Taking a spring break pause to look backward to old-school sports in Columbia County

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The 1980 St. Helens baseball team may have won a lot of games, but hampered by the technology of its era, hit only three home runs as a team.As high school sports took a pause — a brief one — this week for spring break, I wanted to take a moment to step into the Wayback Machine and share a little about what St. Helens and Scappoose high school sports looked like in the past.

During my high school years at St. Helens, from the fall of 1977 through the spring of 1980 — St. Helens was just a three-year high school back then — the world was a different world than it is today.

Back then, Boise Cascade was the biggest and most important employer in St. Helens, Multnomah Plywood was alive and well and the old Crown Zellerbach mill in Columbia City had only recently closed. And in Scappoose, of course, Steinfeld's Pickles was thriving.MILES VANCE

At that time, south Columbia County had none of the technological wonders we take for granted today. In the St. Helens and Scappoose of the late 1970s, there was no Internet, no personal computers, no cellphones, no cable television (much less satellite) and no self-driving cars. Heck, there weren't even video players and VHS movies.

Sports can tie one era to another and another and another. Football is still football, basketball is still basketball and baseball is still baseball.

But one of the beauties of American life is found in sports and the way they can tie one era to another and another and another. Football is still football, basketball is still basketball and baseball is still baseball.

That said, things have changed, even in sports.

Back in the day, no one played on artificial turf. Ever. The football fields at St. Helens and Scappoose turned into sloppy messes — featuring mid-field mud holes that stretched from one 30-yard line to the other — by mid-October every year and stayed that way until the end of the season.

In St. Helens, the old varsity baseball field (located on the south side of the gym where the tennis courts and softball field are sited) wasn't much better. Early in every season when the weather was wet, that field was used only for games; practices were held on the uneven, poorly maintained JV field, a field that — in those wet conditions — had obviously once served as a cow pasture.

In basketball, things were different, too. Uniform shorts for both boys and girls teams were, well, short — embarrassingly so. And there was no 3-point shot. That innovation was still a dream that existed only in the old American Basketball Association.

Baseball, was different, too, especially in its technology. While fielder's gloves, spikes and even uniforms were relatively similar to today's models (though the '78-'79 Lions' varsity teams wore yellow tops and pants that featured black numbers and letters — the bumblebee uniforms as they were known) — bats were very, very different.

First, the bats belonged to the team — players did not buy their own bats — and during my two years of varsity play, there were only about three that we used regularly. Not three different brands or three different models, just three bats.

While the world — even in south Columbia County — had moved away from wood bats by the late '70s, that change had occurred less than a decade earlier. Back in the day, the aluminum bats we used were made by Adirondack and Tennessee Thumpers by Worth.

To suggest that those bats weren't as lively as today's technology-laced jackhammers would be a massive understatement. On my senior season team, a team that went 31-3 and included one future professional and four future college players, we hit three home runs all season. Three.

Beyond just the equipment and playing surfaces of the day, however, there were other even larger differences between high school sports today and those of 35 years earlier.

First, there were no school-sponsored soccer teams back then. There were some adult city league teams that played in the area, but they were loosely organized and looked upon with bemusement by most locals. Indeed, most people still considered soccer a sport best suited for P.E. classes and not much more, that despite the interest generated by the launch of the Portland Timbers in 1975 and their trip to the North American Soccer League's "Soccer Bowl" championship game that same year.

Also missing from late 1970s sports in Columbia County were high school golf and tennis.

Most notable, however, was the rarity of girls high school sports. While the Oregon had hosted high school state championships in girls swimming since 1948, track and field since 1966 and golf since 1971, most girls sports didn't really begin until after the passage of Title IX back in 1972. And to suggest that the effects of that law took a while to seep out to St. Helens and Scappoose would be another massive understatement.

To quantify the relative speed of those changes, consider this: the Oregon School Activities Association didn't host girls championships in volleyball and cross country until 1974. The girls state basketball tournament didn't show up until 1976. The girls state soccer playoffs didn't debut until 1977, and didn't add a second division for smaller schools until 1992. And softball didn't show up as a sanctioned, state championship sport until 1979, with small-school players forced to wait another four years to add a second division in 1983.

So this week, while players, parents, coaches, fans and supporters of high school sports enjoy a momentary change of pace, let's also take a moment to recognize — and be grateful for — the many positive changes that have occurred in this important part of our lives.

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