Tuesday, July 3, 2012
FRIDAY, JULY 4, 1986, SPORTS
Copyright 1986/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Liberty's Torch Has Lighted Our Playing Fields
They're honoring a great lady today. The mother of us all, in a way, whether our families came here before she did, whether they came in steerage or on the Mayflower. She stands for not only what America meant to the world but also what she still means.
We all come from huddled masses yearning to breathe free in the final analysis. Or we wouldn't be here.
She is 100 years old today, yet as young as tomorrow. Liberty doesn't age, tyranny does. She is as beautiful today as she was when the first waif spotted her through a crack in the hull of a packet boat a century ago.
The world of sport has as much reason to salute her as the worlds of commerce, art, entertainment or politics. The sons and daughters of immigrants have flourished on the playing fields of America as surely as they have in the counting houses, courtrooms, ateliers, surgeries, theaters or councils of government.
Although Babe Ruth's origins are the least bit obscure, it is a fact that he spoke fluent German well into his adulthood. Lou Gehrig's parents never spoke anything else but. Neither did Lou until he was 5 and enrolled in Public School 132 in New York.
Joe DiMaggio's parents probably sailed under Liberty's torch on their way from Sicily to Martinez, Calif. Joe's sister, Nellie, the last one of the clan to be born in the old country, was with them.
If it was hard for immigrant parents to come to grips with the fact that their sons could make money hitting, catching, throwing or running with a ball, it was horrifying to some that their sons could do it fist-fighting. The well-worn legend, the staple of the silver screen, of the prizefighter whose parents wanted him to become a violinist probably sprang up over the career of the classy Benny Leonard, a cerebral fighter from the ghetto who used to talk — and jab — his opponents into defeat, while his parents prayed in their shawls. Gene Tunney's parents wanted him to become a priest.
Jack Dempsey, despite his Irish surname, was probably one of the few American athletes whose forbearers were not only here before the Statue of Liberty but also before the Mayflower. Dempsey, whose family called him "Harry," was part Red Indian. So, as a matter of fact, was Joe Louis.
It was possible to trace the waves of immigration by a study alone of the rolls of boxing champions. There were the Irish and the Germans to the turn of the century, then the rush of Jewish fighters till the '20s, followed by the Italians and then the Latin Americans.
Athletic prowess ministered to group esteem in ways no other successes could. Whose Irish heart did not beat faster over the exploits of the might John L. Sullivan — or take comfort in the fact that another broth of a lad, Gentleman Jim Corbett, proved to be the one man in the house he couldn't lick?
Wasn't Honus Wagner a hero to every transplanted Rhinelander in North America? Didn't Benny Leonard's and Hank Greenberg's pictures hang in every living room in the Bronx? Weren't Little Italy's buttons popping over the headlines on the doings of the great DiMaggio and Poosh 'em Up Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti and Yogi Berra? Didn't the Italian flag fly in the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium in their heyday?
Sports forced a respect for the new Americans hardly any other achievement could. How could any resident snob convince his offspring that these aliens were inferior beings when they were flattening his representatives in the prize ring, thrashing them in football, outhitting them in baseball, outrunning, outjumping or outsmarting them in other areas?
The Constitution proclaimed equality. The fists, arms, legs and guile of the sons of immigrants proved it. Even the epithets faded away. Who was going to call Rocky Marciano dago? Who was going to call Joe Louis anything but Mister?
Rockne at Notre Dame gave the Republic a lesson it would not forget. An immigrant himself, he took teams made up of the sons of immigrants and ran roughshod over the societal stereotypes of West Point and Annapolis. And, even though Red Grange was as American as a flapjack, his wily old coach, Bob Zuppke, had an accent right out of Baron Munchausen. Babe Ruth made the Yankees, but it was the German-born brewery owner, Col. Jacob Ruppert, who brought him to the Yankees.
When blacks came along to seize athletic hegemony, the ethnics of America nodded wisely. They had been there.
The people who had passed Miss Liberty to get here not only wrote our songs, cracked our jokes, danced our dances — and built our railroads, mined our coal, grew our grain, and fought our wars — but they also won our Rose Bowls, captured our World Series, led our Opens, piled up our gold medals and became the greatest athletes in the world. In one stretch, the heavyweight championship of the world was held by immigrants or sons of immigrants who were Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, Jewish and Irish (Tunney, Sharkey, Carnera, Baer, Braddock).
The inscription on the base of the lady's garment should not only read, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." It could also read, "Give me your swift, your strong, your sure, the pride and glory of your lives and times."
For them the lamp was lifted — and lit — beside the golden door, all right. For them, the melting pot overflowed.
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