What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
If you give it a bit of thought, it’s easy to see the analogies between sports and war. The field of battle since the dawn of time has been one of the few places where violence, deceit, and death come in the same canteen with honor, duty, and discipline. Suggestive of the overall duality of man, that dissonant harmony is why we romanticize war with tales of glorious victories, crushing defeats, and courageous and sometimes fallen heroes.
But the other place where all those qualities co-exist is in the world of sports. Granted, the stakes aren’t as high and sports do not make the die in which our history is cast, but sports give us so many of the elements of war without the death. There’s conflict, camaraderie, and as Wide World of Sports taught us…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But If you give it a bit more thought and take the idea from the conceptual level to that of specific examples, those things give us some perfect comparison between those two worlds.
We love to think that Dubsism is a place where you can learn more by accident than in other places by design. That’s why we’ve cobbled together a list of twenty landmark battles culled from the annals of military history and point out their nearly linear comparisons in sports.
Should you be interested in other installments in this series, here’s where you can find them:
Stalingrad was the last great offensive mounted by Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front. Their defeat along the banks of the Volga River marked the beginning of a long fighting retreat by the Germans; one that ultimately led to the Red Army capturing Berlin. The reasons why Stalingrad marks the pivotal point of the war in the east are fairly apparent. Not only did their defeat at Stalingrad cost the Germans the death or capture of more than a quarter million troops, it also denied them access to the rich Caucasus oil fields, which were vital to the Nazi war machine.
The Sporting Equivalent: The 1987 Minnesota Twins
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Hitler honestly thought years of Stalinism left the U.S.S.R. as a rotting facade; he merely had to kick in the front door and the whole thing would come tumbling down. He had good reason to believe that; the Germans held advantages in technology, training, and the Wehrmacht had rolled across Europe in an unstoppable fashion not seen since Napoleon a century-plus in the past.
Not only that, Stalin had been busy executing a large number of the Red Army’s officer corps in his various and sundry purges. The leadership of the Red Army had been so devastated it had becomes the definition of over-promoted; it wasn’t uncommon to have sergeants in charge of battalions and lieutenants leading brigades. That’s because a lot of the Soviet colonels and generals were already dead.
The bottom line is that the Red Army were decided underdogs, but they won. The 1987 Minnesota Twins were also decided underdogs. This was a team who spent the 1970’s being a constant “yard sale” under spend-thrift owner Calvin Griffith who simply didn’t want to pay for talent, which is why the Twins spent the 1980s as perennial cellar dwellers.
Nobody believed in the Red Army in 1942, much like nobody thought the Twins could contend in 1987. But then they both had their turning points. For the Red Army, that was Stalingrad. For the Minnesota Twins in 1987, that was “The Weekend in Milwaukee.”
Saturday, August 29: The Twins had lost to the Brewers the night before, which left them tied for the lead in the American League West. to find themselves again tied for the AL West lead. The Twins had Bert Blyleven on the mound that Saturday, and the consensus opinion was this was a “must-win” for the Twins playoff hopes. The Twins waste no time in putting on a hitting display; in the top of the first inning, Gary Gaetti slugged a two-run homer, followed two innings later by a Kirby Puckett solo shot. In the top of the fifth, Puckett adds his second home run of the day. The Twins don’t take their foot off the gas; Puckett’s second bomb was eventually followed an RBI single by Tom Brunansky, a 2-RBI hit by Steve Lombardozzi, and finally a 3-run blast off the bat of Kent Hrbek. The Twins capture sole possession of first place and never look back.
Sunday, August 30: This is otherwise known as the day I accepted Kirby Puckett as my Lord and personal Savior. Puckett leads the Twins to a 10-6 victory by going 6-for-6, including two more homers, two doubles, and 6 RBIs. This made for a two-day total in a critical series of 10 hits in 11 at-bats, 4 home runs, 8 runs batted in, 7 runs scored, and 24 total bases. Oh, and somewhere amongst that offense-gasm, Puckett also robbed future Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount of a home run.
The final battle of the Napoleonic era, Waterloo was not only the definition of “crushing defeat,” it ended the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte as the Emperor of France. As such, he was sent back into exile; this time to St. Helena where he remained until his death in 1821.
Fought on June 18, 1815 in present-day Belgium, the battle of Waterloo and the resultant French defeat at the hands of the Seventh Coalition ended the era of French domination of Europe and began a period of peace on the continent that lasted for nearly 50 years. France never returned to being a dominant force in Europe, and the term “Waterloo” became a euphemism for decisive and complete defeat.
The Sporting Equivalent: Buster Douglas Knocking Out Mike Tyson
When it comes to upsets in terms of military engagements, Waterloo won’t be the first out of many people’s lips. The same can’t be said of Buster Douglas’ knock-out of Mike Tyson; most would call that the greatest upset in boxing history…if not in all of sport. But the common thread linking Buster Douglas and Waterloo is they both marked the end of an era.
Whether it was Napoleon in 1815 or Mike Tyson in 1990; both were rolling through their respective worlds throwing hammer-blows at all that stood in front of them. Granted, military historians will point to Napoleon’s defeat at the gates of Moscow three years before, but it was Waterloo that sealed Napoleon’s fate and marked the end for his being a factor in Europe. Likewise, Tyson was never the same after Douglas sent him to the canvas in the tenth round in Tokyo.
But more importantly, had either Napoleon or Tyson won their respective contests, their dominance would likely have continued for quite some time.
In terms of bloodbaths in the history of modern warfare, the Battle of Huai-Hai is exceptionally under-rated. This was the final major battle between the armies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party of Kuomintang (KMT) in their decades-long civil war. Upon the conclusion of the Huai-Hai campaign, over a half-million KMT soldiers had been killed, captured, or converted to the other side. Eventually, the remnants of the KMT fled to Taiwan, leaving mainland China under the control of the Communists, where it remains to this day.
The Sporting Equivalent: The ABA-NBA Merger and it’s Aftermath
One of the peculiar features of the Chinese civil war was that it had a de facto intermission. The CCP and the KMT pushed the “pause” button” on their war when the Japanese invaded Chine in the 1930’s. After the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War, the anti-Japanese alliance between the Communists and the Nationalists quickly dissolved, and the battle for control of China was on again.
In the mid 1970’s, there was a decided battle for control of the future of professional basketball in America. The upstart American Basketball Association (ABA) was making major in-roads into the fan-base of the established National Basketball Association (NBA). While both had a vision for the future of the sport, and they both believed they had the approach to realize those visions. But neither had the operating capital to fight each other and their common enemy; the moribund economy of 1970s America.
There came a point when the powers-that-be in the ABA and NBA realized that their future lie in a merger. While the ABA and the NBA became one in 1976, this did not mark the end of the battle for control. There were many people, not just former ABA-ers, who wanted to see the newly-merged league adopt many of the innovations devised by the ABA. Eventually, the new NBA would incorporate ABA inventions such as the dunk contest and the 3-point shot.
As with any civil war, there are casualties and there are survivors. Most of the ABA franchises did not survive the merger; many of them were simply not economically viable or were in markets in which the NBA was already established. Much like Taiwan represents the last vestiges of the KMT, the ABA’s remnants can still be found in today’s NBA; the Indiana Pacers, the Brooklyn Nets, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Denver Nuggets were all originally ABA franchises.
Amongst military historians, Cannae is synonymous with a battle of annihilation waged by an outnumbered force on a much more powerful opponent. The battle of Cannae came as a result of the Carthaginian Hannibal crossed into Italy by traversing the Pyrenees and the Alps during the summer and early autumn of 218 B.C. Catching the Romans somewhat by surprise, Hannibal won major victories over the Romans at Trebia and at Lake Trasimene. Concerned by these losses, the Romans named Fabius Maximus Verrucosus as dictator to crush the Cathaginian.
Fabius employed a strategy of attrition warfare against Hannibal by cutting off his supply lines and avoiding pitched battles. These tactics proved unpopular with the Romans who began to question the wisdom of the Fabian strategy, largely because they were itching for retaliation for the losses at Trebia and at Lake Trasimene and generally wanted to see a quick end to the war. The Romans also feared that if Hannibal continued plundering Italy unopposed, Rome’s allies might switch to the Carthaginian side so the same didn’t happen to them.
To that end, when Fabius came to the end of his term, the Roman Senate did not renew his dictatorial powers; consuls Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Marcus Atilius Regulus were given command of the Roman army…with little difference in results. When in 216 B.C. when elections resumed, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus were elected as consuls and therefore placed in command of a newly-raised army of unprecedented size and directed to engage and destroy Hannibal. This was outlined in the The Histories of Polybius.
The Senate determined to bring eight legions into the field, which had never been done at Rome before, each legion consisting of five thousand men besides allies. …Most of their wars are decided by one consul and two legions, with their quota of allies; and they rarely employ all four at one time and on one service. But on this occasion, so great was the alarm and terror of what would happen, they resolved to bring not only four but eight legions into the field.
Hannibal was outnumbered by at least 2-1 by the Romans, but he exacted crippling losses on his opponent by executing what may be the perfect example o fa tactic known as “double envelopment.” He accomplished this by confining the eight Roman legions in a narrow valley, hemmed in by the river. In one stroke, Hannibal thus restricted the mobility of the Roman cavalry and forced the Roman infantry to adopt a formation that was deeper than it was wide, two factors that would prove critical in the outcome of the battle.
Despite their terrestrial confinements, the Roman commander Varro deployed his forces in a traditional block formation with a mass of infantry in his center protected by cavalry on both wings. Varro’s idea was to use his infantry legions as a battering ram to fracture the center of the Carthaginian lines. The problem was Hannibal knew the Roman playbook better than the Romans did; hence he employed an unusual formation designed to use the Romans’ momentum against them. He began by positioning his weakest troops at the very center of his line. He then placed his more elite, battle-hardened soldiers slightly to the rear on both flanks. The cavalry took up positions on the far left and right wings. When fully assembled, the Carthaginian line resembled a long crescent that bulged outward at its center toward the Romans.
Once the battle began, the decisive maneuver came when Hannibal’s heavy cavalry stampeded into the horsemen on the Romans’ right flank. This cuased a gneral collapse of the Roman formation, and in no time the Carthaginians had all but obliterated the Romans.
The Sporting Equivalent: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates
Earlier, I mentioned Waterloo as not being a battle most would mention first on a list of military upsets. The battle of Cannae should also rate high on such a list, but because it took place so long ago, many casual military historians might have forgotten it. Much like Cannae should not be forgotten in terms of upsets, if one were making a list of sporting upsets, and that list did not include the Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series…well, that list would not be complete.
With a few brief shining exceptions, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been an historic also-ran in major league baseball. In their 120-year-plus history, they’ve only won five championships; the most recent being 40 years ago. In complete opposition, the New York Yankees have been the de facto flagship franchise in baseball since the tun of the 20th century, which is why their 1960 match-up with the Yankees was the essential “David vs. Goliath” scenario.
Pittsburgh won Game One 6-4, but the next two were seal-clubbings in favor of the Bronx Bombers, 16-3 and 10-0. Worse yet for the Pirates, the nest two games were in New York. But Pittsburgh gutted out two close wins to send the series back to the Steel City with Pirates ahead three games to two.
Another blow-out win by the Yankees in Game Six set the stage for what many call “the greatest game ever played;” a pitched back-and-forth battle which ended in the bottom of the ninth inning when light-hitting second baseman Bill Mazerozki crushed a pitch over the outfield wall giving the Pirates a 10-9 win.
The Yankees outscored the Pirates by a total of 55-27 in that series, but it’s not about how many runs you score; it’s about how many games you win.
June 6th, 1944 marked “D-Day;” the day which changed the way the war would be fought in Europe. To that point, the land war on the continent was largely an exercise between Germany and the Soviet Union. Until the Western Allies opened a second front in the fields of France, the outcome of the war in Europe was all about what happened between the the two Eastern powers. In other words, D-Day marked the beginning of the end of totalitarian rule in Western Europe.
The largest amphibious invasion in history took place on the northern coast of France, and regardless of the outcome, history was going to pivot on this moment. Allied troops participating in the initial invasion came from the United States, Britain, Canada, and the Free French. It began with night parachute and glider landings, massive air attacks, and naval bombardment; by morning amphibious landings commenced on five beaches code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. As evening on June 6th approached, the remaining elements of the airborne divisions landed, the Allied foothold on the European continent was established, and the final nails were being pounded into the collective casket of Nazi Germany.
The Sporting Equivalent: The Day ESPN Launched
This past spring, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Normandy, otherwise colloquially known as “D-Day.” Just after Labor Day later this year, we can do the same for the 40th anniversary of the launch of ESPN, or as I like to call it, “E-Day.”
June 6th, 1944 marked the beginning of the end for totalitarian rule in Western Europe. In much the same way, September 7th, 1979 marked “E-Day;” the day when sports fans saw the beginning of the end of the tyrannical grip that local and network television had on them.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been one of the more vocal critics of the world’s first all-sports network, but the fact is that ESPN wasn’t always the electronic shit-pile it is now. The reality is that for about a two-decade span starting in the mid-1980’s, what is now the World Wide Bottom Feeder was the best thing on cable television. Even today, it still has it’s moments. But what keeps it alive is then as now, it brought the sports world to your living room.
Before ESPN, sports fans were really at the mercy of whatever local and network programming was dedicated to sports, which in many cases wasn’t much. If you lived in a city without baseball, you might only get the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday and ABC’s Monday Night Baseball (if it wasn’t football season). As far as football is concerned, if you were lucky, you might get two college football games on Saturday afternoon, and the NFL was Sunday afternoon and Monday night…that was it. If you wanted a dedicated hightight show about the NFL, you would have needed to have another cable fledgling called HBO. There was almost no such thing as the NBA on television on a national scale, except for the play-offs. And if your city didn’t have professional hockey, you could forget about seeing the NHL outside of Canada.
Even in it’s early years before it landed the broadcast rights to major league sports, ESPN changed the game by launching the first all-sports news show, SportsCenter. ESPN was the first to broadcast every game of the NCAA Basketball tournament. The game you wanted to see might be tape-delayed and airing at 3 a.m, but that was better than the fat load of nothing you got before. The NFL Draft became a three-day long prime-time affair after ESPN started broadcasting it live when it was still held in a hotel convention room in Secaucus, New Jersey on a Tuesday afternoon.
Besides all that…look at ESPN2 today doing the “Ocho” thing. That’s exactly what ESPN used to look like…and it was awesome.
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