In which I continue to make a feminist case for my sports fandom the old-fashioned way--with a Top Ten List. It's coming to you in a series of posts. Consider this my response to well-meaning friends who look at me incredulously and point out that the sports world is saturated with macho posturing; it frequently excuses the bad behavior of its heroes; it celebrates brute force; it's history is poisoned by cheating and drug-use; and it is often actively and explicitly hostile to women.
Because, folks, I still love sports and I love being a sports fan.
Need to catch up on my other reasons why I'm both a feminist and a sports fans? Check it:
#6: SPORTS HONOR THEIR HISTORY
There's a lot of talk about how we live in ahistorical times ... hence the foggy thinking about Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan; and the public's continual rediscovery of sexuality, of teenagers, of poverty, of political protest.
Sports culture counters all that. It thrives on cause-and-effect. Practicing very hard causes you to get a home-run, which causes you to score, which causes your team to win the baseball game. At the same time, sports is hyper-aware of itself existing in time. Baseball is unusual in that it's one of the only sports that plays without a clock. In just about every other game, you're not just playing against your opponent; you're playing against time. How many seconds there are left to play influences how you play the game.
This may be why, then, sports fans are so aware of their history, why the community honors that history and the people who are part of it. The proliferation of hall of fames, sports movies that are based on true stories, and of enthusiastic lists--like the Top 10 Greatest Black Athletes in the History of Ever and Ten Best Damn Unforgettable Sports Moments illustrates this.
History is, of course, a story, so perhaps it is best to illustrate the significance of history in sports by telling a few:
Althea Gibson. Before Serena, before Venus, even before Arthur Ashe, there was Althea.
In 2007, the U.S. Open celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Althea Gibson's championship. Hosted by tennis legend Billie Jean King, a crowd of 25,000 cheered as a large plaque that tells Gibson's story was unveiled. There was a choir. There was an accomplished group of pioneering athletes of today on hand to pay tribute.
It was the least they could do to thank Gibson who, back in 1957, was the very first to integrate the top tier tennis championship (male or female)--and Gibson killed it, defeating, among others, the reigning Wimbledon champion.
See Althea holding court--and the tennis ceremony that pays tribute to its history--here.
Gibson, a Harlem native who was the daughter of a sharecropper, would also play at Wimbledon herself--the first black athlete to do so. She didn't win that first year, but she came back to take not one, but two titles. Other feathers in her cap? She won 56 singles and doubles titles in her amateur career, and eleven major titles as a pro, including the singles title at the French Open (first black athlete to win); and two titles at the U.S. Open (again, the first black athlete to win), as well as three consecutive doubles titles at the French Open. She was twice named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year (the first black athlete to be so named). And, oh wait, Gibson was also played a bit of pro golf. In 1963, she was the first black athlete to join the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association).
She was talented and a trailblazer who fought her way to prominence in a lily-white, segregated sport. She was tough--a ferociously aggressive player--and full of heart. And the sports world will remember. She has a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her story is told again and again and again to new generations. Gibson's 1958 autobiography--published when she was at the top of her game--is I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. My god, Althea, you are somebody. We won't forget.
Ernie Harwell. Ernie Harwell is a golden-voiced legend, a sports broadcaster who narrated fifty-five years of baseball games--42 of them with the Detroit Tigers. Because sports people love nicknames, Ernie has become the "Voice of Summer," a voice that generations listened to on little radios in their backyard. We thrilled to his yelps when he called the Tigers to two World Series championships; his calm, patient voice calmed us down during the disappointments. It is mostly because he was always there that we loved him so much. While Ernie retired in 2003, he's remained a Detroit sports fixture--literally, in the bronze statue at Comerica Park, and also through his local sports columns and his appearances at games.
But it was when the 91-year-old man announced in September that he has inoperable cancer that his significance in sports history--that is, in real people's lives--came to the fore.
Ernie came to the ballpark to say good-bye to his fans for the last time. It's hard to not cry along with him while watching the video of that day. He's so impossibly good-hearted, so steady, so lacking in ego, so full of love for the game and so beloved by millions.
When I told (Ernie), no, that there was more in his 50-plus years of calling baseball games on the radio -- something reassuring and wonderful and honest and warm and ... well, he just cut me off with a grateful smile. I'm just a failed newspaperman, he said.
"It isn't me that people love, he said. "It's baseball"
"I don't know what to say. I started following the Tigers as a nine
year old in the magical summer of 1961, listening to and watching (black and white, of course) Ernie Harwell and George Kell. Ernie has
always been part of my life. How can he leave me now? I thought he
would never leave me. Is it OK to tear up?" — faygokid
"Ernie, you are such an outstanding role model. I treasure my memory of
your graciousness when I asked for an autograph at a Tiger's game a few
years ago. You will be in my thoughts as you go through this new challenge." — Barb Moors
"Ernie Harwell is the reason I have a lifelong love (at age 56) of both
baseball and radio, the latter of which has been my occupation for more
than three decades. It's always thrilling when your heroes turn out to
be wonderful people. You'll never meet anyone with more class. Thanks
for the inspiration kind sir and God Bless You..." — MisterEarl
Individual and collective memory is huge in sports. It is, indeed, treasured. At the same time, there's a profound social resonance to the history that sports honor. This is implicit in Althea's groundbreaking story, as well as Ernie's (when one considers all he's seen through the decades of baseball in Detroit and America). But consider also:
Jackie Robinson. Fifty years to the day after Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in pro baseball, halfway through the game at Shea Stadium in New York, there was a ceremony to honor Robinson's role in revolutionizing the sport ... and an unexpected announcement. MLB commissioner Bud Selig--standing alongside Robinson's wife, daughter, grandson, President Bill Clinton, and the grandson of the man who signed Robinson to pro ball-- says this:
No single person is bigger than the game. No single person other than Jackie Robinson.
Selig holds up Robinson's famous Dodgers jersey--number 42--and announces that no major league baseball team will ever again issue number 42, as an ongoing tribute to Robinson. This is totally unprecedented. And please understand, if you're not a sports fan, that this is the best way sports world knows how to honor its heroes. A legendary player might have his team retire his number as a tribute to him; that happens rarely and is a great honor. To have every team retire Robinson's number acknowledges that every one of us owes a debt to the courage and persistence Robinson had in his ten seasons in pro baseball. He played in six World Series', including the Dodgers' 1955 championship. He played in six All-Star games, won Rookie of the Year, and was named the National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. Through horrific intimidation and threats, he not only endured--he triumphed.
At that original ceremony, before 40,000 fans, Clinton put it very well:
Today every American should give special thanks to Jackie Robinson ... and to all Jackie's teammates with the Dodgers for what they did. This is a better, stronger, and richer country when we all work together and give everybody a chance.
Clinton pauses, and then goes on:
He scored the go-ahead run that first day in the major leagues and we've been trying to catch up with him ever since.
Watch Robinson play--accompanied by an adorable old-timey song written in his honor--here.
Sports fans tell the stories of their history every day. The past creates the present, and it is in a spirit of reverence that the sports community looks back at those who came before. "I was there!" is a thrilled exclamation of a fan who witnessed a meaningful game, a potent play, a revolutionary athlete, or beloved broadcaster.
Perhaps more acutely than folks in other realms, sports fans are conscious of their history and are eager to be participants in it. We feel our connection to the past and the future. We are watchful for the moments that will be remembered by sports fans of the next generation, and we are eager to tell the stories of what we saw and what inspired us with awe.
"I was there!"
About the Images:
First photo pictures the South Bend Blue Sox, of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The pro league for female players lived from 1943-1954. Its history was commemorated in the film, "A League of Their Own."
Second photo pictures Althea Gibson in action.
Third photo pictures Ernie Harwell, raising his arms in pride as he enters Comerica Park to say his final good-bye to baseball fans; via the Detroit Free Press.
Fourth photo pictures Ernie Harwell with Tigers fans before a game with the Yankees.
Fifth photo pictures Jackie Robinson with Branch Rickey, the man who signed him to pro baseball in April, 1947;
via Sporting News.
Final photo pictures Jackie Robinson in action, sliding into home; via the Dallas Observer.
*** My list is primarily focusing on professional sports... though I trust you smart people can extrapolate easily enough about how this same feminist reasoning applies to collegiate, school, community, and youth leagues.