” . . . to chase the rolling circle’s speed
Or urge the Hying ball . . . “

—Thomas Gray

The Puritans, who once condemned stool ball, quoits, and bowls, would stand in stern judgment of the millions of Americans who every Sunday choose a ball game over church attendance. Yet game-playing did begin in ritual and religion, and the Latin word for temple, fanum, gave us the modern fan, applied to the sports enthusiast. In Sports in the Western World (1982), William J. Baker argues that “the actual beginnings of sport” may be found in “religious fear” and in “rituals designed to placate the unknown powers that people called gods.”

Placating the gods does not appear to be the aim of modern sports, but participants and viewers alike do demonstrate an almost religious passion for pattern, for rules, and for triumph. As the sportswriter Skip Hollandworth put it: “Sports have all the trappings of religion, the sacred Sunday ritual of squatting by the television and rooting for the team of light over the team of darkness, the spectacle of uniforms and banners, the adoration of saintlike heroes, the desperate pleas for salvation and victory.”

The apparently aimless flux of everyday life leaves a craving for order that must be satisfied—at the ball park, if not in the sanctuary, synagogue, or poetry seminar. And at a time when many of America’s ecclesiastical leaders try to erase the distinctions separating men and women, sports at least still honors the God-given differences between the sexes. Because millions of American boys no longer participate in an annual harvest or hunt, all-male sports provide a much-needed alternative way to establish sex identity. Historically, as William Baker points out, the rise of the great modern team sports coincided with industrial urbanization and its attendant “exodus from the countryside into the cities.” City folk craved some reminder of how men and boys once moved in rythmical harmony across the fields.

Still, popular games provide a poor recreation of lost agrarian patterns and an even poorer replacement for religious ritual. The rules and the objectives of sports lie lightly on the surface of the natural world, penetrating no deeper than the chalk lines marked on grass fields. Even before the game begins, the teams and the permissible outcomes have all been predetermined, and the player who pauses to ponder on possible relationships with his fellow man will quickly be embarrassed by a ball that slips between his legs or a fullback who knocks him down.

But as the forces of modernity eat away at the forms of ethics, philosophy, and worship, millions cling ever tighter to the artifice of sports, lest they fall into Chaos. Many fans would probably “cut the game,” if not for a nagging fear that life beyond the playing field is pointless. At night the ball park is brightly lit and comprehensible, while the world beyond lies submerged in darkness and confusion.

Inevitably, Americans begin to regard sports figures not as the likable entertainers that many of them are, but as superhuman heroes, gods almost. In the contrast between two recent biographies of outstanding American athletes, Kenny Stabler and Mickey Mantle, we see the sorry but predictable decline in character of the idols. Mickey Mantle captured the limelight as a slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees in the 1950’s and 60’s; Stabler won his glory as a southpaw quarterback for the Oakland Raiders during the 1970’s. In different ways, both epitomized their respective eras: a decent family man playing a civilized game—Mantle belonged to the Age of Eisenhower—and a reckless playboy starring in a brutal sport, as Stabler enthralled the Me Generation.

Afflicted with osteomyelitis. Mantle played—in pain—even when he had to be taped from toe to waist. Stabler’s biggest athletic handicap may have been his own high living: He partied all night even before big games. Mantle does apologize in print for drinking too much and neglecting his wife. But (at least to judge from his book) he was never unfaithful, and he made his marriage work. Stabler boasts of his marathon drinking and of his numerous sexual conquests. He laughs off his repeated marital failures.

There are, however, significant continuities which tie the two books together. Mickey Mantle was one of the heroes held up to Stabler by his Pony League coach in Foley, Alabama, and Stabler actually met Mantle at the 1968 Cotton Bowl. A star in both baseball and football, Stabler received an offer to join the Yankees while Mantle was still with the club, but declined, thinking he’d “make more money in the long run pitching pigskin instead of horsehide.”

Both men express unusually strong feelings towards their fathers, men who proved their rugged masculinity off the playing field: Mantle’s as a lead miner, Stabler’s as a hunter, fisherman, and auto mechanic. Both men deeply admire competitors and teammates, but neither tries to hide his own ego when talking about past athletic feats. In their eagerness to establish their respective places in the athletic pantheon, both slip into the narrow mindset of a scorekeeper. When not swapping statistics, both men liked to pull pranks and carouse with the boys, though Stabler’s pranks often became brawls and his carousing was obsessive and licentious. Neither man ever completed a college degree nor felt the need for one; in fact. Stabler did play football for four years at the University of Alabama.

Neither man seems to have acquired a perspective on his own status as a popular entertainer pursuing contrived goals, nor does either appear to have ever wondered about the kind of society which lavishes so much attention on ordinary men blessed with strong arms and quick reflexes.

Mantle’s moral decency, though laudable, appears perhaps more a matter of prevalent social conventions than of personal conviction, and such decency is not held in place by the rules of baseball. Never catechized in any gospel except baseball, basketball, and football, nor ever taught about any higher gods than Mantle and the legendary “Bear” Bryant, Stabler reached the only logical conclusion: If there is no referee, all things are permissible. Stabler (aptly nicknamed “The Snake”) explains his outlook on life in simple terms: “Getting nowhere fast, that was my off-season philosophy. I figured it wasn’t where you were going that counted because we all end up in the same place anyway. What really counts is how you get there. Was the trip fun?” Mantle, on his part, never endorses this kind of kinetic nihilism, but neither does he offer a plausible alternative. Once a rich and weighty word meaning “declaration of religious faith,” profession has reached an absurd trivialization when applied to the pursuits of “pros” like these.

A. P. Housman counted fortunate “the athlete dying young,” the young champion forced “to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay.” In contrast, Housman pointed to the many long-lived athletes who

. . . swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honors out.

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

Housman wrote some years before baseball and football became multibillion-dollar industries, offering countless media, management, business, and coaching opportunities to aging superstars. Both Stabler and Mantle have continued to find numerous ways—including these bestselling books—to turn their past athletic accomplishments into lucrative opportunities. But Mantle is not so busy making money that he does not find time to criticize commentators who forget how many post-season home runs he hit during his career, nor has Stabler quite forgotten his grudge against sportswriters who passed him over in picking the best NFL quarterback in 1977.

Speaking of writers. Stabler and Mantle are every bit as good at writing as Housman was at sports.


[Snake, by Ken Stabler and Berry Stainback (New York: Doubleday) $15.95]

[The Mick, by Mickey Mantle and Herb Gluck (New York: Doubleday) $15.95]