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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 14, 2017: AthleteStudying: Ruth and Gehrig

[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to a weekend post on Trump and sports!]
On the iconic teammates who embody two contrasting narratives of American identity.
One of the most defining, originating American myths is that of the “Puritan [or sometimes Protestant] work ethic,” the concept of a community of quiet, stoic everymen and –women going about their often thankless but vital labors with determination and persistence. Yet at the same time, two of the first genuinely famous American individuals would have to be Miles Standish and John Smith, both boisterous, hard-living, larger-than-life, and self-aggrandizing soldiers and explorers who famously wooed the ladies and carved new territories with (seemingly) their forceful personalities alone. (Seriously, if you haven’t read Smith’s third-person personal narrative of his own heroism, you have to, if only for the passage where he fights off hundreds of Indian attackers and uses his guide as a personal human shield.) And these two narratives came together to form Revolutionary America’s defining icon, Ben Franklin, a self-made man composed (if you read his autobiography) of equal parts persistent hard work and self-conscious myth-making.
Like all enduring national narratives, these defining images have evolved over the centuries; yet they have likewise retained some core elements that remain visible in many different incarnations. For example, we can see strong respective elements of each in two of the 20th century’s most famous and iconic sports figures, a pair who happened to be teammates on the New York Yankees: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Each was interesting and complicated in his own right, but there’s no question that their most iconic qualities fit these two enduring narratives quite closely: Gehrig was known first as “The Iron Horse” for his astounding and record-setting consecutive-games-played streak, and second for his stoic and inspiring battle with the tragic illness (ALS) now generally known by his name; Ruth was known as “The Sultan of Swat,” as much for his legendary parties and excesses as for his titanic homers, and like the aforementioned American icons went out of his way to embrace and extend his own myth on every occasion. (An interestingly similar dichotomy could be identified in two subsequent Yankees teammates, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.)
It’s easy to side with Gehrig and quiet hard work over Ruth and boisterous excess, and of course my own phrasings and frames here have undoubtedly done so. It’s certainly fair to add that, if we think of icons as role models (an idea that various sports figures have passionately critiqued), far more of us parents would likely direct our kids to emulate Gehrig than Ruth. But from an AmericanStudies perspective, it’s particularly interesting to consider the enduring co-existence of these two narratives, the sense that we have found ways, across the centuries and in many different social and cultural contexts, to valorize such seemingly contrasting and even directly opposed ideals. We are of course big, and contain multitudes; but narratives and images like these can help us push past that bigness to consider and analyze some of the communal emphases that have defined and continue to define us, and that reveal the multiple sides to our shared national identity and culture.
Next AthleteStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other athletes or related histories you’d highlight?

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