SEABISCUIT: ON A FAST TRACK TO `URBAN LEGEND.'

     [Pasadena Star-News and other dailies, April 20, 2003.  Revised]


With the PBS telecast of "Seabiscuit" scheduled for Monday night, and 
release of the Hollywood production only three months away, the 
thoroughbred who presumably rescued America from the Great Depression is 
well on his way to an even greater popularity than he enjoyed in his own 
time.  Too bad so much of his current fame rests on an unchallenged "urban 
legend."

Urban legends are those widely believed stories circulated outside of 
responsible journals, loosely based on some factual event but distorted in 
the telling to prove a point.  "Seabiscuit" is a perfect example of how 
urban legends manipulate history.  It starts with the first paragraph of 
Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend,"  
about the great champion of the late 1930s. 

"In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year's 
number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or 
Mussolini.  It wasn't Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, 
or Clark Gable.  The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 
wasn't even a person.  It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named 
Seabiscuit."

Not only has that statement gone unquestioned since the volume came out two 
years ago, it has become the centerpiece of numerous book reviews and of 
promotions for Universal's movie.  Upwards of 500 web sites currently 
paraphrase that statement.

Hillenbrand credited two sources for that irresponsible claim.  One was p. 
33 of B. K. Beckwith's rare 1940 "Seabiscuit."   The other was a clipping, 
otherwise undated, from the San Francisco News for January, 1939.  She 
apparently looked no further.

A 1975 reprint of the Beckwith book has no page numbers, but the 1940 
edition contains this line on p. 33:  "In one year alone [Seabiscuit] 
received more newspaper space than Roosevelt, Mussolini, or Hitler!"  But 
Beckwith didn't footnote his source. 

The News clipping, from sports editor Tom Laird's Jan. 11, 1939 column, may 
well have been the source of Beckwith's claim.  "The 1938 statistics on 
news reveal that Seabiscuit obtained more space in the newspapers than 
Hitler or President Roosevelt, who were second and third, respectively, on 
the list."  

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 published Jan. 2 in the News. 

Also confronting Hillenbrand is the New York Times Index for 1938.  
Franklin Roosevelt has sixteen pages of fine print for dates on which 
stories involving him appeared.  Seabiscuit has no separate listing, but is 
covered under "Horses," an eight-page category mostly devoted to horse 
shows, harness racing, the foreign turf, and racing at American tracks.  
Specific references to Seabiscuit are exceedingly rare.

The Britannica Yearbook covering 1938 listed Roosevelt more than 40 times 
in its "Calendar of Events" chronology.  Seabiscuit appeared once.  In 
fact, Britannica gave more space to Joe Louis in 1938 than to Seabiscuit.  
Surely Louis' electrifying, first-round knockout of Max Schmeling that year 
did more to raise the spirit of struggling Americans than any Seabiscuit 
victory.

Regardless of the facts, Seabiscuit as urban legend will likely affect the 
interpretation of 1930s America for years to come.  Elementary school 
students will write brief reports on "Seabiscuit, the greatest newsmaker of 
1938," while budding historians cite Hillenbrand as they explain how 
Americans of the Depression years rallied behind a horse (not a president, 
or a heavyweight champion)  to lift the country from its economic doldrums.  

And when some obscure debunker yells "Wait a minute!" the weight of the 
Internet will side with Seabiscuit, drowning out the cry.

                                  - - -

[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be 
reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu]