March 1, 2006

IQ vs. Genius in Sports

With all the talk about U. of Texas quarterback Vince Young's IQ score (either 72 or 92, depending on who is leaking the NFL's mandatory Wonderlic IQ test result), I started thinking about two athletes who were famously smart off the field, and about one dumb lug who, on the field, happened to be the most important creative genius in the history of American sports.

Three-time Pro Bowler Frank Ryan quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns to the NFL title in 1964, then picked up his Ph.D. in mathematics from my old school, Rice U., five months later. His thesis was entitled "Characterization of the Set of Asymptotic Values of a Function Holomorphic in the Unit Disc, " and it began: "As is well known, a Blaschke product f(z) in (z-x 1) has radical limits f(e) of modulus one almost everywhere on (z=1)."

Interestingly, Ryan was not particularly intelligent at playing football. He'd been a second stringer at Rice and a third-stringer with the Rams before new Browns coach Blanton Collier figured out how to simplify the game for him. Terry Pluto wrote in Browns Town 1964:

"Frank wasn't a great football mind," said Bill Glass, who was Ryan's roommate. "But Frank didn't have to be brilliant on the football field. [Coach] Blanton Collier was brilliant. Frank was an intelligent guy off the field who was gutsy and a gambler on the field." ...

"Frank came to the Browns with this reputation as a brilliant guy, the math genius, and all of that," recalled Bernie Parrish. "He was not brilliant in terms of his play-calling. But Frank Ryan was the guttiest quarterback that I've ever seen. He'd stand in that pocket and damn near let those linemen kill him before he threw the ball-he held on to the ball until the last possible second waiting for Gary Collins to finish his post pattern." ...

"Blanton had a lot of theories about every position, and they usually were pretty simple," Ryan said. "What he did for me was to break throwing the football down into small parts and technique. It gave me some rationale to base my performance upon."

Collier cut down the Browns' passing playbook, and then told Ryan, here are the primary receivers on each play, and here is the man to look to next, and so on.

"Blanton figured it out for Frank," Art Modell recalled. "If there was a blitz, he'd tell Frank, ‘Just throw the ball to the tight end, or throw it to Ernie Green.' I remember standing next to Blanton when Frank was throwing the ball on the sidelines; he'd quietly tell Frank, ‘Pick out a target. It's like shooting a rifle, just zero in on the chest.' Over and over, he told Ryan that: ‘Zero in on the chest, hit the man between the numbers.' He had tremendous faith in Frank." ...

Collier believed that just because Ryan was becoming a doctor of math, it didn't mean he was a genius on the football field. Collier was a former high school algebra teacher, and knew there was little connection between football and math. In math, you're presented with a problem and you have plenty of quiet time to find an answer. You can take one road, erase it, then try another. You think things through.

Not in football. Not with a 250-pound lineman bearing down on you, and with variables changing every second as assignments were carried out or missed, or your receiver fell down, or your foot stuck in the mud, or a running back forgot the play. With the Rams, Ryan [had] became so obsessed with all these details and potential problems that he nearly paralyzed himself...

[Ryan] also said, "The ideal quarterback must have serendipity. Why does he make the consistent good play? By training? By accident? By coincidence? Or some sixth sense? The times when I felt the best on the football field-the championship game for instance-my mind was following no logical conscious thinking pattern. There was no effort to analyze, to evaluate, to review, to study the patterns and tendencies of the defense. Something just came to me like a flash and it worked-not just once or twice, but almost every time."

A famously smart baseball player was the journeyman catcher Moe Berg.

Berg served as a secret agent for the U.S. government. During post-season all star tours of Japan, Berg, who spoke fluent Japanese, filmed potential military targets in Tokyo that were later reportedly used in planning Jimmy Doolittle's famous 1942 bombing run.

Most remarkably, in 1944, working for the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, Berg entered Switzerland to attend a scientific conference where one of the scheduled lecturers was the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, head of Hitler's atomic bomb project. Berg's assignment was to watch Heisenberg and, if he appeared to be the kind of man who would get the Bomb built for Germany, kill him. Packing a gun, Berg sat through Heisenberg's talk. Although a polymath, Berg found Heisenberg's quantum physics over his head. Berg eventually decided, mostly on gut instinct, that Heisenberg was more a pure scientist than an engineering manager and let him live.

Nick Accocella

The only utility player to be the subject of three biographies, few of his accomplishments came in the batter's box. It was Berg whom St. Louis Cardinals scout Mike Gonzalez was describing when he coined the phrase "good field, no hit" in the early 1920s...

In only one year did the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Berg appear in more than 100 games; he played in fewer than 50 games in 12 seasons. But he was a brilliant scholar, picking up degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law School and studying philosophy at the Sorbonne.

His linguistic skills inspired this observation by a teammate: "He can speak seven languages, but he can't hit in any of them."

The Jewish Virtual Library says:

"One teammate said, 'Moe, I don’t care how many of them college degrees you got, they ain’t learned you to hit that curve ball no better than the rest of us.'"

Unlike Frank Ryan, Moe Berg's off-field brilliance helped him on the field too. He managed to stay in the big leagues for 15 years, the last decade following a knee injury that left him a nugatory hitter. As a catcher, he was an excellent pitch caller and made very few errors.

Then I started thinking about who was the most brilliant athlete, the greatest genius, in terms of his own sport.

In the modern history of baseball, there have been two unique accomplishments. Only one man has been excellent at both pitching and hitting; and only one man has individually revolutionized the game by discarding the old dogmas about hitting for average and avoiding striking out, replacing them with waiting for a good pitch and then swinging for the fences.

Remarkably, both unique feats were accomplished by the same man, Babe Ruth.

And nobody ever accused the Babe of having a high IQ.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

1 comment:

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

Radical limits should be radial limits.

Search Blaschke products radial limits.

It means in the limit as z approaches the unit circle along a radius. If z = r exp(i \theta) then the limit as r approaches one is the radial limit. If r equals 1, and we take a limit of theta, then we have a tangential limit.

Search radial limits analytic functions or radial limits holomorphic functions.