But No Cigar
History’s Second Best
History is what we make of it. And we like our history simple and bullet pointed. Pivotal events, defining moments and big, bold firsts—whatever fits easily on a plaque or in a textbook heading is fine with us. Sadly, our culture’s obsession with winners, founders, leaders and pioneers inherently ignores the small, quiet second placers who came close to immortality but, alas, fell just short of the elusive stogie.
Ruth Nichols was a prodigious pilot. In 1930 she challenged the notion that American aviation belonged to men by breaking Charles Lindbergh’s world-record time for a cross-country flight. One year and two more world records later (for women’s airspeed and altitude), she attempted to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but she crashed in New Brunswick, severely injuring her back. Before she tried a second time, the honor belonged to Amelia Earhart.
The achievement made Earhart the face of women’s aviation and a symbol of female courage and self-sufficiency, while the accomplished Nichols is today a footnote in the aviation history books. Similarly, Jackie Robinson’s legacy as the first African American to play in modern major league baseball is more about breaking barriers than about his stats. Sports historians routinely focus on Robinson over Larry Doby, the second African American to play in the majors. Doby—who debuted only 11 weeks after Robinson and played 151 games more—ended his career with a whopping 116 more home runs, 236 more RBIs and more All-Star appearances. Yet he, like Nichols, has been dwarfed to near obscurity by his barrier-shattering contemporary.
Before baseball was racially integrated, the all-white major leagues made rare exceptions for light-skinned Cubans, Hawaiians and Native Americans—if you could pass for white, you were okay to play. Not until the signing of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, in 1947, did the door finally open to all qualified players of color, including those of Latin American heritage. Minnie Miñoso, a Cuban left fielder, became the first dark-skinned Hispanic player in the major leagues when he debuted with Doby’s Cleveland Indians in 1949.
Latin America’s foothold in baseball has only grown stronger. In 1998 Dominican-born Sammy Sosa thrilled the sports world as he and Mark McGwire chased after major league baseball’s single-season home run record (61, set by Roger Maris in 1961). Sosa ultimately had to settle for second, but his strong performance earned him the National League MVP trophy. The American League MVP was Puerto Rico–born Juan Gonzalez, making 1998 the first year the award for both leagues went to Latin-born players. In a nice coincidence, Larry Doby was elected to the Hall of Fame later that year.
On July 20, 1969, with a worldwide television audience of 500 million watching from more than 200,000 miles away, Neil Armstrong took one small step off Apollo 11 and into history as the first man on the moon. And where was fellow spacefarer Buzz Aldrin? One small step behind Armstrong.
Astronautic silver medal notwithstanding, Aldrin never became a ghost in the history books. His pioneering role in space exploration is universally (well, globally) recognized. Yet, there’s still that number two next to his name—a legacy that makes Aldrin a good barometer for measuring other second-place finishers.
Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa drew comparisons to Aldrin in 1998 when he finished behind Mark McGwire in the most widely followed baseball event of the decade: the pursuit of Roger Maris’s 37-year-old, single-season record of 61 home runs, long thought untouchable. Sosa not only touched it, he smashed it by five homers. But McGwire broke it first and then pushed it beyond Sosa’s reach to 70 in the season’s final week. The Cubs’ hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, was one of the first to dub Sosa the “Buzz Aldrin of home run hitters.”
In 1858 British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace theorized about the origin of earth’s species. All of them, he speculated, branched from a common ancestry because of environmental adaptation—a concept known as natural selection. Eager for feedback, Wallace sought out leading naturalist Charles Darwin, who was profoundly shocked: The younger man’s theory was the same one Darwin had been developing over the past 20 years. But this was no act of plagiarism, for Darwin had yet to publish his ideas. Wallace had come to the theory independently. Concerned that Wallace might now take credit, Darwin completed his manuscript, publishing it in 1859 as the pivotal On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Wallace and Buzz Aldrin both explored the science of exobiology, the study of life in space, with a focus on Mars. In Is Mars Habitable? (1907), Wallace proclaims its cold climate inhospitable to life. Aldrin, however, has actively advocated for its prompt habitation. An engineer by training, he devised the schematics for an Earth–Mars transportation system, the Aldrin Mars Cycler—a “subway in the sky” between the two planets—for which he has a patent.
Buzz Aldrin might have inherited his celestial leanings (at least subconsciously) from his mother—she was born Marion Moon—but his passion for flight came from his father. An aviation engineer, Edwin Aldrin Sr. developed the fuel system on the plane Amelia Earhart used for her historic 1932 transatlantic flight. He also knew Earhart’s rival, Ruth Nichols (a 1931 photograph of Aldrin Sr. and Nichols survives), who might have beaten Earhart to the punch if she hadn’t crashed her plane in 1931 attempting to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Buzz Aldrin was an Air Force pilot and alumnus of the Air Force Institute of Technology (his father was in its first graduating class). After his cockpit career, he switched to space exploration. So did Nichols. She participated in a 1959 project evaluating women’s viability for space travel that tested her in antigravity and isolation simulations. Despite evidence that women’s slighter frames and need for less food made them ideal astronauts, the predominant attitude was that female physiology posed too many variables for meticulously calculated flights. The experiment was over and with it Nichols’s hopes of exploring space. A year later she committed suicide, despondent, friends said, at this final disappointment.
Buzz Aldrin, second man to walk on the moon, is an iconic runner-up. (Even his plastic namesake, Buzz Lightyear, plays second fiddle to Woody in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.) Another man stuck with such status is Al Gore. In his 2000 bid for the U.S. presidency, Gore won the popular vote but lost the all-important electoral contest to George W. Bush in a controversial upset. Earning silver is one thing, but earning gold and getting silver because of an arcane electoral system and a Supreme Court decision is another.
Since his withdrawal from politics, Gore has devoted his energies to raising awareness of global warming. At a congressional hearing in 2009, he compared skeptics of man-made climate change to “people who still believe that the moon landing was staged on a movie lot in Arizona”—an interesting comment, considering that those climate skeptics include Aldrin. Joining a number of astronauts and scientists who doubt the theory of global warming, Aldrin has explained, “I think the climate has been changing for billions of years.… I’m not necessarily of the school that we are causing it all. I think the world is causing it.”
Illinois senator Carol Moseley-Braun gave Vice President Al Gore a gift of hometown Chicago pride at her 1998 reelection fundraiser: a blue pin-striped Sammy Sosa Cubs uniform. It was intended to symbolize achievement—Sosa was then still nipping valiantly at Mark McGwire’s heels in the race to best baseball’s hallowed single-season home run record. Instead the gift was an unintentionally prescient forecast of runner-up notoriety for both men.
Two years later Gore lost his bid for the presidency by the second-closest electoral vote margin in U.S. history: 271–266. The highly controversial election dragged on for more than a week as ambiguous hand-punched ballots were recounted in Florida. Ultimately, the Sunshine State and the U.S. presidency went to Gore’s competitor, George W. Bush. Sosa’s uniform would have fit Gore well: The ballplayer had lost his months-long battle with McGwire in 1998 by another slim margin, 70–66.
Ironically, some facetious Gore supporters in 2000 pointed to one particular blemish on Bush’s résumé as proof of his poor decision making. In 1989, as part owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers, Bush authorized a trade sending a rookie Sosa to the Chicago White Sox.
Robert Falcon Scott’s 17-month trek through the unforgiving Antarctic ended in 1912. His goal was to lead the first expedition to the South Pole, and he recorded this journal entry upon his arrival: “The worst has happened…. All the day dreams must go…. Great God! This is an awful place.” Scott had learned that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten him to the pole by 33 days. Dejected, Scott and his team turned homeward—and all five men froze to death within three months.
Scott became a national icon, however, as news of his death spread through his home country. Englishmen young and old were stirred by tales of his courage and commitment. Today his legacy takes a different form. The data collected on his journey contributes to our understanding of the threats Antarctica faces from global warming. Leading environmentalists, including Al Gore, point to the melting poles as evidence of man-made climate change. In 2012, a century after Scott’s death, Gore organized a cruise to the South Pole to raise awareness about the shrinking icecaps, inviting scientists, climatologists and patrons. Among his guests was Virgin Group magnate Richard Branson, a distant relative of Scott’s.