Have You Lost Your Marbles?

1930 Marbles Champion Vincent Sullivan

Marbles is a game that I have never seen anyone play in person in my entire life. When I was a young boy, I had a collection of marbles that my grandparents gave me. I would roll them around and marvel at the beautiful orbs of color, but no one ever taught me how to play marbles. Somewhere among my many apartment moves I did lose my marbles. American children seem to have lost their marbles too, for the game is clearly not popular anymore.

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Marbles as a competitive game is still played, but there are probably more collectors of marbles than there are players worldwide. It was, and remains a great way for children to entertain themselves without adult supervision and the game can be played almost anywhere.  All you need are some marbles and the ability to draw a circle on some surface other than grass or sand. To be great at marbles, you really need to have skill. Ask Charlie Brown.

Vincent Sullivan was a 13-year-old marbles champion who had a secret.

He had run away from his Massachusetts home in May 1930 to “see the world.” Vincent came to New York City and had been making a living selling newspapers and residing at The Brace Memorial Newsboys Home, 224 William Street. During his time in New York, Vincent had incredibly won the newsboys marbles championship. James Lee the national marbles champion, was going to play Vincent at Ocean City, NJ in an exhibition match on board The Ecuador, a steamship.   At the last minute Lee’s managers refused to let Lee play the match, so his title would not be jeopardized.  Sullivan’s ability to shoot marbles resulted in the photograph above. Newspapers across the country ran the photo of the freckle-faced boy with the missing front teeth.

The jig would be up for Vincent because of that picture.

His foster mother Mrs. Ebca Philip of Fall River, MA recognized his picture in the local  newspaper and had the New York City police hold him at the Children’s Society until she could drive down to get him.  On July 5, 1930 she arrived in the city to bring him home.

The notoriety of this story made national headlines and was followed with offers for jobs, trips and even a movie contract for the urchin marbles champion.  Vincent and his foster mother left for a tour of South America on July 20, 1930 playing exhibitions in many countries as a guest of the Panama Line, the steamship company.

After winning against the boys of Cartagena, Colombia,  Vincent was badly defeated in three straight matches by the Canal Zone marbles champ Robert Oller on July 30, 1930 at Balboa Stadium. Whether it was stage fright or the heat, Vincent was beaten so soundly that one of the Canal Zone boys who had watched the matches said “Gosh! We eat players like him down here.”

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3 thoughts on “Have You Lost Your Marbles?

  1. Tatiana Sometimes

    Cute story. There’s a great, humorous scene in the film Amelie of the hero (as a child) winning all the marbles in and then losing them. I seem to recall all the kids collecting marbles in the late 70s here in Melbourne, Australia, but I can’t remember anyone actually playing with them. We did play ‘knucklebones’ though!

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