With Fresh Eyes

Long Ago Heroes

It was the summer of 1941. Baseball was king. The New York Yankees won the pennant that year, led by Joe DiMaggio, who established a record 56-game hitting streak that season, an achievement unlikely to be toppled. Baseball offered a welcome distraction to a country inching out of the Great Depression and on the cusp of a world war. And it was DiMaggio capturing the nation’s attention, who, according to documentarian Ken Burns, was a “pure player with an effortless swing, an elegant outfielder, a quiet hero.” It was his grace and humility that were his enduring qualities. “Every time you go up to bat, you’re conscious of your role as a model. It’s not about the ego; it’s about the fans,” he said.

Singer and songwriter Paul Simon ran into DiMaggio after Simon and Garfunkel’s soundtrack to the 1967 film The Graduate hit the charts, led by the signature song “Mrs. Robinson.” The retired baseball player was puzzled by the celebrated lyrics “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Simon’s intent, as he explained to the baseball great, was to define the heroes of the past as a “generation of perseverance and grace,” that “there’s a bit of longing for that, which we don’t have.” As it had been in the DiMaggio era, the 1960’s were volatile, and Simon, through his lyrics, was lamenting for a
country which had appeared to have lost its way. Joe DiMaggio represented the values the nation had discarded.

Al Kaline was my DiMaggio. As one coming of age during the ‘60’s, I looked up to the Detroit Tigers star as the persona of grace and humility. My dad and I would indulge in our annual summer trek to Tiger Stadium to watch our beloved team, and Kaline, the great #6 in right field. Walking out from the concourse to catch the first glimpse of that magical ball field now gone was a kid’s dream, a remembrance still vivid and complete.

Kaline was a skinny kid plucked from the sandlots of Baltimore by the Tigers in the early ‘50’s, who played his entire 22-year professional career in Detroit. He had 3,007 career hits, won 10 Gold Glove Awards, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He helped the Tigers to a World Series win in that unsettled year of 1968. More fundamental than any statistic, though, was his unpretentious nature, his civility, his caliber. He went out on the field, day after day, striving to excel without fanfare or expected adulation from his fans. As a result, he earned that adula-
tion and respect from all who followed him. Kaline modeled an approach to life that I have endeavored to follow.

We should expect such an example from those we entrust to lead us. It is a veritable failure, then, that we find ourselves immersed in shameful leadership, defined by divisive rhetoric and reckless policy. The recent tirades vilifying the judiciary branch of government, asylum seekers, and a respected retired military leader are but a sampling demonstrating the lack of moral fiber in the man who occupies the Oval Office. To forego sacred ceremonies honoring war dead, to suggest we rake the forests as a fire management tool, and to advocate for legal actions against political foes further validate that this is a person morally and intellectually inept at promoting the common purpose of the nation.

We seek out our heroes, past and present, because we need them in our lives. Many of mine are heroines, among them Rachel Carson, Harper Lee, Shirley Chisholm, Malala Yousafzai. What links them together is a pursuit of purpose and excellence distinguished by a genuine manner and message, with focus on the recipient, not themselves. They have set a high moral bar for which to strive. We are on notice to follow their example. We should be indebted to them for leading the way.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com

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