I was saddened yesterday by the news that Hall of Fame baseball star George Kell passed away at the age of 86. I never had the pleasure of seeing Kell play, but I know he played for my hometown Detroit Tigers between 1946 and 1952, beating out Ted Williams for the batting title in 1949.
The sad news recalled for me my youth, growing up listening to Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell call Tiger’s games on the radio. My boyhood idol, growing up in the 1960’s, was Al Kaline, also a Hall of Famer. Somehow, listening to a game on the radio made the players larger than life, invincible heroes. Kaline prowled right field like a, well, like a tiger. In my mind’s eye I watched him glide to catch balls in the gap that other players would run toward, elbows flailing, caps falling off, only to play on a hop or misplay altogether. He had a cannon for an arm, made for right field, once throwing out two base-runners at home in the same inning. He could hit, too, for average and occasional power, and he stretched more singles into doubles with smart base-running. But he became a true hero to me when he turned down $100,000 a year contract, embarrassed to be paid such a sum for playing a kid’s game, even while drawing criticism from his team mates because he was an obstacle to them being awarded such a contract. In 1999, Kaline ranked number 76 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest baseball players, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Looking back it’s easy to see why I idolized Kaline. He really was that good.
Ray Oyler, the shortstop for the 1968 Tigers (pulled for the World Series because of his anemic numbers at the plate), was the first from that team to die, of a heart attack, having barely achieved forty years of age. First baseman Norm Cash, whom the Tigers acquired in a trade with Cleveland for Rocky Colavito (my, were the fans outraged!) was next to die, in 1986, falling off a pier in upper Michigan while drunk, to drown. Stormin’ Norman quickly won over Tigers fans after the trade by winning the batting title in 1961 while clubbing forty-one homeruns. Cash launched more than one ball over the roof in right field during his years with Detroit. Cash once approached the plate for an at-bat with a table leg late in a game, later saying that the stuff Nolan Ryan was tossing that day, on his way to his second career no-hitter, was unhittable with a piece of regulation lumber. The umpire declared the bat illegal, but the fans loved the stunt.
Denny McClain, the last pitcher to win thirty games over a season and who nicknamed Cash Tyrannosaurus Rex because his arms were disproportionately short for his body, ended his career early with a shoulder injury and a gambling problem, spending time in prison. Catcher Bill Freehan went on to coach the Michigan Wolverines but left in disgrace, the result of recruiting violations.
As a lad I knew little of these facts, and today I realize these idols of my youth are mere mortals, as ballplayers as well as men. Some were great players and good men, even while others fell short, giving in to the temptations that so often accompany fame. It won’t be long before I hear of the death of Willie Horton who, with a flick of his bat, heroically united a city torn apart by riots in 1968; Mickey Lolich, the 1968 series MVP who now owns a donut shop north of Detroit and can occasionally be seen at Comerica Park; eventually, Kaline — known as Mr. Tiger in Detroit — who was a day younger than Cobb when he won his batting title and who still looks good in a Tigers uniform.
Yes they are mortal, and perhaps not as heroic as I once thought. Cash, who often showed up for games hung over, after his playing days were over admitted to corking his bat during the 1961 season.
Yet I can’t help but feel that, as they pass on, a part of my own youth, the part that believed in heroes, will pass with them. Heroes, you see, aren’t just for the very young.
Maybe I look at the past through rose-colored glasses, but the players of today are more openly not as heroic as those from my youth. Today’s game is tainted by big salaries, bigger egos, behavior unbefitting a major league ballplayer, and substances far more illegal than alcohol. Today it’s not uncommon for a ballplayer to ignore an autograph seeker who has waited patiently for two hours for his hero to exit the clubhouse after a game.
Before his death in 1961, Ty Cobb accused the modern player of being in the game only for the money. Cobb conveniently forgot that he sat out a contract dispute more than once in his career. But unlike today’s players, he went out and earned his money. Today’s ballplayer rarely earns his paycheck until the final year of their contract.
In the 21st century we have an entire generation of ballplayers whose morals will forever be questioned. From, “No, I never used,” to “I used only from this year to that year” when the evidence becomes undeniable. And Roger Clemens, who continues to deny he ever used despite proof to the contrary. No one, it seems, can be taken at their word. It’s fitting that anyone proven to have used steroids be banned from the Hall of Fame, but what happens to the player inducted into the Hall who, after the fact, is proven to have used?
In a world in dire need of heroes, I feel for our youth who idolize the likes of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriquez only to learn that they cheat. I’ve heard players say, “To hell with the fans — I just want to play baseball.” Translation: “I just want to collect my paycheck.” Maybe it’s the stubborn little boy that still lives in me, wanting to believe that he could’ve played major league baseball, but isn’t fandom part of the game? When today’s major-leaguers were kids, did they dream of playing before a cheering crowd, or was it only of multi-million dollar multi-year contracts of which they dreamed? With fame comes responsibility. For a ballplayer, while he’s in uniform his responsibility is the team, but he also has a responsibility to the fans — that is, if he wants to be a true hero. And who wouldn’t want to be a hero?
I love the game baseball, maybe more today than in my youth — in my youth it was the players I idolized. Today I understand players come and go. Like the seasons, the names and numbers change, each player having but a few years as their moment in the sun. But the principal of the game has gone unchanged since Cobb’s day: hit squarely a round ball with a round bat.
I miss the good old days as much as my dad missed the good old days of his youth even if, in baseball at least, they haven’t changed all that much. I guess it’s me who has changed – having become more cynical with age. A chip off the old block. Dad would be proud.
Still, I want to hold onto the ideal of heroes, because without them we have only…