It’s not that I don’t recognize heroic acts or lives that are lived heroically, and it’s not that I don’t admire and respect some individuals more than others. I do have people that I see as positive models I should emulate, and there are even people I would think of as heroes.
Mostly, though, I think of people as ordinary human beings. I may see a person as heroic, but even so, he’s still, like all of us, a flawed human being.
Back when I was a kid, though, I did have heroes. I don’t remember whether I worshipped them or not, but even today, I think they are people who are worth admiring.
A couple of them died recently, and reading about them in recent weeks, I remembered why I admired them.
Back when I was around 10 or 11, baseball really was America’s game. It was the era of AM radio and an advertising jingle about looking, feeling and being sharp if you only switched to Gillette Blue Blades.
My occupation back then was delivering the newspaper early in the morning, and unless a chance to earn 75 cents or a dollar by chopping a neighbor’s weeds popped up, the rest of my day was devoted to being a boy. Among my favorite diversions was listening to a little baseball on the Mutual Game of the Day, an institution back in the days before television’s demands pushed almost all day games into the evening.
I started out as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in large part because of Jackie Robinson. My mother, whose sensibilities were such that, had her life unfolded differently, might have marched right behind Martin Luther King from Selma to the Alabama Capitol, told me all about what Jackie had done, the bigotry he faced and his importance, not only to baseball, but to America as well.
I was impressed and became a fan of Jackie and a supporter of racial integration.
The door Jackie opened soon brought many other African-American players into the major leagues, and one of them, Ernie Banks, caught my eye because, in my fantasies, I was a classy shortstop who could hit home runs. Best of all, he played for the Chicago Cubs in the city of my birth, and on the North Side where my mother grew up. So when Jackie retired and the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, I, without a bit of regret, dropped them like a head of slimy lettuce and began rooting for the Cubs.
Unfortunately, the Cubs’ legendary inability to get to the top of the standings made it a bit uncomfortable to root for them, so, for back-up purposes, such as when they were in the cellar, I adopted Chicago’s other team, the White Sox, as a substitute, even though they were only marginally better than the Cubs and played on the South Side. They did, however, have an outfielder with a cool name and a high batting average, Minnie Minoso.
As it happened, both Ernie and Minnie were not only good players, playing in all-star games and posting tremendous statistics, but great human beings as well. They played skillfully and with enthusiasm that was contagious.
Ernie was famous for calling every day a great day to play baseball and proposing to play two games. Minnie, he had a lot of fun playing baseball, and he actually appeared in games in five different decades.
In addition, he had a permanent smile on his face. This week, one writer remembered him as “a 500-watt incandescent bulb,” and a “carrier of cheerfulness.”
They played in an era when, even though Jackie had broken the color line, bigotry still existed in the stands and sometimes on the field as well. Ernie was the first black Cub, and Minnie was the first black Cleveland Indian before he was traded to the White Sox. They likely faced some of the slights and hostility that Jackie did.
In the end, though, both of them earned the admiration of their teammates and fans with their upbeat personalities and the enthusiasm with which they played. After their playing days, both served as ambassadors for their teams and the city of Chicago after they retired.
Ernie was often called Mr. Cub; Minnie was Mr. White Sox.
I never saw Minnie play except on television, and I only saw Ernie play in an old timers game once. Of all the stars there, including such big stars as Whitey Ford and Hank Aaron, Ernie drew the biggest crowd of autograph seekers by far to his corner. I never got close to him, but I managed a picture by holding my camera at arm’s length above my head and shooting blind over the crowd.
I’m sure Ernie and Minnie had moments when they were tired and grouchy, but they spent their lives thinking and acting positively and leaving their fans with many happy memories.
That’s heroic enough for me.