The passing of an athlete always gives us pause.
The idea of losing someone we admired specifically for their strength and fitness, maybe for years, is often all the more powerful if you didn’t know them personally: they stand for something, and when they’re gone, what does that something mean any more?
I was thinking this during the week not because of a specific athlete, but because of the passing of an actor.
If you’re of a certain age you might remember Norman Lloyd from his part in the TV series St Elsewhere, for instance, or Dead Poets Society, where he was a curmudgeonly teacher.
In any event Lloyd died last week at the age of 106, which is a fair innings in any sport, but I was struck by an off-hand observation from one of his friends: that he had to be one of the last people alive to see Babe Ruth play — and not just play, but feature in the World Series of 1928.
A link in the chain broken, then, removing Ruth even further to fans of baseball.
This resonated with an experience I had last year, helping to put together a documentary about Christy Ring.
Because Ring’s career ran through to the middle of the 60s, it was relatively straightforward to find people who had seen him play from the late 50s onwards, at least: anyone born around 1950 could have seen the maestro in a game quite easily, and would have been old enough by 1960 to be conscious of the occasion when he or she did.
It was a different challenge trying to find eye witnesses to Ring at his peak in the late 40s or early 50s, however. (For this we were thankful to the great Jimmy Lynam of Glen Rovers, who cycled to see Ring play in All-Ireland finals in the 40s). People who had seen Ring feature on Cork’s four-in-a-row side from the early 40s? Forget about it.
That, of course, is only half the journey.
Take Ring’s predecessors as the big names in hurling. Finding someone to wax lyrical because of their experience watching Mick Mackey or Lory Meagher when those players were in their pomp would be the tallest of tall orders (though your columnist would dearly love to hear from someone who fits the bill).
Accordingly, those players’ reputations remain strong —but in an airless, abstract way.
The consequence is the gradual erosion of reputation, naturally enough. Part of the fun of talking sports with your pals is the push and pull of evaluation: why this player is better than that one, and why your reasoning says much more about you than it does about the player in question.
And the great currency in these debates is the in-person account. The time you saw this player do that in a game; the other time, when they were able to accomplish an equally unlikely feat. Their attitude. Their spirit. The things you can only recount if you saw them yourself. In the flesh.
Hence the blow that is the death of someone like Norman Lloyd. It robs us of a contributor to the debate who can accept the points made by others before coming back with the first-hand account as a rebuttal. Perhaps we should describe the phenomenon as the Lloyd Line — the point at which all appreciation of a sports person becomes, by definition, second hand.
I said earlier athletes like this stand for something, and when they pass away you’re left questioning what that something means any more.
It’s youth, of course. As long as you can recall the idols of your own youth as they were — powerful, assertive, winning — then your own youth is less of an abstraction: the chapter isn’t closed, it’s just a little harder to reach.
That’s why encountering the Lloyd Line is such a blow. Even if you have no interest in baseball, you know that someday your own sports hero will encounter a similar fate to Babe Ruth.
Until then, though, enjoy talking about the time you saw them. It’s important.
I’ve filled plenty of column space here urging readers of all stripes to read the work of Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women.
One of the strands followed by Criado Perez is the thesis that women are treated as little men — that instead of being treated differently when it comes to medical research, for instance, some scientists don’t test women differently when it comes to drugs but merely calculate doses and treatments for women as a percentage of a man’s dose.
This was particularly pertinent this week when a reader passed on details of a company which makes women’s basketball boots.
Because the company, Moolah Kicks, makes basketball boots for women rather than issuing men’s boots in slightly smaller sizes.
The company founder, White, told Front Office Sports that she’d found in her research that “women’s feet have several differences compared with men’s feet, from a higher arch to a smaller heel.”
As a result, White and her team have put together basketball boots which prioritise female biomechanics. It’s early days yet for the company, but if you want to get in touch with an organisation which is doing something about the difference between women and men in sport, look up moolahkicks.com/#faq
Last Saturday afternoon yours truly was weighing up the prospect of a walk — unlikely, given the rainclouds gathering — when I stumbled across a sports event on the television.
The FA Cup final.
The point has been made many times (probably by me, more than once) that there was a time this was one of the most significant days in the sporting calendar, a clear-the-afternoon, pull-the-curtains appointment. I remember as a kid playing a colleges final with the school and the FA Cup final was obligatory listening en route to the game, and not just as a distraction.
I caught some of the BBC preamble to the main event, and the brave insistence on the importance of the game told its own story. There was enjoyment in seeing the likes of Des Lynam getting the reaction of supporters, all of them clad in cutting-edge 70s fashion, but the nostalgia came with a grim acceptance also.
There are lessons for other sports in the decline of the FA Cup, and one is how fast that decline was once it started.
Pharmaceutical companies are having their day in the sun — and deservedly so, given how swiftly they’ve gotten a variety of covid vaccines on the market. That kind of work will have a hugely positive impact on all our lives.
The wrong week, then, to pick up Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty?
Not at all. This is a book of the year — deeply researched, brilliantly written — telling an eternal story. It recounts the rise of a family to unimaginable riches and power, but at what price?
I won’t spoil the story other than to refer you to the opioid crisis which afflicts the modern age. I may have mentioned this book before but if I didn’t recommend it to you this morning I’d feel guilty all day.