COMMUNITY JOURNALISM: A sports lover's tale, from youth leagues to adult tennis
Playing games a lifelong passion
Editor’s note: John Langer, 61, is a lifelong Cedar Rapids resident who attended Buchanan, McKinley and Washington schools. He operated Langer Mfg. Company for many years and now works with his son-in-law, Matt Gibson at The Gold Estate. He has been married to Jane for more than 40 years and the two have three children — Andria Gibson, Melissa Bienvenu and Adam Langer — as well as four grandchildren — Ella, Vivian, Joseph and Charlie. His best sports moment was attending Game 4 of the 2004 World Series to see his beloved Red Sox win the championship. He has been a Hawkeye football and basketball season ticket holder for more than 30 years. He has coached and captained sports teams as well as organized trips to watch the Hawkeyes on the road with friends.
By John Langer, community contributor
It’s that time of year when Major League Baseball gets exciting with pennant races. It makes me recall my start in sports some 50 years ago.
I joined the Cedar Rapids Little League program that summer of 1961 and played for Miller and Company at Van Vechten Park. Every year since then, I have played on an organized team — from baseball and softball to football and basketball, from track and volleyball to bowling and tennis.
As a 10-year-old I played two years in the 10-11 year old division, then moved to 12-13 and finally to 14-15. When I was 14, I thought it would be fun to be an assistant coach for a 10-11 team. I went to the commissioner’s house, which was in our neighborhood, and he needed coaches, not assistants, so I coached 10-11 for four years.
The commissioner was the late Jack Ogden, a former Gazette associate sports editor. In fact, that summer I played on his team in the 14-15 year old division. Jack’s wife, Jean, would come out and keep score for the team as well. As a 15-year-old, I hit a generous .300 because she believed in hits, even though several times I reached base on errors. But, the team did win the league that summer of 1966.
At McKinley Junior High, I played football, basketball and baseball. I loved to play, but I was not a starter. In fact, I was usually on the “B” team but still a player. I also captained our home room volleyball team and we finished second in both 8th and 9th grades. It didn’t hurt that we had Bob Brewster in our room, a future Washington football star. But, it always was a matter of getting three girls to come out and play. They were reluctant because they had no organized sports then, only the occasional intramurals.
I went on to Washington but only participated in cross country my senior year. I did, however, play a lot of sports. A friend of mine organized a basketball team and we played regular games usually at the Central Park Presbyterian Church. It was a small court with a cement floor. A typical game would be 150-140, not much defense, just a good run up and down the court. Occasionally we scrimmaged 9th grade teams from McKinley to help them prepare for their upcoming season.
This same friend organized football, basketball and softball teams for us in the intramural leagues at the University of Iowa. We were the “Xanadu Carrots” and had team jerseys (dyed T-shirts) for football. There was a large group of us from Washington and Kennedy on the teams.
My senior year we peaked in flag football. We were ranked as high as No. 8 in the Daily Iowan intramural league poll. Unfortunately, we lost a close game to the No. 5 team in the playoffs. I still have my plastic trophy though from that year. It was for the best defensive player, inscribed, “fancy hands Dick Butkus award.” (Quick hands for pulling flags).
After graduation, my brother formed a basketball team and we played for The Bank at the Ellis YMCA. Another small court, but at least a wooden floor. The league only lasted a year, but changed to a 6-foot-and-under, 25-and-over league. I was 23 and just an average player, so I played a few years early and then for the next 15 years as well.
Of course, I still loved baseball, so I played a lot of softball during that same period, mostly 14-inch slow-pitch. When we lost our sponsor one year, my company stepped up and we became Langer Manufacturing Company for the next eight to 10 years. Our peak was 1981 when we finished second in the state tournament. We lost our first game, came back in the losers’ bracket and won the next seven, before losing 1-0 in the final game. What a heartbreaker.
There were other sports as well. My wife and I participated in bowling leagues with friends for a number of years at Cedar Rapids Bowling Center. We also had a neighborhood volleyball team and played at the IBEW courts for several summers.
Fortunately for me, the Stoney Point YMCA started a new basketball league in the mid-1980s that was a 35-and-over league. It was just right for me, as I was getting to be an old man in the other league.
I played there for nearly 10 years but when you get close to 40 you start looking for other alternatives. And, I found a great one. I joined a tennis league at Westfield Tennis Club. My first league was perfect. One of my friend’s dad, from the 10-11 Little League, was playing in that league and he was nearing 70. Another player was closer to 75. No they didn’t move the fastest, but they knew where to place the ball with a lot of skill.
I practiced at times with Russell Knapp, and while he had a national ranking as a 70-year-old, he was looking forward to making the top 10 at 80. Which he did.
Eventually, I joined a tennis team and, in 1991, we won our league, the state tournament and went to districts in Kansas City. We didn’t win any matches there, but it was fun and a good learning experience.
Today, I still play on tennis teams. I now play “senior” tennis and “super senior” tennis. Our teams have made it to the regionals five times, but still haven’t made a trip to the nationals.
Since that summer in 1961, there has not been a year without a team. From Miller and Company, to the McKinley Bears, to the Xanadu Carrots, to Papa Juan’s, to Marshall Homes, to Langer Mfg. Company, to Johnny’s Parkway, to the Roxbury Rockets, to Westfield Tennis and now Elmcrest Tennis, just to name a few.
I have not missed a year, and only last year, did I have my first sports surgery and that was for torn tendons in a finger from tennis.
No, I have never been a star, just a participant, just a player.
A sports fan, a team fanatic for more than 50 years.What's your story? Contact J.R. Ogden and email@example.com and join our community sports team.