The concept of the sportsman as hard-eyed realist gets several rude jolts in these pages this week. At least four of our articles either deal with, or give evidence of, the eminent role of imagination in sport—the pieces by George Plimpton on the Harvard-Yale game (page 40), by Frank Deford on Momentum (page 54), by Rudolph S. Rauch III on Irish fox hunting (page 48) and by Coles Phinizy on the rediscovery of New York City via its waterways (page 98). Each exposes in some way the soft, fanciful underbelly of Homo athletus.
This is an article from the Nov. 22, 1971 issue
Fantasy has always loomed importantly in sport. Which of us, while watching Brooks Robinson stab a line drive over third base or Rod Laver backhand a cross-court drop shot, has not mentally cast himself in the hero's role? But more relevant from the standpoint of the four stories in question is the creative side of fantasy—the gift of transforming curiosity and imagination into words and paragraphs that amuse or illuminate.
Take Plimpton and his inside report on The Game. If George didn't invent the Mittyesque jock, he has certainly done the most to analyze the species—starting with himself. This week's confection grew out of a conversation he had with the late SI Senior Editor Alfred Wright just after last year's Harvard-Yale contest. "We began to imagine an amusing and hypothetical aftermath of the game, and discussed cooperating on a story along those lines," says Plimpton. "Later Al got busy with some other things, but he told me if I saw merit in it to proceed alone, that he made a gift of it to me."
It is pretty obvious where Frank Deford got his idea for the parody on Momentum. During the past year, as a frequent contributor to our TV TALK column, Deford spent a lot of time watching and listening to sports on television. Anyone who thinks of that as a dream assignment has not tried it. It is just the sort of regimen—battered with tattered prose—to inspire a man to satire or suicide. We are happy to see that Deford chose the former.
Rauch's account of riding to hounds across the bogs of the Irish countryside exposes a different manifestation of imagination's place in sport. Put as a question, what makes otherwise quiet and sensible people risk their mounts and their necks for such meager rewards? Certainly, major incentives are the anticipation and the aftermath. Think of the convivial hours to be spent over a brace of Irish whiskies, nervously looking forward to, or reliving—not to say embellishing—the adventures of a day's ride with good companions. The man who lacks imagination would be ill-suited to the rigors of such a pastime.
Coles Phinizy has been for years our resident dream expert. In his long service here he has carved out a beat for himself that is equal parts adventure, science and pure chimera. His wanderings on the waterways of New York City in a canoe late last summer capture the essence of his role on this magazine. New York's waters are many things to many people—channels of commerce, playground, public nuisance—but only someone with the fertile mind of a Phinizy could conjure up a kind of Huck Finn adventureland from such earthy grist.
It all, we hope, makes for good and surprising reading. There will be more of that in the weeks ahead—as long as we have Plimpton, Deford, Rauch and Phinizy (and others like them) around to dream a little.