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Rewriting sports history
Posted: Wed March 25, 1998
The re-evaluation of astronomers that we really aren't going to get hit by a large asteroid on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2028, certainly was comforting to ... sports fans.
Yes, had the asteroid hit then it would have been terrible. Why, it would have exploded onto earth in the very middle of the World Seriesgiving new meaning to the term off day.
But once again sports has survived. Sports, as a matter of fact, is probably more indestructible than the rest of our institutions. Consider how historians are now conducting theoretical exercises in a serious form of game-playing known as Counter-factuals. For example, What would have happened if General Lee's battle plan hadn't been found by Union Troops at Antietam. Then Lee's army would have won the battle, and England would have come to the aid of the Confederacy, and, etc., etc., etc., until now you'd need a passport to go see the Charlotte Hornets play basketball.
In sports, while it really doesn't have any effect on who wins any particular game, there are some events that can completely upset history. So now, let's play the first round of Sports Counter-factuals:
1. If the Shah of Iran had not lost control in the 1970s, the 1984 Olympics would have gone to Tehran. All communist and most Third World countries were prepared to vote for Tehran over Los Angeles. The Games only went to L.A. as a last resort after the Shah's government began to collapse.
But had the Shah stayed in power a bit longer, the '84 Games would either have been a disastrous failure or cancelled outright. The Olympics at that time were already reeling from politics, terrorism and red ink. Only Peter Ueberroth would show how to make them work in Los Angeles. So, if the Shah hadn't been pushed out, there would be no Olympics today. Olympic fans may thank the Ayatollah.
2. If Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner, had produced another hit on Broadway in 1919 and didn't have to sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Ruth would never have hit so many home runs, because Fenway Park is not built for left-handers. He would certainly never have been as prominent in Beantown as he was in glorious Gotham. Baseball wouldn't have snapped back so nicely from the Black Sox scandal. Yankee Stadium would not have been built, and Lou Gehrig would have signed with the Giants. During the Depression, the Braves, Phillies, Browns and Senators would have folded, leaving only six teams in each major league. Then, after the war, two other struggling franchises would have moved West, becoming the San Francisco White Sox and the Los Angeles Yankees.
3. If George Gipp, a well-known rascal, had gone to the betting parlor that day instead of being discovered by Knute Rockne while punting the football around on the Notre Dame campus, the Gipper would have never played for the Fighting Irish, and there would never have been enough dramatic material for Hollywood to make Knute Rockne: All American. Without the movie, that struggling actor, Ronald Reagan, would not have had his desultory career revived by playing the Gipper.
So, after the war, desperate for work, Reagan would have returned to play-by-play radio, as the voice of the Los Angeles Yankees. In 1984, at the Olympics, President Howard Baker would have saluted Reagan for his long and distinguished Yankees radio career.
But wait a minuteweren't the '84 Olympics in Tehran?
Don't get cocky, sports fans. Keep an eye out for that asteroid.
Frank Deford, one of Sports Illustrated's most renowned writers, returned to the magazine on March 1. These commentaries, which appear every Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, will be posted weekly by CNN/SI.
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