Out of Left Field
The Greatest Athlete
of Them All Was
Harold Swerg could carry
the Olympic torch as
far as anybody else,
but possibly no farther...
His motto: Anything you
can do, I can do equally
By STAN ISAACS
One of the long-standing arguments that gets sports fans involved is the subject of the greatest athlete of all time. Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Bob Mathias, Bill Toomey, and Jackie Robinson are mentioned prominently. John Havlicek, Babe Ruth, Babe Didrickson and Willie Mays get a call. I would say it was either Jim Brown or Jackie Robinson, but then there is one who may stand above all the rest.
Harold Swerg could hit a baseball farther than any man alive. He could kick a football farther than any man alive. And he could run the mile faster than any man alive. Harold Swerg could do anything. Only he wouldnt.
Baseball and football magnates came to Harold Swerg. They said, Sign with us. Youll have money, status, glory, girls. Track and field promoters came to him and said, Sign with us. Youll have lots of banquets, a team jacket with your name on it, girls. To all of them Harold Swerg replied, Go away.
He just wanted to go on making his living as a filing clerk. He said, The sport business doesnt present a challenge. The filing-clerk business presents a challenge. Some day I may make bookkeeper.
This angered people. They said Harold Swerg wont play the game. No matter what they said, Harold Swerg told them to leave him alone. He wouldnt play. And that was where things stood until the New Olympics were announced. This was at the time of the Cold War, and Russia was said to have its greatest team ever. It was said they had a man who could kick a football farther, someone who could run a mile faster.
There came a special appeal from the President of the U.S. The President said to Harold Swerg, Do you want us to lose? And Harold answered, So thats whats bothering everybody. Whats wrong with losing? Its only a game. Losing is just the other side of winning.
Nobody liked that. People booed and hissed. They burned Olympic torches on his lawn. Even the Russians called him names. They said Harold was chicken.
Then, suddenly one day, Swerg changed his mind. He said, All right, Ill play. The news was electrifying. People shouted in the streets, Swerg will play! Both political parties claimed credit for Swergs change of heart.
When the Games began, the first event was: Who could hit a baseball farther. The Russian (Peoples Farthest Baseball Hero Smedyakov) went first. He hit the ball 912 feet, six inches. Harold Swerg went second: 912 feet, six inches. A tie.
The next event was the football kick. The Russian (Peoples Hero Kicker Brosnokopski) went first: 310 yards, four feet, one inch. Harold Swerg went second: 310 yards, four feet, one inch. A tie.
Grumblings of discontent went through the crowd. The last event was the mile. Harold faced Peoples Fastest Hero Runner Alive Kchaweshkov. They ran nose to nose the entire race. They finished together. A dead heat. Incredible.
People didnt like it. Swerg was called before the judges. They said, Harold Swerg, you are not giving it your all. Harold Swerg answered indignantly, I certainly was.
Then why didnt you win? the judges demanded.
Winning doesnt take my all, said Harold. Equaling takes my all.
The judges were flabbergasted. They stared at Swerg. He said, Lets see you try to kick a football exactly 310 yards, four feet, one inch. But the judges didnt understand.
Swerg walked away with a pleased look on his face. It was quite a challenge. I wasnt sure I could do it, he thought to himself. He called back to the judges, Anybody who wants any records equaled, come around. But nobody did, because nobody was interested in having records equaled.
So they left Harold Swerg alone. Which was just the way he wanted it.
The fellow who told the story of Harold Swerg said he had heard it from a man named Jules Feiffer, who draws those wonderful cartoons and who writes stories and plays. When people hear this, they scoff-just like the judges did with Harold Swerg. They say Swerg doesnt count because he is only a character made up by Jules Feiffer.
I sometimes wonder, though, if Feiffers character isnt more meaningful than many real people. Whenever there is talk about great athletes--Muhammad Ali, Stan Musial, Bill Russell and the rest--I think about Harold Swerg. Anything they could do Im sure he could have equaled. If he wanted to.
©2005 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The cartoon is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted on Jan. 24, 2005.
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