The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
—King Lear V,iii
There’s a scene in the film Caddyshack that at first glance seems like a mere throwaway one-liner, but that rather neatly sums up what I’m going to call the “Kirby Puckett” problem. Ted Knight’s Judge Smails character asks Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb character about how if Webb doesn’t, as he claims, keep score, then how does he measure himself against other golfers? “By height,” Webb replies. It’s a witty enough reply on its own of course. But it also (and perhaps there’s a greater humor to be found here) raises a rather profound question: is there a way to know someone is a great athlete—aside from their production on the field? Or, to put the point another way, what do bodies tell us?
I call this the “Kirby Puckett” problem because of something Bill James, the noted sabermetrician and former , once wrote in his New Historical Baseball Abstract: “Kirby Puckett,” James observed, “once said that his fantasy was to have a body like Glenn Braggs’.” Never heard of Glenn Braggs? Well, that’s James’ point: Glenn Braggs looked like a great ballplayer—“slender, fast, very graceful”—but Kirby Puckett was a great ballplayer: a first-ballot Hall of Famer, in fact. Yet despite his own greatness—and surely Kirby Puckett was aware he was, by any measure, a better player than Glenn Braggs—Puckett could not help but wish he appeared “more like” the great player he, in reality, was.
What we can conclude from this is that a) we all (or most of us) have an idea of what athletes look like, and b) that it’s extremely disturbing when that idea is called into question, even when you yourself are a great athlete.
This isn’t a new problem, to be sure. It’s the subject, for instance, of Moneyball, the book (and the movie) about how the Oakland A’s, and particularly their general manager Billy Beane, began to apply statistical analysis to baseball. “Some scouts,” wrote Michael Lewis in that book, about the difference between the A’s old and the new ways of doing things, “still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball.” What Moneyball is about is how Beane and his staff learned to ignore what their eyes told them, and judge their players solely on the numbers.
Or in other words, to predict future production only by past production, instead of by what appearances appeared to promise. Now, fairly obviously that doesn’t mean that coaches and general managers of every sport need to ignore their players’ appearances when evaluating their future value. Indisputably, many different sports have an ideal body. Jockeys, of course, are small men, whereas football players are large ones. Basketball players are large, too, but in a different way: taller and not as bulky. Runners and bicyclists have yet a different shape. Pretty clearly, completely ignoring those factors would lead any talent judge far astray quickly.
Still, the variety of successful body types in a given sport might be broader than we might imagine—and that variety might be broader yet depending on the sport in question. Golf for example might be a sport with a particularly broad range of potentially successful bodies. Roughly speaking, golfers of almost any body type have been major champions.
“Bantam” Ben Hogan for example, greatest of ballstrikers, stood 5’7” and weighed about 135 pounds during his prime, and going farther back Harry Vardon, who invented the grip used almost universally today and won the British Open six times, stood 5’9” and weighed about 155 pounds. But alternately, Jack Nicklaus was known as “Fat Jack” when he first came out on tour—a nickname that tells its own story—and long before then Harry Vardon had competed against Ted Ray, who won two majors of his own (the 1912 British and the 1920 U.S. Opens)—and was described by his contemporaries as “hefty.” This is not even to bring up, say, John Daly.
The mere existence of John Daly, however, isn’t strong enough to expand our idea of what constitutes an athlete’s body. Golfers like Daly and the rest don’t suggest that the overweight can be surprisingly athletic; instead, they provoke the question of whether golf is a sport at all. “Is Tiger Woods proof that golf is a sport, or is John Daly confirmation to the contrary?” asks a post on Popular Science’s website entitled “Is Golf a Sport?” There’s even a Facebook page entitled “Golf Is Not a Sport.”
Facebook pages like the above confirm just how difficult it is to overcome our idealized notions of what athletes are. It’s to the point that if somebody, no matter how skillful his efforts, doesn’t appear athletic, then we are more likely to narrow our definition of athletic acts rather than expand our definition of athletic bodies. Thus, Kirby Puckett had trouble thinking of himself as an athlete, despite that he excelled in a sport that virtually anyone will define as one.
Where that conclusion could (and, to some minds, should) lead us is to the notion that a great deal of what we think of as “natural” is, in fact, “cultural”—that favorite thesis of the academic Left in the United States, the American liberal arts professors proclaiming the good news that culture trumps nature. One particular subspecies of the gens is the supposedly expanding (aaannnddd rimshot) field called by its proponents “Fat Studies,” which (according to Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker) holds that “weight is not a dietary issue but a political one.” What these academics think, in other words, is that we are too much the captives of our own ideas of what constitutes a proper body.
In a narrow (or, anti-wide) sense, that is true: even Kirby Puckett was surprised that he, Kirby Puckett, could do Kirby Puckett-like things while looking like Kirby Puckett. To the academics involved in “Fat Studies” his reaction might be a sign of “fatphobia, the fear and hatred of fatness and fat people.” It’s the view of Kirby Puckett, that is, as self-hater; one researcher, it seems, has compared “fat prejudice … to anti-semitism.” In “a social context in which fat hatred is endemic,” this line of thinking might go, even people who achieve great success with the bodies they have can’t imagine that success without the bodies that culture tells them ought to be attached to it.
What this line of work might then lead us to is the conclusion that the physical dimensions of a player matter very little. That would make the success of each athlete largely independent (or not) of physical advantage—and thereby demonstrate that thousands of coaches everywhere would, at least in golf, be able to justify asserting that success is due to the “will to succeed” rather than a random roll of the genetic dice. It might mean that nations looking (in expectation perhaps of the next Summer Olympics, where golf will be a medal sport) to achieve success in golf—like, for instance, the Scandinavian nations whose youth athletics programs groom golfers, or nations like Russia or China with a large population but next to no national golf tradition—should look for young people with particular psychological characteristics rather than particular physical ones.
Yet whereas “Fat Studies” or the like might focus on Kirby Puckett’s self-image, Bill James instead focuses on Kirby Puckett’s body: the question James asks isn’t whether Puckett played well despite his bad self-image, bur rather whether Puckett played well because he actually had a good body for baseball. James asks whether “short, powerful, funny-looking kind of guy[s]” actually have an advantage when it comes to baseball, rather than the assumed advantage of height that naturally allows for a faster bat speed, among the other supposed advantages of height. “Long arms,” James speculates, “really do not help you when you’re hitting; short arms work better.” Maybe, in fact, “[c]ompressed power is more effective than diffuse power,” and James goes on to name a dozen or more baseball stars who all were built something like Honus Wagner, who stood 5’11” and weighed 200 pounds. Which, as it happens, was also about the stat line for Jack Nicklaus in his prime.
So too, as it happens, do a number of other golfers. For years the average height of a PGA Tour player was usually said to be 5’9”; these days, due to players like Dustin Johnson, that stat is most often said to be about 5’11”. Still—as remarked by the website Golf Today—“very tall yet successful golfers are a rarity.”I don’t have the Shotlink data—which has a record of every shot hit by a player on the PGA Tour since 2003—to support the idea that certain-sized guys of one sort or another had the natural advantage, though today it’s possible that it could easily be obtained. What’s interesting about even asking the question, however, is that it is a much-better-than-merely-theoretically-solvable problem—which significantly distinguishes it from that of the question that might be framed around our notions of what constitutes an athletic body, as might be done by the scholars of “Fat Studies.”
Even aside from the narrow issue of allocating athletic resources, however, there’s reason for distrusting those scholars. It’s true, to be sure, that Kirby Puckett’s reaction to being Kirby Puckett might lend some basis for thinking that a critical view of our notions of what bodies are is salutary in an age where our notions of what bodies are and should be are—to add to an already-frothy mix of elements—increasingly driven by an advertising industry that, in the guise of either actors or models, endlessly seeks the most attractive bodies.
It would easier to absorb such warnings, however, were there not evidence that obesity is not remaining constant, but rather a, so to say, growing problem. As Kolbert reports, the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control, which has for decades done measurements of American health, found that whereas in the early 1960s a quarter of Americans were overweight, now more than third are. And in 1994, their results got written up in the Journal of American Medicine: “If this was about tuberculosis,” Kolbert reports about one researcher, “it would be called an epidemic.” Over the decade previous to that report Americans had, collectively, gained over a billion pounds.
Even if “the fat … are subject to prejudice and even cruelty,” in other words, that doesn’t mean that being that way doesn’t pose serious health risks both for the individual and for society as a whole. The extra weight carried by Americans, Kolbert for instance observes, “costs the airlines a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of jet fuel annually,” and this isn’t to speak of the long-term health care costs that attach themselves to the public pocketbook in nearly unimaginable ways. (Kolbert notes that, for example, doors to public buildings are now built to be fifteen, instead of twelve, feet wide.)
“Fat Studies” researchers might claim in other words, as Kolbert says, that by shattering our expectations of what a body ought to be so thoroughly fat people (they insist on the term, it seems) can shift from being “revolting … agents of abhorrence and disgust” to “‘revolting’ in a different way … in terms of overthrowing authority, rebelling, protesting, and rejecting.” They might insist that “corpulence carries a whole new weight [sic] as a subversive cultural practice.” In “contrast to the field’s claims about itself,” says Kolbert however, “fat studies ends up taking some remarkably conservative positions,” in part because it “effectively allies itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.” In taking such an extreme position, in short, “Fat Studies” ends up only strengthening the most reactionary policy tendencies.
As, logically speaking, it must. “To claim that some people are just meant to be fat is not quite the same as arguing that some people are just meant to be poor,” Kolbert observes, “but it comes uncomfortably close.” Similarly, to argue that our image of a successfully athletic body is tyrannical can, if not done carefully, be little different from the fanatical coach who insists that determination is the only thing separating his charges from championships. Maybe it’s true that success in golf, and other sports, is largely a matter of “will”—but if it is, wouldn’t it be better to be able to prove it? If it isn’t, though, that would certainly enable a more rational distribution of effort all the way around: from the players themselves (who might thereby seek another sport at an earlier age) to recruiters, from national sporting agencies to American universities, who would then know what they sought. Maybe, in other words, measuring golfers by height isn’t so ridiculous at all.