- Beyond the Dream: Occasional Heroes of Sports
The University of Nebraska Press has added to its sport classics series with this re-issue of one of Ira Berkow's works. The book is a collection of newspaper columns from the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist first published in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Stories of the celebrities of the era have become legends over time. Keeping alive memories of these characters has helped to solidify their mystique as well as the interest of readers. The subtitle is appropriately labeled "Occasional Sport Heroes," as many of the stories demonstrate only glimpses of the heroic. Who would remember Nate Ruffin's story if not for Berkow? Ruffin was one of the three Marshall Football players who was not on the plane that crashed. Playing and living in a way that honored the memories of teammates helped Ruffin become heroic, while reminding us of the value of life, something more important than anything he could accomplish on the athletic field. Had it not been for that tragedy, Ruffin's heroic attributes would never have been obvious.
As Joseph Campbell noted in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) a hero comes "from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder." The hero is a departure or "set apart" from the normal everyday world. These stories certainly qualify. What is heroism? Our heroes provide models of excellence. Certainly Berkow's stories provide this. In the analogy of the competitive situation in which Tom Seaver and Willie Mays face off, one may see a modern day mythical Achilles and Hercules. We expect our [End Page 155] heroes to be cut from a different cloth. Heroes provide models of courage and virtue. Certainly this is characterized by stories such as that of Charlie Nash, who trained under the gunfire of British soldiers; Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, who faced racism, and Roberto Clemente, who died helping the poor. Traditional heroes have a fatal flaw, similar to the insecurities faced and overcome by Johnny Bench and Dave Cowens. The fatal flaw humanizes them, and helps mere mortals to better identify with them. The hero rises above the fray with supernatural abilities. Isn't that what draws us to these stories? And finally, the hero is remembered long after he is gone. In that sense, these celebrities are immortal thanks to Ira Berkow.
Upon careful examination of Berkow's work of the late 1960s and early 1970s, one can recognize the contradictory values of American society. Media content is an immediate and visible indication of the changing values of a society. Through stories of people such as Pancho Gonzales, Chris Everett, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Louis, one can observe a society that is becoming more diverse in nature. Some of the stories, such as those of Joe Namath, Gene Tennace, Lance Rentzal, and Muhammad Ali challenged the social conventions of the day. One can see that they certainly reflect changing values of the era. The period of these stories in America was tumultuous at best, with challenges to the conventional wisdom of the day in war protests, the civil rights movements, and a women's liberation movement, against a backdrop of the cold war. Only recently has the heroic been associated with feminine qualities. Although there are only a few, the stories of Chris Everett, Kathy Switzer, and Gisela Mauermayer remind one that the world at this time was changing with regard to sexual stereotypes as well. Surprisingly absent was controversy, however. From an era that witnessed the publication of Jim Bouton's Ball Four (1970), and Curt Flood's challenge of the reserve clause, one might be disappointed to find so little controversy.
The University of Nebraska Press has kept these heroes alive by re-issuing this collection. Sport journalism during this era was very popular. Many went right to the sports page as an escape from the issues appearing on the front page, but if one examines them carefully, one can see...