Great sports mythologies - debunked!
I was watching Cold Pizza on ESPN2, as I am wont to do (in the mornings before I take Mia to school, she is usually playing on the floor while I feed Norah, and while Mia eats breakfast, I try to leave her alone as much as possible, because she's a big girl), and they had a list of the 60 greatest home runs in baseball history. They did one a day, and I saw a few and missed most of them. Anyway, last week the Number One home run was unveiled, and it should surprise no one with a passing familiarity with baseball:
Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that won the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951 over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Now, I'm certainly not going to deny that home run of its place in history, but the list got me thinking about sports mythology and why it occurs. Sports plays such a big part of our society, and although it's not the most important thing in the world, I would argue it does factor into how we feel about ourselves and our community, so it's somewhat important. Over the years, we have built up a sports mythology that everyone just takes for granted. This is dangerous, not because of how it relates to sports, but because how it relates to the bigger society. We tend to accept things that are handed down over the generations without really challenging them all that much. When someone does challenge the "conventional wisdom," they are yelled down. I mentioned this when I wrote about Freakonomics, but it's worth keeping in mind. Debunking sports mythology can help us view other things critically. So I have to practice my critical thinking! I'm also going to be a homer, because I know more about Philadelphia sports than other places. Sorry!
First, the Bobby Thomson home run. Yes, it was all very dramatic. But the No. 1 home run of all time? Need I remind anyone that the Giants lost the World Series that year? The Yankees brushed them aside like they were tiny little boys. It didn't matter who won the National League pennant that year, because the Yankees were in the middle of winning 5 Series in a row, and nobody was going to beat them.
So why is it No. 1? Because of the drama and glory that has grown up around it. Hell, novels have been written about it! (It's a very good book, by the way - I recommend it.) These were two New York teams, and if you didn't play baseball in New York in the 1930s through the early 1960s, you didn't matter. One of the best center fielders of all time was Richie Ashburn and one of the best pitchers of all time was Robin Roberts. They both played for the Phillies, so no one mentions them.
The Giants of 1951 were certainly a dramatic team, but they get the publicity because of their location and the team they beat. Roger Kahn memorialized the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s in The Boys of Summer, which is a great book, to be sure, but it made the Dodgers into mythical heroes. So anything involving the Dodgers becomes bigger than life. That's the way things are. Interestingly enough, another home run hit precisely one year earlier in similar circumstances was nowhere near the top of Cold Pizza's list (it may have appeared further down, but I doubt it). In 1950, the Philadelphia Phillies, who had been nicknamed the Whiz Kids (in today's sports climate, that would mean they are all on steroids, but back then they were the youngest team in the majors) beat the same Dodger team on the last day of the season thanks to a Del Ennis home run and a great throw by Ashburn to cut a runner down at the plate. No one ever talks about the Ennis home run. Why not? Because the Phillies were swept in the Series by the Yankees? So were the Giants. The only reason is because the Phillies didn't play in New York.
What's astonishing is the Giants had a more dramatic home run in their history! In 1954 they played the awesome Cleveland Indians, who had won 111 games, an American League record that would stand until 2001. Nobody gave the Giants a chance. Then Willie Mays made his big catch on Vic Wertz, something everyone has heard of, but guess what? One catch doesn't win a ball game. Dusty Rhodes, who played only 7 years in the majors and hit only 54 home runs, whacked one late to win the first game, and the Giants swept the shell-shocked Indians. That's more "important" in baseball history, in my mind.
The number 2 home run was Bill Mazeroski's home run to beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. I have no problem with that. But Joe Carter's home run to beat the Phillies in the 1993 World Series wasn't in the top 5. As much as it pains me to say it, that was a pretty important home run. The Pirates, if you recall, were tied with the Yankees. The Blue Jays were losing, and even though it was Game Six, if they lost that game, I'm pretty sure Curt Schilling would have pitched Game Seven, and who knows what would have happened. But it's nowhere to be found. Third on the list was Roger Maris's sixty-first home run in 1961. Well, okay, but it didn't win a World Series.
This is what I'm talking about. We get so locked into the "conventional wisdom" that we just say, Sure, those guys know what they're talking about. So here's some things from the world of sports to chew on (remembering that I'm a homer):
The Yankees and Red Sox win all the time ONLY BECAUSE OF THE MONEY THEY SPEND. I'm sorry, but that's a fact. Yes, they have good players, and yes, they have good managers, but chop the payroll in half and they wouldn't be able to keep those players. The Phillies have a pretty good hitting team, but they couldn't afford good starting pitching this year. Most teams are in that boat. Not New York and Boston.
Some great college football teams you have heard of: Oklahoma in the 1950s, Nebraska in the 1970s, Miami and Florida State in the 1980s, Miami in the late 1990s and early 2000s, USC right now. Some great college football teams you haven't heard of (because they aren't sexy):
The University of Washington, 1908-1916. Okay, this is too old-school to mention, but UDub, coached by the legendary Gil Dobie, went 58-0-3 in nine years. Think about that, Miami and USC!
Penn State, 1968-1969. Penn State fans still hate Richard Nixon. Not because of his criminal "record," but because in 1969 he declared the winner of the Texas-Arkansas game the National Champion. This was in the regular season, mind you. Wimpy sportswriters didn't dare go against Tricky Dick (maybe they didn't want to get put on his enemies' list?) and they voted Texas the Champion. Penn State, at that time, was in the middle of 30 wins in a row. Ever heard of Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris? Yeah, they played for the Nittany Lions in those years.
Penn State, 1994. This still irks me. This was one of the great offenses in college football history. I'm stunned Kirk Herbstreit mentioned them on Game Day this past weekend in conjunction with debating whether USC has the greatest offense of all time. Kerry Collins, Bobby Engram, Ki-Jana Carter - they had no weaknesses on offense. They still are the team that hung the worst beating on Ohio State in Columbus, 63-14. They waltzed through the regular season and played bored against Oregon in the Rose Bowl and still stomped them, 38-20. So why aren't they National Champions? Because Paterno didn't want to run up the score. I'm serious. Late in the year, when they were ranked Number One, they had a big lead against Indiana, of all crappy teams. Paterno pulled everyone and the Hoosiers scored two late touchdowns and two two-point conversions. The last eight points came with no time on the clock, and PSU ended up winning by only three (I think). Anyway, idiot voters who didn't watch the game thought they had trouble with a pathetic team, and leapfrogged Nebraska over the Lions. This rarely happens today, because the theory is if you're ranked Number One, you have to lose to not be ranked Number One, but everyone felt bad for Tom Osborne because he hadn't won a National Championship and Paterno had won two. The bowl system meant they couldn't play each other, so instead of giving them a split Championship, which had happened in 1990 and 1991, Nebraska got the whole enchilada. And nobody ever mentions a great college football team.
Some great baseball teams no one talks about:
The Detroit Tigers, 1907-1909.
The Philadelphia Athletics, 1910-1914 and 1929-1931.
The New York Giants, 1922-1925.
The Cincinnati Reds, 1936-1940.
The St. Louis Cardinals, 1964-1968 (they get a little more publicity, because of Bob Gibson, but damn! they were excellent).
The Philadelphia Phillies, 1976-1983.
Oh, and Mike Schmidt is the greatest third baseman in baseball history. You can take Brooks Robinson and shove him someplace dark and lonely.
I have gone on way too long, and I apologize. It just bugs me when sports people repeat by rote what they have heard elsewhere. As I mentioned, it's too common a phenomenon elsewhere in society, too. It's fine to abide by the conventional wisdom, but at least question it before you become a disciple! Break free! Don't accept that:
Bucky Dent's home run is the most dramatic in Yankee history.
Carlton Fisk's home run in the 1975 World Series meant anything. The Red Sox LOST THE DAMNED THING!
Brett Favre is a great quarterback. He had always thrown way too many interceptions, and only now are people starting to call him on it.
Shaq is a good basketball player. If I were eight feet tall and weighed 400 pounds, I'd be pretty good too.
The Braves are a great team. Great teams win World Series, Atlanta. The Marlins have won more Series than you have during this "great" run of yours.
Any other conventional wisdom about sports you'd like to trash? Feel free!