Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

Tony Gwynn was good friends with Barry Bonds. Gwynn was also close with Ted Williams.

Perhaps, that tells you all you need to know about Tony Gwynn.

Two of the most combative and complicated personalities in the history of baseball – separated by decades in their playing careers, no less – both found peace and camaraderie with him. That Gwynn smiled as much – or more – than Bonds and Williams snarled (which was plenty), that he was genial and openly joyful while the other two wrestled figurative alligators on and off the field was a testament to the simple unifying power of being a gentleman.

Gwynn Smile3

As it turns out, Leo Durocher had it all wrong. The famous curmudgeon posited that nice guys were doomed to finish behind the angry and arrogant. But Tony Gwynn, arguably the nicest guy to ever play Major League Baseball, rarely finished last.

Durocher

In 20 big league seasons – all with his beloved San Diego Padres, he won eight batting titles, five Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Slugger awards. He was named to 15 All-star teams and finished his brilliant career with a lifetime .338 batting average and 3,141 hits.

In fact, the only time he ever hit below .300 was in 1982, his rookie season, when he hit .289 in 54 games as a 22- year old neophyte. After that, he ran off 19 consecutive years above the .300 line. In his final season, 2001, he battled weight issues and cranky knees but still managed to hit .324 as a 41-year old pinch hitter. It was as if the baseball gods simply wouldn’t let a hitter of his magnitude and remarkable skill fade below the mark that defines hitting excellence, even as his body was failing him.

Gwynn Swing

Not that his batting prowess was owed to some sort of cosmic serendipity. Gwynn painstakingly made himself a great hitter, maximizing his athletic potential through patience, study, and physical repetition.

Long before iPads and smart phones brought HD video at our collective beck-and-call, Gywnn immersed himself in the relatively primitive visual technology of the day, lugging a bulky VCR and stacks of video cassettes with him on the road. However, by studying his swing endlessly and dissecting the smallest details, he shaped it and refined it and shaped it some more – like an architect coaxing a sleek structure from a paper sketch.

Gwynn Swing Drawing

That meticulous attention to hitting served as the connective source between Gwynn and Williams, because the two seemed to have little in common other than that. After all, Williams made his big league debut 21 years before Gywnn was even born and served in combat duty during two American wars while Gwynn spent nearly the entirety of his baseball life in peace time.

Williams was aggressive and prone to argument and confrontation; Gwynn was calm and gregarious, more likely to shake a hand than slap it away. And they came from different generations in life and different eras of baseball. Yet, the two men knew better than nearly everyone else in the world the how difficult it was to hit a baseball in the big leagues and how few people had ever done it better than they had.

Williams was the last player to hit .400 in a full big league season, reaching the rather impressive figure of .406 in 1941. Gwynn nearly joined him 53 years later, when he hit .394 in the strike-shortened season of 1994. And Williams, who was especially guarded about those he allowed to get close to him, felt a kinship with other great hitters. Considering his resume – 521 career home runs and a lifetime .344 batting average – that distinction was an exclusive one, indeed.

Williams Swing

However, Williams developed a special rapport with Gwynn. Whether it was due to the younger player’s excellence at the plate or Gwynn’s endless study of hitting or simply his eternally sunny disposition, Williams gravitated to him like no other player from the current generation. And the same could be said of Gwynn’s affinity for Williams. He revered the legendary slugger and sought his advice on hitting whenever he could.

That mutual respect was never more apparent than during a stretch between the summer of 1999 and winter of 2000. At the 1999 All-star Game at Fenway Park, Williams – whose health was deteriorating quickly – made what turned out to be one of his last big public appearances. As he readied himself to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, Williams had Gwynn steady his shoulder for support while he made the throw.

FILE PHOTO OF BASEBALL LEGEND TED WILLIAMS ALONGSIDE CONTEMPORARY STARS GWYNN AND MCGWIRE

Given Ted Williams’ enormous pride, allowing such a moment of vulnerability on such a public stage must have been incredibly difficult. That he allowed Tony Gwynn not only to be a part of that moment but to be the one who provided strength and stability was as powerful a statement as he could make about his admiration for Gwynn as a person.

The following year, Gwynn authored a book, “The Art of Hitting”, and had Williams provide the foreword. Gwynn’s book, likely an homage to Williams’ classic manual on batting, “The Science of Hitting”, was the student’s study of the art form. The forward was the teacher’s much coveted endorsement.

The two men also had geography as a common tie. Although Williams was most immediately associated with Boston due to his famed exploits with the Red Sox, he was born in San Diego and got his first professional break there as a member of the city’s Pacific Coast League team in 1936. Gwynn, of course, became such a San Diego icon that he will be forever linked to the place.

Before his Major League glory, Gwynn was a star basketball and baseball player at San Diego State University. In fact, he was so talented on the basketball court that he set the school’s assist record. In retrospect, it was fitting for a man who would become renowned for his generosity to have an official entry in the record books for the number of times he helped others.

Gwynn Basketball

As a member of the San Diego Padres, he quickly became the face of the franchise. If there were others made famous by their association with the team, Gwynn’s overwhelming popularity engulfed them. For the twenty seasons he played in the uniform, no one ever thought of anyone else when they thought of the Padres.

Even though he went from a sleek, base stealing speedster – in one four-year stretch, he swiped 159 of them – to rotund veteran playing on wobbly knees, he never lost the two things for which he will always be remembered: that crisp, compact swing and a smile that made an entire city feel good about itself.

The swing, tuned like a Stradivarius over the years, seemed equal parts hard physics, mechanical brilliance, and minor magic. Gwynn was so skilled with the bat that it looked like he actually caught the ball on the surface of the barrel – like a lacrosse player cradling a ball in the pocket of his stick – and then flicked it to an open patch of grass.

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies

As for the smile, it was the signature for one of the game’s most gracious personalities. Reporters marveled at his accessibility and insight, while fans delighted in the homespun delivery. There was never anything pretentious or demeaning about the things he said or the way he said them. He spoke honestly and personably but used humor and wit to make sure the message was available to all – he always made sure to let everyone in on the joke.

Because of his easy relationship with the media, which bordered on adoration, the press could never quite reconcile his friendship with Bonds – the ultimate villain in the eyes of most reporters. Bonds rarely let anyone in on the joke, because he rarely joked – at least with the media. He was adversarial with the pundits and highly guarded around most everyone else, not unlike Ted Williams.

However, like Williams, Bonds had a special rapport with Gwynn. Perhaps, it was their shared greatness as hitters but also maybe because they shared the same race and the same challenges of contemporary fame. And, maybe, just maybe, Gwynn saw something in Bonds that others had stopped looking for – or more likely – had never bothered to search for at all.

Baseball - 1994 All-Star Game - Barry Bonds

The rest of the world saw Bonds in a black hat, and that was pretty much that.

To his credit, Gwynn recognized that Bonds was a much more complicated person than cartoon bad guy. He once urged Bonds to soften his image a little, to be less abrasive to the media. In other words, Gwynn wanted Bonds to let everyone else see the guy who became one of his best friends in the game. But Bonds couldn’t do it. He needed the edge he got from all of that negative energy.

If Gwynn thrived by charming people and making them laugh, Bonds fed his competitive fire by getting people to root against him. And in the 16 seasons their careers overlapped, they were the best hitters in the game – by a fairly wide margin.

In fact, the year Gwynn rode off into the big league sunset – 2001 – Bonds hit 73 home runs in just 476 at bats (roughly a home run every 6.5 at bats). Three years later, he drew 232 walks, 120 of the intentional variety. Pitchers weren’t just afraid of Bonds, they were scared to even compete against him anymore.

Bonds Walk

In 2007, Bonds, playing in his final season, passed Hank Aaron as the All-time Major League home run leader. And all hell broke loose.

The whispers of Bonds cheating via PED’s weren’t really whispers anymore. They were loud, angry voices and self-righteous finger points. All of the negative publicity Bonds had accumulated over the years manifested itself into the fervor – perhaps, leaning towards bloodlust – of wanting to see him publicly humiliated as a cheat.

While the baseball world collectively rung its hands every time Bonds reached a home run milestone and argued endlessly over the morality – or lack thereof – of it all, Gwynn, in typical Gwynn fashion, refrained.  What he said on more than one occasion with regard to Bonds and his other worldly hitting prowess was that it was the approach that impressed Gwynn the most, not the results. Everyone else obsessed over the muscle; Gwynn marveled at the technique.

As with much else in his life, Gwynn was calm and thoughtful in his professional assessment of Bonds – one of the very few who weighed in on the matter that stayed clear of the chaos and media clutter. As for his friendship with Bonds, it remained intact, because, among his many virtues, Gwynn was incredibly loyal.

That loyal nature, in large part, made Gwynn such a beloved figure in San Diego. Once he set his roots there, he simply refused to leave. Despite the lure of more money and more national fame elsewhere, Gwynn repeatedly signed team-friendly deals with the Padres. In an age of professional sports where players and owners operated – and continue to operate – under a mercenary code, Gwynn chose a place over a paycheck. And the good people of San Diego loved him for it.

Gwynn Tip Cap

Not only was Gwynn an enduring part of the team, he was as big a part of the community. Although he never sought recognition for his public generosity, he earned baseball’s three highest humanitarian accolades – the Branch Rickey Award in 1995, the Lou Gehrig Award in 1998, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 1999. All three awards focused on celebrating the depth and breadth of community giving by a Major League player. Not that the locals needed a trio of awards to know how good Gwynn had been to the area.

As a final ode to his adopted home, Gwynn, who was born in Los Angeles, accepted the head coaching job of the baseball program at his alma mater, San Diego State, less than a year after he retired from the big leagues. It turned out that the old point guard wasn’t quite done dishing out assists.

Even if he couldn’t play in the majors any more, he could help the next wave of aspiring big leaguers get there. Plus, he could still put a uniform on every day and walk out on a baseball diamond and feel the intoxicating energy of the game.

Gwynn Coach

As a mentor, he helped a shy, slightly awkward young pitcher named Stephen Strasburg get prepared for the media blitz that came with being the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft. There was little question that Strasburg had the pitching ability to succeed at the highest level of the game. Some even compared his extraordinary skill on the mound to Tom Seaver. It was the rest of it – the money, media, and ungodly expectations – that Strasburg wasn’t certain about.

So, Gwynn relayed his own pro experience – two decades worth as a Major League superstar – to the young man but fashioned it so that Strasburg could relate to it, could imagine himself in that spot, and how he might best deal with the possibility of big, bright athletic fame.

During the young player’s three seasons at San Diego State, Gwynn also taught Strasburg how to handle the inevitable ups and downs of the game itself. Just as he had done when evaluating Bonds’ swing, Gwynn told Strasberg that it was the approach that mattered more than the results.

Even after Strasburg left the university to pitch in the big leagues, his old college coach never lost touch. There were phone calls and personal visits. And every off season, when Strasburg held his annual 5k charity run in San Diego, Gwynn was there.

Stephen Strasburg, Tony Gwynn

For a man with as few vices as Tony Gwynn, it seemed especially cruel that the one he had the hardest time shaking might have been the one that killed him.

Baseball players chew tobacco. They just do. Perhaps, not all of them but a huge number, nonetheless. The practice has been around the game long enough that many players end up with the habit somewhere along the way. Whether or not the risk is ever fully evaluated – likely, not – the sport’s culture accepts it as part of the landscape. That said, those who chew probably know, somewhere in the back of their consciousness, that it’s a habit that could eventually turn very, very bad.

Chewing Tobacco

So, when Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2010, he was convinced that chewing tobacco had helped to put it there. Some doctors disagreed with the correlation; others wouldn’t pinpoint the origin. Whatever had caused the cancer, the fact remained that he had it, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

Treatment was arduous, relief was sparing, and, ultimately, the relentless cruelty of the disease took what was thought to be untakeable – his trademark smile. Surgery to remove a portion of malignant tumor in his cheek left Gwynn unable to use many of his facial muscles. So, for months, he couldn’t grin – not that there was much to smile about, anyway.

His medical battles forced him to take a leave of absence from San Diego State, and, for the first time in decades, the game wasn’t a part of his life. But he soldiered on, because he had to. If he ever wanted to return to the diamond and his cherished role at his alma mater, he needed to endure the needles and the radiation and the horrible physiological aftermath. Mostly, he needed to beat the disease, because he never backed down from a challenge.

He fought the cancer off two times – stopping the initial spread and beating it again when it returned in 2012. Sadly, when it came around for a third time in 2014, his body had had too much.

On June 16, 2014, Tony Gwynn died. He was 54 years old.

As legacies go, few athletes have ever left a better one than Gwynn. He was a Hall of Fame player in his chosen professional sport and a record-setting amateur in another. His athletic greatness was a fascinating blend of natural gifts, academic grit, and calculated prophecy. He was so charismatic that the press, the public, and the two most difficult figures in the history of American sports all adored him.

Gwynn Sign

He loved the city for which he played for twenty seasons so much that he stayed there after his playing days just so he could teach a new generation of players about baseball and San Diego, all at the same time. And his charity didn’t stop at the gates of the ballpark. He and his wife, Alicia, not only gave money to help the community, they gave their time – hours and hours of it.

At home, his son, Tony Jr., was proud to call his father his best friend and followed his footsteps all the way to the big leagues. Alicia was his high school sweetheart and never left his side – through the glory of his playing days and his utterly bitter fight with cancer.

Perhaps, the most amazing thing about Gwynn’s legacy ,though, is for all of the eye-popping baseball statistics, on-field brilliance, countless friendships, charitable generosity, and personal courage, the one thing that remains in most people’s minds when they think of Gywnn is, maybe, the most simple thing – his smile. His everyday joy was at the core of what he was all about.

Gwynn Smile2

So, no, Leo Durocher, nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes, they finish way ahead of the rest of us. And we can thank Tony Gwynn and the grand way that he led his life for proving you wrong.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gwynnto01.shtml

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Tony_Gwynn.aspx

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2014/06/16/tony-gwynn-dies-appreciation-barry-bonds/10647275/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bondsba01.shtml

http://static.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/gwynn/1364950.html

http://www.csnwashington.com/baseball-washington-nationals/talk/stephen-strasburg-reflects-mentor-tony-gwynn

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/hall-famer-gwynn-dead-54-article-1.1831442

http://drmirkin.com/histories-and-mysteries/tony-gwynn-mr-padre-dead-at-54.html

Images:

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http://www.beabetterhitter.com/text/fundamentals/sweetswing/images/TedWilliams.jpg

http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2014/gwynn_williams.jpg

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A Crowning Achievement

It is the one crown in baseball that gets the least amount of use.

The figurative garland bestowed upon a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s in the same season – the much ballyhooed Triple Crown – has only been worn by a dozen Major League hitters since 1900.

The most recent honoree, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, earned the distinction this season as he led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title.  Cabrera, a seven-time All-Star, solidified his place as one of the premier hitters in the sport by clubbing 44 home runs, batting .330, and driving in 139 runs – besting all other players in the American League in each category.

In the buildup to Cabrera’s 2012 ascent to the throne, the difficulty of the task was underscored merely by citing the last instance of such triangular excellence.  Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski was the last player before Cabrera to wear the Triple Crown, and Yaz had achieved the rarity in 1967 – a reign of 45 years before the regal headwear was handed to a new recipient.

As baseball rightly lauds the new king, his predecessor merits a linger in the limelight before he cedes it entirely.  So, Yastrzemski’s magical run to his triumphant thrice deserves another look.

1967 is lovingly referred to by Red Sox partisans as the “Impossible Dream” season.  The year before Boston finished next to last, twenty-six full games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.  So, little was expected of the team in 1967.  In fact, the Red Sox hadn’t finished higher than third in over twenty years.

Even mediocrity was a longshot; triumph lunacy.  However, Boston’s best player was hardly free from lofty expectations.

Carl Yastrzemski had earned the team’s starting left field job in 1961, stepping into a pair of the biggest footsteps in baseball history.

Ted Williams was larger than life, a genuinely heroic figure – on and off the field.  Williams was a Marine fighter pilot, a baseball icon who had willingly stepped away from the sport to fight in two wars, and a champion for minority players who had never received the opportunities he felt they deserved.  And his personality seemed to be guided by the furies.  He was cantankerous and profane but also generous and fiercely loyal, rarely doing anything in life at less than loud acceleration.

He was also the greatest player in the storied history of one of baseball’s most venerable franchises.  Williams, who retired in 1960 after nineteen extraordinary seasons with the Red Sox, owned virtually all of Boston’s hitting records and capped his remarkable career with one of the most lasting farewells in the game.

In his final at-bat of his last game, Williams hit a towering home run into the right field stands – the perfect baseball goodbye.  With that, the man with 521 career homers, six batting titles, and two Triple Crowns of his own, circled the bases one last time and left the diamond for good.  His daunting legacy promised to swallow the poor fellow who assumed his spot in the Red Sox lineup.

That unenviable task fell on a rookie from Southampton, New York with a tongue-spraining Polish surname.

Yastrzemski lacked the panache of the home run hitting war hero.  He was reserved and difficult to read.  On the field, he played well but could not equal Williams’ herculean stats – few mortals ever could.  And a passionate fan base starving for success had yet another reason for displeasure.

The kid with the funny name wasn’t an acceptable substitute for their brash record setting virtuoso.  But he was the best they had.  It just wasn’t good enough for most of them.

Although Yastrzemski had won a batting title and made three All-Star teams entering the 1967 season, he was still cast firmly in Williams’ considerable shadow, and the team limped along, vainly waiting for a transformational player to lead them out of the doldrums.

As it turned out, Yastrzemski was such a transformative force.  He had needed only to mature into that role, and in 1967, he fully displayed his considerable potential.  Flanked by a hard-hitting 22-year-old from nearby Revere, Tony Conigliaro, Yastrzemski led the Red Sox on an unlikely surge up the American League standings.  By August, Boston had closed to within three games of first.

Yastrzemski who had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, already had 26 by August 1.  Later that month, in one of the game’s most frightening episodes, Conigliaro was lost for the season after he was hit in the face with a pitch.

Without the talented young right fielder to help him, Yastrzemski single-handedly carried the Red Sox to the American League pennant.

Over Boston’s final 44 games – from the day after Conigliaro was injured – the man now affectionately known as “Yaz” hit .344 with 15 homers and 38 RBI’s.  As an exclamation, with the Red Sox needing to win the last two games of the season against the Minnesota Twins to take first, Yaz had seven hits in eight at bats and drove in six runs – including two in the season finale to help Boston come from behind and take the title.  It was the first American League championship that the Red Sox had won since 1946.

When it was over, Yastrzemski had finished the year with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI’s – all career highs and all either tied for or exclusively in the league lead,  He had finally proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams and had a Triple Crown of achievement to prove it.

Although the Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yaz didn’t disappoint in that ultimate showcase, either.  He hit an even .400 with three homers and five RBI’s in the seven-game series, bringing Boston within an eyelash of baseball’s biggest prize.

Yastrzemski went on to play sixteen more big league seasons and finished his brilliant career with more than 3,400 hits, 452 home runs, and seven Gold Glove awards.  As such, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  The skinny kid with the odd name turned out to be every bit as good as Red Sox fans could have hoped.

So, while Miguel Cabrera deserves all of the accolades given to him as baseball’s newest Triple Crown winner, a former crown bearer who lifted an underdog to unlikely heights and allowed all of New England to dream for an entire season merits another bow in the spotlight as well.

Sources:
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/aw_triph.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/yastrca01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=yastrca01&t=b&year=1967
http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1967_WS.shtml

Photos:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/10/02/miguel-cabrera-triple-crown-best-season/miguel-cabrera-usp2.jpg
http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0819/mlb_g_yastrzemski_200.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/641/830/carl_yastrzemski_mvp_display_image.jpg?1349203197
http://www.veteranstoday.com/story_images/ted_williams.jpg
http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/ted-williams-0209-lg.jpg
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm
http://blog.mitchellandness.com/image.axd?picture=2012%2F8%2F136887266.jpg

Videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_St0-1sGh0Y

A Killer and a Gentleman – The Life and Legacy of Harmon Killebrew

Though Shakespeare may have disagreed, there can, indeed, be something in a name. Then, again, as the great bard so duly noted, other designations are merely labels and fail to capture the essence of its subject.

In baseball, for example, a nickname sometimes fits a player so perfectly that the mere mention of it – the Iron Horse, Joltin’ Joe, Hammerin’ Hank – instantly recalls memories and images of him, because the nickname itself has such a significant correlation to a defining characteristic of his game. Thus, as above, one moniker recalls Lou Gehrig’s athletic endurance. Another distills Joe DiMaggio’s slashing hitting style. And yet another captures Hank Aaron’s thunderous home run swing.

Yet, still other nicknames offer an interesting dichotomy. They are simultaneously fitting and misleading. Perhaps, there has never been a clearer example of this than the man they called “Killer.”

Harmon Killebrew was unquestionably a killer at the plate. He certainly looked the part – barrel-chested with thickly-muscled arms and legs the diameter of telephone poles. He swung the bat with such ferocity that when he made contact there was a momentary expectation that the ball might actually wail, bringing brand new meaning to the concept of a screaming line drive. And that swing carried its own ominous kinetic energy, power and fury slicing through the hitting zone with such intensity that a ripple of displacement followed as it mercilessly honed in on an object to punish.

And when that pent-up energy collided with a baseball, the results were explosive. Killebrew reached a rare pantheon for power hitters – the 500-500 club, with memberships given to players with 500 career homers and a 500-foot blast included among those round-trippers. Killebrew’s career total of 573 satisfied the first part, and a mammoth 522-foot blast off of Lew Burdette in 1967 satisfied the other. He was the stick of dynamite in the middle of the order for the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins for a baker’s dozen of years and was prolific enough in that span to be named to eleven All-star teams.

In fact, the big man with the even bigger home run cut predicated his game entirely on that uncompromising swing. There were no short-armed, opposite field adjustments for him in the box. There was no yield in his basic hitting philosophy, no matter the count – swing hard or don’t swing at all. However, this hard nosed approach was not borne of stubbornness or selfishness. Rather, it could be argued that just the opposite was true. He geared his game so heavily towards the power aspect, not for personal glory, but because that was always his job. Others got on base in any manner possible, and it was Killebrew’s assignment to drive them in. In his eyes, the most expedient way to do so was to hit the ball as hard and as far as he could.

However, his batting average suffered by adopting this approach. His eye at the plate was discerning enough to allow him to lead the AL in walks four times (and finish with over 100 walks in a season seven times), which suggests the potential for a more robust batting mark. However, his bone rattling swing simply wouldn’t allow it, and his average dipped below .250 in seven seasons. In fact, his .256 career batting average ended up being the biggest road block on his way to Cooperstown. It took four years of voting before the 1969 AL MVP and six-time American League home run champ received enough tallies to be elected to the Hall of Fame. However, the Killer did, indeed, receive his bronze plaque and took his place among the other immortals of the game.

Although “Killer” also had phonetic symmetry with his surname, the nickname was entirely at odds with Harmon Killebrew’s genial demeanor and outlook on life. He befriended rookies the moment they stepped into the locker room and treated them with the courtesy and respect of long-time veterans. In fact, this uncommon compassion extended to everyone from the batboys to opponents to fans alike. Despite his status as the resident superstar and leader for virtually every team on which he ever played, he never let celebrity trump his humility.

Upon reflecting on his playing career he said simply,”I loved putting on a major league uniform and going out on the field every day.” Notably, there’s no mention of his place among the true greats of the game, of a career that spanned over two decades as one of the most feared sluggers on the planet. He never needed that kind of notoriety from baseball. The simple act of putting on his uniform was enough.

Conversely, what he gave back to the game never seemed to be enough for him. Yet, it was an equation that was a constant in his life. He always gave much more than he ever took.

On the field, he played the game with a respect, bordering on reverence, which garnered the admiration of both teammates and opponents. There were no self-aggrandizing displays, no tantrums in the dugout, no surly disdain for reporters. Though there was no mistaking his intensity and fierce competitive spirit, he had the rare ability to channel it directly into his game without any vitriolic runoff splashing those around him. More than anything, he understood that playing ability was important but that character counted as much or more.

After his playing days were over, he remained connected to the Twins, offering encouragement and optimism to the next wave of players flowing through the organization. Current Minnesota superstars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau considered Killebrew not only a baseball mentor but an off-the-field role model as well. Outfielder Denard Span recalled Killebrew’s frequent visits to the team’s Spring Training facilities, “He’d only say positive things like you’re doing good, keep working, keep battling and just keep believing. It was always words of encouragement when he was around.”

However, the lone exception to this support took the form of scolding players for what he perceived to be sloppy autographs for fans. Killebrew’s own signature was nearly a work of art.  If fans wanted his autograph as a keepsake, he felt that the least he could do was to make such a memento as aesthetically pleasing as possible. So, when he saw a player distribute something akin to a random scribble, he made sure to let that player know such a dismissive gesture, whether intended or not, was simply not acceptable.

As for extending a far greater level of consideration to others, he and his wife, Nita, set up the Harmon Killebrew Foundation, which helped to raise funds for charities across the country, specifically focusing on children and the game he cherished.

Though for all of his kindness and selflessness, he received devastating news in December, 2010. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. By May, the disease had not responded to treatment, and he made the difficult decision to decline any further treatment and entered hospice care. The man whose quiet strength and dignity had served as an inspiration to so many made one last gesture to underscore his great humanity. In a statement issued to announce his agonizing decision, he once again demonstrated remarkable gentleness and found a way to thank others even in his most heartbreaking moment:

“It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end. With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.

I have spent the past decade of my life promoting hospice care and educating people on its benefits. I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides.

I am comforted by the fact that I am surrounded by my family and friends. I thank you for the outpouring of concern, prayers and encouragement that you have shown me. I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with Nita by my side.”

Less than a week later, he was gone.

However, Harmon Killebrew’s legacy resonates not only because he was the “Killer” who crushed 573 home runs during a Hall of Fame career but rather more as the gentle soul who mentored others on the game he loved and the life he loved even more. He will be remembered as the superstar who utilized his celebrity to bring people closer rather than an excuse to push them away. Mostly, he was the kindhearted farm boy from Payette, Idaho who cherished the opportunity to wear a big league uniform and who always gave more than he received.

So, maybe, Shakespeare had it right, after all. Sometimes, a name is just a hallow label. In Harmon Killebrew’s case, any such label could not possibly capture the depth and breadth of his influential and honorable life. Instead, it is more appropriate that his memory be defined by the richness of character he insisted take precedent over the transitory nature of sports celebrity. It’s a sense of priority that others might do well to aspire to emulate, because the Killer was also one of the great gentlemen baseball has ever known.

Sources:

http://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/news/2011/05/17/killebrews-red-bleacher-seat.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/killeha01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/allstar/bat-register.shtml

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110513&content_id=19031664&vkey=news_min&c_id=min

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110513&content_id=19018148&vkey=news_min&c_id=min

http://baseballhall.org/news/press-releases/national-baseball-hall-fame-and-minnesota-twins-remember-harmon-killebrew

http://www.harmonkillebrewfoundation.org

http://minnesota.twins.mlb.com/news/press_releases/press_release.jsp?ymd=20110513&content_id=19005846&fext=.jsp&c_id=min&vkey=pr_min

Photo:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-aYcEr293h0A/Tc_F1SE4YXI/AAAAAAAAjWM/dqmkkAnvCAA/s1600/3752369652_06ce0c10fc_o.jpg

http://assets.nydailynews.com/img/2011/05/14/420×316-alg_harmon-killebrew-hug.jpg

http://aarongleeman.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/harmon-killebrew.gif

http://www.newbaseballautographs.info/wp-content/uploads/Harmon%20Killebrew%20Autographed%20Baseball.jpg

Indian Summers – Baseball’s Uneasy History with Native Americans

Apparently, Chief Wahoo was all part of some elaborate homage to Native Americans by professional baseball.

 Or maybe not.

As legend has it, the Cleveland Indians’ moniker was intended as a tribute to one of the team’s earliest stars, a fleet footed outfielder named Louis Sockalexis from the Native American Penobscot tribe. If true, it would have marked the first and, perhaps, only time Major League Baseball ever did anything as a legitimate tribute to Native Americans.

The trouble with legend is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to parse truth from hyperbole – or, in this case, the likely possibility of revisionist history trying to justify an embarrassing past. Besides, taken at face value, the decision to name a team after someone who played exactly 94 games for the franchise over three injury-plagued seasons (1897-1899) seems remote, at best. Add to that the fact the player in question was a person of color, the context of the times didn’t overflow with progressive thinking, and the name change occurred 16 years after his final game with the team, and remote morphs into nearly impossible very quickly. And, if any tribute was, in fact, proffered, the later appearance of Chief Wahoo as the team’s symbol to the rest of the world would have been one of the most curious (and worst) ways to further “honor” Sockalexis.

It’s sad, though, because not only was Louis Sockalexis a remarkable athlete and worthy of our collective remembrance but also because baseball has done appallingly little to discourage our worst stereotypes about Native Americans. In fact, the argument could be made that baseball’s indifference to the ongoing public ridicule of this very distinct group encourages these patronizing generalizations to thrive. It is 2011, and foam tomahawks still wave in Atlanta accompanied by a cartoonish “war chant”, while Chief Wahoo still presides in Cleveland, his outlandish features only slightly softened from earlier incarnations where he appeared little more than a reddish court jester.

However, what the ridiculous chant in Atlanta muffles and Chief Wahoo’s toothy grin obscures are the true voices and images of actual Native American ballplayers and their place in the history of the game.

More than that, they obscure the richness of Native American culture and tradition, as a whole, by reducing it to ridiculous fodder for our general amusement. Certainly, there are those who maintain that such patronizing portraits are harmless and are not intended to offend. However, such a defense conveniently ignores the larger historical context. Native American tribes were driven nearly to extinction through bloody conflict, isolation, cultural ignorance, and callous indifference by the U.S. government. These were not random events with unfortunate results, either. The government had a well-organized plan to rid the country of the “Indian problem.” Intent, in this case, means everything.

So, what, then, does Chief Wahoo have to do with these life-and-death struggles? Of course, on one level, nothing. There are undeniably far greater troubles, past and present, with far more serious consequences to tribes across the country than an insulting mascot for a baseball team. However, lesser problems do not simply vanish, because larger ones exist.

Thus, what may seem like harmless fun at the ballpark should be placed in proper context, namely the long history of forced hardship on Native Americans in this country. However, people will do what they do, and if that means socially indifferent and historically ignorant fans want to swing toy war instruments and bellow a fake war cry thinking it’s cool, so be it. Like wise, Chief Wahoo will still be embraced as though he were just another lovable, harmless cartoon character bearing no likeness to the sacred ancestry of others.

Given the unlikelihood of change on that front, some amount of balance seems in order, which in this case means contrasting simplistic stereotypes with authenticity.   And there’s no better way to do this than by telling the actual stories of Native Americans who reached the highest level of the sport.   So, going back to the beginning seems the most appropriate place to do that.

Louis Francis Sockalexis was a flash of lightning, literally and figuratively. He had the speed of a track star, the agility and toughness of a record-breaking halfback on the gridiron, and the skill and remarkable hand-eye coordination on the baseball diamond to become a fearsome hitter. He was, indeed, a bolt of lightning on the athletic field – powerful, blindingly fast, and impossible to ignore.

Figuratively, he was also blinding but fleeting in the public consciousness. At every athletic stop, he inspired amazement but lingered just briefly before leaving only vapor and memory. Those who watched him wanted more, but it never came. Through circumstance and mishap, he concurrently inspired delight and evoked regret. In college, at Holy Cross, he hit a blistering .444 in 1895, the last of two seasons he spent on campus. He also starred on the school’s first football squad later that fall, and once, while running track, reportedly won five events in a single meet. But no matter how fast he ran or how skillfully he outmaneuvered opponents on the field he could not elude his personal demons off of it.

A transfer from Holy Cross to Notre Dame in 1896 lasted only weeks before he was expelled for what would be the beginning of a long, regrettable series of alcohol-fueled troubles. Leaving amateur athletics behind for good, Sockalexis signed a professional baseball contract with the Cleveland Spiders in March, 1897. A month later, he was the team’s starting right fielder and displayed the impressive array of skills over which so many had marveled during his collegiate career. After 20 games with the Spiders, he was hitting .377 and became a true drawing card wherever the team went.

However, his demons simply would not let him fulfill his athletic promise. Remember, that Sockalexis became a public figure at a time just a handful of years removed from some of the most violent conflicts between U.S soldiers and tribal warriors and in a place not far from the plains where that fighting occurred. Certainly, a goodly portion of the crowds in front of which he played would have remembered all of that, and many surely would not let the lean, Penobscot right fielder forget it. So, whether he drank because he reveled in the effects of the liquor or because addiction demanded it or because the racial jeers on the field and his social isolation off of it pushed him toward it, his drinking took over everything in his life. Like so many who try to find comfort in alcohol, he crawled into a bottle and never found his way back out.

In July of that season, his promise died.

A serious alcohol-related injury simultaneously sidelined him from the playing field and exposed his excessive drinking to the public. He was never the same player again. He played only sparingly the rest of the year in 1897, finishing the season with a still-robust .338 average and 16 stolen bases in 66 games. Over the next two years, though, he played in only 28 more games before the bottle finally chased him off the field for good. For some, Sockalexis’ fall merely reinforced the image of the drunken Indian unprepared and unwilling to live productively in mainstream American society. (Certainly, Sockalexis was not the first professional athlete whose self-destructive behavior shortened his career, nor would he be the last. So, his ethnicity should hardly be faulted.) Others viewed his early exit from the game as yet another sad chapter in the book of wasted potential.

Given all of that, the glow of his brief career was bright enough to have many openly wonder not whether he would have achieved greatness but to what degree it would have been forged. Among his admirers was Hall of Fame shortstop Hughie Jennings.  As Jennings put it, “”Yes, he might have been the greatest player of all time. He had a wonderful instinct and no man seemed to have so many natural gifts as Sockalexis.” And that came from a man who was Ty Cobb’s manager for 14 years. For a player who appeared in fewer than 100 professional games, it’s a rather remarkable legacy. Also, by becoming the first Native American ballplayer to leave his mark on the game, he helped create the foundation for other tribal players who would follow him into the big leagues.

Among those were two of the greatest players of Native American extraction to ever take the field, Charles Bender and John Meyers. Bender, a Chippawa from Minnesota, became one of the more celebrated members of Connie Mack’s string of outstanding Philadelphia A’s teams in the 1900’s and 1910’s. An imposing right-handed pitcher with impeccable control and uncommon savvy on the mound, Bender pitched for 16 seasons, winning nearly two-thirds of his games, and finished his brilliant career with 212 wins and a 2.46 ERA. In his greatest season, 1910, he went 23-5 (an .821 winning clip) with a stingy 1.58 ERA and 155 strikeouts. He capped it off by pitching a three-hitter in the opening game of 1910 World Series, which the Athletics won four games to one. In 1953, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Meyers, a member of the Cahuilla tribe from California, played nine seasons in the majors and compiled a lifetime .291 average. More than that, he was John McGraw’s primary signal caller on the New York Giants for three straight NL pennant-winning teams from 1911-1913. In particular, 1912 proved to be the pinnacle of his career. Meyers hit .358 with a career-high 6 homers (a respectable total for the “dead ball” era) that season and manned the dish while the great Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard combined to win 49 games.

Just a year before, he and Charles Bender met up in the World Series, and neither disappointed. The A’s big right-hander won two games with a sparkling 1.04 ERA to lead his team to the championship, while Meyers hit .300 for the Giants with a pair of doubles and a pair of RBI’s.

However, even with their lofty accomplishments, both men were nicknamed “Chief,” a designation less an expression of familiarity and endearment and more a dubious label. In fact, no fewer than 27 players have had the moniker placed on them over time – rather too thick a brush to capture any individual character. Sadly, most were no strangers to generalizations based solely on race, including Bender and Meyers. However, for Meyers, who studied at Dartmouth, and Bender, who studied at Dickinson College, it must have been especially grating to endure the taunts and stereotypes underestimating their intelligence.

Unfortunately, the media of the day not only participated in the name calling it stoked the flames of prejudice with patronizing efficiency. Headlines blared out that teams were “scalped” or did the “scalping” if a Native American player was involved in the action. Such players were also known to be “on the warpath” or casting spells on opponents. Newspaper cartoons distilled the insults even further, combining the disparaging terms with loaded images.

Yet, players like Bender and Meyers persevered. And more would follow.

Though he only pitched two seasons in the big leagues, Moses Yellowhorse gained as much or more notoriety after his playing days as during them. His modest resume includes a 3.93 ERA in 126 innings and a career 8-4 record. As with Louis Sockalexis years before him, Yellowhorse’s legacy rests somewhere between untapped potential and enduring imagery. In 1921, at 23 years old, he used a wicked fastball, estimated to reach the mid-90’s, to craft a 5-3 record with a 2.98 ERA for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately, he was limited to just over 48 innings that year before injuring his arm. The following season, he re-injured the arm, and that was pretty much that.

Only it wasn’t.

Yellowhorse was believed to be the first full-blood Native American player in the Major Leagues (his brethren such as Sockalexis, Bender, and Meyers were either known or thought to be of mixed blood). And he was a Pawnee through and through, eventually becoming a respected tribal elder later in life. As such, he came to symbolize so many things to so many people. Moses Yellowhorse, the ballplayer, represented athletic triumph, going from Pawnee, OK all the way to the big stage of Major League baseball. Yellowhorse, the man, whose easy smile and natural charisma gave way to a very dark period after he left the game, represented redemption.  Like Sockalexis before him, alcohol took a hold of him and maintained a steady grip for years.  Unlike Sockalexis, he simply walked away from his demons one day in order to reach a better life. Finally, Yellowhorse, the elder, represented the wisdom of age and the importance of tradition and cultural pride. Along the way, there were brilliant snippets of a colorful life, including a childhood stint in Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show, beaning the reviled Ty Cobb during an exhibition game in 1922, and having a character in the Dick Tracy comic strip bear a nearly identical name.

Of course, no discussion of Native American athletic accomplishment would be complete without mentioning Jim Thorpe. He was Leonardo in cleats. Decades before Bo knew baseball and football, Jim knew them first. A two-time collegiate All-American and eventual Hall of Famer in football, Thorpe also played Major League baseball for six seasons. Though his baseball career never matched his football greatness, he did finish with a .252 lifetime average. And long before Deion Sanders played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl at different times in his career, Thorpe played in the World Series and won a professional football championship in the same YEAR – 1917. As a curtain call on the diamond, Thorpe saved his best for last, batting .327 in his final season in 1919. His success that year prompted thoughts of what heights he might have reached in the sport had he focused more attention on it and what glory might have awaited if the lively ball period had arrived just a few years sooner.

However, an athlete, even one as phenomenal as Jim Thorpe, only has so much intensity and passion to fuel competitive drive. Asking for equal measures of greatness in both football and baseball at their highest professional levels is an unrealistic expectation. Invariably, there is a lean to one sport over the other. The caveat with Thorpe, though, was an added, extraordinary dimension that Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, or any other athlete of recent memory cannot touch. In addition to a Hall of Fame football career and a multi-year Major League baseball resume, Jim Thorpe, the proud son of the Sac and Fox nation, was also an Olympic champion. He not only won the Decathlon in 1912 – arguably the most grueling event the Games have to offer – but smashed the world record in the event so thoroughly that his mark would stand for nearly two decades.

The Olympic Decathlon champion has always been commonly referred to as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” and, perhaps, that designation never so appropriately described anyone as it did Jim Thorpe.

In the ensuing decades, a cadre of star players continued the tradition and further enhanced the impact of Native American players in the game. Johnny “Pepper” Martin from the Osage tribe was the fiery third baseman for the great St. Louis Cardinal “Gas House Gang” teams of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Martin’s frenetic play resulted in four All-star appearances, a .298 career average, and 146 steals. And he was at his best when the lights were the brightest, compiling a .418 average in World Series play en route to a pair of championships.

Bob Johnson and Rudy York, a pair of Cherokees, were prodigious sluggers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Both were seven-time All-stars and finished their respective careers with over 500 combined home runs – Johnson hit 288 homers (to go along with a .298 career average) mostly for the Philadelphia A’s, while York hit 277 round-trippers in split time with Detroit and Boston.

The 1940’s and 1950’s saw the rise of a powerful right-hander from the Muscogee tribe named Allie Reynolds. A stalwart on the great New York Yankee teams of the period, Reynolds won 182 games in 13 seasons.  He was also named to five All-star teams and went 7-2 with a 2.79 ERA in World Series play. In fact, his championship ring collection could not fit on one hand – he earned a cool half-dozen of them.

In 1966, Jack Aker, a Potowatomie, led the American League in saves with 32 to go along with a stingy 1.99 ERA. In 11 seasons spent mostly with the Kansas City A’s and New York Yankees, Aker saved 123 games with a career 3.27 ERA.

Today, the proud lineage that began with Louis Sockalexis is being carried forward by dynamic young players like Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and New York’s Joba Chamberlain.  Ellsbury, a Navajo, led the American League in steals in 2008 with 50 and again in 2009 with 70.  Chamberlain, a flame throwing right-hander from the Winnebago tribe, finished his first full season with the Yankees in 2007 with a 2.60 ERA and 118 strikeouts in just over 100 innings. In fact, in a moment that undoubtedly would have made Mose Yellowhorse grin, Chamberlain threw a pitch that clocked over 100 miles per hour – the Mach-1 of baseball – in June of that year.

Actually, there’s symmetry in seeing Chamberlain’s searing fastball as a link to the one Moses Yellowhorse threw past hitters ninety years earlier and of Louis Sockalexis flying past second and handing an invisible baton to Jacoby Ellsbury, urging him to sprint home for all of them. Although four very different young men from different places and times and tribes, the common thread of sport and culture weaves them together like the intricate stitches holding a baseball together.

The image of a crimson-tinged player on a green field holding a white baseball under gloriously blue skies is one that has bridged generations. And it should be the image that appears in the mind’s eye when thinking of Native Americans and baseball. More than that, the specific imagery of Charles Bender’s steely–eyed gaze from the mound, Pepper Martin’s ferocity on the basepaths, and John Meyers conferring with Christy Mathewson over the next pitch call should be the focus when tribal spirit infuses a ballpark.

Yet, by and large, what is the Native American experience in baseball still being reduced to? A shallow sing along and a cartoon mascot – 114 years after the Major League debut of Louis Sockalexis. Social evolution in this case hasn’t merely slowed to a crawl, it has stopped entirely.

So, a shift in the way Native Americans are acknowledged by baseball is long overdue. If not for the sake of common courtesy to a long marginalized group, then surely such a change should take place as an acknowledgment of their proud history in the game.  Charles Bender – who once outpitched the great Christy Mathewson in the World Series, John Meyers – John McGraw’s sturdy field general, Jim Thorpe – perhaps, the greatest athlete in this country’s impressive sports history, the lost promise of Sockalexis and Yellowhorse, and the latest generation of Native American players like Joba Chamberlain and Jacoby Ellsbury all deserve a symbolic tip of the cap.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, isn’t that a much more elegant way to view the relationship between Native Americans and baseball? Often, there is beauty in authenticity. The same cannot be said of unwarranted ridicule.

So, if there is still any intent to pay homage to Native Americans by baseball, it’s time to ditch the insulting caricatures and foam war instruments and replace them with the genuinely compelling history of a people and the triumph of their favorite sons in the game, even it comes a hundred years too late.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/sockach01.shtml

http://www.baseballreliquary.org/story_of_sockalexis.htm

http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=2376&pid=13350

http://research.sabr.org/journals/the-rise-and-fall-of-louis-sockalexis

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Fuller, Todd, “60 Feet Six Inches and Other Distances from Home: The (Baseball) Life of Mose YellowHorse,” Duluth, MN, Holy Cow! Press, 2002.

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/Joba_Chamberlain_pitching_in_May_2008.jpg