The 6 Greatest Athletic Feats Ever (Aren't What You Think)
Most of us believe there are more earthquakes, wars and nipple slips than 15 years ago. Really, it just seems like that because 24-hour news networks are breathlessly reporting on each one. Similarly, we've been convinced that a select few highly televised moments and athletes are the greatest in the history of sports. For instance, here are six events everyone knows as the greatest in the history of sport, and the true stories that actually beat their pants off.
The Real Miracle on Ice
The story you know:
The 1980 Soviet hockey team was an unstoppable force of nature fueled by communism and pieces of shit like the guys on the U.S. hockey team. The U.S. team was composed of college kids who had never played together, had no chemistry and presumably learned to skate only after failing to make the U.S. track team, like in Cool Runnings. Yet when these teams met in the medal round, the USA squad somehow managed to gain an improbable lead and held it until Al Michaels asked everyone, "Do you believe in miracles?" as time ran out on what was immediately declared the biggest upset in sports history.
That day, the first (albeit primitive) teabag was performed.
But actually ...
Michaels, and everyone who has spent the past 30 years taking his call literally, has apparently forgotten about the far-less-promising U.S. Olympic hockey team that won gold against the Russians on neutral ice in the 1960 Olympics. Makes you start to wonder just how impartial the American media were being when calculating those one-in-a-million odds in the first place.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the USA basketball team has pulled off yet another victory despite the odds!"
Anyone who follows hockey at any level will tell you that the most important details heading into any big game are who has the hot goalie and who has home ice. America had future NHL goalie Jim Craig playing out of his mind in goal and a stadium full of fans losing their shit because it was the height of the Cold War and they all believed they were witnessing a miracle.
He would later flip out and murder dozens of camping teenagers with a machete.
Unfortunately, Michaels wasn't present to verify the miracle that took place on the ice of the 1942 Stanley Cup finals. The Detroit Red Wings were pummeling the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-0 in a best-of-seven series. Pulling a page from the playbook of the self-sabotaging owner in Major League, Leafs coach Hap Day benched his best defensemen as well as a future Hall of Famer and replaced them with two unproven rookies who had combined for a whopping 9 points during the regular season.
We're betting the cut-out of Hap Day wasn't quite as hot, though.
Halfway through Game 4, the move was going approximately as well as you'd expect. The Leafs found themselves down by two goals. Because it's difficult to fire a coach in the middle of a game, Day stuck to his guns and kept the gang of unproven jerks on the ice. And that's when the Leafs suddenly began playing out of their minds, coming from behind to win the game and the entire series.
And their manager was pissed!
Mathematicians have looked at the history of games in which a team trailed by two goals and the history of seven-game series in which a team was down three games to none, and calculated the Leafs chance of winning at that moment at 0.17 percent. Herb Brooks, the coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team that year, calculated his squad's chances of winning at a more reasonable 10 percent. This one just comes down to the fact that it's much more fun to believe in miracles at the height of the Cold War than ones pulled off by teams named after foliage.
Stupidest Mistake: Fred Merkle
The story you know:
It's Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and the Boston Red Sox are sure to win their first championship in almost 70 years. Then first baseman Bill Buckner lets a routine ground ball go through his legs, single-handedly costing the Sox the game. The Sox lose the World Series, and Buckner, ashamed by his colossal gaffe, exiles himself to the land of colossal gaffes, otherwise known as Idaho.
Boston fans made sure it was the last day he didn't smell like urine.
But actually ...
First of all, it's hard to peg the Red Sox' losing the World Series on Buckner, since his gaffe happened in Game 6, and the entire roster had to lose a whole seventh game in order to keep the Red Sox championship drought alive. Buckner was playing with an injured leg, and Sox manager John McNamara had been sending in a defensive replacement for Buckner in the last few innings of most games. But Game 6 of the World Series evidently wasn't important enough for him to take 10 seconds to make the replacement.
Cracked dramatization of Buckner's leg injury.
Buckner has nothing on Fred Merkle, who was the poster boy of stupid mistakes before it was decided that the only two teams in Major League Baseball were the Yankees and the Red Sox. In 1908, Merkle's Giants played the Cubs in a critical game that decided the National League pennant. The game was tied with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The Giants had runners on first and third. Their next batter, Al Bridwell, singled to center, winning the game for the Giants as fans rushed onto the field. The runner on first, Fred Merkle, seeing the throngs of fans and deciding he should beat the traffic, ran directly to home plate for the celebration, forgetting that when you're running bases in baseball, you're supposed to actually touch all the bases.
Also, you're not allowed to fire baseballs out of your mind.
This might be excusable as one of those caught-up-in-the-moment gaffes if the captain of the Cubs hadn't specifically stated he wanted umpires to call out runners who failed to touch the bag at game's end right before the game.
Artist's depiction of that request.
The league president ruled that the game had to be replayed, and the Cubs defeated the Giants, capturing the pennant. To add insult to injury, angry sportswriters mercilessly dubbed his mistake Merkle's Boner, making this the most ashamed anyone has ever been of a boner outside of seventh-grade wrestling practice.
The story you know:
If someone asked you to name the greatest boxer of all time, it'd probably take you all of three seconds to come up with Muhammad Ali. It was his nickname, after all. ESPN ranked him the third-greatest athlete of the century, and his list of brilliant shit-talking quotes could fill a Lil Wayne mix tape. He was an icon to black and white Americans at a time when the country was still struggling with the civil rights movement, and he spoke for a nation at war when he told the U.S. draft board, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck itself.
You don't argue with a man who can literally punch you until you die.
But actually ...
Hidden away in the grainy footage of old boxing reels is the inventor and perfector of rag doll physics. Call Ali the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and prepare to dig in for a long lecture on Joe Louis, the most fundamentally pure boxer to ever step into the ring at any level. Listed 11th on ESPN's tally of the greatest athletes of the century, Louis won 95.6 percent of his fights, compared with Ali's 91.8 percent, and KO'd an insane 74.3 percent of his opponents, compared with Ali's much more reasonable 60.7 percent. But Ali came along at a time when everyone was willing to declare a black man The Greatest. Louis had to settle for "The Brown Bomber."
Get it? It's because of his skin, see!
Of course, Ali was more than a great boxer. It's tough to argue that anyone could have embodied the 60s and 70s better than Ali when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Though Louis did stand up to a government in his day. The Nazi government. When not busy with world domination and his Mousketeer meetings, Hitler was fond of idle speculation on which races he thought were superior (his money was on the Aryans). When it was announced that Joe Louis, the most prominent African-American in sports, would fight Germany's great Max Schmeling, Hitler used the event to laud German superiority. Hitler even extended the 1 a.m. curfew to 3 a.m. so that bars could broadcast Schmeling's rout for all to see.
Joe Louis poses over the corpses of his freshly slain Nazi enemies.
The political significance of the fight was not lost on anyone. President Franklin Roosevelt himself told Louis, "We need muscles like yours to beat Germany. Because seriously, fuck those guys"*
*Only able to find sources for the first half of that statement.
And Louis didn't disappoint, knocking out Schmeling in just two minutes and four seconds, which probably made for some awkward moments the next day around the water coolers in Nazi Germany. More importantly, at a time when African-Americans were still being segregated, discriminated against and fucking lynched, the biggest hero in America was a black man.
Seriously, the fight was over before that flash bulb stopped emitting light.
Joe Louis was Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Ali rolled into one. Like Ali, he was a boxer who perfectly embodied America's communal feeling at a time of war. Ali refused to fight the Vietcong and eventually stopped fighting in the ring at a time when Americans were protesting. Louis kicked the shit out of a Nazi while America was starting to get an itch to do the same. As admirable as Ali's pacifism was, it's tough to argue he'd be as well-remembered as a boxer who spoke with his God-given gift for violence if you reversed the eras.
Battle of the Sexes
The story you know:
In 1973, Billie Jean King, a professional women's tennis player, defeated Bobby Riggs, a chauvinistic professional men's tennis player, thus legitimizing women's rights in a way no march, protest, or legislation ever could. The renowned feminist scholars at ESPN concluded that King's victory made it "acceptable for American women to exert themselves in pursuits other than childbirth."
And thus, the birth of modern pornography!
But actually ...
Unfortunately, what we like to remember as a victory for women everywhere was actually a victory for trolls and the blurring of the line between real sports and professional wrestling.
Which, incidentally, is exactly how we would describe the short-lived XFL.
Bobby Riggs was more con man than professional tennis player. When he first challenged her, King refused, because everyone knew Riggs would do just about anything for attention and money -- including betting he could beat someone using a frying pan as a racket. But when he beat the No. 1 female tennis player in the world, and Time and Sports Illustrated put him on their covers, King let herself get sucked into his nonsense. Riggs was the prototypical troll, issuing outlandishly sexist statements to the media and showing his opinion for women by going to photo shoots dressed as King Henry VIII. On the day that she supposedly scored a victory for feminism, King was carried into the stadium on a throne held by a bunch of muscular track stars wearing togas while Riggs entered driving a throng of female slaves.
Given that he was that anti-woman, you'd expect him to be pretty masculine. You'd be wrong, though.
The fact that anyone was surprised when King beat him says way more about just how rock-stupid American men were at the time. Riggs was 55 at the time of the match, while King was 29 and in the prime of what was probably the best female tennis career ever. It was like John McEnroe challenging Serena Williams to a match, if John McEnroe was three years older than he is right now.
And if McEnroe found a way to become even more of a crybaby douchebag.
Like King, Babe Didrikson also played tennis. Unlike King, she also played every other sport ever invented. Seriously. She successfully competed in basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. She won gold medals at the 1932 Olympics in high jump, 80-meter hurdles and javelin. We'd joke that such a badass woman would never conquer domestic duties, except Didrikson was a competitive seamstress and won the Texas Seamstress Championship.
In 1946, she dug out what is now known as Daytona Beach with only a stick.
However, since female athletes in the 1930s were regarded as highly as communist Irish atheists, there were almost no outlets for female sports, forcing Didrikson to take up one of the few socially acceptable sports for females -- golf.
Didrikson utterly dominated her opponents, winning 41 LPGA events and 10 majors. More importantly, she shocked people by refusing to act feminine. She went as far to try out and qualify for the PGA in 1945, something no other woman was able to do until 2003. Her imposing and unapologetic demeanor made future athletes like Billie Jean King more acceptable in mainstream sports and greatly advanced female athletics.
Biggest Draft Bust: Mike Phipps
The story you know:
Much like Punxsutawney Phil, NFL draft experts burst onto the scene every year to give us their predictions, which are almost always very wrong. Inevitably, one of the experts will compare a prospect to ex-NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, who until recently was crowned by many as the biggest draft bust of all time. However, after the career of Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell took off like the Challenger, there is now a debate over which of these quarterbacks sucked the most.
Ryan Leaf, still learning the rules, attempts to hatch the football.
But actually ...
Mike Phipps, was selected third overall in the 1970 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. While drafting that early is sort of the Browns' thing these days, Cleveland was a great football team when they drafted Phipps. They had a 26-15 record in the three seasons before Phipps became a starter, and they hadn't had a losing season since 1956.
Phipps stares in stunned silence as he finds out that he cannot eat the football.
And then Phipps stepped to the plate and, well ...
As the above table shows, debating which quarterback is the worst is kind of like debating which Jersey Shore character you want to sleep with; at the end of the day, the mere thought of it makes you vomit.
And yet any one of them are a better quarterback than those three.
However, the most important criteria in determining which is the biggest draft bust is the impact that each had on his team. Russell and Leaf have similar stories -- both were drafted by terrible franchises and did nothing more than continue their misery. Russell became the starting quarterback in 2008, after his Raiders posted a terrible 10-36 record in the three years before. The Chargers had a 21-27 record in the three seasons before Leaf took over. Phipps single-handedly sunk what up to that point had been a powerhouse franchise, leading the Browns to a 4-10 record in '74 and a 3-11 record in '75.
In fact, he ruined so much so fast, opposing teams referred to him as "Thanks."
Even worse, fans had to endure Leaf and Russell for only two and three seasons, respectively. Phipps plagued Cleveland for seven seasons. So while Leaf and Russell were nothing more than short-lived hopes, Phipps was a one-man wrecking ball who single-handedly destroyed one of the league's most dominant franchises.
Willis Reed Plays (Badly) While Injured
The story you know:
Willis Reed, the Knicks' captain and best player, tore a muscle in his right thigh during Game 5 of the 1970 NBA finals between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. After getting blown out by 22 points in Game 6, the Reed-less Knicks entered Game 7 with little hope of winning. Much to everyone's surprise, Reed emerged from the locker room to wild applause mere moments before tipoff. The Knicks won the game, and the NBA has named Reed's dramatic display one of the NBA's greatest moments.
A doctor checks to make sure Reed's pants are in the correct reality.
But actually ...
After averaging 32 points in the first four games, Reed only scored four points in 27 minutes, actually hurting his team's chance of winning the game. Many sportswriters suggest that Reed's mere presence inspired his team to victory. It's a nice thought, but it's more likely that this is an example of East Coast bias by a New York-centric media. Just as people think Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle were the best players of the 50s due to the fact that they played in New York City and Boston, when it was some dude named Stan Musial, there have been many far greater performances by more seriously injured players. We've already touched on Jack Youngblood playing an entire NFL playoff game and the Super Bowl on a broken leg, but even Youngblood pales in comparison to the injury and distance from New York of German goaltender Bert Trautmann.
A man so tough, he'd nail your girlfriend in front of you. Then kick your ass for letting him do it.
Trautmann was the star player on the Manchester City soccer team. With 15 minutes left to play in the 1956 FA Cup Final, Trautmann collided with an attacking player while trying to preserve his team's 3-1 lead. The collision broke his neck, and the ruthless soccer rules of the time didn't allow a substitution to take place for such a minor issue.
Just block, you pansy. We've seen men play without heads.
While a lesser man would have spent the remaining time crying on the ground or dead, Trautmann put the team on his back. During this time, Trautmann didn't allow a single goal, and even made a spectacular save against the player who broke his neck. He played so well that nobody suspected something was wrong until the man placing the medals around the player's neck noticed that Trautmann's head was crooked.
Mike can be contacted at Mikey.Cooney@gmail.com for freelance opportunities.
Want to be the next Larry Bird? Then check out 5 Bizarre Brain Hacks That Make You Better at Sports. Or just get really good at StarCraft, like the folks in 5 Insane True Facts About StarCraft: The Professional Sport.