Our Heroes, As We See Them

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Sol Saporta

MY RECOLLECTION of the year 1948 is that the two activities that occupied most of my time and energy were rooting for Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and campaigning for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president who was challenging both Harry Truman and Thomas E. Dewey.

Sometime between then and now I came to understand that, in its own way, the first of these commitments was just as political as the second.

The impact of the integration of professional athletics hardly needs additional documentation. But it is hard to overestimate the effect it had on young New York sports fans who perceived themselves as some kind of leftists.

The debate between Dodger fans and Yankee fans now took on a moral dimension that it had never had before. Rooting for the National League in the All-Star game was a commitment to racial justice in the form of a roster that included Blacks and Latinos. Our sense of self-righteousness, naive and misguided as it may have been, was nevertheless based on facts that were indisputable.

So far, so good. But, now things start getting fuzzy. The reality generates its own fantasy. Simply put, my illusion, one that I have never been able to relinquish completely (Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?) is that I wanted my heroes to be better than they were.

I was pretty good at resisting most of the illusions, both romantic and non-romantic, that are promoted in this society. I don’t remember ever really believing in Santa Claus (or God); I didn’t believe my mother when she told me she got me at Macy’s; and reading in a history book that George Washington never told a lie didn’t strengthen my faith in George Washington or the American presidency. It just made me suspicious of the trust­ worthiness of history books.

And the romantic quest for that blissful relationship between two persons, each caring, considerate, committed, compassionate, living out their lives in passionate heterosexual monogamy, evolving harmoniously into the indefinite future-that quest never captured my imagination. Never? Well-hardly ever.

But-I did seek something from the athletes and performers that I revered. It was not enough for them to have artistic talent or athletic skills.

I wanted them to have intelligence, integrity and, most important, a social conscience. And, even more, I wanted those qualities to be so completely integrated into their lives and beings that a knowledgeable fan could occasionally discern the expression of those qualities in their artistic or athletic performance.

Robinson could bunt, steal bases, hit for average, bat in runs and make the double play. How could he fail to understand the predatory nature of monopoly capitalism?

So it was not merely an irony and a disappointment when a few years later Robinson publicly supported Nelson Rockefeller; it was close to betrayal. If there was one name that one could identify as epitomizing the institutions that prevented this society from approximating any genuine egalitarianism, that name was probably Rockefeller.

And, similarly, for the entertainers. Casablanca was probably my all-time favorite movie from the time it appeared until Annie Hall replaced it at the top of my list. I was too old to be devastated or even terribly surprised, but I have never been able to reconcile my emotional response to the film with the fact that Humphrey Bogart apparently had spent much of one of his early marriages beating up his wife.

The erroneous basis of my illusion seems clear. In my world, there would be some systematic correlation between beauty and grace on the one hand, and virtue on the other. It would reassure the child in all of us if truth, beauty and virtue somehow converged. In this world they are independent, and when they concur, it’s coincidence.

It is now a cliché to observe that entertainers and athletes are the royalty of our society. Somehow, I have failed to draw the obvious conclusion.

May-June 2022, ATC 14

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