sonnet wanted to visit the Smithsonian show and the Arts Garage in general to celebrate her birthday. Ryan was happy to go back and start over with them.
They don’t have as many Atlantic City connections as some visitors, because their roots are in North Jersey. But the couple had no trouble recognizing the name of Jesse Owens — a name that comes with a fascinating Atlantic City connection.
Owens was famously in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning medals in front of a still-rising Adolf Hitler. A track star named Eddie O’Brien — a graduate of Holy Spirit High School, then in Atlantic City — was in those same Olympic Games.
Finding that fact motivated the local library staff to research O’Brien’s life, and they learned his coach at Holy Spirit was another local legend — a woman named Hertha Weiss. She was a 1920 graduate of Atlantic City High School, later called “the most sensational female athlete ever developed locally” by Ed Nichterlein, the longtime sports editor of The Press of Atlantic City.
And Weiss didn’t just coach boys in the 1930s, and help turn them into Olympians. The library research shows she apparently also played on Atlantic City High’s boys’ baseball team in 1920, as a catcher — the toughest position on the field.
Perez, the archivist in the library’s history collection, said there’s always a library staffer at the sports exhibition when the Arts Garage is open — Wednesday to Sunday — and they’re always happy to show visitors around. Plus the library has arranged a series of “Pep Talks” around the exhibit, including another at 6 p.m. Thursday on local softball and baseball history, led by Kathleen Whelan and Bob Derbyshire, both of Atlantic City.
Katie Sundra was on duty Sunday at “Hometown Teams,” when Michael Scheffler, of Galloway Township, happened to drop in with a casual question.
“So does Atlantic City have any sports history?”
She was happy to be able to answer that yes, the city does have quite a bit of history in sports — and happy to show him some of it if he wanted.
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