Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Notes on the Death of Frank Gifford and Other Old Sportsmen

Frank Gifford died about a month ago--maybe two months ago, by now. Like everyone younger than retirement age, I remember him only as the fossilized, stupefyingly vacuous football commentator of the 80s and 90s, but at one time, as it was dutifully noted in the aftermath of his death, he had been a great football player and an A-list celebrity in New York City and 'always the coolest guy in the room'. This time was so long ago that most of the contemporary people noting these circumstances were hazy on the details of the forms these had taken, or even could have taken, since the idea of Frank Gifford either as a football great or, perhaps especially, a cool New York socialite does not translate into any context that is recognizable to the modern media consumer. It was also observed by many commentators, apparently unable to think of anything else to say about him, that Gifford had been blessed throughout his life by an almost uncanny run of good timing, continually finding himself in exactly the right place at the right time, relative to where his inherent abilities would enable him to land in today's world.

I will postulate that the main reason Gifford's football stardom, both at USC and with the New York Giants, on which his long media career was contingent, was almost impossible for post-1970 football fans to conceptualize, it that the type of player he was has gone extinct. Gifford was an elegant, good-looking, even glamorous white running back of the sort that held a prominent place not only in football but in the national psyche throughout the early part of the 20th century, especially in the college game, where he was the epitome of the oft resented and always envied B.M.O.C., whose lineage ran from the Gipper to F Scott Fitzgerald's idol Hobey Baker to Red Grange ("The Galloping Ghost") to Glenn "Mr Outside" Davis from the legendary West Point teams of the 40s to Gifford and Paul "The Golden Boy" Hornung. This progression came to a dead halt around 1965. Indeed it is fitting that Hornung's last signature performance came in the final pre-Super Bowl championship game in the mud in Green Bay in 1965, which game in retrospect marks ever more symbolically the break with football's pre-modern era. Gifford played for the Giants from 1952-1964, though he took off a year in 1961 after getting knocked out by Chuck Bednarik in the most famous play in Philadelphia Eagles history, and coming back in his last three seasons as a receiver. His heyday was the late 1950s. He was named to the All-Pro team in 1955, '56, '57 & '59, peaking in 1956 when he was voted the league MVP and the Giants won the championship. Presumably this is the period when Gifford became established as a popular New York City personality. My impression is that the late 50s would be considered among the culturally blander times in post-1880 New York City history and therefore more accommodating to vapidly handsome, colorless jock types with less than transcendent athletic achievements than might ordinarily be the case, that the differences between the City and the rest of America were less pronounced and the relationship between the two more reciprocal in that brief era than two allow themselves, or desire, to have today. The Giants in that time, helped by the rise of television and, I suspect, the professional sporting void left in New York by the departure of two of the city's three baseball teams in 1957, were one of the first pro football teams to achieve a wide popularity, and numerous players on it in addition to Gifford, such as Rosey Grier, Kyle Rote, Pat Summerall and Sam Huff remained fixtures on television through my childhood in the 70s and well beyond.

That hair.

This is a pretty good overview of Gifford's incredibly long career as a pitchman and TV personality. Maybe it is because I am from Philadelphia, where he will always be in the pantheon of hated Eagle-enemies, but I don't understand who his fans are, and at whom his constant media presence over a period stretching four decades was aimed.  

Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone. From age 7 to 12, I was a fairly conscientious follower of the Philadelphia 76ers, from the 1976-77 playoffs, at the beginning of which season they acquired Dr J and ended by being upset in the Finals by the Bill Walton Portland Trail Blazer team, until 1982, a period which included 2 more losses in the championship round against the Lakers, and the blowing of a 3 games to 1 lead against the Celtics in the '81 Eastern Conference Finals with a mediocre Houston Rockets team awaiting in the trophy round. The '82 loss I remember taking especially hard, I think even to the point of crying, though perhaps I was affected by hormonal issues in addition to my disappointment at the team failing In the 1982 offseason of course the increasingly desperate Sixers acquired--in actual effect stole--Moses Malone, then the reigning MVP, from Houston, got rid of the underachieving Dawkins and proceeded to dominate the league, going 65-17 and storming through the playoffs, including a sweep of the detested Lakers in the finals. Yet I found once the season was underway that the interest in the team I had had formerly had dissipated as far as watching the games on television, though I still followed the results every day in the newspaper. I don't think I even watched any of the playoff games that year, and none from the final round, after having watched all of the ones I could during the previous few seasons, and I certainly experienced no satisfaction from the championship--the last one any Philadelphia pro team would win for 25 years--comparable to the unhappiness, even humiliation, that I had personally felt when they lost the previous year. A part of this disconnect I think was my 12 and 13 year old self's sense that it was not quite fair that the Sixers, already the second-best team in the league, should acquire perhaps the best player (at the time), and certainly the best at his position. That was the kind of thing the Lakers or the Dallas Cowboys or the Yankees would do, not a Philadelphia team (of course they had similarly acquired Dr J when the ABA collapsed a few years earlier, but that had been necessary to take them from mediocre to a contender; the Moses Malone acquisition seemingly guaranteed them the championship). Also the character of the team changed a bit, probably for the better, given that Darryl Dawkins especially was something of an underachieving clown, but in any event in importing a new superstar they didn't feel like the same team anymore, and it never seemed to me that this was going to count as redemption for all the chokes and playoff defeats of the previous six season even if they did win the title. So, like Roger Kahn of The Boys of Summer fame, whose fascination with the Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the early 50s who always fell short in the end did not translate into joy when 'next year' finally came in 1955, I never wholly embraced the state of the art remodel that was the '83 Sixers. Anyway, this effusion was inspired by the circumstance that both Dawkins and Malone died recently.

Yogi Berra. Who doesn't love Yogi Berra? I like him, as I like most sports-related things, for shallow and sentimental reasons--I do not get much into the gritty substance of the sporting life, I am afraid. Berra 's playing career stretched from the real old days (segregation, train travel, the sixteen franchises of the 1901-1960 era in their original cities in their classic stadiums) into the color TV and baseball in California age, and his heyday from around 1950-1956 takes place in the modern imagination very much against the backdrop of the Marty and Honeymooners era, a lost black and white, smoky, unironic Ballantine beer drinking and Lucky Strike smoking New York world that has more romantic connotations than the day to day life of the time, especially the baseball time, probably merits. Such images of him as a superstar player that I have belong still to the realm of print rather than image or the blather of sportstalk, due to playing in the underfilmed era that he played in. He was famous as a bad ball hitter, and for being in Casey Stengel's eyes the backbone of the team. And yes, I am aware that he really was a tremendous player. I have studied the statistics and the popular literature of the era more than I would like to admit.  

Yesterday, or last Sunday now, marked the end of the regular baseball season. As with nearly all of the team sports, I find I am usually more interested anymore in the regular season than I am in the endlessly expanded playoffs. I still like seeing how the records and statistics over 162 games add up, who finishes 1st in the league and so on. The expansion of the baseball playoffs of course is the worst by far. Yes, the old days of baseball were racist and no one knew how to interpret statistics properly, but they had enough sense to know that finishing the World Series by October 12 (and playing the games in the daytime), at least north of the Mason-Dixon line, was the most sensible way to conclude the season. Since I grew up with having the League Championship Series round with the four division winners leading into the World Series I could go back to that, but the current system is just inane. It is October 7th and the round of eight series haven't even started yet. The World Series is still 2 and a half weeks away. I think it is way too removed from the actual season now. It is not a big event anymore, by the time it actually happens even I don't care about it unless one of the teams I like is in it, and I follow the season! The TV ratings for it (The World Series) have been shrinking to near-irrelevance for years, the games are on too late and last too long for either children or anyone over 40 to watch with any enjoyment. I don't see why they cannot, or would not, go back to playing the World Series games during the day (it isn't like workforce participation, particularly among males, isn't at the lowest rate in recorded history anyway). Because it would be giving up?  It think it would make for a much better experience, though it be even better if it could at least be brought back to mid-October.  

I will have to save my latest lamentations against the abomination of interleague play and the absurdly ever-shrinking number of innings pitchers are asked to throw for another day. `

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