Baseball as Myth: The Doomed Youth

One of the more common types in world mythology is the doomed youth. Sometimes he’s seen as the doomed warrior. The basic plot goes something like this. The young man (it’s always a man) is very heroic and very brave and is going to die at a young age. Sometimes he knows it, sometimes he doesn’t.  Whether he does or doesn’t, he goes out and like a good hero bravely reacts to whatever situation faces him, although eventually he will die. There are a lot of good examples of this but two are most familiar: Achilles and Siegfried. The Achilles of the Iliad  knows that if he goes to Troy to fight he will die, but goes anyway because he knows that he will be eternally famous. Siegfried on the other hand doesn’t know he will die young, but goes about doing heroic deeds like slaying Fafner the dragon until Hagan stabs him in the back. (BTW you might want to look at the Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied, not the Wagnerian hero of the operas to get a better view of the figure.)

Well, baseball has its doomed youth also. Addie Joss died young, so did Jimmie Sebring. Herb Score didn’t die, but he was hurt so bad that his career ended prematurely. Those are the kinds of situations that baseball brings to the doomed youth scenario. For the sport, there are two premier figures that moved into myth this way.

Lou Gehrig is much the more tragic because he actually did die. Much of the tragedy of Gehrig is that it was his body, the very thing on which is fame and glory rested, that let him down. He is struck down at the height of that fame and glory. And in the midst of this tragedy he goes to his doom with grace and dignity. It helps his legend that he plays for the most famous team (the Yankees) on the biggest stage (New York) and is one of the handful of players who define the team.

The other more recent player who fits this mold is Sandy Koufax. Koufax’s story is less tragic because he lives. His problem is an arthritic elbow, not a deadly problem, but certainly a career ending condition. Again, at the top of his form and fame he is forced off the stage. There is of course a difference, the decision is voluntary. And here you have a variation on the doomed youth theme in that the youth voluntarily steps off the stage, but also does it with great dignity. As I said on the introductory post, these are not going to be exact copies of myths because they involve real people. Koufax, like Gehrig, is also helped by playing for one of the more famous teams (the Dodgers) in baseball and by playing on one of its biggest stages (Los Angeles).

In fairness, it’s not all about the doomed youth. Both men played for famous franchises and were spectacular players. That can’t be overlooked. But in my opinion that isn’t the only reason they remain staples of baseball’s pantheon. Another part of the reason is the loss so soon of such great talent.

So in some ways both men become legends for what we lost as much as for what they actually accomplished. That’s part of the whole idea of losing a young talented leader, of a doomed youth.

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One Response to “Baseball as Myth: The Doomed Youth”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I like your choices, and love the concept. My vote goes to Brooklyn OF Pete Reiser. He “sacrificed” his body numerous times, crashing into walls to make catches. He was enormously talented when he came up, but injuries, and an Army stint during WWII (serving his country as Achilles served his) undermined a once-promising career.
    Another interesting post, Bill

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