October 5, 2015

The making of a sporting icon lies in the timing

The legend of great sportsmen like WG Grace, Babe Ruth and Sachin Tendulkar is partly to do with the eras they lived in

Standing out: WG Grace arrived at a time when Great Britain was looking for non-military heroes © Getty Images

I am reading two biographies about two great lives: WG Grace and Babe Ruth. Their two careers, separated by 47 years and the Atlantic Ocean, were united by a wider symbolism. In a vague but unavoidable sense, WG became indistinguishable from Britishness, as did the Babe and American self-confidence.

We tend to think of the nation as being the lucky partner in those relationships, with adoring populations fortunate to be inspired by the brilliance of athletes. But it was two-way traffic. The careers of both WG and the Babe are unimaginable without the burgeoning greatness of the nations they embodied. That is why reading the two autobiographies has led me to reflect on a third great life: Sachin Tendulkar.

Instead of imagining great men inspiring Empires, it is the Empires that inspire great men. When there is an urgent need for heroes, someone usually emerges.

Amazing Grace, Richard Tomlinson's fine biography, depicts WG as an outsider, whose pluck and talent pushed him to the top, despite the prejudices of the ruling classes. Grace is portrayed as a revolutionary - in batting technique, in tactics, and above all in his mentality. In contrast with the old gentlemanly code of style over content - according to the novelist Anthony Trollope, to play any sport "pre-eminently well is the life of a man who, in learning to do so, can hardly have continued to be a gentleman in the best sense of the word" - for Grace, winning was the only thing. Forget the etiquette; get the job done. For that reason, Tomlinson argues, WG was the "first truly modern international sports star". We might classify the history of sport as BG and AG - Before Grace and After Grace.

Babe Ruth's record-breaking home runs make it to the front page of New York's Daily News, 1920 © Getty Images

But Grace was the representative (in fact, the beneficiary) of that change rather than the agent. Until the mid-19th century, British heroes had almost exclusively been soldiers, sailors or fighting men. The problem, if that is the right term, is that there were no longer any wars to fight. After the catastrophe of the Crimean War, Britain did not contest a major war for half a century. Martial "heroes" had no obvious career path open to them.

In the absence of real wars, Britain instead required metaphorical warriors. The concept of heroism needed to be recast for peaceful times. Britain already had an Empire, now it needed an emblematic standard bearer. He had to be a winner. WG fit the bill. Cricket, once an amusing gentlemanly diversion, was quickly reinvented as a legitimate expression of superiority, a means of flexing Britain's imperial muscles.

What luck! For WG, that is. If he had been born 20 years earlier, Grace's lack of social status and his preparedness to push the laws and conventions could easily have kept him outside the cricketing establishment. Instead, Grace ended up boasting a fan club that stretched from an American Civil War general and the Prince of Wales' mistress to the children who grabbed his coat tails in the streets.

The Babe reinvented baseball just as WG had recast cricket. In 1921, Ruth hit 59 home runs - 11 more than the next two best hitters combined. In his first season as a New York Yankee, crowd attendance doubled. With massive gate receipts, the Yankees built a new ground, twice as big as any other, literally "the House That Ruth Built". How big was Babe Ruth? "He was bigger than the President," declared the New York Times.

Tendulkar emerged at a time when India's economic boom made cricket an extremely marketable consumer product © Hindustan Times

While Ruth's excellence was all his own work, his celebrity was not. Sport was no longer merely local. The new railway network enabled players, fans and (just as importantly) the media to expand the game. In 1927, when Ruth broke his own home-run record, a baseball fan could purchase a ticket on 20,000 train services operated by 1085 different companies. If they weren't there in person, fans could, for the first time, listen to the game on the radio. As Bill Bryson points out in One Summer: America 1927, one-third of all the money America spent on furniture was spent on radios. New York was the new centre of the Anglophone world. America was where it was at - in sport, in everything. The phenomenon of the Babe not only embodied American's self-expression and confidence, it was created by it.

Something similar applies to the career of Tendulkar. It is often said that he had to handle the unique pressure of a billion fans. I argued along similar lines here.

That is why Virat Kolhi's comment, in the moment of World Cup triumph in 2011, seemed so apt: "He has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years. So it is time we carried him."

The burden, viewed differently, was really the engine. Tendulkar's career almost perfectly coincided with India's economic transformation. Just like the Babe and WG, had Tendulkar's life spanned a slightly different era, his performances may not have captured the same deep resonance. Only some great players become icons; the trick is in the timing, tapping into a collective and burgeoning yearning among followers.

The iconic sportsman surfs a breaking wave. The tide, however, is the force of history. We see the dazzling individual much more clearly than we do the swelling sea beneath. We imagine it is the hero who defines the follower. In fact, it is the fan, the democratic representative of the people, who makes the hero.

****

**Two stories from cricket, one a team the other a man, stand counter to my thesis.

The dominance of Caribbean cricket is hard to explain using conventional historical tools. From the early 1980s to the 1990s, the West Indies - a tropical archipelago of tiny islands without any centralised control - never lost a Test series, a 15-year unbeaten streak unequalled in international sport. Barbados alone (population 270,000) would have beaten most international teams. Economic determinism falls quite a long way short of explaining that.

Rationality gets no closer to unravelling the secrets of the Don. Australia was already a great sporting nation by the time Bradman made his Test debut in 1928. But how can we explain a population of six million people producing a player whose achievements have not been equalled in 90 years, despite cricket's global talent base? Forget cricket. Bradman is sport's oddest outlier.

09:20:01 GMT, 6 October 2015: The last three paragraphs were inadvertently left out of the piece when it was first published, and added subsequently.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

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