Greasy Poles and Monastery Walls: 5 of Boston's Most Unique Sports

Football is football wherever you go; here are five sports you won't see many places beyond Boston.

From hometown bleachers to the national arena, baseball, hockey, football and basketball dominate the landscape of American athletics. Name a state, a city, a town across the country, and rest assured baseballs will be cracking off bats, skates scraping across ice, quarterbacks will call plays, and basketballs will thud with the dribble.

Boston is a unique city. While the four pillars of American sport are represented (and to the chagrin of most of the country, dominated) by Boston, this town is home to a number of sports and athletic events the likes of which you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the country. Forget the Sox, Patriots, Bruins or Celtics, here are five of the most unique sporting events you can find in Boston – or anywhere else for that matter.  

Candlepin Lanes

Candlepin Bowling

There’s an easy way to find out if somebody is a born and bred Bostonian: ask them to go bowling, if they don’t direct you to a Candlepin alley, rest assured they aren’t born and bred Bostonian. This city has a flair for the antiquated; Beacon Hill still glows with gas lamps at night, the troughs at Fenway Park were only just begrudgingly replaced with proper urinals, and when Bostonians go bowling they prefer the game as it was back in 1880.

Before the wide bottomed duckpins we know today became regulation, bowling equipment and rules varied region by region. In Worcester, a style of play developed where three balls, roughly the size of a grapefruit, were rolled down a lane at ten narrow wooden pins. Rather than removing the fallen pins between throws, they were left where they lay to add an extra layer of strategy and difficulty to the game. Known as Candlepin Bowling, the game was soon forgotten when the modern style play was made regulation in 1895; forgotten that is, everywhere but Boston.

While the rest of the bowling world pressed on into the twentieth century, bowlers throughout the city decided they were quite satisfied with the peculiarities of their local style of play. Today the game persists with a devoted following: lanes are active throughout the greater Boston area and across New England, with leagues and tournaments held regularly. There’s an International Candlepin Bowling Association, an official museum, and to nobody's surprise, nearly all inductees to the Hall of Fame hail from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

Two crews racing eachother.

Head of The Charles Regatta

As long as man has moved boats with oars, they’ve been rowed and raced. The modern iteration of the sport, with specialized racing shells, low, narrow and sleek through the water, has existed since the early nineteenth century. Extremely popular among British prep schools and universities, rowing brought with it the caveat of class upon arriving in the States; just as only English gentlemen and gentry were rowers, so too was the sport restricted to Boston’s Brahmin by the time it reached the city.

By the mid-twentieth century the participants of the sport had grown beyond its class origins, yet the sport remained set in its ways. Boston rowers, tired of entering through the servant’s doors at British regattas, resolved to start an American race that would garner the global attention that had previously been reserved for the likes of the Henley Royal Regatta or the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race. In 1965 the first Head of The Charles Regatta was raced, and since then the race has grown into the largest multiple day regatta in the world.

Every year on the third weekend of October, over 11,000 rowers race from the Charles River Basin, beneath five bridges and through the Harvard Campus, all while thousands of spectators cheer from the riverbanks. A sport as Boston as the Royal Henley is British, the Head of The Charles is a spectacle unlike no other in the sport.

Hurling Players

Hurling at Fenway Park

From the political powerhouse of the Kennedys to the name of the city’s basketball team, the cultural face of Boston is inescapably Irish. The clichés are not far off the mark too: Irish descendants comprise the largest ethnic group in the city, and the proliferation of pubs throughout the city is no accident. Its therefore only fitting that once a year the green walls of Fenway Park play host to a sport rarely seen in America: the ancient Gaelic game of Hurling, “the fastest field game in the world”.

While foreign to America, Hurling is the national sport of Ireland and is played with feverish participation and pace throughout the country. By American standards the sport is odd, though it can be easily explained through familiar games: take a soccer and football field and lay them on top of each other, hand the players the tools of field hockey, then apply the rules of handball and lacrosse and you have a game. Odd, yes, but dangerously entertaining and surprisingly easily to follow once you start watching. While the Hurling circuit is not unique to Boston, it tours throughout the country stopping at several major cities, there is a distinctly special flair to the game when it is played in the sporting heart of America’s Irish capital.

Runner falling from the pole

The Greasy Pole

Once a year as summer begins to find its feet, the tranquil seaside town of Gloucester descends into a joyous debauchery. Pavilion Beach throngs with people and the harbor crowds thick enough with boats to walk deck by deck from one shore to the other: its St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, a local celebration of the patron saint of fishermen, and all eyes are focused on the bizarre spectacle unfolding above the harbor.

Rising twenty-five feet from the water, a wooden platform is filled with a motley gathering of nuns, Uncle Sams, hula girls, and maybe a Batman or two. Jutting out from the platform is a wooden pole, picture a telephone pole, with a red flag nailed to its end. Forty-five feet in length, the pole is greased heavily with Crisco, Vaseline, maybe even motor oil, anything slick enough to trip up a cowboy or Marilyn Monroe as they take their shot at glory by sprinting across the pole in hopes of grabbing the red flag before they fall. The trip across the pole is perilous, broken ribs, noses and cheekbones are not uncommon, but the risks outweigh the reward: paraded throughout the town on the shoulders of their brothers in grease, the winner of the competition enters the annals of Gloucester history forever. Held yearly on June 29th, St. Peter’s Fiesta carries on for three days of revelry and is a Boston experience unlike any other in the area.

Court Tennis Court

Real Tennis

If you think you know what “real” tennis is, think again. The game we all know, two players facing off across a taut net on an open court, is a descendent of a somewhat similar, yet totally different game known alternatively as Court Tennis and Real Tennis.

To describe what happens on a Real Tennis court, its best to tell the tale of its origins. Far back into the early middle ages, monks whiled away then day between prayer and penance by playing a ball game in the courtyards of their monasteries. Batting the ball with their hands, they played off of the walls, across roofs and through open windows. The game soon spread from the monasteries to castle courtyards and wooden racquets were developed to replace the hand batting. Today’s Real Tennis Courts are built from a slicked concrete mixture, and it takes only a quick look around the court to recognize the games origins: like some kind of unfinished movie set piece, blank walls complete with sloping roofs rise around you and the windows that the monks took aim at are built open into the wall.

The rules are difficult to explain without reading through a thick primer and a few hours on court, but here’s a brief rundown: scoring follows the same pattern as Lawn Tennis (15, 30, 45, game), and the server opens the point with a shot that rolls the length of one of the roofs; fail to get a ball over the net and you lose the point, shoot a ball into one of the windows and you win the point, or if you like (a rule rumored to have been developed by a poor competitor named King Louis XIV), you can choose not to return a ball and replay the point later in the game.

Once an extremely popular game throughout France and Britain, there are now a mere forty-three courts remaining across the world. Fortunately for Boston, one of those courts is housed in the heart of Back Bay at The Tennis and Racquet Club of Boston, and another is a short drive down the highway at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. The court at the T&R is inaccessible to the public except when tournaments like the Court Tennis US Open are hosted at the club every few years, but the Newport court has a public viewing gallery that visitors to the Hall of Fame can pass through to watch the intricacies of the game in action. Real Tennis is hard to find across the world, and the Boston area is home to one of the only courts in the world open to the public. 

Alex Oliveira
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