Gladstone resident Scott Rice McBride is a bit of an expert on marbles.
He should be; he owns about 150,000 marbles.
McBride has curated a marble exhibit at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, Mo., for several years, but his forthcoming book has further helped rekindle interest in the children’s game popular in by-gone years.
McBride has collected marbles since he his childood. His favorite is an antique marble his first-grade teacher gave him, which originally belonged to the teacher’s grandfather.
“It’s called a sulfide,” McBride said. “It has a figure of an animal in it. Those have kind of always been my favorite.”
While he grew up on the tail end of the game’s national popularity, McBride collected marbles because he was never very good at shooting them himself.
“I was a dead duck,” he said. “If I brought marbles to a marbles game, I would go home without my marbles.”
McBride visited historic Boys Town in Nebraska about five years ago and learned the site hosted the first in a series of national marble tournaments sponsored by Veterans of Foreign Wars from 1947 to 1962.
“They have a little exhibit in the front of kids playing marbles,” McBride said. “One of the curators said they had a drawer full of pictures and newspaper articles.”
As the VFW looked for ways to integrate soldiers back into their communities after World War II, it launched the annual national marble tournaments.
The game was simple. It was fun. It was something anyone could do. There were no age restrictions, no racial barriers, and no economic limitations.
While only boys were allowed to cpmpete in the tournaments, the VFW’s program attracted more than 200,000 participants nationwide at its peak.
The small display at Boys Town piqued McBride’s curiosity about the boys who were crowned national champions. Most of them, who had been between ages 11 to 15 years old at the time, were getting older, so McBride decided to make sure their stories were told before they were lost forever.
McBride hunted down as many of the former champions as he could find, including the first African American, Tilton Holt, to win the competition.
Holt, who died in August 2017, won the tournament in 1950 and was featured in Life Magazine. The exhibit features photos taken by the Life photographer for that story.
McBride used the champions’ stories to create a book called “The Kings of the Rings: Stories from the VFW National Marble Tournaments 1947-1962.”
He discovered that the national tournaments brought the boys opportunities to see and do things they had never had the chance to do in their lives.
The 1957 national champion was the son of a migrant family. His tournament was in Seattle, where the national tourney participants were treated to a tour of the Boeing plant.
“At that time, he decided what he wanted to do with his life,” McBride said. “He wanted to build airplanes. He joined the military. He became the first person in his family to graduate high school or college, and he became an aeronautical engineer. For a lot of these kids, it opened up windows or doors they would not have seen before.”
The special exhibit called “Playing for Keeps,” which opened on Veteran’s Day and will run through Jan. 6, 2019, features trophies and memorabilia from winners as well as video clips from surviving champions.
Part of the display is a special pair of jeans with thicker knee-fabric marketed for marbles players and the engine-powered bicycle given as a prize to national champions. There is also a room where kids of all ages can get a primer on the game then get on their knees to try their hand at playing for keeps themselves.
The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, 5235 Oak St., plans a year of events focused on the game of marbles. McBride’s book will be available beginning in December through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or in the Museum Gift Shop.