"Come on, no hanging back, no more delay....
Who's the winner?"
That has always been the big question about a sports event. Homer asked it in ancient Greece when he wrote the lines quoted above in Book 21 of The Odyssey, and it is still the query that starts discussion of a football game or a golf tournament or a pennant race today. Who won? It is in the nature of things that sports fans should be concerned primarily with winners. Seldom do you run into a questioner who puts it the other way around: Who lost?
But there are exceptions to this fascination with the victors, situations where the drama and the interest seem to belong to the losers, and this magazine enjoys an occasional excursion to the bottom of the standings. Our story on ex-New York Met Rod Kanehl, which begins on page 54, is in this category, and it has led me to look back at some of the other notable losers we have written about in the past.
August 7, 1966
They make up quite a gallery. Andrew Jackson was probably the outstanding historical figure among losing sportsmen: he never won (Tennessee Turfman, SI, July 16, 1956). At least he never won the horse races he wanted to win. In 1811 a friend, neighbor and rival beat Jackson's best horse with a mare named Maria. Jackson trained colts himself, scoured Virginia for the best horseflesh in the Old Dominion, tried everything from half-mile sprints to four-mile races—and lost every race, 13 in a row, to Haynie's Maria. Asked on his deathbed if he had any regrets, Jackson said, "Nothing that I can remember, except Jesse Haynie's Maria." Even more devoted to losing was Sir Thomas Lipton, whose many magnificently unsuccessful attempts to win the America's Cup we described in The World's Greatest Loser (SI, Sept. 8, 1958). Sir Thomas tried for the first time with Shamrock I in 1899, never gave up, spent 21 years and $5 million and did not even come close to winning.
Outside the ranks of such giants of defeat as these, we have noted many less-spectacular losers, no less tenacious. There was, for instance, Dr. John Davis, a Manhattan physician, who fished for swordfish for 34 years and never boated one (The High Cost of Not Catching Swordfish, SI, July 20, 1964). Perhaps the most versatile loser we ever wrote about was the famous heavyweight Jack Doyle, known as the Irish Thrush, whose story was told by Patrick Campbell in Golden Triumphs of the Gorgeous Gael (SI, Aug. 29, 1960). Doyle was a failure as a boxer, movie actor, wrestler and singer. He seemed constitutionally unable to win. Once when he was doing well in the second round of a fight in 1938 he missed with a roundhouse right, spun completely around, pitched through the ropes, landed on his head and knocked himself out. When he sang Mother Machree in vaudeville his boxing fans shouted, "Ah, if he would only fight her!" "Of all the fighters I have ever known," wrote Campbell, "Doyle was the one with the most highly developed talent for turning actual defeat into apparent victory."
That is a faculty all steady losers need. Gerald Holland wrote of it in his story on the Senators, Eighth Place Revisited (SI, May 30, 1960), when he described "the serenity of second-division baseball." So did Jimmy Breslin in his story of the Mets, Worst Baseball Team Ever (SI, Aug. 13, 1962): "You do not use a record book to say the Mets are the worst baseball team of all time." To have been dropped from the world's worst major league ball club—which is what Rod Kanehl was—and to have retained a sense of humor requires certain heroic qualities. Maybe Rod Kanehl isn't really a loser after all.