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Original Issue


A new book on cultural literacy slights the import of sport

Two years ago E.D. Hirsch Jr., an English professor at the University of Virginia, brought out a trenchant book titled Cultural Literacy, which decried the failure of many American children to assimilate that body of shared knowledge that allows a society to communicate effectively and to advance intellectually. If, for example, only a few of us know what Ponce de León was looking for, that's just one less little hook to hold us together. As such a heterogeneous people, we are diminished when we don't occupy common informational ground.

Now, to complement his thesis, Hirsch, with the help of two colleagues, has produced The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which, like its predecessor, has quickly become a best-seller. The new book is a catalog of approximately 7,500 names, expressions, events and ideas that "every American needs to know." Because any such list is fair game, many of the entries will be disputed: Why is Fred Astaire included but not Nureyev? Justice Douglas but not Justice Brandeis? Betty Friedan but not Billie Jean King? But more seriously, it is criminal how Hirsch has dismissed the whole category of sport. Only 24 of the entries involve athletics.

Sport may not be as consequential as other endeavors, but it's a mucilage that meets Hirsch's own test of "holding together the social fabric of the nation." Sport is ingrained in our consciousness and discourse, and surely an American who isn't conversant with its most familiar people, myths and expressions can't be considered culturally literate.

The sports items that Hirsch thinks should be part of the informed American's body of knowledge include the Kentucky Derby, Rose Bowl, Olympic Games, Super Bowl and World Series. Casey at the Bat earns two citations, and the expressions on Hirsch's list include: It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. Nice guys finish last. Nip and tuck. Throw in the towel. Ace in the hole. Win this one for the Gipper. Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. One song makes it: Take Me Out to the Ballgame. And there are nine men on the list: Aaron, Ali, Cobb, Gehrig, Louis, Owens, Jackie Robinson, Ruth, Thorpe.

I would carp about Aaron, Cobb and nip and tuck being that prominent, but the main point is that Hirsch has seriously slighted the importance of sport's contribution to our cultural heritage. So, herewith, my list of the other 121 things in sport that should be common knowledge. In keeping with Hirsch's dictum that an entry must have proved that it's of "lasting significance," contemporary references are omitted. Understand, this isn't trivia or inside stuff, but that which is most important in sport, or that which has become most important outside sport. So, here's to:

Home plate. The Fighting Irish. Say it ain't so, Joe. The long count. The 1936 Olympics. MVP. Hardball. Softball. Curveball. Spitball. Heavyweight. Lightweight. Broadway Joe. The Masters. The ball's in your court. Sadaharu Oh. World Cup. America's Cup. Stanley Cup.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Slam dunk. Ace. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. 73-0. Indy 500. Opening Day. New York Yankees. Photo finish. NCAA. On deck. Jimmy the Greek. Don King. A game of inches. Dr. James Naismith. All-star. All-American. Bush league.

The Final Four. Bowl games. Knute Rockne. Arnie's Army. Steroids. Don Larsen's perfect game. Goal-line stand. Down for the count. Extra innings. Roger Bannister. Blitz. Two strikes against you. Little League. The Golden Age of Sport. Jack Dempsey. Red Grange. Bobby Jones. Bill Tilden. Man o' War.

Home-court advantage. Walter Camp. Third man in the ring. Wimbledon. Les Canadiens. Jim Brown. 29'2½". Frank Merriwell. Triple Crown. Grand Slam. Tex Rickard. Go to the bullpen. Take a rain check. The Greatest Football Game Ever Played. Wilt Chamberlain.

Decathlon. The Heisman Trophy. Pelè. He can run, but he can't hide. Tour de France. Reserve clause. Bear Bryant. The Astrodome. Point spread. The 19th hole. Red Smith. The Black Sox. The Great White Hope. The Green Monster.

Sonja Henie. St. Andrews. Seventh-inning stretch. Quarter backed. Run for the Roses. Boston Celtics. Sack. Double play. Sugar Ray Robinson. Draft choice. Hole in one. Par for the course. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I never get back. The American Football League. Home run. Backdoor. America's Team.

Superstar. Punt. Shutout. Bobby Knight. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Satchel Paige. Madison Square Garden. Out of leftfield. The Munich Massacre. Johnny Unitas. Hall of Fame. Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Fifty-six games in a row. John L. Sullivan. Student-athlete. Billie Jean King. The Harlem Globetrotters. Who's on first?