A Kindness on the Ball field Redefines Sportsmanship

In 1925 a British sportswriter and military captain named Percy Redfern Creed gave an interview to the Christian Science Monitor in which he described a new Boston-based organization. The Sportsmanship Brotherhood, he said, would promote sportsmanship with the goal of establishing world peace. A country that conducts itself well on the playing field, Creed believed, conducts itself well in the world. Perhaps sportsmen could do what so many diplomats and politicians had failed to do: promote harmony among nations. For its slogan the group adopted the now famous lines: "Not that you won or lost—but how you played the game."

Creed's idea was to promote sportsmanship across the world. But in the early 1900's the exhortation to play fairly was badly needed in this country, too. Betting scandals plagued baseball, culminating with the spectacular Black Sox affair in 1919, in which eight Chicago players were banned for throwing the World Series. Ivy League football was so boorish that Teddy Roosevelt held White House meetings about the rough play. (His reform efforts eventually led to the establishment of the NCAA.) At one 1905 contest a riot broke out between the Columbia and Wesleyan football teams after a Wesleyan player kicked a felled Columbia ball carrier in the stomach. Cops had to break up the brawl.

More than 80 years later, despite Creed's efforts (not to mention policing by the NCAA), the state of sportsmanship sometime seems even worse. Reports of parents throwing punches at Pee Wee football games jostle for space in the sports pages with the latest doping or cheating scandal. But two weeks ago an act of generosity on a softball field pushed all of that out of mind—for a little while, anyway.

On Saturday, April 26, a Western Oregon University player named Sara Tucholsky stepped into the batter's box against Central Washington University. With two runners on base, she stroked a pitch over the center field fence. Tucholsky, a five-foot-two senior with a career .153 batting average, had never hit the ball out of the park, not even in batting practice. In her excitement Tucholsky missed first base. As she turned back to touch the bag, she blew out her knee.

The umpire ruled (mistakenly) that if Western Oregon substituted a runner for Tucholsky, the hit would be scored as a two-run single. If any of her teammates touched her, the ump said, she'd be out. Tucholsky crawled back to first base and hugged the bag, unable to continue.

It would have been a tough end to the right fielder's career. But Mallory Holtman, the all-time home run leader for Central Washington—the opposing team—approached the ump and asked her if players on her team could carry Tucholsky around the bases.

The two teams were vying for the top spot in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, and Central Washington needed to win to stay in the race for a berth in the NCAA Division II championships. Thanks to Tucholsky, Western Oregon would go on to win the game, 4-2, and secure the conference title a week later. Thanks to Holtman and her teammates, no one cared about the score.

You can watch a clip of Holtman and her teammate Liz Wallace carrying Tucholsky on YouTube. The video, filmed through a chain link fence by a player's mother, is shaky and washed out. Excited whoops give way to quiet confusion as Tucholsky fails to follow her teammates around the bases. But then the cheers grow louder, edged with astonishment, as Holtman and Wallace appear from behind the line of Western Oregon players, all of them standing, and carry the diminutive Tucholsky around the dirt diamond. The two girls, their white jerseys flanking Tucholsky's red one, pause at each base and gently dip, to let the injured player tap her good foot on the bag. It looks a little as if they're bowing.

Sportsmanship is easy to praise and hard to practice. The rhetoric of fair play is deeply entrenched in organized sports—there's hardly a league at any level without a sportsmanship award—but the spirit is less so. What makes Central Washington's action so extraordinary is that it was so unexpected and spontaneous. It went beyond the normal rules of the game and came at the cost of the team's own success. Manufactured shows of sportsmanship—the lackluster handshakes with the other team at the end of the game or, more spectacularly, the deal cut between opposing coaches to allow the injured Nykesha Sales to score a basket uncontested to break the University of Connecticut's career scoring record in 1998—have a stale air.

Sportsmanship, Creed said, "is to be permitted to grow and spread of its own accord." The end of war, he believed, would surely follow. Alas, neither universal sportsmanship nor world peace has come to pass. But Creed was right about one thing: true displays of sportsmanship are infectious. YouTube videos of Tucholsky's home run have been viewed more than 300,000 times over the past two weeks. Watching it may not bring about world peace—but it may just give us a better sense of what brotherhood means.