There are some terms or phrases that I think get overused in sports. “Historic” is one of them. It oversells the importance of the event or achievement…usually. This week, watching the Olympics, I have heard history/historic mentioned at least a dozen times. A skier won the silver medal in the downhill and “made history” by being the oldest medal winner ever in that event. I only remember that a few days later because they said he broke Bode Miller’s record. I do know who Bode Miller is, did not know he held that sort of record and also have already forgotten the new record holder’s name. How historic is that, really?
Baseball is not immune to such hyperbole either. Every year some commentator somewhere calls the World Series winner historic. Quick, without looking it up, who won the 1942 World Series? To be fair, there are levels of history involved. In sports, everything imaginable gets recorded for posterity—so, technically, every victory or defeat is historic. However, if we limit things to some level of memorable without resorting to archives or websites like Baseball Reference, a lot fewer things are truly historic.
First is what gets remembered by real fans of the sport. Okay, for us baseball fans, World Series winners are historic. I’d bet the readers of this blog could name the last several winners without breaking a sweat and could tell me the Cardinals beat the Yankees in 1942 after just a moment or two of clicking on the web. Still, I don’t think the commentators really just mean fanboys will remember it when they call something historic.
Second is the truly historic—ie, the event is so significant that it can be found in a nation’s history, not just the sport’s. That list is extremely short, as sports are entertainment. Little in entertainment genuinely affects life as a whole. Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. Jesse Owens showing how full of crap Hitler’s Aryan superiority ideas are at the 1936 Berlin Olympics…and likewise Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmelling in the first round in 1938. The terrorist attack on the Israeli team at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The first MLB game in NY and its attendant emotions after 9/11.
Lastly, is what the casual fan will remember. Most TV sports commentary seems to be aimed at the casual fan, but I think they are wrong about many of the things that get called historic. It’s certainly not every World Series winner. One might be able to tell me the Cubs won in 1908 or the Red Sox in 1918…because they remember the 2016 and 2004 Series ended really long droughts. They could probably not tell me who won any of the other series of the first two decades of the 20th century. A casual fan just might know who the “Black Sox” were, maybe name 1919 as the year, probably would struggle trying to remember the Reds as the victors, almost certainly wouldn’t know the trial was in 1921 even if they saw the movie “Eight Men Out.” 1920’s: Murderers Row, 1927 Yankees, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927…and nothing else. 1930’s? Babe Ruth’s called shot in 1932 (whether it really happened or not) and Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man Alive” speech. 1940’s, besides Jackie Robinson? Joe DiMaggio and his 56 game hitting streak, maybe Ted Williams’ .406 season, definitely that a lot of players left to fight WWII. 1950’s? Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle—and not necessarily any specific thing they did other than play really well. If you ask a casual fan who won the World Series in a random year, they are likely to guess the Yankees…and in the 1950’s having a better than even chance of guessing right.
I was going to stop with the 1950’s as I think I’ve made my point about “historic” and that sports commentators ought to use the term a lot less…but what the heck. Here’s what I’d guess a casual fan would remember from the 1960’s: Roger Maris’ 61 homers in 1961, maybe pitchers named Sandy Koufax/Bob Gibson/Tom Seaver totally dominated World Series. 1970’s? Hank Aaron passing Babe Ruth, perhaps the “Big Red Machine” and the “Bronx Zoo.” 1980’s? Nolan Ryan being the king of strikeouts and no hitters. 1990’s? The 1994-5 strike, the Braves win a lot, the 1998 home run chase. 2000’s? Derek Jeter and the Yankees (starting late 1990’s of course), PEDs/BALCO/Barry Bonds. Okay I’m done.