Best! Game! Ever! Played!

The trend in sports books is to claim that a single contest changed the course of history. Sure it did.

Published February 26, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

We seem to have a little trend going in the field of sports history. For all I know it reflects a broader movement in letters, but I don't get out much so I don't know. But it's clearly in vogue to identify a single ballgame and claim that the rush of history pivoted upon it. Or at least that the game in question was, without question, the greatest game ever.

Until it's time to write the next book, I guess.

So just in the last week or so the mail has brought "When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball," Seth Davis' book about the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird NCAA title matchup in 1979, and "The Best Game Ever: Pirates 10, Yankees 9: October 13, 1960," Jim Reisler's tome about the World Series Game 7 that ended on Bill Mazeroski's home run.

Those have been tossed on the pile with "The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of '78" by Richard Bradley and my DVD copy of ESPN's recent "Greatest Game Ever Played," about the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.

I want to make it clear I'm not commenting on the quality of any of these things. I haven't read any of the books and haven't seen the movie.

But as a historian -- at least that's what professor Hitchcock used to call us sophomores during his lectures -- I'm not pleased by this apparent embrace of a kind of Great Man Theory, the idea that history is made not by an incredibly complex interaction of trends, events and circumstances but by the dynamic actions of one great man. Or in this case, one great game.

It's the idea that NFL football didn't become our biggest sport in the last quarter of the 20th century because it played beautifully on the emerging medium of television, was marketed and organized brilliantly starting in the early '60s, jibed better with Americans' postwar tastes and internal rhythms than the more languorous, formerly ascendant baseball, had a vibrant minor league system with a passionate fan base feeding it already famous talent at no cost and a host of other reasons.

No, the NFL conquered the American sports scene because the Colts and Giants played an overtime humdinger at Yankee Stadium in December of '58. If they'd played a 9-3 dog we'd all be watching badminton or something on winter Sundays.

And good thing Joe Namath and the New York Jets beat the Colts in the Super Bowl 10 years later. The NFL might not have kept growing without that. Without Magic and Larry, the NCAA Tournament would be on C-Span today.

Now I realize titles are more likely to come from marketing departments than from authors. These people are trying to sell books and "The Greatest Game Ever" or "The Game That Changed Everything" has a better chance of catching the public's attention than "A Really Interesting Game That Happened One Day."

I must not be the only one who's not comfortable with all the superlatives. The only cover blurb the publisher, Da Capo Press, chose for the front of the paperback edition of "The Best Game Ever" is by Bob Costas. Here it is:

"One of the most memorable games in World Series history."

Well, either that or it was the best game ever.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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