Posts Tagged ‘Iliad’

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.

Baseball as Myth: an Introduction

April 26, 2010

Back around the beginning of the month I asked for some input into ball players who transcended baseball and became almost mythological figures. I got some good responses and have used the time to sit around (any excuse to sit around is welcome) and contemplate. So I’m going to take a look over the next few days at some specifics, but today I want to give something of a background to explain what’s about to go on.

Back in the 1920’s Milman Parry began studying epic myth and laid the foundations for modern study of mythology. His specific work dealt with the Homeric poems, especially the Iliad. Without going into any kind of detail that can and probably will bore readers to tears, what Parry discovered was that there was a certain amount of sameness to what was going on. Serb heroic poetry (what Parry initially studied) sounded a lot like Homer and he began to work on figuring out why.

Parry’s work ultimately led to Joseph Campbell’s major works on world mythology. Campbell stepped away from the specifics of either the Serbs or the Greeks and began to look at overall trends. I don’t want to mislead and make you believe that Campbell figured this out all by himself. There were a lot of people who came to conclusions that were much alike at much the same time. Campbell popularized the information so that it was available for people like me and all other non-specialists to read and understand.

There were a number of conclusions. For our purposes the most significant was that mythology deals with universal types of people. In other words, most myths revolve around types rather than actual people. There’s the all-knowing leader who is above the riff raff, the wanderer, the trickster, the doomed youth, and others. Pick a mythological cycle in any two societies and you see the same types emerge no matter how far apart geographically the societies are. (I’m vastly oversimplifying this so don’t take it as Gospel.). Some figures, such as Odysseus in Greek mythology, can hold more than one role (wanderer and trickster).

I will argue that baseball comes up with the same types to create its myths. Over the next few posts I want to give some examples of players who fall into some of the groups. My guess is that most of you, upon reading the above, will be able to figure who’s going where before even reading those posts. You’ll  probably also agree and disagree with my conclusions. Feel free to comment, but beware. As one of the all-knowing leaders above the riff raff I may toss a lightning bolt in your direction.