Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Guest Essay: Six Great Underdog Stories, by Daniel James Brown



*Our thanks to Daniel James Brown--whose Boys in the Boat was one of our Best History Books of the Year So Far selections--for sharing with us his "Six Greatest Underdogs in History."

Boys-in-boatThere may be no faster way to get in trouble with one’s fellow sports fans than to pick the world’s greatest anything. No matter how obscure the category, everyone has an opinion--the greatest minor league catcher of all time, the greatest walk-on collegiate wide-end, the greatest U.S.-born NHL goalie, and so on. In the right crowd, I bet I could provoke a pretty good argument by proclaiming someone or other the best non-French-speaking Pétanque player of the late 1990s. Nevertheless, I am about to wade into these shark-infested waters.

Writing my most recent book has got me reflecting on how certain sports figures and teams sometimes seem to embody the unique spirit of a particular era in history. That certainly was the case with the young Americans I celebrate in The Boys in the Boat. They were classic underdogs. A rough and tumble bunch of working class boys from the Pacific Northwest, in the midst of the Great Depression they won Olympic glory by defeating first the well-heeled Ivy-league crews of the East, then the aristocratic British oarsmen of Oxford and Cambridge, and finally a hand-picked Nazi crew in Berlin. In a time when all the cards seemed stacked against the little guy, they came to represent the spirit that carried a generation of young Americans through the Depression and World War Two. 

So with that in mind, here’s a list of the six American sports underdogs who I believe best reflect something essential about the particular times in which they lived:

#6. Cassius Clay. It’s almost impossible nowadays to imagine the extraordinarily voluble Mohamed Ali--the self proclaimed “Greatest” boxer ever to live--as having once been an underdog. But when he stepped into the ring with Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964 he was, in fact--despite a 19-0 record--a 7-1 underdog among the odds makers. When he stepped out of the ring as a twenty-two-year-old champion of the world that night everything was suddenly different about American boxing. Ali, as he soon became, was something new under the sun, and the way he conducted himself hinted at the vast social changes that were about to rock the U.S. He refused to fight in Vietnam, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”; he converted to Islam and pounded opponents in the ring when they refused to call him by his Islamic name; he exuded the youth and confidence and grace of a new generation; and most important he embodied a brash new attitude among young black Americans—a refusal to bow and scrape ever again, as their fathers and uncles had done. 

Seabiscuit#5. Seabiscuit. The little misshapen horse from the western racing circuit was easy to ignore. He lost his first seventeen races. He was knobby at the knees and crooked in the legs. He slept and ate prodigiously and appeared disinclined to exert himself. He lost his first seventeen races. In every way, he seemed unremarkable. But that is exactly why he became an American legend when he finally began to win—and win big. Like my boys in the boat, he stood in as a proxy for ordinary Americans ravaged by the Great Depression—the little guy, the ordinary guy, the guy who maybe had a bum knee or hadn’t ever had a break in his life. He was plain, unremarkable, average. Until he decided to start running. Then he reminded the world just how remarkable the average American could be.

#4. The 1969 New York Mets. OK, my selection this one may be influenced just a wee bit by the context in which I watched the World Series that year. Going into the season, the lowly Mets had never finished higher than ninth in the National League. As recently as 1962 they had lost a twentieth century record 120 games. Prior to 1969, they had only once been over .500 after the third game in the season. That was the context for what happened in the fall of 1969. I watched the final game of the series that year on a small black-and-white TV in the student union at the University of California Berkeley along with several thousand of my fellow students. Now Berkeley in 1969 was not just any campus, of course. Revolution was in the air. When Cleon Jones snagged Davey Johnson’s fly ball in left field to end game five and give the Mets the title, the crowd erupted with a sort of primal howl of jubilation that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anywhere since. You would have thought the revolution had been won. Certainly the Mets were no revolutionaries. But somehow it just seemed so right. The times they were a changing.

Soccer#3. The 1950 U.S. Soccer Team. It seemed nothing short of a miracle when a rag-tag bunch of part-time American soccer players shut out mighty England 1-0 in a first round World Cup match in 1950. England came into World Cup play as 3-1 favorites to go all the way. Since the end of the World War Two, they had lost only four of thirty games. The Americans came in at 500-1 odds. The Brits were universally hailed as “the kings of football.” The Americans were part-time players and full-time teachers, mailmen, and even a hearse driver. When the Americans surprisingly took a 1-0 lead in the first half, spectators assumed the English would quickly exact a bloody retribution. And indeed, for the next sixty-five minutes, the British, fired shot after shot at the American goalie, Frank Borghi, a former minor-league baseball catcher. Diving right, diving left, leaping high in the air as balls rocketed in from all quarters of the field, Borghi batted them all away until the clock finally ran out. As the news rattled out across the wires. the New York Times refused to print the score, believing it was a hoax. In London, readers of the morning papers assumed the 1-0 score was a typo, that it should have read 10-0 England. Neither team won the World Cup that year, but the American victory reinforced what was quickly becoming evident to the British—that in the wake of the world war the Yanks were the new big kid on the block.

#2. The 1966 Texas Western Miners. The Miners weren’t strictly an underdog—at least not when measured only by the numbers. Coming into the 1966 NCAA Tournament, in fact, they were 23-1 and ranked third in the nation. But make no mistake, when they went up against the top-ranked Wildcats of Kentucky in the championship game they were underdogs indeed. The Wildcats were an all white team by policy. The Texas Western Miners were the only school in the country with five black starters, and that in itself made them serious underdogs in 1966. Coach Don Haskins put only black players on the court that night, and when the Miners won the national title 72-65, it began to change the face of collegiate basketball. Haksins endured hate mail and death threats in the aftermath of the game, but coming as it did in the midst of the larger Civil Rights movement, the game both reflected and helped accelerate the country’s movement away from segregation and racial intolerance.

Hockey#1. The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team. Do you remember? Can you still hear Al Michaels calling the final moments of the US vs USSR game--“The puck is still loose! Eleven seconds. You’ve got ten seconds! The countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”? It was so compelling that many today forget that the game wasn’t actually for a gold medal, though it led to gold against Finland days later. The Soviets entered the Olympics having amassed a 27-1-1 record in the previous four Olympics, all of which culminated in gold medals for them. In the last exhibition game before the Olympics, the Soviet team crushed the Americans 10-3. Their roster included several of the most legendary figures in international hockey and several active duty Soviet military figures. The American team was, in essence, a bunch of college kids from the University of Minnesota and Boston University. So the “Miracle on Ice” on February 22, 1980 could not have been any more electrifying. But what earns it its top spot on this list is that it gave form and substance to what was happening in the larger world. After decades of cold war, the Soviet Union was already beginning to stumble toward its ultimate demise. They just didn’t know it yet. The American kids on the ice that day showed them what was coming.



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