When Christine Brennan was turning 8, she asked for a baseball glove as a birthday present. That was a remarkable request for a girl to make in 1966. What’s even more remarkable, her father bought the glove and then taught her how to use it.
In a tribute marking her Dad’s 75th birthday five years ago, Chris wrote: “Immediately, this man became the only guy in town who was playing catch in the back yard with a girl. What were the neighbors to think? He went back to the store and bought the girl a baseball bat.”
Now a sports columnist for USA Today and a frequent radio and TV commentator, Chris has published a memoir, “Best Seat in the House” (Scribner), and with Father’s Day approaching, the subtitle is instructive: “A Father, A Daughter, A Journey Through Sports.”
Dads and daughters have always bonded through athletics, but in Toledo, Ohio, in the mid-’60s, that usually meant sharing seats in the stands, not positions on the field. The Brennans lived near “The Glass Bowl,” the University of Toledo football stadium, and as a small child Chris remembers watching the glow of the stadium lights and wondering, “What’s going on there?”
“When Dad started to take me to games, we would walk together, hand in hand,” she writes. “Sometimes I wanted to run. I couldn’t wait to get there. Pretty soon, we would be among hundreds of spectators, funneling through the entrances into the game. I held Dad’s hand tightest then.”
When Steve interviewed Chris on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” women from around the country called in to tell similar stories. Elizabeth from Oklahoma City described going to basketball games with her father: “It’s magic, to be part of that. ... There’s a connectedness that happens at a sporting event that I haven’t experienced in any other venue.”
We know what she means. Steve started taking our daughter Becca to Redskins football games at an early age, and it’s a link they share to this day. Like Chris and Jim Brennan, they had a ritual: drive the same route, park in the same place, buy bratwursts at the same stand, juggle lunch while standing for the national anthem. Becca insists she once saw her father with mustard on his forehead. True or not, the story is part of the magic.
Chris Brennan didn’t just watch sports, she played them, an unusual experience for a girl before Title IX was signed in 1972, the federal law requiring equal expenditures on male and female sports. She was big for her age -- the boys often picked her first in the neighborhood games -- and her father was quick to encourage her interests.
As she said on NPR: “Maybe my Dad was one of the first to say, ‘hey, this is a kid, this is a child ... If you don’t want dolls, that’s fine, go ahead, play baseball all day.”
She learned something about stereotypes as well. Jim Brennan was a “rock-ribbed Republican” who voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, but as his daughter recalls with a laugh, he turned into a flaming feminist on the issue of women’s sports.
He came to every one of Chris’ games, and the crowds were so sparse, she recalls, she could actually hear “the unmistakable click of Dad’s black dress shoes” as he made his way to a spot behind her bench. When her strong serves carried Ottawa Hills High to victory in a big volleyball game, she wrote in her diary: “I played well for Dad.”
Jim Brennan understood that his outsized daughter, who never had a date in high school, needed his support and affection. “We had a running joke in our house about what would happen if I, the gawky teenager, somehow grew up to become a Miss America contestant,” she writes. For the talent competition, Dad would come on stage and pitch her baseballs, which she’d hit into the audience.
Today, girl athletes are heroes not outcasts. Chris credits Title IX, and its impact on the boys she knew in high school who are now fathers themselves: “Those boys who wouldn’t give me the time of day have grown up, they’re in their 40s, and they’re having daughters. They are the ultimate advocates for Title IX because they want their daughters to have what their sons had.”
So ladies, here’s a good way to celebrate Father’s Day. Take your Dad to a ball game. Buy him a hot dog. Even if he does get mustard on his forehead.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.