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Put away your history books. Jerry Ballgame has a real history lesson for you.

….you print the legend.

Movie buffs out there will likely recognize that line from the 1962 movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”. The classic western which starred John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin as the title character, pivots on the fact that what we believe to be true is often far more important than what the truth actually is (Sort of like Fox News…). Some of you younger, more hip individuals may recognize the line from the two comedy specials Robert Wuhl did for HBO in ’06 and ’07 (“Assume The Position”), dealing with how accepted pop culture often becomes historical fact. It also got me thinking about the collection of quotes, phrases, stories, and associations I have have accumulated since I first started following sports by my father’s side, back during the Eisenhower presidency, and whether or not they were true, or if I just accepted them as such.

Some of my favorites deal with the man I consider to be the greatest athlete of all-time, or at least of the last sixty years or so, namely Jim Brown. Brown had a mean streak and incredible speed, combined with his 6’2″, 230 pound frame, that made tackling him a difficult task even for groups of defenders. It also prompted one reporter to comment that, “Brown was the only football player I’d ever seen who looked bigger with his uniform off, then with it on.” Another reporter once asked of Brown why it was he never celebrated when he scored a touchdown, and his now famous reply was, “Because I want to act like I’d been there before.” That line, in some variation or another, has been repeated a great many times over the past several decades, but surely had to begin with him. Jim Brown was one of a series of outstanding running backs, including Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, to go through Syracuse, who all wore ’44’. Legend has it that John Mackey (who went onto greatness at Baltimore as a tight end) was given ’88’, because he was going to be twice as good. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes for a good story.

The greatest player that ever lived also had some very memorable quotes. (HBO Sports)

Another source of wonderful material comes from arguably the greatest hitter of all time, and the likely model for Roy Hobbs,  larger than life figure, Ted Williams. Known for his often prickly personality (which Jobu covered here) and feuds with the press and fans, he was also a war hero and  responsible for raising millions of dollars for cancer research through his work with  the Jimmy Fund. A complicated individual, he was once described by former teammate, Mickey McDermott, as “The man John Wayne wanted to be.” Author John Updike said of Williams and his fights with fans, “Gods do not have to answer letters.”  Younger fans often forget that Williams lost five prime years to military service in two wars as a Marine aviator. During the Korean War (where he was John Glenn’s wingman) he once landed an F9F fighter without any functioning instruments  or hydraulics, and despite the fact that it was on fire, because he was afraid that if he ejected, his 6’3″ frame would essentially be cut off at the knees. He would rather have died then face life without hitting.

Speaking of hitting, “Teddy Ballgame” once said that “Baseball is the only endeavor where a man can succeed three out of ten times and be considered a good performer.” Also on the hitting theme, he  stated, “I’ve found that if you can hit, you never have to wear a tie.” (That’s a favorite of mine because I hate ties, I can’t hit, I just hate ties.) Perhaps his most oft repeated line is the one echoed in “The Natural”, “A man has to have goals for a day, for a lifetime- and that was mine, to have people say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.'”

I’m going to conclude Chapter One with a line I consider  apropos in light of this past NFL season, and it comes from the wife of quarterback great Johnny Unitas. Back in the days before the AFL had established itself in Boston, I was a Baltimore Colts fan. I remember reading one of those quickie paperback type biographies about Unitas not long after they had defeated the New York Football Giants in 1959, for their second NFL Championship. His wife Dorothy who was a very religious woman, was asked by the author (who’s name escapes me) if she prayed before each game for a Colts’ victory. Her response has always stayed with me, and it was simply, “No. I pray that he doesn’t get hurt, but God has more important things to worry about than a football game.” I think of it every time I see Tim, ‘Tebowing’. But maybe that’s just me…


Featured image courtesy of: Walter Iooss Jr./SI


About Jerry Ballgame

The personification of "old school", Jerry Ballgame was born in the shadow of Dr. Naismith's peach basket, and baptized in that "Dirty Water." Designated by his "Uncle" Ted, to keep an eye on things, he's here to tell everyone what his view is like from the Hub of the Universe.