Whitey Ford died on October 8. An all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1950s and 60s, he was nicknamed for his hair, not his skin. Whitey was a favorite of mine but not a hero. Regarding heroism, I’m picky.
As a kid, I was partial to Mickey Mantle, a huge Yankees star, and Whitey because the latter grew up in Astoria, Queens, not far from me. If I had illusions about ballplayers as heroes, they disappeared in 1957.
Mantle, Ford and Billy Martin revealed feet of clay and exposed (more) sports hypocrisy. Big drinkers, they were involved in a brawl at the Copacabana nightclub. Martin was traded. Mantle and Ford were too good to move.
Over the years, I met a number of basketball and baseball players and two NFL head coaches. Nice guys but only human. Of course, fans and the media often hail them as heroes. Not all welcomed such praise.
I met Don Larson, a former Yankee pitcher, when I was at Fort Sam Houston and accompanied him to Brook Army Medical Center to visit soldiers wounded in Vietnam. I remarked to our first patient that in 1956, Don pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. Don asked me not to mention that again. I understood. His major league career was brief and not terribly distinguished. Now, he pitched for the local minor-league San Antonio Missions. I saw his humility and the anonymity of his visit as more heroic than any on-field exploit.
Note: Many athletes visit wounded troops and ill civilians. Some engage in PR stunts. But many do so without fanfare.
I follow Jewish athletes. Even many Jews with no interest in sports know of baseball’s Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Bulletin: In this week’s Braves-Dodgers National League Division Championship Series, Atlanta’s Max Fried, one of baseball’s top pitchers, started Monday’s opener and allowed just one run in six innings. The L.A. Dodgers’ Joc Pederson had four hits and three runs batted in in game four. Alex Bregman, an all-star third-baseman, plays for the Houston Astros. Sue Bird starred for the WNBA champion Seattle Storm.
These athletes present a fuller picture of American-Jewish life, but they’re not heroes either.
Movie stars? Fuhgeddaboudit! America’s classic example: John Wayne, far right in his politics, starred in many war films during World War Two but never served in the military.
Real hero: A friend’s father—Jewish—fought with the Marines at Iwo Jima. He received two purple hearts. Another friend’s dad—also Jewish—was a tank commander in Europe. Neither got the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to John Wayne.
I feel a loss when a great athlete dies. Recently, Cardinals pitching great Bob Gibson, Reds second-baseman Joe Morgan and 49ers defensive end Fred Dean left us. But sports accomplishments don’t equate to wisdom and integrity. They can teach us much but also hide grievous personal faults. Look at the number of NFL players arrested over recent years. Teams released journeymen but often returned stars to the field.
With all due respect to athletes—many bright and articulate—I tip my cap to everyday people who work hard, respect others and offer a helping hand in small ways.
I miss Whitey, but I celebrate the unknown heroes who surround us.
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