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43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to be a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Niblings and Overblats are allowed to score in the first six Ogres.”  Obviously they’re not trying to make this easy.

So: challenge accepted.  While Koch never explicitly challenged readers to attempt the sport,  the challenge was implicit.  Much to Koch’s surprise, loyal readers of the magazine started to form 43-man squamish teams, particularly at universities.  No university actually funded a 43-Man Squamish team, but the athletic council at Marquette University saw fit to write to MAD to let them know that three of their 43-Man Squamish players had been suspended for “sportsmanlike conduct”.

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The 43 players of a 43-Man Squamish team, in no particular order: Left & Right Inside Grouches, Left & Right Outside Grouches, four Deep Brooders, four Shallow Brooders, five Wicket Men, three Offensive Niblings, four Quarter-Frummerts, two Half-Frummerts, one Full-Frummert, two Overblats, two Underblats, nine Back-Up Finks, two Leapers and a Dummy.  Ready to play?

The offices of MAD magazine were flooded with mail about the new sport, and in a later issue, they published “team photos” from 43-Man Squamish teams from around the world, submitted by inspired readers. The sport was no short-lived fad, either. There are still 43-Man Squamish teams active today. In 1968, one was formed at Rutgers University, but was soon relocated to the Florida Institute of Technology. The team evolved to something more like a social club, which now goes by the name “Squamish”, and accepts both male and female students. Squamish is more of a parody of the rituals of fraternities and sororities, and is now an established part of the fabric of FIT life. The joke was recycled in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in the 1980s and 90s, where his title characters would play an incomprehensible sport called Calvinball, where the rules changed frequently during gameplay, usually for the convenience of the player making the change.

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A scene from a game of Calvinball, circa 1990.
Watterson’s Calvinball was a fresh take on unplayable sports. A not-so-fresh take came from Cracked magazine in 1973, a full eight years after MAD introduced 43-Man Squamish. Cracked brought us 65-Man Klonkball, another unplayable sport, in a piece that is hard to see as anything but derivative of the earlier MAD article.

Cracked magazine’s 65-Man Klonkball, 1973.  What, me derivative?

MAD magazine, which tended to see itself as the last word in parody humor magazines, did not react to the Cracked piece.  They might well have been annoyed, but due to an editorial policy of never acknowledging the existence of humor magazines they viewed as “copies”, 65-Man Klonkball was published without comment.  (MAD did one article taking a poke at “copies” of MAD back in 1954, but after that, not a word. Cracked still exists today, both in print and in a successful online media presence.  While Cracked has from time to time taken a poke or two at MAD, MAD never saw fit to feed the rivalry.)

In 2015, Tom Koch died.  Koch had been a contributor to MAD over a span of nearly forty years, and he was also a successful television writer.  As successful as his career was, the opening three paragraphs of his New York Times obituary spoke mostly about 43-Man Squamish.  It’s doubtful that when he wrote the article Koch ever thought his “sport” would be remembered fifty years after he created it, much less that the totally unplayable sport would form the introduction to his obituary.

A pro athlete who is just part of Tom Koch’s legacy.


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