Boyhood Heroes

If you’re of a certain age or gender (and being Canadian could help), you may score well on this little sports quiz from my boyhood.  Give yourself one point for every athlete you can identify from the nicknames listed below; they are all North American because international sport had not registered in my consciousness way back then.  The answers are found at the end of this essay—

a) the Rocket; b) the Golden Jet; c) Number 4; d) the Bambino; e) the Yankee Clipper;     f) the King; g) Slammin’ Sam; h) the Rifle; i) Rocket Rod; j) The Greatest.

As a boy, I began to idolize sports heroes as soon as I gained an understanding of the games they played.  Throughout my teenage years, and into young manhood, that veneration gradually lessened; but I did hold onto an admiration for what they could do on their respective fields of play.  And even today, although I have learned such heroes are mere mortals, I retain an appreciation for their role in shaping me.

boy at ballgame

When I was about twelve years old, a favourite uncle (himself a renowned amateur athlete in his youth) gave me a copy of a book he had read and enjoyed.  It was written in 1954 by Grantland Rice, an American sportswriter from the so-called Golden Age of American sport, the 1920’s to the 1940’s.  Its title is The Tumult and the Shouting, and I have it still.

A memoir of sorts, it tells of Rice’s life as a sports journalist, writing about the athletes he encountered over a working lifetime, people he regarded as heroes.  During the course of fifty-plus years, by his own account, he wrote 67,000,000 words—22,000 newspaper columns, 7000 sets of verse, and 1000 magazine articles—while also holding forth on radio broadcasts for over thirty years.  This was in a day when most people never got to see their sports idols and had to rely solely on what they read in print or heard over the airwaves.

For them, and much later for me, Rice was a gateway into a world that seemed magical, unsullied by the realities of the mundane lives we led.


The parts of the book I most enjoyed in the beginning were the pictures of Rice hobnobbing with the athletes he covered, many of whom were also personal friends.  But I also came to love the more-than-twenty chapters devoted to these sports icons of a bygone era—people I had heard of, but who had long since left the building—in which Rice regaled me with stories of their exploits, both on and off the field.

In the years since, I have learned that many of these heroes had feet of clay, that they were subject to all the prejudices and shibboleths of their time.  Some became little more than lost souls when the games at which they excelled ended for the final time.  But the book doesn’t focus on those later, sadder times; rather, it tells of the athletic brilliance these men and women exhibited during their prime.  And for a lucky few, the glory never faded, even as their youth and prowess did.

If you are of my vintage, you will doubtless remember the names of many of the heroes celebrated in the book.  From baseball, there is the scurrilous Ty Cobb (the Georgia Peach), some of whose records still stand today; Lou Gehrig (the Iron Horse) who died too soon of ALS, a disease now named for him; and the inimitable Babe Ruth (the Sultan of Swat), cornerstone of the feared Murderers’ Row of NY Yankee hitters.  All three are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.


From golf, there is the only man to win all four Grand Slam events in one year, Bobby Jones, who did it in 1930, and who later co-founded the famed Masters tournament; Babe Didrickson Zaharias (the Other Babe), a woman who was also a three-time Olympic medallist in track and field; and ‘Bantam Ben’ Hogan, a Career Grand Slam winner, widely considered to be the finest technician the game has produced.  All three are in the Golf Hall of Fame.

Football (where the ‘big-time’ was college ball, not the pro variety) contributed its share of heroes, including Harold ‘Red’ Grange (the Galloping Ghost from Illinois); Jim Thorpe (World’s Greatest Athlete from Carlisle), an Indigenous man who won Olympic gold in decathlon and pentathlon; and Bronislau ‘Bronko’ Nagurski, a Canadian-born fullback who excelled at Minnesota.  All three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

From boxing, which was in its heyday back then, Rice mentions Jack Dempsey (the Manassa Mauler), world heavyweight champion for eight years; James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney, who twice defeated Dempsey—most famously in the fight known forever after as ‘the long count’—and who reigned as both light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion during that time; and Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber), world heavyweight champion for thirteen years, who endeared himself to Americans with his knockout triumph in 1938 over a German fighter who was thought to represent the growing Nazi menace.  All three are in the Boxing Hall of Fame.


There were far fewer ‘big-time’ sports devoted to women than to men during Rice’s time, but, in addition to Zaharias, he gives prominent space in his book to Helen Wills Moody (Little Miss Poker Face) and Maureen Connolly (Little Mo) of tennis fame; Sonja Henie (Pavlova of the Ice) in figure skating; and Esther Williams (America’s Mermaid) in swimming.

All in all, over the course of 368 pages, there are numerous other athletes whose names I knew who are mentioned.  A partial list would include: Eddie Arcaro, Tommy Armour, ‘Dizzy’ Dean, Jimmy Demaret, George Gipp (Win one for the Gipper!), Walter Hagen (the Haig), Joe Jackson (Shoeless Joe), Cornelius ‘Connie’ Mack, Byron Nelson, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Gene Sarazen (the Squire), ‘Big Bill’ Tilden, and Cy Young.

He references famous combinations, as well:  baseball’s Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance of the Chicago Cubs, their lethal double-play skills immortalized in a 1912 poetic refrain, Tinker to Evers to Chance.  He mentions football’s Notre Dame backfield—Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller, and Harry Stuhldreher—of whom he wrote following a 1924 win over Army: Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…  And that is how they are remembered to this day.


There are even references to several famous racehorses, which (being a devotee of the Sport of Kings), Rice considered athletes of another sort:  Citation, Count Fleet, Exterminator, Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, War Admiral, and Whirlaway.

As a youngster, I couldn’t get enough of these tales of grace and glory.  It did seem to me as I read them, though, that the athletes being lauded were all old; indeed, they were much older than I.  But today, looking at their pictures, I am struck by how young they were in their prime.

I believed then, and to some extent now, as well, that there is a simple beauty inherent in athletic contests between two individuals, or two teams.  If the scandals surrounding the doping of athletes can be set aside, if the corruption at the top of the world bodies that control sports can be ignored, if we can strip the competition among athletes down to its purest essence, that beauty can be appreciated.

On a level playing field, the best of the competitors will win, the losers will embrace the fact that they gave their best, and that is as it should be.  It is the sentiment that helped to shape my approach to life.

And that, in a nutshell, is why The Tumult and the Shouting still graces my bookshelf, overflowing as ever with the tales of my boyhood heroes.


Answers to the quiz:

Hockey – a) Maurice Richard; b) Bobby Hull; c) Bobby Orr

Baseball – d) Babe Ruth; e) Joe Dimaggio

Golf – f) Arnold Palmer; g) Sam Snead

Football – h) Sam Etcheverry

Tennis – i) Rod Laver

Boxing – j) Muhammad Ali