Hit or Myth

Examining the Legends of the World of Sports

Great myths always enter around vivid personalities; we like to believe that if personalities don't actually affect history they at least reflect it. And so the image of Namath as pro football's consummate rebel was born. Though he represented no great cause, Namath became, at least to the ultraconservative sports media, a symbol of '60s rebelliousness. Of course, in pro football, growing a Fu Manchu and missing curfew did pass for rebellion.

» Mickey Mantle Tragic White Boy

Roger Kahn wrote baseball's best book, The Boys of Summer, with a title borrowed from Dylan Thomas, about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. But the poem's first line seems to describe no one so well as Mickey Mantle: "I have seen the boys of summer in their ruin."

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.

We saw Mickey Mantle in his ruin for the last 30 years of his life, the near-cripple alcoholic being helped in and out of hospitals, the eternal kid with the Dorian Gray-like ravages on his face. For an entire generation of fans and sportswriters who saw their own boyhood dreams and fantasies in Mantle's career, his decline and fall became an important part of the story—in many cases the principle part.

And so, the legend of Mickey Mantle, the self-destructive superstar who had true baseball immortality within his grasp and let it slip away, is perpetuated. Witness the phrases bandied about the week of his funeral in late August of 1995: "could have been one of the greats," "never quite lived up to his potential," "squandered so much of his enormous natural talent."

To be fair, much of this began when Mantle was alive, and Casey Stengel, who could never get Mantle to surrender to his way of playing baseball, was the chief culprit. And Mantle himself, who lamented over and over in TV and print interviews about what he might have been able to accomplish had he taken better care of himself, gave aid and comfort to the myth.

And myth is exactly what it is, because whatever Mickey Mantle might have been able to accomplish, what he did accomplish ranks him among the handful of greatest players of all time. Mantle's record needs no apologies for what might have been.

Durability? Mickey Mantle played more games in a Yankee uniform than any player in team history. Complete player? Mantle was probably one of the most rounded players in baseball history with a fine arm, spectacular power, and excellent base-running ability (his career steal percentage is only slightly lower than Rickey Henderson's). He could do things none of his contemporaries, not even Duke Snyder, Willie Mays, or Hank Aaron, could do: switch-hit, for instance, and bunt. Though his career batting average dipped below .300 at the end, he was far more adept at reaching base than players with substantially higher averages. Try this one: Mickey Mantle played for 18 seasons, and so has Tony Gwynn, each playing in nearly the same number of games. Mantle's on-base average is more that 30 points higher than Gwynn's, whose main job is to reach base.

What he might have done? Mantle was an All Star for 11 straight years. He won three Most Valuable Player awards before the age of 31. Are you looking for the most dominant team athlete of the second half of the century? Mantle had seven championship rings in his first 12 seasons. He had more rings by age 30 than Michael Jordan had in his entire career.

Mantle's incredible career has been transformed into a cautionary tale on the danger of success—and excess. His life is certainly that, but his career deserves to be remembered for what it was, not what we think it should have been.

» Jack Johnson Tragic Black Man

America's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Arthur Johnson was and is a colossal enigma. No American athlete has had so many myths built up around him, and no great 20th-century athlete remains so unknown to this day.

The first myth to collect itself around Johnson was that of black menace. From the 1890s, when the gloved era began, to 1937 when Joe Louis won the heavyweight title, boxing was less segregated than is generally thought today. Though John L. Sullivan, the first champ to hold the title under the modern Queensberry Rules, steadfastly refused to fight a black man, black-white matches at the over-175-pound level were quite common—Johnson himself fought and beat numerous whites. But a combination of racism and economics—most promoters felt that blacks couldn't afford the high-priced tickets that made heavyweight bouts lucrative—kept blacks out of heavyweight title fights.

But on December 26, 1908, Johnson fought in a championship fight and took the title from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia. Johnson had been seeking the fight for two years. After agreeing to give up a highly disproportionate share of the gate to Burns, Johnson got his shot, and won easily.

But there were no race riots in America at the announcement that a black man had won the world heavyweight championship. If anything, most Americans were curious about the new champ. The myth that Johnson's championship was received with fear and loathing was partly due to the vehemence with which the news was greeted in the South, and partly because of Johnson's own hedonistic arrogance, which turned many journalists against him.

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