These stars un­for­tu­nately for­got­ten

The Covington News - - Opinion - THOMAS SOW­ELL Thomas Sow­ell is a se­nior fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, Stan­ford Univer­sity, Stan­ford, CA 94305. His web­site is www.tsow­ell. com.

Three re­cent sports bi­ogra­phies, two about base­ball stars Stan Mu­sial and Hank Green­berg, and an­other about box­ing great Joe Louis, are not only in­ter­est­ing in them­selves, but also re­call an era that now seems as ir­re­triev­ably past as the Ro­man Em­pire.

They also raise ques­tions about who is re­mem­bered and why.

The St. Louis Car­di­nals' great hit­ter Stan Mu­sial was one of those stars who dom­i­nated his era in the 1940s and 1950s, and yet is al­most for­got­ten to­day, even among fans. Men­tion base­ball in the 1940s and 1950s, and the names that come to mind im­me­di­ately are Ted Wil­liams and Joe DiMag­gio.

Yet Mu­sial had a higher life­time bat­ting av­er­age than DiMag­gio, and Green­berg hit more home runs in a sea­son, and had more runs bat­ted in, than ei­ther Wil­liams or DiMag­gio.

Maybe the rea­son for the dif­fer­ence is that it is eas­ier to re­mem­ber some things when they are associated with other things. Wil­liams was the last .400 hit­ter and DiMag­gio’s 56-game hit­ting streak is a record that may never be bro­ken.

There are no sim­i­larly spec­tac­u­lar records associated with Green­berg or Mu­sial. Green­berg hit 58 home runs in a sea­son, so that two more would have tied Babe Ruth’s record at the time. Green­berg also had 183 runs bat­ted in, just one short of Lou Gehrig’s Amer­i­can League record. But close only counts when pitch­ing horse­shoes or throw­ing hand grenades.

Mark Kurlan­sky’s bi­og­ra­phy says in its pref­ace, “Hank Green­berg was a base­ball player who hit a lot of home runs be­fore most of us were born.” But not all of us. The long­est home run I ever saw was hit by Green­berg, deep into Yan­kee Sta­dium’s third deck, back when it was 415 feet down the left field foul line.

The book about Mu­sial is ti­tled “Stan Mu­sial: An Amer­i­can Life” by Ge­orge Vec­sey. It is more about his life than about base­ball. In it, Mu­sial re­calls that, back in his child­hood, cre­at­ing mis­chief far from his own neigh­bor­hood was still risky, be­cause rel­a­tives who lived in other neigh­bor­hoods would not hes­i­tate to grab you and spank your be­hinds.

Ah, but we are so much more en­light­ened to­day, or are we? Will any­one ever call us “the great­est gen­er­a­tion”?

The cover of the re­cent book about Louis, by Randy Roberts, sim­ply says “Joe Louis,” a name with enor­mous im­pact in his era. It too is more about the life of the man, and the great but for­got­ten role he played in Amer­i­can race re­la­tions.

Joe Louis was the first black hero of white Amer­i­cans, as well as black Amer­i­cans. The dig­nity and sports­man­ship with which he con­ducted him­self had much to do with chang­ing the im­age of black peo­ple, and even­tu­ally open­ing many doors for them.

Louis en­gaged in none of the cheap, show-off an­tics that have be­come all too com­mon among box­ers of a later era.

With all his fine qual­i­ties, Joe Louis also had his flaws as both a man and a boxer. Au­thor Randy Roberts cov­ers both the good and the bad, and clearly sees the good as far more pre­dom­i­nant.

The cen­tral box­ing dra­mas of Joe Louis’ ca­reer were his two fights with Max Sch­mel­ing. In the first fight, when Louis was a new young sen­sa­tion burst­ing onto the box­ing scene, and clearly headed to­ward a cham­pi­onship fight, he still had both de­fen­sive vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and an over-con­fi­dence born of his un­bro­ken string of vic­to­ries.

The older and canny Sch­mel­ing stud­ied Louis' fights, spot­ted his flaws and took ad­van­tage of them to score an up­set knock­out. As Louis’ own man­ager said at the time, it was prob­a­bly the best thing that could have hap­pened to a young Joe Louis.

That de­feat got Louis’ full at­ten­tion, fo­cused his mind, and dom­i­nated his work. So in­tense was Louis’ fo­cus on vin­di­ca­tion that, be­fore the sec­ond fight, he con­fessed to an as­ton­ished friend that he was scared, scared that he might kill Sch­mel­ing.

As it turned out, he sent Sch­mel­ing to the hos­pi­tal, af­ter a dev­as­tat­ing one-round knock­out that shocked the box­ing au­di­ence.


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