Hit or Myth

Examining the Legends of the World of Sports

Mythologies sprout up in all parts of our culture, including (especially) sports. As in other areas, they are there to explain the past, to caution against missteps, and, often, to reinforce stereotypes and the status quo. Obviously, that's not always a good thing. So here are a few of the larger sports myths that demand a little inspection—and we have provided it.

» Babe Didrikson Freak

There is no doubt that Mildred "Babe" Didrikson of Beaumont, Texas, was the greatest female athlete of the century. The question is whether or not she was also the greatest athlete. There is no question, either, that she was the most versatile great athlete, excelling in track and field, basketball (she led her AAU team to the championship game), tennis, swimming, baseball (she got the nickname by hitting the ball farther than the boys), and, of course, golf (she was the mother of the women's professional golf tour). She had to be—it was the only way she could make a living as an athlete.

Babe and the Mick: An Entire Mythology Surrounds Didrickson and Mantle.
photo: archive photos
Babe and the Mick: An Entire Mythology Surrounds Didrickson and Mantle.

And because she was the only woman in America, and probably the world, making a living from her athletic talent, she developed a reputation as a "freak."

"People," said her golf exhibition partner Gene Sarazen, "wanted to come and see this freak from Texas who could play golf, tennis, and beat everyone swimming up and down the pool." No doubt Sarazen and everyone else who used the term meant freak in the best possible sense. And in a way she was, if only because she was so good in so many sports.

But though Babe Didrikson was the best, she was no isolated case. She came of age at a time when female athletics was on the verge of a golden age. It's ironic that the woman who did the most to boost women's athletics in this century also did the most to demean women's accomplishments, including her own, by downgrading women's sports. Which she did, continually, talking disdainfully of the "frothy girls" she played against. Or, as she phrased it in the 1932 Olympics, "I'm not nervous. All I'm doing is running against girls."

Some of those girls, though, were tougher than anyone was willing to give them credit for—including Babe. In the half century or so from 1870 to the time Didrikson (born 1911) began playing sandlot "boy's games," the number of women attending college went from around 10,000 to nearly 300,000. There is reason to believe that the increase in the number of women playing sports was proportionate, and competitive athletics for girls became common all over the country.

There were other factors that promoted women sports: By the time Babe started high school, women's industrial league sports practically constituted a system of semipro leagues. By the late 1940s, the women's professional baseball leagues (which had begun with Phil Wrigley's experiment, the All-American Girls Softball League in 1943) were flourishing.

But there was no place for these women to develop as athletes. After the plug was pulled on women's baseball, no professional leagues or associations existed except the women's professional golf tour, which Babe would found. But it didn't come soon enough to help Babe's rival, Peggy Chandler, or even Betty Hicks, who was 11 when she saw Didrikson's performance in the '32 Olympics, and who credited Babe with inspiring her career as an amateur golf champ. We'll never know how many great female athletes we might have had. There may have been only one Babe, but we might have had a Gehrig or DiMaggio or Ted Williams.

» Joe Namath Rebel

The Game That Changed Pro Football—the title of a book about the 1969 Super Bowl—is what everyone remembers it as. And Joe Namath, the brash young quarterback from Alabama with the longish hair and white shoes—the guy who spurned the establishment league for the upstart AFL—is still the symbol of that change.

Joe Namath's brashness and ability were precisely what pro football needed in the late 1960s. The NFL style of play was defense-oriented and run-fixated on offense. Virtually all the NFL teams used the same formations and the same tactics. Namath's flamboyant style, which actually dared opponents to blitz and then attacked that blitz, set the NFL champion Baltimore Colts on their archive photosears. The game was the most colossal upset in Super Bowl history, as the Colts were favored by anywhere from 18 to 22 points. And, like all great upsets, the '69 Super Bowl created myths in its wake, myths that linger to this day.

The greatest of these was that the game somehow brought about the NFL-AFL merger. In fact, simply by agreeing to match their champions in a Super Bowl, the two leagues were agreeing to a merger; what came about in '70, when the two leagues realigned, was a mere formality. No one wanted a continuation of the bidding war that had paid out the unheard-of sum of $450,000 to an untested rookie named Namath. But though it is now largely forgotten, Namath was far from the only bonus baby of his era. In fact, the year after Namath was drafted in 1965, the old guard Packers forked over an astounding $1 million for rookie backs Donnie Anderson and Jim Grabowski.

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