Posts Tagged ‘Achilles’

Baseball as Myth: The Doomed Youth

April 27, 2010

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.

Taking on the Babe

February 28, 2010

It was fascinating to watch Barry Bonds in the first five or so years of the 21st Century. Forgetting for a minute about steroids, and hat sizes, and all those questions, focus for a moment on his quest to best Babe Ruth. He seems, at least to me, to have had a greater desire to top Ruth than he did to top Aaron. He might tell you different, but that’s at least my perception. Well, it was never in the cards for him to best Ruth, because he wasn’t taking on one man, he was taking on two: Babe Ruth and BABE RUTH!!!!! (to be said in deep stentorian tones, with awe, slowly, and deeply–Think James Earl Jones on a really good day).

Babe Ruth the baseball player was easy for Bonds to take on. There were numbers he could attack. There were 714 home runs, there was a slugging percentage, there were walks, there were runs, there were total bases. There were all those numbers and Bonds could attack them and either win or lose. You can take the two men, line their numbers up side by side and decide it Bonds came out on top. You can do that with or without the steroids issue as you desire and make your own conclusion.

But Bonds could never top BABE RUTH!!!!! (said in the same tones as before). You see BABE RUTH!!!!! (James Earl Jones again) isn’t a person, he’s a myth and you can’t top myths. He is Seigfried slaying Fafnir. He is Achilles at the gates of Troy.  He is standing at home plate in the World Series pointing to center field and parking the next pitch there. He is able to tell a sick kid he’ll hit a home run for the kid the that day and then do so. BABE RUTH!!!!! ( for a change, imagine Charlton Heston’s voice here) can hit a home run in Alabama that stops in Louisiana. He can walk into a school and order the principal to shut it down so kids can play ball and the principal will do it. He can play in the first All Star Game and manage to hit the first home run. When the Japanese in World War II want to ridicule Americans it is “Screw Babe Ruth” not FDR. He will sign autographs for kids for hours after a game, free of charge. He can stay up all night with four hookers, down a fifth of gin for breakfast, show up at the ballpark a half hour before the game, wolf down three hotdogs all in one bite, then hit three home runs on two pitches. He can step into a ward full of paralized children and three of them will “take up their bed and walk”  (well, maybe not walk, but at least wiggle their toes). In an age of heroes there is Red Grange and Charles Lindburgh and Jack Dempsey, and then there is (drum roll please) BABE RUTH!!!!! and he is greater than all of them combined. He is all these things and more. Heck, they even make movies about his life. He is  (say it with me now) BABE RUTH!!!!!  and he is next to God himself and in some corners the order is debatable.

And Barry Bonds, well, no matter how good he was he was never going to be BABE RUTH!!!!! (by now you’re getting the hang of how to say this, right?). Bonds wasn’t legendary, he was a ballplayer. They have a word to describe a larger-than-life feat in American sport, not just in baseball. It’s Ruthian. It was never going to become Bondsian. And Bonds never seemed to understand that he might be a heck of a ballplayer (and he was) but he could never be (get ready for it) BABE RUTH!!!!! in any tone of voice.