We tend to think that change happens at a blistering pace these days. Cell phones become flip phones which become smart phones. Desktops beget laptops which beget... well... smart phones. In my lifetime, 78s have become hi-fi 33s and 45s, then cassettes, then CDs, and now a chunk of flash memory stuffed with downloads. Or a smart phone.
The change isn't always positive. Automobiles, climbing from primitive, clattering, wooden-wheeled Lizzies to 400hp street monsters and air-conditioned floating vacation resorts in little more than 50 years, have in the near-50 years since morphed largely into rubber-stamp eco-safety blobs... which leads me to recall an unusually icy winter day when, driving to high school, my friend and I saw a set of tire tracks going off the road and then back on, directly underneath the top half of a telephone pole dangling from its wires. When we got to school we saw a '62 Chevy with a pole-sized dent in the front bumper and grille parked in the lot. The driver, we soon found out, had a small-size bandaid across his nose. Try that in an air-bag-equipped, crush-zoned 'safe' modern car. No, don't.
But good or bad, the pace of change today is nothing like it was in the 20 or so years that preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s. The latter part, immortalized as the Roaring Twenties, was in many ways far roaringer than we know today, much of its memory having been erased by said Depression and the immediate onset of World War II.
Sports heroes, many either diminished or forgotten, abounded in an age when the radio became a fixture in many homes, nearly everyone had (or had access to) a telephone, and the automobile became commonplace. It was a different world, full of new freedoms and new dangers. And while most today picture the 1920s as having taken place in Chicago under a hail of tommy-gun bullets, the decade was far, far more than that. The sports pantheon is a barometer.
That Babe Ruth survived the Great Amnesia that followed his glory years to still be considered the greatest player of all time could be a testament to the lasting power of the New York that George Gershwin and Jimmy Walker knew, a product of baseball's statistical obsession, or just plain truth. But Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Johnson and other baseball immortals had a lot of company in venues other than the National Pastime, and most of them have been swept under the rug by the ravages of time, lost artifacts of a partially lost world.
Tennis had come into its own and drew huge crowds for big tournaments, much like today. The best of them all was Bill Tilden. Ranked the #1 player in the world for seven years, he won 10 Grand Slams, 4 Pro Slams, and won 93.6% of his matches. The impact he had on the game has surely suffered an unjust erosion in the collective popular memory. How good was he? We'll never know, since no one today is likely to pick up a catgut wooden racket and an ancient ball, and less likely to encounter the bygone champion.
Golf also became a huge popular sport in the '20s and its stars were legendary. Just how many times would Tiger Woods hit par using real woods and a dead ball on a hand-mowed course? Bobby Jones did that a lot, competing as an amateur (as many did in an era that still considered professionalism in sports tawdry) and still defeating even top professionals like Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen in the process. Jones, a lawyer by profession, could afford to compete as an amateur, which made him all the more popular. Jones won a unique Grand Slam in 1930 at the end of his dominant period, taking the open and amateur tournaments of both the US and UK. He competed in 31 majors and won 13. He co-founded the Masters. His name is an afterthought today.
Boxing greats had a bit more lasting power. Many who saw him still thought Jack Dempsey the greatest heavyweight of all time even after his defeat by Gene Tunney in 1927 on the "long count" (the great upset of the decade), and through the reigns of Louis, Marciano and Ali. His famous sports bar in New York certainly helped keep his memory strong, but it wasn't the only factor. He was not only great, he was great on a suddenly enormous stage that had been fueled by economy and technology, and in a sport loved by the masses.
Professional football was, like pro hockey, in its relative infancy, but the college game was huge and the pros were catching up. The game had great heroes like Jim Thorpe, the Olympic hero reputed to put razor blades in the toes of his shoes, Curly Lambeau and George Halas (yes, they were great players first), George Trafton, pitched out of Notre Dame by Knute Rockne himself for playing semipro ball on the side, and Ernie Nevers, the great fullback from Stanford. None would have the staying power of Red Grange. The Galloping Ghost's signing in 1925 was a watershed for the NFL and put it on the map. His offseason barnstorming tour drew crowds of 70,000 and more. He was Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees rolled into one, famewise.
Which brings us to auto racing. From the earliest days of the automobile, folks just had to race them. The Brickyard began operations in 1911, but its somewhat slippery surface and shallow banking weren't conducive to maximum speed, which is what Americans came to the track to see, unlike Europeans who raced on marked-off public streets. Through the Teens and Twenties, board tracks dominated auto (and motorcycle) racing. They were huge venues seating tens of thousands, often two miles of oval or even circular conglomerations of 2x4s banked every inch, sometimes almost 90* at the turns, using a railroad equation called the Sears Spiral Easement Curve. They were frequently called an 'infinite straightaway', which is what they were --- drivers could let the wheel go and still drive a lap (though few tried). This is the fundamental reason that America shot ahead of Europe in engine design during the period, while European cars got the more sophisticated suspensions. Among a sea of forgotten heroes, Tommy Milton, the man who later began the tradition of awarding the pace car to the Indy 500 winner, dominated the scene. His Miller Special averaged over 140mph on the board tracks in 1921. In a Frontenac (made by Louis Chevrolet himself) he won Indy the same year. Among the team at Harry Miller's shop was a young Fred Offenhauser, by the way, whose engines would dominate Indy until the 1970s. Milton, who also raced Duesenbergs, had but one eye but that didn't stop him from setting incredible speed records and winning two 500s. He also raced at a primordial Daytona (a straight-line land speed course in the day) and on dirt tracks nationwide, but his board track accomplishments, largely undocumented and forgotten, were his most stunning. Like those accomplishments, the board tracks were lost in the 1930s due to a lack of disposable income and due to the depletion of cheap southern yellow pine of which most were built, and their glorious (and frequently lethal) memory rotted along with them.
Every decade has its persona, some more memorable than others, but few act as a template for American culture. In sports and in other aspects of life, the 1920s were the cultural model for the remaining 20th Century, and their influence hasn't waned. It's something of a crime to allow the memories of those who created that influence to wane under the 24/7 glitz and media hype of modern 'heroes', most of whom don't survive a decade past their glory years in anything but electronic memory.