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The Artist Athlete

Friday, January 4, 2013

Jocks sometimes rise to genuine athletic distinction, but they are not artist athletes, who comprise a different, more elevated category altogether.

The other day, reading a little book called Reflections and Shadows by Saul Steinberg, The New Yorker cartoonist and artist, I came across an interesting passage about the connection between baseball and art. An immigrant born in Romania, Steinberg was not brought up on baseball as a kid, but he was charmed by the game when he came to it as an adult. In the passage, Steinberg writes "Baseball is a philosophical, psychological sport, based, like life, on courage and fear – think of chess and bullfighting. The players have to have extraordinary ability, ready reflexes, and above all an inventive spirit, a creativity that might be called poetic and which puts the sports champion close to the artist."

Is this so? Are great athletes like artists? How high a quotient of truth is there to Steinberg’s observation?

Sufficiently high, it occurs to me, to justify some of my own interest in watching athletes perform. Like lots of sports fans, I am interested in competition, in watching people operate under pressure, in witnessing acts of physical fearlessness I myself could never undertake. But what pleases me above all is watching athletics when it rises – which it doesn’t do that often – to the level of artistry.

Artists are defined by their unique visions, their mastery over the materials they work with, their sprezzatura, or ability to hide the effort that goes into their work. Some athletes have had splendid careers based on grit and determination and endless hard work. Hustlers and fighters, they grind it out. Pete Rose was such an athlete in baseball; the late Carmen Basilio, who was briefly welterweight and middleweight champion of the world, exemplified the gritty boxer; football has too many such figures – sturdy linebackers, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust fullbacks, burly interior linemen; basketball used to have players known as hatchet men – Jim Loscutoff of the Boston Celtics and Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons come to mind – who were in the game to bang and bruise and slow down the other teams’ stars; tennis had dinkers and defensive players, such as Bobby Riggs and Harold Solomon. These athletes, and many more like them, sometimes rise to genuine distinction, but they are not artist athletes, who comprise a different, more elevated category altogether.

Artist athletes seem to have been imbued with perfect bodies for their sports.

The artist athlete never seems to have to gut it out. However hard he may work to have it come about, he makes everything seem to flow naturally. Consider Joe DiMaggio gliding over to catch difficult fly balls to center; everyone else raced, DiMaggio glided. Or Ted Williams, with his long, looping swing and his apparently beyond perfect eyesight, effortlessly whacking balls for clutch hits. (When a pitcher complained of a call while Williams was in the batter’s box, an umpire is supposed to have said "Mr. Williams will let you know when you throw a strike.”)

Artist athletes seem to have been imbued with perfect bodies for their sports. Oscar Robertson was not only 6’5” but had a backside of a width aptly designed for blocking out and rebounding. The reliever Randy Johnson was 6’10” which, with the added height the pitching mound gave him, lent his delivery more than an extra dollop of terror as he bore down on batters. Martina Navratilova had a left arm absolutely masculine in its musculature: the better to smash aces down the center, granddaughter.

Like superior visual artists, artist athletes see more than normal people. In a glance, they take in the entire field, court, or ring, and instantly note developing defenses and possibilities for winning responses. One thinks of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, with monster opposing linemen closing in on him, out of the corner of his eye finding that free wide-receiver jutting past the cornerback and in the clear for a nanosecond, just long enough for Montana to hit him with a perfect pass. Or Michael Jordan bringing the ball downcourt and seeing that slight opening in the defense that allows him to slash to the basket.

Athletic intelligence, of a kind never mentioned by the psychologist Howard Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard and a specialist in formulating various types of intelligence, is one of the world’s minor mysteries. Artist athletes, not otherwise in any way necessarily smart about the world, tend to be possessed of superior intelligence while at their game. It's difficult to remember Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson, or Bob Cousy ever committing a turnover. Or Derek Jeter ever throwing to the wrong base. Or Tom Brady not in utter command during a final two-minute drive for a winning score. Cubs fans used to say that Ryne Sandberg, the team’s great second baseman, never seemed to dive for a ball. Such was Sandberg’s anticipation and quickness that in fact he never had to.

Roger Federer might just be the Picasso, the Rembrandt, the Michelangelo of athletes.

The number of artist athletes is small at any time. They pop up without pattern. Sugar Ray Robinson was such an athlete, and so was Muhammad Ali. Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky were hockey’s artist athletes. I can think of only three artist athletes at work currently: Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, and Roger Federer.

Roger Federer might just be the Picasso, the Rembrandt, the Michelangelo of athletes. In a game sometimes dominated by power, he prefers prowess, though he has the command of power when he needs it. He does things on the tennis court that the human body is not supposed to be able to do. His footwork astonishes; the angles at which he strikes balls for winners, even when on the run, is unmatched. His unforced errors are few, his temperament such that he rarely defeats himself. Like no other tennis player, he can “build” a point: in four or five strokes he can work his opponent into a corner so that he is set up for one of Federer’s down-the-line or cross-court or impossibly angled winners. Federer’s perfection sometimes makes him seem para-human.

Exempted from certain physical laws, endowed with an ability to penetrate their opponents’ weaknesses, gifted with a mental balance that prevents them from making self-defeating mistakes, artist athletes, during the years given to them to compete, are, if not minor deities, surely favored by the gods. From our couches, we watch them in awe, freshly impressed with the range of human possibility. 

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “A Couch Potato at a Time of Transition,” “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” “The Long, Hot Summer,” and “Anyone for Tennis?” Robert McHenry offers “Reflections of a Casual Fan.” Jon Entine contributes “What Makes a Great Olympian? Sometimes It's Genetics.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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