The New York Daily News has recently begun a baseball promotion called “Modern Yankee Heroes”. I am not a Yankee fan, but I don’t diminish the accomplishments of the players cited, but I thought about the use of the word ‘Heroes’ and felt it wasn’t appropriate to call multimillion dollar ballplayers heroes because they have huge contracts, hit .300 or drive in 100 runs. The phrase ‘Hero’ should be reserved for those who truly stand out in their field and distinguish themselves in the face of aggression.
In the arena of major league baseball only two names come to mind whom I would call a ‘Hero’
Ted (Teddy Ballgame) (The Kid) (Splendid Splinter) Williams played 21 years with a career BA of .344 and hit 521 HRs. His BA is the highest for any hitter with 500 home runs and he is also the last (1941) to hit .400. Williams also homered in his last at bat in September 1960. Williams also won two MVPs, two Triple Crowns, and six batting titles. What makes him a hero in my mind is his service to his country in two wars as an aviator in the Navy and Marine Corp. His military service covered over five years of his baseball career. He was the wingman of future astronaut John Glenn and was honored by General Douglas MacArthur. "To Ted Williams - not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who served his country. Your friend, Douglas MacArthur. General U.S. Army."
Although he only played ten years and the record books are not full of his name, Jackie Robinson is the other ‘Baseball hero’. Jackie Robinson made his debut April of 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodger and was the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. Robinson left UCLA just short of graduation in 1941 and was drafted into the Army in 1942 after the outbreak of WWII where he was commissioned as an officer.
Jackie Robinson was selected by Branch Rickey as the man to ‘break the color barrier’ because he felt that Robinson could passively stand up to the expected racism. Robinson more than passed that test, he opened the door for African-Americans to compete in the greatest of all games. He did that while also winning Rookie of the Year, an MVP, playing in six All-Star games and being elected into the Hall of Fame.
Both of these men were in a way connected, while Robinson was the first African-American in the Major Leagues, the last team to integrate was Ted Williams’ Boston Red Sox. Pumpsie Green was the first black man to wear the Red Sox uniform and was openly welcomed by Ted Williams when he joined the team. Ted Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966. His induction speech on that day included a wish that Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and the other great players of the Negro Leagues who never had the opportunity to play Major League Baseball would someday be welcome at Cooperstown. That day began five years later with the induction of Satchel Paige.
When I wrote the blog entry ‘A Short List’ I focused on two ballplayers that legitimately could be called heroes Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. A fellow poster (jbellows) on the Mets board commented that Roberto Clemente should be on that list. He was right, I was remiss, and now my omission is corrected.
Although all three members of the short list are in Hall Of Fame it wasn’t their baseball prowess that qualified them as candidates for my list, it was the peripheral qualities that were the attraction.
Roberto Clemente died on Dec. 31 1972. He died in a humanitarian effort to help the people of Nicaragua who had suffered an earthquake one week earlier. The aid packages that Clemente had sent in three previous flights had been confiscated by the corrupt Nicaraguan government. Roberto Clemente accompanied this relief flight in hope that his presence would ensure that that the relief aid would reach the people affected by the earthquake. His plane crashed shortly after takeoff and his body was never recovered. Roberto Clemente was born in Puerto Rico and died trying to assist those in Nicaragua. I believe that he didn’t allow National boundaries to prevent him from reaching out a hand.
In 1973 Roberto Clemente became the first Latino to be elected to the Hall Of Fame. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the first Presidential Citizens Medal. In 2002 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1973 the Pirates retired # 21 and erected a statue out side Three Rivers Stadium. That statue is now outside PNC Park.
Few in any walk of life can match Roberto Clemente’s love for his fellow man.
Anytime you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this Earth" --Roberto Clemente
There have been players who have played despite extreme physical handicap such as Pete Gray, Bert Shepard and Jim Abbott. They certainly are heroes to overcome their limitation, but Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente are the top of my very short list.