Most women I know abhor Tiger Woods, and with good reason: he repeatedly lied to his wife and he was a serial cheater. My wife Karen cheers at news of his every misstep and poor performance. She refuses to buy or wear any Nike products as long as they sponsor Tiger.
Women can’t understand why men idolize these bums, but I think I know why: American men like our idols to be imperfect, as we are.
Part of the process is to watch them fall down and feel the rejection and sadness they endure. But our feelings are misdirected. Why do we care about these louts? Shouldn’t our sympathy be reserved for the women they abused?
Mickey Mantle was my first idol. Mick was imperfect in many ways and freely admitted he drank too much. In retrospect, I can remember going to afternoon games and seeing him clearly hung over. He also kept babes on the road.
Back in the early ’50s the Yankees went on a good will trip to Japan. Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Bill Martin decided to visit some geisha girls. Apparently and unbeknownst to them, their wives had the same idea the same afternoon. What the wives didn’t know was that in the back of the shop the geishas did a lot more than take baths with the guys.
And so, it was that “the pride of the Yankees” was in full exposure when the players heard their wives’ voices in the other room. Mantle, Ford, Berra, and Martin, all nude, jumped out of the tub and began crawling to safety on their hands and knees. Berra’s considerable butt was right in front of Martin’s face. Billy, annoyed, finally jumped up and yelled, “I don’t know why the hell I’m crawling around. I ain’t even married!”
The Yankees traded Martin the next winter because he was a bad influence on the Mick. Think about that.
I walked with a limp like The Mick. I played centerfield, like The Mick. I switch hit, like The Mick. I used to pray I would get leukemia so The Mick would come visit me in the hospital. I kid you not.
When Cassius Clay came on the scene, I was smitten with his braggadocious manner and his innate ability to entertain crowds and talk in rhyme.
My admiration grew when he became radicalized, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and refused induction into the military service. His actions mirrored my own beliefs about a corrupt government sending its young off to die in some godforsaken jungle. It cost him his prime, nearly four years, before he was allowed to fight again.
A well-known sportswriter once told me Ali was truly a devout Muslim in all ways but one: he couldn’t keep his hands off the ladies. Once, when he visited the Philippines, he was shown on TV at a palace dinner with his wife. Except his wife and their kids were back in the United States. Some 18-year-old babe had taken her place at the table, and, ahem, presumably elsewhere too.
During that time, we had a citywide stickball tournament. I was writing “Cassius Is Great and So Am I” all over the schoolyard walls and making demeaning poems up about my rivals. I won four or five games in a row and my tag was all over the school. Then I lost. The next day I slinked back to the schoolyard and everywhere I looked I saw the same scribbling: “Hey Murphy: Cassius is great and you ain’t!”
But Cassius wasn’t so great. He was chosen to carry the Olympic flame in Atlanta. What did his cuckold wives think about that?
It’s a guy thing. The Mick, like Michael, Ali, and Joe Namath, these flawed heroes possess a rare, inherent quality: greatness. Real greatness, the ability to do something special at a key moment in time that mere mortals could not even envision. Qualities we envy.
Shouldn’t we admire ourselves more, our ability to love and share, to be loyal and honest?
These are our gods, the kind boys emulate, for better and for worse, as they begin their journeys through life. And maybe one in a million will grow up to become an idol, and in turn have a poster some kid will hang on his bedroom wall that says, Just Do It! This is what America is all about nowadays, and there is something very wrong with the picture.