Philotimo in Sport

 

BY SAMSON SOLEDAD

Greeks are quick to credit their ancestors with founding the Olympic Games, a tradition that survives to this day. They’re also quick to lament over the fact that there is no English word for philotimo.

With the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to an exceptional sport talent whose drive for perfection was only bested by his belief in the Hellenic notion of philotimo.

Last April, the National Herald paid tribute to the passing of All-Star pitcher Milt Pappas. The article chronicled his lifelong achievements in baseball, his less-than-lucky trade at a peak in his career, and even his close shave with the elusive ideal of baseball’s “perfect game.”

Important to augment that tribute is Pappas’ merging of philotimo with his pursuit of excellence in sport in the true Olympic tradition. For example, although Pappas was not known to possess one, technology has boosted the popularity a blazing fastball, such that fans can be advised of the exact speed of every pitch thrown, allowing an immediate comparison between pitchers and the coveted fastest pitch. Perhaps if Pappas were pitching today, it’s possible he too, would have sought to curry favor with the pitch-o-meter. But I doubt it! Pappas’ obsession was to win the game. Throwing blazing fastballs only increases the number of times the ball will be hit out of the park. Pappas chose control over speed. Suddenly Pappas’ lifetime average of giving up less than one home-run per game becomes more meaningful— as in his joining the 200+ career game winner club.

But what does baseball have to do with philotimo? Two examples . . .

In September 1961, The Orioles faced the New York Yankees in their 154th game of the season. Baseball’s commissioner declared that in order for Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s home run record he needed to do so by this 154th game or his record would include an asterisk (because in Babe Ruth’s day, the season was only 154 games long.)

Although the press was critical of Maris at the prospect of supplanting the legendary Babe Ruth record, Pappas understood Maris’ drive to break the record even though he was getting hate mail from the fans. The night before the game, Pappas encountered Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle walking under the stadium. Pappas told Maris that he wanted him to break the record. Pappas stated he would pitch Maris nothing but fastballs. Maris said “Really?” Pappas replied “Absolutely!” Apparently Mantle asked for the same concession only to hear Pappas say “You’re on your own, big boy!”

At the time, the Orioles were 15 games out of first place with only 6 games left in the season, so he was not risking his team’s season by the accommodation. His gesture was out of philotimo.

Then in 1968, shortly after being traded to the the Cincinnati Reds, out of respect for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, several teams refused to play on the day of the burial. By a slim margin, and after pressure by management, the Reds voted to play. The decision prompted Pappas to resign as the team’s player representative, resulting in his being traded three days later. Another gesture of philotimo.

Finally, on September 2, 1972, Pappas was pitching for the Chicago Cubs against the San Diego Padres. Nearing the end of his baseball career, Pappas found himself having pitched a perfect game for all but the last batter, Larry Stahl. He pitched two strikes and two balls. The next pitch was close, but called a ball. And now facing a 3-and-2 count, Pappas threw a pitch that was also close, but called “ball-4”, walking the batter, and forcing Pappas to get the next batter out and be left with only a no-hitter. Pappas lost his cool. From the mound he started yelling obscenities at the umpire, Bruce Froemming. Pappas could have been thrown out of the game, but since he was yelling his obscenities in Greek, the umpire had no idea what he was saying. Clearly, with the Cubs leading the Padres 8-0, there was nothing really at stake except for the fact that in front of a home crowd, Pappas would have become only the 10th player in the 101-year history of baseball to throw a perfect game. Bruce Froemming clearly had no conception of philotimo.

Pappas was inducted into the AHEPA Hall of Fame, Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame, Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, and Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame. But if there were ever a player that deserved to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, it was Milt Pappas, who embraced the spirit of the game and the Olympic tradition, but never lost sight of being Greek and possessing philotimo.

There is always hope the Hall of Fame committee will one-day add the concept of philotimo to their selection process.

 

Samson Soledad is an author of mostly historical fiction.