Athletes have always held a special place in society, both for what they accomplish and how they affect culture. From Achilles to Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio to King James, the athletes we adore tell us a lot about the times we live in. Author Stephen Amidon’s new book, Something Like The Gods, explores the intertwined history of athletes and culture.

Bill’s thoughts on Something Like The Gods

Given the attention paid to some of the Olympic athletes over the past week and a half, it doesn’t seem to be a stretch to conclude that said athletes may be “something like the gods.”

But in his new book, Stephen Amidon does not limit himself to Olympians, past and present. He writes about Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, and Pat Tillman as well as Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali, and Cathy Freeman. Amidon’s contention is that in various ways athletes, like no other public figures, have embodied “just about any vice or virtue” we have chosen to associate with them. They have been bigger than life because we have needed them to be that way. They have represented us – or at least what we have imagined about ourselves – when they have performed wondrous feats, and also when they have turned out to be liars, crooks, and phonies.

You may not agree with Amidon’s assertion that Babe Ruth had “an instinctual appreciation for his place at the epicenter of the American imagination.” I’m not sure I agree with that. The stories I’ve read about Ruth suggest that he was a man of enormous and unfettered appetites, and lots of the people who knew him and have talked about him characterized him as a kid who never grew up, at least as long as he could still play baseball. As far as I know, nobody but Mr. Amidon has attributed to Ruth “an instinctual appreciation” for anything but women, beer, food, and long home runs. But like a lot of what’s in Something Like The Gods, that assertion about Ruth gets one thinking.

Who can ask more than that of an author and a book?