BY LEW WITHAM
As the 1950s drew to a close, the idea of a man on the moon remained far-fetched. The only mammal to have penetrated outer space was a Russian dog named Laika.
The Seattle Times’ Guest Guesser contest, like the early space race, was relatively low tech. Participants followed a quaint exercise of marking X’s on a form found in the Sports pages, the dotted borders of which were cut by scissors and placed in an envelope, adorned by a 4-cent stamp.
Then, as now, one needed to be at least 13 years old to enter. I was a 10-year-old sports savant who impressed my fifth-grade classmates by reciting endless statistics from baseball and football cards. I’d gaze longingly each week as my dad leafed through a trusty Street & Smith’s Football Yearbook to determine where to place his penciled X’s.
One Wednesday night, I approached him with the proposition I’d been building up the courage to broach.
“Ummmm, if I were to complete a traced copy of your form, do you think we could send it in with mama’s name on it?”
Although the rules allowed traced copies, there was a drawn-out hesitation.
“Well, what the hey,” he finally said with a chuckle. “Give it a shot.”
And that I did, going into meticulous detail, scanning the season records of all the college teams involved in that weekend’s 20 featured games. Half of the games, I concluded, were easy. I’d simply pick the team with the better record. For the games involving schools with identical records, I used average point differential against earlier 1959 opponents, to project winners.
After an hour or so of feverish figuring, I handed the form to my dad. He eyeballed my picks while emitting an occasional grunt of mysterious significance.
“Well, not a bad bunch of picks,” he proclaimed. “Just can’t figure your thinking on one of them. You really think Penn State’s gonna beat Illinois?”
It was the way he said it, I suppose. That and knowing that the reason behind his question lay somewhere in the pages of the Street & Smith’s yearbook. So I carefully erased the X from my Penn State box and transferred it to Illinois.
With Mama’s name affixed to the bottom of my form, it was placed in the mail. With great excitement I awaited the results of the games of Oct. 24, 1959. Like a fool kid, I dreamed of being the big winner.
Back then, only two games could be viewed in Seattle on a fall Saturday, and only if the Huskies were televised on the road. Scores of other games received scant mention during all-too-brief TV sports reports. So when my dad retrieved the Sunday Times from our front porch, there were still many games we’d heard nothing about.
As he checked his own picks against the complete slate of printed results, my dad looked quite pleased.
“Seventeen correct, not bad,” he said.
And then, as I waited breathlessly, he checked my picks, then re-checked, then re-checked again. What the heck was taking so long?
“Well,” he said, “not bad at all, Lewis. If you’d only nailed that Illinois-Penn State game, you’d have a perfect score.”
As it turned out, 10 other Guest Guesser contestants matched my score of 19 correct picks. The field of winners was winnowed down by virtue of six of us picking the Huskies to beat Oregon by one point, which they’d done, 13-12 .
My mother’s name stood out among those six winners. In those days, women didn’t win football contests. It was not even the norm for most women to consider filing an entry. The Times, knowing a good human interest story when one fell in its lap, sent a photographer to our house the next week.
The next day, Marilyn Witham was pictured on the Sports page, proudly displaying some of her homegrown African Violets. In the accompanying story, she was quoted as saying she’d actually had all of the games picked correctly but was talked out of picking Penn State by her husband.
For quite some time my poor dad took some good-natured badgering over what was referred to as his $85 worth of advice. You see, in those days each weekly winner’s take was a lofty $100. After that sum was split six ways, a young whippersnapper was left $85 south of his dream.
But, oh, did he ever still feel so darned proud.
Lew Witham, a retired government administrator, was recently a contestant on the series premiere episode of Sports Jeopardy! on the Crackle on-line network. He battled hard, and came in a close second.
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