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.

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."

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 accomplishhad 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.

One of those journalists was the renowned novelist Jack London. In his dispatch from Sydney, London called for a "great white hope" to "remove the golden smile from Johnson's face," starting the bigoted ballyhoo that would surround the fighter. The man London had in mind was former champ Jim Jeffries, who hadn't fought in six years. By the time they clashed on July 4, 1910 (with Johnson winning by an easy 15th-round knockout), the flames of racism had been duly fanned, and celebrating blacks in several American cities were lynched and shot.

Howard Sackler's 1968 play about Johnson, The Great White Hope, continued the body of literature supporting the myth that Johnson was a self-conscious symbol of black power, and, ultimately, a tragic figure. Much of Johnson's behavior supports the opposite, however: He wasn't particularly sympathetic to the plight of American blacks, and treated them with disdain when approached for an autograph or handshake. He caroused and was seen in public with white women—a fact which appalled many blacks as well as whites. After he lost his title (in 1915), he continued to box, to perform at vaudeville shows, and to make and lose money—just as he had when he was champion.

Henry Ford even gave Johnson a new car every year; he liked the publicity he got in newspapers when Johnson was stopped and given speeding tickets. And if fight manager Dan Morgan is to be believed, Johnson, in middle age, wanted to atone for what he called his "wild life" by giving inspirational speeches at church benefits, hospitals, and military bases. He was on his way to one such appearance in 1946 when he wrapped his latest present from Ford around a tree and was killed.

Jack Johnson was neither a symbol of black America nor a tragic victim. If Johnson could have seen the symbols others attached to his life, he'd have had the same contempt for them that he had for critics and admirers alike in his own lifetime.

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