By Frank Fitzpatrick
Inquirer Staff Writer
So Philadelphia plans to erect a statue in honor of Joe Frazier.
Nothing against Smokin’ Joe, but enough already with these monuments to sports heroes.
Did we learn nothing from the fall of Joe Paterno and his bronzed likeness?
Sometimes the subject of these busts go bust.
Besides, these people have spent most of their lives on a pedestal. Why continue the practice into perpetuity?
Pennsylvania, in particular, seems afflicted with this compulsion to preserve its athletes, coaches, owners, even broadcasters.
The trend has become so pronounced here that you almost need a scorecard to keep track of who’s been memorialized and where.
Who are these immortal Pennsylvania heroes whose lives and accomplishments so desperately demand commemoration in bronze?
Well, in addition to Frazier and Paterno, whose involvement in the Penn State scandal led the university this summer to remove his statue from outside Beaver Stadium, there’s …
… a fictional pug who was the central figure in – save the first -- a series of truly awful films (Rocky Balboa).
… a grossly overweight singer who came to fame with her hit, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” (Kate Smith).
… a quirky Hall of Fame pitcher who, if that infamous Philadelphia magazine piece can be believed, is now a wacky, anti-Semitic survivalist (Steve Carlton).
… an inveterate gambler who happened to own a successful NFL team in Pittsburgh (Art Rooney).
… and perhaps most astonishingly, there’s even one memorializing a Flyers goal scored in Game 5 of an NHL quarterfinal series, an event that on a scale of cosmic significance would seem to equate to a teeth-cleaning.
Once we decide someone is worthy of a statue, we’re then doomed to an eternity of moving it from place to place as our local sports geography constantly shifts. Connie Mack’s statue, for example, has in its 57-year-history gone from a park at 21st and Lehigh, to a Veteran Stadium’s entranceway, to a Citizens Bank Park’s parking lot.
If the Phillies move again, the figure of Mack undoubtedly will be greeting men’s room patrons.
And now we’re likely to have sports statues of Frazier as well as Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent situated in that most soberly reflective of all possible venues, a sports bar, XFinity Live.
The demise of the building that once occupied that site, the Spectrum, necessitated the relocation of statues to Erving, Smith and Gary Dornhoefer’s dubiously worthy goal.
That last statue seems particularly ridiculous. If that moment from the Flyers’ 1973 NHL quarterfinal series with Minnesota deserves immortalization, then what about Manny Trillo’s relay throws in ‘80? Tommy McDonald’s TD catch in the 1960 NFL title game? The twisting reverse layup by Villanova’s Harold Pressley that set the tone for the Wildcats’ victory in the ’85 NCAA championship?
Where are the statues for Lefty Grove? Tom Gola? Moses Malone?
It can go on forever.
What’s the impulse driving this trend?
On the one hand, it’s further evidence that sports has become the religion of 21st Century America. Just as we once built statues to our saints, we now construct them for our Saints.
I have no quarrel with statues in general. The artisitic expression at the heart of Michelangelo’s “David” or the grateful spirit behind the Iwo Jima Memorial are admirable traits.
But slaying Goliath and the Japanese is one thing. Scoring a playoff goal or winning a championship or making it to a Hall of Fame is something else.
After these statues have risen, the worthiness of the honorees has to be justified forever. After all, statues ought to be for heroes not felons.
Bill Tilden’s story provides an interesting note of caution.
Born and raised in Germantown, Tilden was the greatest tennis player of the first half of the 20th Century. Between 1912 and 1930, he won 14 Grand Slam events and 138 tournaments.
The city or local tennis organizations would have been justified in honoring him with a statue. But if they had, what would have happened in the late 1940s when Tilden was arrested for soliciting sex from a teenaged boy?
Would the statue have come down like Paterno’s?
By building these monuments, we’re imbuing sports figures with god-like qualities, implying that these are not mere mortals. Then something like the Tilden or Penn State scandal breaks and our bronzed heroes are exposed for what they really are:
Flesh and blood.