The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an “underdog” as “(1) a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest.” The word is said to derive from nineteenth century dog-fights and the fact that the loser would roll over on its back and permit the winner to tower (and slobber) over him. Over time, the term has come to signify a person or team that is likely to lose, rather than one that has already lost. Indeed today, many associate “underdogs” with winners, and not with losers at all.
That shift in common understanding is not surprising. It reflects the grip on popular imagination of true stories like that of the “Miracle on Ice,” where in defiance of the odds, the underdog did come out on top. The prospects for the American Olympic hockey team could not have been more dim. The U.S. coach was no better than the third choice of the selection committee. His squad, made up of collegiate amateurs who had never played together, was pitted against older, seasoned Soviet veterans who had been a unit on the ice for years. An American team had not beaten a Russian team in any international contest in two decades and our current Olympians had been routed in the warm-up game less than a week before the opening ceremonies. Yet when the competition was over, this ragtag band of lunch bucket misfits had won the gold medal.
While to some the 1980 U.S. victory at Lake Placid is “the” classic underdog story, there is room for debate. For avid baseball fans, the “Amazin’ Mets” of 1969 are the standouts. After seven losing seasons – during which they never rose above ninth place in a 10-team league – they went on to beat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. For avid football fans, earlier that same year another New York expansion team defied the oddsmakers in Super Bowl III, when “Broadway Joe” Namath made good on his prediction that his upstart AFL Jets would top another Baltimore team, the NFL’s powerful Colts. Other surprises include Muhammad Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, 8th seed Villanova’s wresting the 1985 NCAA basketball crown from defending champion Georgetown and the Vegas Golden Knights making it to the Stanley Cup finals in their maiden season.
For those enamored of the world of entertainment, the picks would differ. Many would single out the rise of the Beatles as the most compelling underdog story. The triumph of these four Liverpool boys, whose status was middling at best, first over English snobbery and then over American parochialism, changed the landscape of popular music, as they became the first-ever foreign group to dominate the U.S. Billboard Charts. Other singers who, like the Beatles, came from humble origins, horrified an older generation and revolutionized the music of their era include Elvis Presley in the 50s, with his unique blend of white country and black blues, and a collection of hip-hop artists and rappers like the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Eminem and Jay-Z who, in the 90s, introduced their novel mix of beat and rhyme. Not to be forgotten was the stout, frumpy, 47-year-old Scotswoman who, wearing what looked like a fright wig, took the stage midway through the inaugural episode of Britain’s Got Talent. Her appearance was greeted with catcalls, until she opened her mouth to sing the first bars of “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables. Then, a stunned audience broke into rapturous applause and leapt to its feet, joined by the astonished judges. At that instant, Susan Boyle epitomized the underdog’s wondrous appeal.
For lovers of public affairs, there is still a consensus, even after Trump in 2016, that Harry Truman’s upset of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election is the best underdog story. For Truman not only had to cope with a lack of enthusiasm among his own Democrats, but with two splinter parties, one on the left and one on the right, that credibly threatened to throw the election into a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Worthy of honorable mention is Barack Obama’s feat, less than four years after he burst on the national scene, of stealing the nomination and the White House from the self-proclaimed heir apparent, former First Lady and incumbent two-term New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. And deserving at least a footnote are a number of improbably successful also-rans: Gene McCarthy, George McGovern and Gary Hart.
We are conditioned from our earliest days to expect Lake Placid miracles and Beatles’ invasions and Truman-esque upsets, no matter what Merriam-Webster say. We are taught as children to root for the underdog and to believe that he or she can confound expectations and come out on top. We all heard tales growing up that showed that the biggest, strongest and fastest, or the richest and highest born, or the most beautiful and handsome, did not always win. Our parents, perhaps without even being aware of what they were doing, were letting us know early on not to believe the conventional wisdom about how the world really works. They were inoculating us against the notion that size, strength, speed, wealth, status and appearance were always virtues and that those who had them were always better and would inevitably prevail.
For most of us, just reading the titles of the classic underdog stories brings smiles to our faces: Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Engine That Could, The Ugly Duckling, The Tortoise and the Hare, Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, David and Goliath. Their collective moral is to have faith when confronted with adversity, to avoid despair in the face of bullying or condescension or jealousy, to stand up to those flaunting their physical or social advantages. Who knows at what level or to what extent we absorbed these lessons when we were little? The important thing is that as grown-ups we remember them and their message that underdogs can and do succeed. We recall that the servant girl married the prince; the beast wed the beauty; the little train made it up the hill; the speckled duckling became a swan; the turtle outraced the rabbit; the rabbit outsmarted the fox; and the young boy felled the giant.