Celebrating bissextiles

Fans of team sports endlessly argue about which athlete is the greatest “winner” of all time. Bill Russell, an integral part of 11 Boston Celtics National Basketball Association championship teams during his 13-year playing career, is a perennial candidate for that designation. So is Michael Jordan, who led six different Chicago Bulls quintets to NBA titles during a later era, when the path to the winner’s circle was far more arduous.

Baseball mavens point to Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher who played on ten World Series-winning teams, or his fellow Italian-American New York Yankee icon Joe DiMaggio, who played on nine, but did so in four fewer seasons. Football fans, particularly those in these parts, are partial to Tom Brady, who quarterbacked seven different teams, six of which were New England Patriot squads, to Super Bowl victories.

But forget about Brady, Yogi, and any basketball player(s) you can name. None of them can hold a candle to the greatest winner to ever play a major league team sport in North America. Sadly, the unquestioned holder of that distinction died just six days after his 21st birthday, but not before earning his way into his sport’s Hall of Fame as a member of eleven Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Montreal Canadiens.

Go ahead. Read the last line of the previous paragraph again. It’s not a misprint..

Henri Richard, who died on March 6, 2020, really did play on eleven National Hockey League championship teams. That’s a remarkable feat for anybody, let alone someone whose life concluded just six days after his 21st birthday

There’s an explanation, of course. Richard was born on February 29th, 1936. Because of that he had to savor each precious birthday four times as much as non-bissextile people get to enjoy theirs. The rest of us get to celebrate (or ignore, as the case may be) the anniversary of our birth annually, but bissextile folks only get to do so every 1461st day.

Bissextile (that’s not a misprint either) is an adjective that describes anything pertaining to the extra day of a leap year. It’s also a word that should be pronounced both carefully and precisely (it’s by-SEX-till) by its speaker, since one tiny mistake by the pronouncer could result in an embarrassing misunderstanding by not just the person(s) being spoken to, but also any and all eavesdropping bystanders in the immediate area.

What’s the chance of being born on February 29th? Well, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that it’s roughly one in 1461. (It might take a mathematician to figure out what one-1461st is in decimal form, though; it’s .06844626967.)

But even that’s not quite exact, since every fourth year is bissextile, except when that year is evenly divisible by 100, but not by 400. Come 2096 bissextile people had better party like it’s 1999 on their birthday, because they’re going to have to wait eight years for their next one. There isn’t going to be a February 29th, 2100.

Henri Richard is hardly the only renowned person who was born on February 29th. Pope Paul III (1468), Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers (1736), and journalist and women’s rights advocate Emmeline B. Wells (1828) were all born on bissextile days. The 20th century is fraught with notable bissextile children, including astronaut Jack Lousma (1936), rapper Ja Rule (1976), Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Lydia Jacoby (2004), and 97 others listed on Wikipedia’s February 29th page.

But be advised, fans of bissextile Thursdays: you had better enjoy this one to the fullest, because the next Thursday, February 29th won’t arrive until 2052.

Andy Young
February 23, 2024

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