Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The race horse Seabiscuit was the biggest newsmaker in America in 1938.
Example: [Hillenbrand, 2001]
Origins: The prism through which we view the past is often far more of a magnifying glass: we see exactly what we're looking for, large and in great detail, while the rest remains outside the frame, tiny and insignificant by comparison. With the advantage of hindsight it's all to easy to assume (wrongly) that events we now deem historically meaningful were also regarded as such by the people who lived through them, when frequently just the reverse is true: that which we consider momentous in retrospect was regarded as mundane at the time it occurred. Similarly, those of us who now know "the big picture" may too easily dismiss as trivial events which were reckoned quite important at the time they took place.
Such is the conceit behind the promotion for Laura Hillenbrand's book (and the film based upon it), Seabiscuit: An American Legend. From the viewpoint of the 21st century, we expect Americans of 1938 to have been occupied with weighty political matters such as the Great Depression, President Roosevelt's "New Deal" reforms, and the looming war in Europe; enthralled by the exploits of superlative athletes such as baseball's Lou Gehrig or boxing's Joe Louis, and flocking to films starring entertainers such as Clark Gable. But as the opening paragraph of Hillenbrand's book (quoted above) and the film advertisments make clear, the "number-one newsmaker" of 1938 wasn't any of these topics, nor was it even a person. Improbably enough, according to Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the top news story of 1938 was a racehorse, an "unlikely champion who became America's hero":
In 1938, a year of monumental turmoil, the number one newsmaker wasn't Franklin Roosevelt of Adolf Hitler. It wasn't even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse owned by a bicycle-repairman-turned-automobile magnate, trained by a virtually mute mustang breaker, and ridden by a half-blind failed prizefighter. The racehorse was Seabiscuit.Why might a mere racehorse have been the biggest news story of 1938? The American public's fascination with Seabiscuit was mostly fueled by an ongoing
Because Seabiscuit woefully underperformed as a two-year-old despite his impressive lineage (he was a grandson of
Yet looks aside, after Seabiscuit was sold to a new owner and his training taken over by a different stable rat, he began to set records. Though the racing world continued to underrate him, his results should have told them they were making a mistake. He set track record after track record, and his earnings ran neck and neck with those of the fabled War Admiral.
In 1938, a match race against War Admiral was sought and arranged. (A match race is deemed a far truer test of the abilities of any two horses, because interference of other contestants plays no part in the result.) As to how little the racing world thought of five-and-a-half-year-old Seabiscuit's chances against four-year-old War Admiral, few sportswriters in America voiced the opinion that the little horse from the west could win, or even dare to opine that Seabiscuit could at least make a close a race of it. Yet win Seabiscuit did win, by four lengths.
Seabiscuit died in 1947. His lifetime earnings were $437,730 across a career in which he won
Seabiscuit's career was indeed remarkable, but was he truly the "number one newsmaker" of 1938, garnering more newspaper coverage than world leaders, popular entertainers, and celebrated sports figures of the human variety? Hillenbrand cites two sources for this claim in her work: B. K. Beckwith's 1940 book, Seabiscuit, and a
Laird didn't cite the source of those "statistics," but his own paper, part of the nation-wide Scripps-Howard chain, belied his claim. Listing more than 100 "headlines of 1938," the News made no mention of Seabiscuit, although Battleship's victory in the English Grand National was included. Nor was Seabiscuit among the year's top ten stories in George Gallup's public opinion poll publishedAugmenting Professor Shaffer's findings, we undertook some research of our own. We performed a number of searches on the New York Times historical database to determine exactly how often the most prominent newsmakers of the era appeared in pages of that newspaper in 1938. Seabiscuit was mentioned at least once in an impressive
The Britannica Yearbook covering 1938 listed Roosevelt more than
We didn't actually measure the number of column inches devoted to each of these subjects in every item which mentioned them, but we think it's safe to say that Seabiscuit's
Of course, measuring newspaper columns doesn't necessarily tell us what was truly in the hearts and minds of average people. It's quite possible that while reporters filed story after story about Roosevelt and Hitler and Mussolini, what Mr. and Mrs. Average American most often talked about in 1938 while sitting at the dinner table, lounging on the front porch, or gossiping with neighbors over the back fence might very well have been something completely different. But by the standard proffered in Seabiscuit: An American Legend, that remarkable race horse was far from "the year's number-one newsmaker" in 1938.
Last updated: 21 January 2006
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