I never really paid much attention to sports-related statuary until a few months ago when Auburn University announced its intention to commission a 10-foot bronze tribute to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, now an emerging stud with the Carolina Panthers.
Apart from the obvious amusement that the Newton replica would stand more than three feet taller than the 6-foot-8 “Venus De Milo” (Alexandros of Antioch) and the 6-foot-6 “The Thinker” (Rodin), I was struck by the fact Auburn would elect to freeze in time a one-year-and-done quarterback, regardless of his gaudy single-season stats.
A man (or woman) once had to produce a lifetime of distinguished achievement or service to rate a statue, epitomized by the career that the Seattle Mariners saluted Friday afternoon at Safeco Field when the team unveiled a statue to their legendary broadcaster Dave Niehaus, fittingly immortalized in a special area on the concourse in right center field.
But as Auburn shows us in the case of Cam Newton, no more. These days, retiring a number, or casting a simple bust, are apparently insufficient acknowledgments of a career, which is why players (and coaches) are getting “statued” as fast as fast food is slopped on a tray.
This is particularly true in the South, where football helps define how Southerners think of themselves, and where a number of college football programs, notably Florida, Auburn and Alabama, have all commissioned fierce carving crazes on behalf of their elite jocks.
Florida erected a statue to Tim Tebow about 45 minutes (or so it seemed) after his college football career ended. Notre Dame didn’t dedicate a statue to Knute Rockne until 78 years after his death, but Alabama put up one to Nick Saban after he marked his 43rd game the schools football coach (Joe Paterno didnt get a statue until his 37th YEAR at Penn State.)
Pretty soon, Stats Inc. is going to have to add a category to its list of sortable stats: Fastest to A Statue or Fewest Games Played By An Athlete/Coach With A Statue.
In the past few years, larger-than-life monuments have gone up to canonize Arnold Palmer, Wayne Gretzky, Bob Cousy, Bob Feller, Johnny Unitas, Bobby Orr and Nolan Ryan. Fair enough, given their feats and longevity.
On the other hand, Ted Kluszewski (1947-61) has a statue outside the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati (erected 2004). Klu didn’t bat .300 or even hit 300 home runs, but there he is, a colossus in bronze. Boston College has no statue of longtime Speaker of the House Tip ONeill (graduated 1936), or even one of Leonard Nimoy (graduated 1952), but it does have one of Doug Flutie, pretty much on the basis of a single Hail Mary.
Bud Selig is also cast in bronze (in Milwaukee), which, from our perspective, excites only the Bud Selig family and Wisconsin-based pigeons. And how is it possible that Danny Wuerffel, despite a Heisman he should not have won, has a statue (Wisconsin-based pigeons surely take frequent winter road trips to Wuerffel’s statue)?
It might be wise to place time and distance between the end an athletes (or coachs) career before he or she is considered for permanent memorializing. But wise is apparently no longer in the playbook, making backfires inevitable.
The St. Louis Cardinals commissioned a statue of Mark McGwire in the afterglow of his 70 home runs in 1998. Before they could unveil a finished product of the juiced-up slugger, McGwire detonated his own reputation in a televised Congressional hearing. The McGwire statue now collects dust in a St. Louis warehouse while the real, shrunken, de-juiced McGwire could serve as a spokesman for the prune industry.
The San Francisco Giants had a statue planned for Barry Bonds that the BALCO investigation scotched. If USC had followed the lead of Alabama and Auburn in deifying its Heisman Trophy winners, the Trojans already would have had to place two in storage, O.J. Simpson and Reggie Bush. And how idiotic would it look now if a bronzed Roger Clemens greeted customers at Fenway Park?
UW has had its own exploding cigar. In October of 2003, prior to a game against USC, the school unveiled a statue of former football coach Jim Owens (1957-74), and gave it prominent placement in front of Husky Stadium.
That Owens had been deemed worthy of a statue infuriated a number of African Americans, who protested that the well-documented racial policies of the Owens era, which led to so much upheaval on campus in the late 1960s, made him an unfit candidate for permanent recognition with a statue.
One player from that era, Harvey Blanks, was quoted by the Seattle Times to that effect, saying, ”His statue there does not make me feel good, the idea of this guy being honored in that way. That, to me, shows that there are two Americas, or in this case, two remembrances. There is the white one and the black one.”
After many meetings, including one that Owens had with some of his ex-players, in which the coach apologized profusely for actions he finally acknowledged caused a lot of pain, the issue died down (today, fans pass the Owens statue without giving it much thought or a second glance).
The best thing to come out of it all was that Owens and some of his former players resolved 40-year-old grievances. But had the UW done its homework on the history of the Owens era prior to giving its okay to a statue, the protests, rancor and laundry airing might never have occurred.
A far saner strategy of recognizing career achievement can be found in two local examples, both this month, neither rushed. Two weeks ago, the Seahawks honored former tackle Walter Jones with an eight-foot replica that greets visitors to a new restaurant — Seattle Seahawks 12 Club — in the north terminal at Sea-Tac Airport.
Jones spent 13 years toiling under the 12th Man flag before his injury-induced retirement in 2009. His career and resume (a franchise-record nine Pro Bowls) thoroughly vetted, Jones made an excellent statue subject.
So does Niehaus, who had a long, rich career with the franchise, broadcasting 5,284 of the team’s 5,385 regular-season games, plus all playoffs, prior to his death Nov. 10, 2010.
Niehaus brought to his craft the same energy, professionalism and distinctive style of delivery that characterized the careers of several of his old-school peers who have also received statue treatment in recent years: Harry Caray (Cubs), Ernie Harwell (Tigers), Jack Buck (Cardinals), Denny Matthews (Royals) and Harry Kalas (Phillies).
In addition to the collective insight and entertainment they delivered daily to their particular audiences, each had in common the fact that decades of sustained excellence went into the creation of their memorials (did we mention that 14-game Auburn icon Cam Newton already has a statue?)
But Niehaus’s endurance paled next to his most significant contribution to local baseball lore, which is: For all the home runs Ken Griffey Jr. hit, batters that Randy Johnson flummoxed, doubles that Edgar Martinez banged off outfield walls, or infield hits that Ichiro beat out, Niehaus remains the best thing the franchise has provided the public.
Gifted as they all were, Caray, Harwell, Buck, Matthews and Kalas can’t make that claim, given the Hall of Famers and World Series teams they collectively covered on behalf of their franchises.
Niehaus had a remarkable ability to connect with and cultivate his audience. Some cite enthusiasm as his greatest asset, and they may be right, although his knowledge of the game and his ability to entertain an audience were two of his greatest assets. As much as Niehaus reveled in the game’s past, nothing gave him greater pleasure than living in a baseball moment, the staple of his play-by-play, except perhaps anticipating the next one.
Niehaus could always find a sliver of silver in the most leaden performance, and he witnessed thousands here dating to the Carter administration — an important consideration when assessing baseball in these regions. Except for a handful of years — 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001 — Niehaus broadcast a modern-day equivalent of the dead-ball era, but made Mariners fans listen – and care – in spite of it.
I suspect that listeners ultimately bonded more with Niehaus, and with his description of events, than they did with the product he pitched. In his remarks at the ceremony Friday, Niehaus’s longtime broadcast-booth colleague, Rick Rizzs, alluded to this fact when he essentially described Niehaus as the most important individual the Mariners have employed.
Most assuredly, Niehaus was. He took a product historically short on substance and not only made it palatable, but popular. It took a consummate performer, a lover of the sport, and an amazing salesman to pull that off.
I can add nothing meaningful to the numerous public tributes Niehaus received in the immediate aftermath of his death, or at Safeco Field Friday (former catcher Dan Wilson had some particularly nice remarks), except the millionth or so echo of all of them. Others knew him far better than I, and many had a closer working relationship. But I can relate one personal experience.
In the late 1990s, after a nearly three-year stint at KIRO radio during which I had daily contact with Niehaus during the baseball season, a newly hired program director determined that the local unemployment line just wasn’t quite long enough for her liking. One Friday night, she insisted I queue up.
Only one person called in the days following Dave Niehaus. For an hour one evening, Dave delivered the equivalent of Rockne’s Win One For The Gipper speech, making sure that he had moved me from DEFCON 1 down to DEFCON 5 before he cradled the phone.
Dave never mentioned that conversation once in all the times I saw him in the years that followed. He may have even forgotten it as soon as he hung up. But I never did, nor will. Having practically memorized his words that night, I’ve repeated them four or five times since, almost verbatim, to colleagues, justly or idiotically, thrust suddenly into the streets. It’s worked for them, as it did for me.
So whenever I look upon Dave’s statue from now on, Ill probably first be struck by the stunning craftsmanship of Chicago artist Lou Cella, who has created magic from metal. The idea of including an open seat next to a seated Niehaus, so that fans can have their photographs taken adjacent to the representation of a man who meant so much to so many for so long, works perfectly. Cella’s sculpture not only nails Niehaus physically, but completely captures his essence, right down to the twinkle in Dave’s eye.
Still, for me, it will be the conversation I had that night a decade ago that will forever keep me riveted on Cella’s likeness of the Northwest sporting icon.
When the Chicago Cubs unveiled a statue of Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field in 2008, 37 years after his retirement, Banks said, ”This is amazing. Just think about it: Even when I’m no longer here, Ill still be here!”
Good to know that, although Dave Niehaus is no longer here, he will always be there, at Safeco Field, right where he belongs.