The biggest mistakes and blunders in sports history

Americans are energized by great sports moments like the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series victory, Michael Jordan’s first NBA title in 1991, USA Hockey’s miraculous triumph at the 1980 Olympics, and the stunning defeat of Muhammad Ali by boxing champion Sonny Liston in 1964.

Sports can also lead to despair from mistakes on the field and disappointing losses, often from self-inflicted failure. Such errors can be the product of a single hit bug or come from continuous bad policy. Whether caused by bad decisions or greed, sports errors are often provocative and widely discussed. The one-off gaffe that stands above all others was reported by Boston Globe on January 6, 1920 and changed baseball history.

What exactly is a sports gaffe? It’s a huge, predictably bad mistake that has a big effect on a player, team, or sports history. This excludes simple plays on the field such as popping or fumbling a soccer ball. It’s just sports karma unless it comes from a predictable bad managerial or coaching decision.

Fans everywhere have their favorite gaffe stories. The Cubs still haven’t experienced Lou Brock’s 1964 trade with St. Louis that powered the rival Cardinals for 16 seasons. The Bears allowed free agency to prematurely dismantle the greatest team in Chicago football history, the venerable 1985 Bears. And the late Bill Wirtz famously kept the Blackhawks’ home games off the air, thinking it would resulted in higher ticket sales.

Passing up on Jordan in the NBA draft was a huge one-time mistake. But the biggest sports blunder of all was probably the sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees on December 26, 1919, announced the following month. Ruth was already America’s best athlete, yet he was traded for nothing but money, a move that affected the Red Sox, the Yankees, baseball and even America for decades to come. It was a sporting blunder of epic proportions.

Boston owner Harry Frazee had sold his superstar outright for $125,000. In addition to being terrible, the move was prompted by a nefarious, non-baseball motive. Frazee (who was born in Peoria, Illinois) is a successful Broadway producer with many hits. In 1920, he needed money for an upcoming production, the so-called My Lady Friendswhich later became a hit musical called No, no, Nanette in 1925

Before the fateful sale, the Red Sox had appeared in three World Series with Ruth, winning the title in 1918. Ruth was already a dominant pitcher, but then he hit 29 homers in 1919, more than doubling the American League single-season record and portends much more to come.

Immediately after his sale, Root crushed a staggering 59 home runs for the Yankees in 1920, then played on seven World Series teams in New York, winning four, including the infamous 1927 “Assassin’s Row” team. New York got Ruth and “the house that Ruth built” while the Red Sox were left with the famous “Curse of the Bambino” and didn’t win another World Series until 2004.

Maintaining the “No Blacks” policy.

The Ruth blunder was perhaps the biggest single sports blunder. But perhaps no sports calamity is worse than baseball’s ongoing malicious scheme to keep the major leagues divided.

Chicago federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis served as the game’s first independent commissioner from 1920 to 1944. He staunchly upheld the unwritten “no-black” edict that had been in place since Moses Fleetwood Walker left the game in 1884. He denied to have kept black players on purpose, he just implied they weren’t good enough. Yet the Negro Leagues thrived with such legendary stars as Satchel Page, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Double Duty Radcliffe.

Landis then died in office on November 25, 1944, and soon after, on August 28, 1945, baseball icon Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. In 1947, with Rickey’s support, Robinson broke the Major League color barrier.

A stream of black major leaguers followed Robinson from Page to Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and legions more. Interestingly, as a result of Landis’ death and Rickey’s foresight, Major League Baseball was integrated a full seven years before the Supreme Court did the same for our public schools in its 1954 decision. Brown v. Board of Education.

The Cubs subsequently broke their own Billy Goat Curse by winning the World Series in 2016. In a way, the Cubs continue to help overcome the all-white bug in the game as well. After all, the only remaining major league ballpark where Robinson played is Wrigley Field, now a virtual portal to baseball and American history.

Eldon Hamm is a faculty member at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching sports, law and justice. He is the author of five books on the role of sports history in America.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and articles. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *