Does the Game Make the Player or Does the Player Make the Game?
It is one thing for a player to be a great star in a sport; it is quite another for a player to be so great that the sport must adjust because of him. He literally ‘makes’ the game. In basketball, for example, Michael Jordan is one of the game’s all-time greats. Yet Wilt Chamberlain had such an impact on the court that a number of rules were changed because of him (including widening the lane and creating offensive goaltending).
On December 18, 1924 Damon Runyon commented on this phenomenon.
"In only one competitive sport can he [the writer, Runyon] think of a player who has gone beyond his game, who can be said to have made that game instead of the game making him.
"That player is Willy Hoppe, the balkline [sic] billiard king. Hoppe became so good at his game that they had to revise it- making it more difficult. This is perhaps the greatest tribute ever paid to individual skill in the history of sport.
"Take the greatest baseball players in the game today. None of them have displayed a superiority over the game that necessitated any material advance in the game to keep step with their prowess. Old-timers tell of a player of a bygone day, the great ‘King’ Kelly, who was mentally BEYOND the game of his period. But there are none of that type in baseball today.
"Tyrus Raymond Cobb, greatest of the modern ball players, never went beyond the limitations of the game at his best. He always took the fullest advantage of the playing opportunities of the game, exploited them a little better than the next man. But Cobb was at no period of his career AHEAD of baseball. He didn’t MAKE baseball. He produced nothing startlingly new. Mentally and physically he was always within its limits. The game made the player.
"Of all the baseball players in the game today, Babe Ruth, in the opinion of the writer, came closest to MAKING his game. In Ruth’s case it was merely a matter of PHYSICAL power. There was nothing MENTAL in it. Ruth simply came along taking a prodigious swing at the ball that knocked it over fences when it connected.
"To a certain extent Ruth was beyond the limitations of the game as we then knew it. Had the magnates displayed a little business acumen and devised means of REDUCING Ruth’s home runs, he would still be beyond the game. Ruth will hit home runs as long as he can swing a bat.
"Instead the magnates, animated by greed, sought means of INCREASING the home runs. Ruth was drawing big crowds. The silly magnates thought it was due to the home runs. They thought the fans wanted to see plenty of home runs. So the magnates made the home run a comparatively easy matter. They made it common, cheapened it. Anybody could hit home runs then.
"They brought the game back to Ruth at a time when it looked as if Ruth might get well ahead of the game. Thus Ruth, the player, for a brief period MADE his game instead of the game making the player."