Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wide World of Sports

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, November 30, 2006:
This morning’s sports headlines and talk radio were dominated by Headbandgate, the struggle for power in which Chicago Bulls’ head coach Scott Skiles benched star center Ben Wallace for wearing a headband, in violation of club policy. This may serve as, if not a sure sign of the impending apocalypse, then a defining moment in my life as a fan. The sports world is too much with us, making the lost world of pushball, subject of my previous column, seem appallingly attractive.

Sport matters. So do the individuals or teams of high character and winning ways whose exploits may move multitudes to raise them to the level of heroes, and in the process stand a bit taller themselves. But in the cult of celebrity that grips us now, the routine activities of ordinary men are more amply analyzed than the greatest feats in all the world’s history of sport.

For sport to retain its power to inspire, we may now wish to squelch the noise of what any fan, upon a moment’s reflection, will agree doesn’t matter. One institution has sprung up that is dedicated to cutting through the clutter to recognize the great champions of sport, in some cases famous long ago but little recalled today. The World Sports Hall of Fame (WSHF) launched its website last week and invites global participation in a selection process for the greatest athletes of all sports, all nations, and all time, from Milo of Krotona to Michael of Air Jordan. [see:]

The WSHF, a not-for-profit institution incorporated in Canada, aims to bring attention to the single activity that links all mankind in passionate interest and good feeling. With a mission of “building mutual respect for national cultures through the international love of sport,” the WSHF will also, in the language posted on its home page, “serve as a supporting body for national and regional sports archives, websites, and recreational organizations for purposes of education and community development.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, I serve on this body’s executive committee.)

There are halls of fame for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and almost any other sport you can name ... but until now none for the world of sport. Why, one might ask, do we need another? The quick A-to-Z quiz below may provide an answer: match the athlete, in each case a famed champion in his or her day and thus a candidate for WSHF enshrinement, with sport and nationality; the guess is that you will fall far short of a perfect score. [Answers are provided at the end.]

Vasiliy Alekseyev Wrestling Poland
Aleisha Cline Cycling USA
Alfredo DeOro Cricket France

Pierre Etchebaster Track & Field Spain
Niki Lauda Skiing Sweden
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Billiards India
Ingemar Stenmark Auto Racing Austria
Major Taylor Extreme Sports Canada
Qu Yunxia Tennis China
Stanislaus Zbyszko Weightlifting USSR

The first WSHF induction class consists of far more celebrated names than these — from Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth to Gordie Howe and Bill Russell and more — but the quiz illustrates the point that great athletes come from everywhere, and that the heroes of other nations may well have stories to tell us that are more compelling than Headbandgate or Steroidgate.

How do the WSHF organizers unearth not only the athletes but even the sports that may one day be honored in its Valhalla? There are many sources, of course, but a surprisingly fruitful one has been the world’s trading cards, an infallible guide to who were the heroes of bygone days. The cards provide a veritable archaeological site for understanding sport and society.

The big four American team sports, plus tennis, golf, NASCAR, and other individual pursuits, have not always been the focus of this nation’s ardor, let alone the world’s. (We will set to one side for this column British cigarette cards celebrating stars of cricket, soccer, tennis, etc.) Only a century ago, when trading cards were given away with cigarettes rather than with candy or bubble gum — and never sold by themselves — football, hockey, golf, and tennis were barely represented and basketball not at all. Baseball was dominant, but card sets to then had featured champions of billiards, boxing, sharpshooting, pedestrianism, sculling, bowling, and horseracing.

Before the turn of the century, champion walker Edward Weston or sharpshooter Annie Oakley, jockey Isaac Murphy or oarsman Ned Hanlan were culture heroes of a greater magnitude than any baseball or football player. And boxer John L. Sullivan was the most famous man in North America in any field of endeavor. Collegiate football was becoming a national obsession by the late 1880s, but aside from an 1894 set of 36 players from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the only football player depicted in a card set was Captain Henry Beecher of Yale in the 1888 Goodwin Champions, a 50-card set containing only 8 baseball players.

Forty-five years later the Goudey Gum Company issued a 48-card “Sport Kings” set that spoke to the country’s changed tastes while honoring stars of the past, too. The checklist includes the first basketball cards ever (Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joe Lapchick, Eddie Burke); the first pro football cards (Red Grange and Jim Thorpe, although both were honored more for their amateur accomplishments); the first U.S. issued hockey cards (Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz, Ace Bailey, Ching Johnson); swimmers Helene Madison, Johnny Weissmuller, and Duke Kahanamoku; skater Irving Jaffee and hurdler Babe Didrickson. There were tennis players, aviators, jockeys, cyclists, wrestlers, golfers, billiardists, skiers, even a speedboat racer and a dogsled champion.

If the WSHF has a compact model for its eventual composition, this card set is it. Today’s arena of sport stars seems impoverished by comparison. Think of how one might compose a 48-card set of today’s North American “sport kings” and queens ... and then there are the sports the rest of the world plays!

The World Sports Hall of Fame may just be what we need now.

Vasiliy Alekseyev Weightlifting USSR

Aleisha Cline Extreme Sports Canada
Alfredo DeOro Billiards Spain
Pierre Etchebaster Tennis France

Niki Lauda Auto Racing Austria
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Cricket India
Ingemar Stenmark Skiing Sweden

Major Taylor Cycling USA
Qu Yunxia Track & Field China
Stanislaus Zbyszko Wrestling Poland

--John Thorn


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