Sports are not usually the context in which most of us contemplate something as
weighty as posterity. We fans are mostly caught up in daily arguments over a particular
play or player or game or trade or hire or controversy. But when my mother passed away
several months ago it got me to thinking about who would remember her once I and my
two daughters, the only people who knew her well, were gone and about how evanescent
our lives really are. Which got me to thinking about how even famous people rapidly
disappear from the national consciousness. Which, in a roundabout way, got me to
thinking about sports.
The sobering fact is that if our personal memories are short so is our national
memory. My daughters, who are in their early 20s, scarcely know the great movie stars of
the 70s and 80s – Redford and Newman and Streisand and Hoffman – much less the great
stars of the 30s, 40s and 50s. Names like Cagney, Stewart, Gable and Lombard mean
nothing to them.
Similarly, very few of the great writers, painters and composers of the last century
have survived in memory. We know Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald largely
because they are the primary triumvirate in college courses in modern American
literature. But you have only to glance at a list of Nobel Prize winners to see how few
figures have endured. Imre Kertesz? Wislawa Szymborska? Camilo Jose Cela? I rest my
case. As for painters, most people know Picasso, but as David Wells amply demonstrated
during a World Series post-game show in which he called Cliff Lee the “Picasso of
Pitching,” it is the name we know, not the art.
Even politicians are all but forgotten once they have shed their mortal coil. We
remember certain presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan –
because there are historians invested in them and their historical role, but we aren’t likely
to remember anyone else – senators, congressmen, governors -- however great their
And yet there is one category of individual that we do seem to remember – one
group that sticks in the national mind over the course of years, decades, even centuries.
We remember athletes. The names John L. Sullivan, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Man O’War,
Red Grange, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jim Brown, and on and on and on
are still recognizable to many if not most Americans, long after their contemporaries in
other fields have faded into oblivion. Muhammad Ali last held the heavyweight boxing
championship in 1979, 32 years ago, yet I doubt there are more than a handful of
Americans who don’t know and revere him.
Sports achievements aren’t necessarily larger than achievements in the arts and
politics, but they loom larger in the culture. One reason, no doubt, is that they lie on a
continuum of clear, quantifiable attainment – a chronicle of records that keep getting
broken and in the process bears witness to our own sense of progress. Unlike artists and
politicians, athletes have statistics to help keep them alive. Their accomplishments are
fungible in a way that most other people’s are not.
On the other hand, we suspect that statistics never tell the whole story, which
leaves room for fans to engage, speculate and debate – Who was better: Unitas or
Manning? -- in ways that also keep athletes from the past alive. Either way, statistically
confirmed or not, athletes represent our potential and our triumphs, not only over the laws
of physics but also over the past or, for nostalgists, over the present.
And then there is the aesthetics of sport. Athletes provide us with those rare,
exhilarating moments of grace, endurance or courage that show us human possibility:
Willie Mays’ catch, Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, Secretariat’s Belmont, Ali versus
Frazier, Michael Jordan’s “flu game” against Utah in the NBA Finals. These scenes keep
playing over and over and over again on the screens of our minds for good reason. There
is very little in human experience that elicits the same sense of vicarious joy these
moments do – very little that takes us outside ourselves in quite the same ecstatic way.
For many of us, it is the closest we will get to godliness. Who wouldn’t want to be
reminded of those glorious moments that seem to sanctify our existence?
But as powerful as these forces of history and beauty are, perhaps the biggest
reason that athletes endure in the national memory is social: we know they are one of the
only elements in our divisive culture that can bind us. We remember them because in
doing so we are consciously reinforcing a sense of continuity and community that we can
find nowhere else – not in art or politics or family. E pluribus sportum.
Just as fans from disparate places, races, religions, economic strata, values and
politics come together to root for their team, dissolving their differences, sports writ large
unites us all – and not just in time but over time. (For anyone who wants, rightfully, to
cite racism in sport as a refutation of this notion, just remember than Jackie Robinson
integrated baseball long before the rest of America was integrated.) Sports are our
national glue, athletes our great unifiers. They allow us to share both our emotions and
our memories. We remember them to enjoy the best of us and to experience the sense of
there being an “us.” We forget them at the peril of our commonality.
One can probably best test this proposition by applying it to one’s own family.My father was
no sports fan. Far from it. But I remember as I child coaxing him to take me to the games I
loved, and I remember him telling me about the time he was a boy and got Luke Appling’s
autograph (Appling sternly warned him not to use the signature on a check) or the time he
saw Babe Ruth play, and I remember how close I felt to him at those moments and how I
thought I would pass these stories on to my own children someday.
Similarly, I took my older daughter to the old Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, when
she was 10 or 11 – though admittedly not at her urging -- and we caught a glimpse of
my boyhood hero, Sandy Koufax, which prompted a short dissertation from me on Koufax’s
greatness that my daughter still recalls, albeit with eye rolls. I have no doubt that some
day, when she has children, she will tell them about meeting Mike Piazza that same
afternoon while I tell them about … Koufax. And so it goes, from generation to generation
to generation, each accumulating new memories to trade and share and argue over – memories
that mediate between the generations both in one’s family and for one’s nation.
And that’s why, I think, we remember our athletes even as we forget nearly
everyone else. We know deep down that if we don’t keep them alive, they not only
disappear but our sense of community will too.