Why our sports are buried in myths

Legends: In otherwise precise games of numbers, who is buried in the end zone or who pointed to the center-field seats are mythological diversions embraced by fans.

Sports and Myths

July 07, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

For nearly 30 years, the story has been retold, and it rings especially familiar to New York football fans. Beneath the end zone at Giants Stadium lies the body of Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamsters union chief who disappeared in Michigan one summer day in 1975 and was never heard from again.

Sportscasters still bring up the ghost of Hoffa when bad luck strikes the Giants or the Jets, who share the East Rutherford, N.J., facility as a home field.

Long before he became an expert on sports, culture and politics at Duke University, professor Grant Farred grew up as a rabid Giants fan and spent his share of Sundays at the Meadowlands. He said he never believed the Hoffa tale and does not recall how it got started.

But Farred has an acute appreciation for why the myth survives, even though it is debunked in the just-published book by Charles Brandt titled, I Heard You Paint Houses.

Brandt tells the life story of the late Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, a Mafia hit man who claims to have assassinated Hoffa at the behest of mob boss Russell Bufalino. Although he is not certain what happened to the corpse, Sheeran states confidently that the body is not interred at Giants Stadium.

The way Farred sees it, the Hoffa legend falls in line with countless others that overlap with the real world of sports - the world governed by irrefutable statistics and recorded precisely with cameras. And the willingness of people to accept and perpetuate such urban legends augments what we are witnessing.

`Let go of the normal'

"With sports, we see something that is bigger than us, more successful and stylish than us, and myths perpetuate in sports because sports is somewhat of a mythological practice to us," said Farred, who has written a book about Muhammad Ali, What's My Name?

"Sports is about mythological moments, triumphs of the body. It transforms the everyday into the special. We can't be sports fans if we don't let go of the normal."

Farred suspects the Hoffa legend has endured in part because of the organized crime history that permeates the New York-New Jersey corridor. Never mind the unlikely notion that the mob would risk detection by transporting Hoffa's remains from Michigan to the Jersey swamp. The tale is too juicy to kill.

"[The Hoffa legend] definitely refers to a connection to the underworld, and sports is partly about ethnicity," he said. "Myth is often tied to pain, especially in terms of New York sports."

From Castro to Ewing

Urban legends and sports seemingly have always interacted.

Heard the one about future Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro having been granted a tryout in the 1950s with the Washington Senators? Or the one that says the NBA rigged the 1985 draft lottery so the New York Knicks could select Patrick Ewing to ensure the league's top-rated rookie would play in the nation's largest television market? How about the oft-repeated rumor that the Washington Redskins had offered pro wrestling star Andre the Giant a contract during the 1970s?

Not true, not true and not true.

"These stories tend to attach themselves to larger-than-life characters, and sports figures are natural candidates. Sports in a way is the last vestige in our society of great, individual, physical exertion," said Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies and the author of The Meaning of Sports.

"History is about what happens. Legends are about the kinds of things that could have happened. It happens not to be true, but it could have been true."

Ruthian myths

Few stories have been as popularized as Babe Ruth's "called shot" in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. After Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root worked the count to two strikes, legend has it that Ruth held up two fingers, pointed to a flagpole in the center-field bleachers, then hit a monstrous home run to that spot.

Author Robert W. Creamer, who wrote an acclaimed Ruth biography 30 years ago, concluded Ruth did not call his home run and point before hitting it. But the tale is indelibly attached to the folklore that defines baseball's original slugger.

"It's a defining moment when you want to say an individual transcends history," Farred said. "We want to say there is someone who has such an excess of confidence that he knew what he was going to do before he did it. We love prescience."

Michael Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum, seconds that notion.

Gibbons said the called shot is among the most popular inquiries fielded at the museum. He recalled back in 1992, when the museum took numerous Babe Ruth artifacts on an 18-city, six-month tour, so many people clamored to watch the grainy, inconclusive, two-minute documentary depicting the famous home run.

"We took a vote and simply asked whether or not people believe the story, and 98 percent of the 40,000 voters who responded voted yes," Gibbons said. "They just want to believe."

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