The teams in first place in the National and American Leagues on the Fourth of July will win the pennants.
—OLD PATRIOTIC BROMIDE
Surely it is no mere happenstance that the last two words of The Star-Spangled Banner are "Play Ball!" There must be some psychic connection between the anthem and the games Americans play. Why is that? Almost never is the Banner sung at public events of a nonsporting nature. The anthem never serves as a prelude to a movie or opera or ballet or Wheel of Fortune.
It is odd, too, that we require this patriotic certification of our dalliance with sports, for ours is among the least chauvinistic of sporting nations. Save for the rare exceptions, as when we played the Soviets in hockey at the 1980 Olympics, our most passionate rivalries are between colleges or cities. It is individual athletes, not teams, whom we choose to honor. Indeed, it is one of the finest practical displays of our highfalutin democratic ideals that any competitor is eligible for our support—regardless, as holiday orators like to say, of race, color, creed or country of national origin.
Is it fair (or merely presumptuous?) to assume that we love our country so surely, so deeply, so truly, that we need no athletic icons on the silly playing fields to prove our patriotism? Or could it be that we are just so big and rich and diverse that we don't identify all that much with one another?
It is an article of faith that Americans will cheer for the underdog, just as we never again want to be the underdog ourselves. And, too, sadly, in spite of everything we learned in our third-grade civics class, we can be horribly prejudiced about our fellow citizens who happen to be different. Yeah, sure, the Indians are the only real Americans, but they haven't won a pennant in 32 years and some of the rest of us are realer Americans than others.
Yet as smug and biased as Americans can be, most of us do appreciate how serendipitous is our presence here. My great-grandfather made the boat that day, but yours slept in. We blithely accept the notion that everybody in the world is either an American or a potential American. So any athlete can comfortably be cheered for, no matter what his nationality of the moment may be. Americans see the whole of humankind as made up of so many recruits, draft choices and free agents. It's a doable, Iacoccable world that the new and improved Miss Liberty shines over:
Give me your quick, your coaches, your phenoms,
Your funny-named kickers yearning to uprights split,
And your jockeys and rightfielders of a Caribbean isle.
Send these, the talented and endorsable, to me.
I give them green cards and places in the lineup.
While Martina Navratilova is, surely, the greatest athlete ever to immigrate to America at the height of a career, she follows in a long line of foreigners who came to perform in the U.S.—either as new citizens or as resident aliens. It wasn't until 1936, the 11th modern Olympics, that the Games ended without at least one immigrant winning a gold medal for America. Indeed, the very first gold medal in the first modern Olympics in 1896 was won by an American immigrant, James Connolly. He won the hop, step and jump. Connolly was one of the many Irish-born who led our early track and field squads. As late as 1972, Olga Fikotova Connolly, from Czechoslovakia, carried the flag for the United States in Munich.
Try to guess the names of the following immigrants, each of whom made a substantial impact on American sports (answers, page 55):
The last foreign-born American to win an Olympic gold medal, at Los Angeles in 1984, was a basketball player from Kingston, Jamaica 1)——. The most famous game-deciding home run in baseball history, the shot heard round the world, was struck by a man born in Glasgow, 2)——. The Doomsday Defense of America's Team is coached by an immigrant from Bavaria named 3)——. Both the man who created the Harlem Globetrotters in 1927, 4)——, and the first commissioner of the NBA, 5)——, were born in Europe. One of America's first professional baseball players, a cricket expert from Sheffield, England, was 6)——. The former Black Hawk and four-time NHL scoring champ who is now an assistant golf pro outside of Chicago, 7)——, came from Czechoslovakia.