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The Mouth That Roared:
Muhammad Ali in Idols of the Game

A new documentary looks at sports heroes in American history

By Broos Campbell

I keep getting the name of Idols of the Game wrong. The logo is in condensed capitals, which makes it look like it says Tools of the Game. I was confused at first--would this six-hour documentary be about the history of sports equipment, or a subversive look at the relationship between capital and labor in the sports world?

It's neither, though it gets into the latter a bit. It's a mishmash of bios of famous athletes spread across a loose framework of how the media created the myth of sportsmanship. You got most of your major players here, from Jim Thorpe to Mary Lou Retton, and the episodes run from "Inventing the All-American" to a discussion of women's role in professional sports to the part that big money plays in the equation.

In an embarrassing conceit, Dabney Coleman plays "The Scribe," complete with an old Royal manual typewriter, suspenders and flashy tie. The only thing missing is a stogie. This is the story, not the truth, though it gets giddily close to the truth at times.

I guess sports writers and announcers like to see themselves as extensions of the corrupt but gold-hearted newspapermen and announcers of American sports' golden era. That the image is a sham is more than adequately proved by sportscaster Bob Costas, whose pseudo-philosophy ranges from Babe Ruth's capers off the diamond to a ponderous paean to the moral heights that can be achieved through athletic prowess.

Among the fooferah, though, is a wealth of anecdotes and vintage interviews. Joe Namath's explanation of why he wore white shoes, for instance, is almost enough to convince one that they aren't an abomination. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers never thought that Jackie Robinson was "the best black ballplayer; just the best suited for the great experiment" of finally getting African Americans readmitted to major league baseball.

The segment on Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali unleashes again that boxer's fury, his revolutionary anger, which he backed up with his fists--and shows him as to be a deeply committed and intelligent man who gave up millions to lend substance to his beliefs.

That professional American sports was for most of its history not just a man's game, but a white-man's game, is adequately established here. The irony is underscored by the opening subject, Jim Thorpe, All-American and Native American. John L. Sullivan, the bare-knuckle fighter, might have been the first sports figure to be venerated in America, but Thorpe was the first American sportsman to capture the imagination of the world. His accomplishments are still legendary, but so is his unassuming plain good fellowship, as when he was presented to the king of Sweden at the Olympic Games. "Hi, King," said Thorpe, holding out his hand.

The second part, "Babes in Boyland," deals with the rise of women athletes and their difficulties in finding a level playing field--literally. The long piece on Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, the phenomenal athlete out of Port Arthur, Texas, who started as an androgynous anomaly and ended up founding the Ladies Professional Golfers Association, is satisfyingly in-depth.

Somebody did some fine archival work here, digging up photographs and newsreels from Didrikson's long career. There's a publicity shot of her cutting up with the bearded House of David, a religious group that financed their church by barnstorming as baseball players. There's a good sampling of the promo reels of her and her husband enjoying domestic bliss--he's wearing the apron and serving up the hot cakes--along with newsreel clips of her in action as a young woman.

That's contrasted by hilarious warnings, from Dr. Franklin R. Rogers of the New York state Department of Education in 1930, about the dangers of women in competitive sports. Competitive sports "tend to reduce [women's] natural love for all things; they harm their physical attractiveness, and they tend to curtail their social charm," he says. Maybe Rogers was involved in competitive sports, which might explain his own lack of physical attractiveness and social charm.

Donna Lopiano of the Women's Sports Foundation movingly tells of her elation as a young girl in Little League upon donning her first real uniform, until one of the fathers read out of the rule book a four-word sentence: "No girls are allowed."

Billie Jean King gets plenty of air-time, discussing the silly but much-ballyhooed battle of the sexes that one-time tennis champion Bobby Riggs forced her to fight in the '70s. Especially amusing are clips of Howard Cosell's commentary during the match, as he at first gloats over her inevitable humiliation at the hands of Riggs--then shamelessly switches sides when it becomes apparent that King will rub Riggs' face into the court.

Idols of the Game is also the story of betrayal. There's Babe Ruth, white-haired, sagging and gravel-voiced from throat cancer, telling the kids at Yankee Stadium that baseball is the greatest game ever--even though the owners never gave him what he really wanted, a chance to manage. There's the rest of the Jim Thorpe story, with the bloated, aging ex-athlete, denied his Olympic medals on a technicality, on the set of a Hollywood movie, rigged out in clownish Injun makeup.

And the section on Joe Louis would be nearly unbearable to watch, if they'd gone into just how royally Uncle Sam screwed him. The story is newly infuriating each time it's told, but it deserves more discussion than the vague and misleading mention of "tax troubles." The way I heard it, the Brown Bomber donated his purses to the war effort during WWII, then got hit up afterward for back taxes on money he'd never seen. It broke him spiritually as well as financially.

No account of modern professional sports would be complete without a thorough discussion of filthy lucre and, most importantly, how to get it. Jim Bouton, one-time fastballer and author of the infamous Ball Four, an insightful and often hilarious account of the Yankees during the Mickey Mantle era, offers a few bittersweet insights into the differences between salaries then and now.

Working for a semipro team in his 50s isn't that much different, financially, for Bouton than winning two World Series games for the Yanks was. He made a little over $10,000 a year then, and he's making nothing now. As he points out, there's not much difference between the two figures, comparatively speaking.

In 1964, the major-league minimum was $7,000--the same as it was in 1919, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson was banned for life, despite hitting .375 in the series, asking not to be played, warning that something was not right about the series, and the testimony of gamblers and players alike that he wasn't in on the fix. Sox owner Charles Comiskey was so cheap, his players had to wash their own uniforms.

A discussion of the high-stakes partnership between marketeers and players leads to the career of "Sir" Charles Barkley, which is given a friendly spin. Barkley got notoriety for saying that he was no role model--but the follow-up got lost: parents are supposed to raise their kids, not sports heroes. He comes off very well here, "probably a better role model for future business executives than for aspiring basketball players."

Idols of the Game has much to offer, but you have to sit through some sanctimonious back-patting to get to it. And the closing segment, with the Scribe turning back from his pebbled-glass office door to utter a prayer to Shoeless Joe, is as embarrassing as your average Sharks game.


Idols of the Game airs in three parts, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, Nov. 27, 28 and 30, at 5:05 and 7:05pm on TBS.

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From the Nov. 22-29 issue of Metro

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