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A Magazine of Ideas

Sweat and Honor

Friday, January 25, 2013

Is a genuine sports hero possible in our fallen but oh-so-very-knowing times?

Recent spasms of journalistic fever concerning Lance Armstrong (he rides a bicycle) and Manti Te’o (he tackles guys who are holding a football) on top of the news that the Baseball Hall of Fame couldn’t bring itself to vote in the likes of Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa, raise the question of whether a genuine sports hero is possible in our fallen but oh-so-very-knowing times. There was a time when sport was held up as an arena not just of sweat but of honor. Admittedly, it was so held up mostly to young boys, but that was precisely because boys are impressionable and open to example.

Do boys read books featuring young sports heroes anymore? Do such books even exist? They were once a staple both of boyhood and of such pulp factories as Street & Smith, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and Grosset & Dunlap, which pumped them out just as fast as their writing crews could scribble them. The genre may have been born with Gilbert Patten’s first book about Frank Merriwell in 1896. At Fardale Academy and then at Yale, the paragon Merriwell embodied true sportsmanship and clean living and, as it happened, starred in just about every sport on offer. Here he is, as a Yale frosh, straightening out a friend and fellow oarsman:

"You should know, Harry, that I am ready to stick by you in anything — if I can."

"If you can! I don't understand that — hang me, if I do! If I have a friend, I am going to stick to him through anything, right or wrong!"

"That's first rate and it is all right. If you get into any trouble, I fancy you will not find anybody who will stand by you any longer. But this matter is different. You are in training, and you are not supposed to smoke at all, but you get here in this room and puff away by the hour."

"What harm does it do?"

"A great deal."

"Get out! It doesn't make a dit of bifference."

"That's what you think, but I know better. At Fardale I had a chum who smoked cigarettes by the stack. He was a natural-born athlete, but he never seemed quite able to take the lead in anything. It was his wind. I talked to him, but he thought I didn't know. Finally I induced him to leave off smoking entirely. He did it, though it was like taking his teeth. It was not long before he showed an improvement in his work. The improvement continued and he went up to the very top. He acknowledged that he could not have accomplished it if he had kept on with his cigarettes."

"Now, old man," continued Frank, coming over and putting a hand on Harry's shoulder in a friendly way, "I am interested in you and I want to see you stay on our crew. You must know that I am giving it to you straight."

Harry was silent, gazing down at the floor, while his cigarette was going out, still held between his fingers.

"I am going to tell you something that you do not know," Frank went on. "Old Put has been asking me to give Gordon more of a show. He thinks Gordon is a better man than you, but I know better. If you will leave cigarettes alone you are the man for the place. Gordon has a beautiful back and splendid shoulders, but he lacks heart, or I am much mistaken. It takes nerve to pull an oar in a race. A man has got to keep at it for all there is in him till he drops — and he mustn't drop till the race is over. That's why I want you. I am confident that you will pull your arms out before you give up. But you won't have the wind for the race unless you quit cigarettes, and quit them immediately."

Harry was still silent, but his head was lower and he was biting his lips. The cigarette in his fingers had quite gone out.

"Come now, Harry," came earnestly from Frank. "Just cut clear from the things. They never did any man any good, and they have taken the wind and nerve out of hundreds. You don't want me to keep you on the crew and lose the race by doing so. You don't want it said that I have been partial to you because you are my roommate and particular friend. That's what will be said if things go wrong. The fellows will declare I was prejudiced against Gordon, and they will not be to blame unless you can prove yourself the best man. I have nothing against Gordon, and I am bound to use him as white as I can. I have explained why I don't want him on the crew, and I have tried to make it clear why I'll have to let him come on at once, unless you drop cigarettes. How is it, my boy? What do you say?"

Harry got up and went into the bedroom. A moment later he came out with a big package of cigarettes in his hands. He opened the window and flung them as far as possible.

"There!" he cried. "By the mumping Joses — I mean the jumping Moses! I'm done with 'em. I'm not going to smoke them any more!"

"Good boy!" laughed Frank, his face full of satisfaction. "Shake!"

They clasped hands.

(Frank Merriwell at Yale, 1903)

No, I don’t believe it, either, but then I’m long past boyhood and irredeemably corrupt. My character was formed by Tom Swift Jr., Tom Corbett, and finally Robert Heinlein.

Under the nom de plume Burt L. Standish, and seconded occasionally by other writers in the pulp stables, Patten turned out over 200 Merriwell novels between 1896 and 1930. At their peak of popularity, they sold as many as 135,000 copies per week. (He was paid a small salary and collected no royalties, and he died broke and a socialist.)

Do boys read books featuring young sports heroes anymore? Do such books even exist?

An equally though differently idealized hero was Dink Stover, Owen Johnson’s character who becomes an upstanding citizen through his involvement in athletics at the Lawrenceville School and then, yes, Yale. Stover at Yale (1912) was deemed a “textbook of his generation” by no less an admirer than F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Between 1948 and 1965 the highly successful college basketball coach Clair Bee published 23 novels about the all-sports phenom Chip Hilton (who also works to support his widowed mother). More than 2 million of them sold under such titles as Touchdown Pass, Clutch Hitter, Backboard Fever, and Triple-Threat Trouble. (Before his death in 1983, Bee entrusted his final manuscript to his friend Bobby Knight. Fiery Fullback was published in 2002. Wait — Bobby Knight? The coach with the chair?)

So was the literary sports hero just another victim of the 1960s? Well, maybe. Here’s my anecdote-as-datum moment: in the fall of 1960, our high school football coach invited Hank Bauer to speak at the annual Lettermen’s Club dinner. Bauer was near the end of his playing days and had recently been traded to the Kansas City Athletics (who gave up Roger Maris!). Perhaps he missed the great days with the Yankees, perhaps he was feeling the years pile up, or perhaps he’d had a few before dinner. Whatever it was, he mouthed a few sportsy platitudes and then commenced to regale us young fellows with tales of New York pub crawling with Mickey Mantle and the guys. He concluded by letting us in on a great secret from the world of TV advertising: you shave first, then apply the foam, and then, with the camera rolling, scrape it off with a razor that contains no blade!

Coach, a straight arrow right out of a Chip Hilton book, was livid. But it was too late. Suddenly we boys were wise to the game, any game, or so we believed for a while. That this is only a mildly amusing story is one indication of how far we have come, in whatever direction it may have been.

I see where Pete Rose now has his own reality TV show. Any more questions?

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “Death Panels, Revisited,” “Reflections of a Casual Fan,” and “On the Origins of Bunk.” THE AMERICAN’s resident couch potato, Joseph Epstein, discusses sports in “The Artist Athlete,” “A Couch Potato at a Time of Transition,” and “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato.” Jon Entine explains “What Makes a Great Olympian? Sometimes It's Genetics.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group