Giving Sports Heroes a Pass on Perfection
ORLANDO, FL (Dec. 7, 2020) - The sports heroes of my youth were not the perfect gods that I imagined them to be. Turns out, they were like the rest of us -- flawed human beings.
The fantasy of my heroes being larger than life and incapable of doing wrong was mothballed long ago, besides other vestiges of my childhood – like a baseball bat and glove, baseball cards, comic books, toy soldiers, cap pistols, and TV-show-themed lunchboxes.
I do not recall the exact moment or reason for that epiphany, only that I no longer looked at my favorite players through the rose-colored prism of youthful naiveté. It’s like when each of us first realizes that our dad is not perfect. It isn’t a failure on his part, and it does not mean that we love him less. It’s just a reality of life.
That bit of self-introspection concerning sports heroes resurfaced recently while reflecting on this year in baseball. It was a tough year, and a tough time for fans that followed Major League Baseball in the 1960s and 1970s. This year, six Hall of Famers who played during those two decades passed away.
First, in April, it was outfielder Al Kaline. Then, over a seven-week period from Aug. 31 through Oct. 11 five other greats died: left-hander Whitey Ford, right-handers Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver, outfielder Lou Brock, and second baseman Joe Morgan.
It brought to mind the lyrics to the classic song, Rock and Roll Heaven by The Righteous Brothers in 1974:
If you believe in forever
Then life is just a one-night stand
If there’s a rock and roll heaven
Well you know they’ve got a hell of a band
Well, if there’s a baseball heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a team. Those six players alone form a potent top three in a lineup, and three-fifths of a dominant starting rotation. I’d take my chances with any team that included those six.
The First Assignment
News of the passing of one’s heroes always is unsettling. The sad news about Gibson, in particular, took me back to one – very brief -- encounter that I had with the Hall of Fame right-hander early in my career as a sportswriter. Chuck Foulke, the sports editor at the Suburban Journal Newspapers in St. Louis, where I worked part-time while attending college, had assigned me to write a story on Gibson.
It was the summer of 1971 and Gibson was on the downside of his 17-year, Hall of Fame career. He won 16 games that year and 19 the next, but was a sub-.500 pitcher the following three seasons before retiring in 1975.
“Gibson is scheduled to pitch Saturday. I’ve got your press credentials set up for that game. You can pick them up at the stadium,” Foulke told me.
I was excited. It would be my first story on the Cardinals and MLB. Drawing that first assignment to write about your hometown team is a big deal for a young writer.
That day, well before game time, I walked into the Cardinals’ locker room, saw Gibson facing the wall at his locker, and tentatively approached the pitcher. “Excuse me, Mr. Gibson. I’m Dennis Richardson with the Suburban Journal Newspapers, and I’d like to ask you a couple questions, please,” trying to sound as calm and confident as possible, while hiding all my nervous energy.
My request was met with total silence. I waited a few more seconds, and said, “Mr. Gibson, do you have time for a couple questions, please?”
Again, complete silence. But, then he turned around and fixed me with a glare that could only be described as absolute, utter contempt. You know the saying, “his look shot daggers”? Well, these were not daggers; these were nuclear-tipped missiles capable of complete annihilation of an entire continent.
The message was clear, “Get lost. Leave now, and don’t return. You are trespassing on my territory and time.” I had read stories about how Gibson could be intimidating to opposing hitters. Apparently that applied to writers, too – at least this one anyway.
Over the ensuing years in my journalism career, I dealt with a number of people who made little effort to hide their disdain for writers and their questions. You learn that it comes with the territory. But, never would I experience a reaction so stark, so venomous as Gibson’s glare.
As I dejectedly retreated from Gibson’s space, a player whose locker was nearby, and had witnessed – perhaps even anticipated -- the one-way exchange, called me over. He said, “Hey, kid, don’t take it personally. Gibby doesn’t talk to anybody (before the game) the day he pitches. He doesn’t even talk to us.”
We spoke for a few moments, and I got some comments from him and a couple other Cardinals for what would become a story on what it was like playing with a future Hall of Famer, and what in their opinions made him one of the game’s best. I added a little about the game Gibson pitched that day.
The following Monday I went to the newspaper office, and turned in my copy. I apologized to Foulke for the story not being what he wanted. “I couldn’t get Gibson to talk.”
“That’s OK. I’d have been shocked if you did,” Foulke replied. “I knew Gibson doesn’t talk to writers before the game when he’s pitching. I just wanted you to see this part of the job.”
He explained that the real purpose of this assignment was to teach me that while sports writing might be my dream job, it is work, and the players not always accommodating or even civil. “These guys are just like the rest of us; they have their faults and quirks.”
One of Best Books of All Time
That last sentence pretty much was the undercurrent of former New York Yankees’ pitcher Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, released in 1970. It is a literary classic, good enough that in 2011 Time Magazine included it on the magazine’s list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time – that’s all non-fiction books, not just sports books. In 2002, Sports Illustrated ranked it third on its list of the 100 top sports books ever. That’s pretty high praise.
Ball Four also is one of my favorite books. I bought a copy immediately after it came out. When it became so worn and faded over time, I bought a reprint three or four years ago. I still take it off my bookshelf every now and then, and read a few chapters. It is as enjoyable and entertaining as it was 50 years ago.
To say that the book was not well received within baseball circles when it was published is a colossal understatement. The Major League Baseball commissioner at that time, Bowie Kuhn, tried to get the book banned, calling it detrimental to baseball. Bouton, who passed away in 2019, was ostracized and vilified by his own teammates, many players from around the major leagues, the baseball establishment, and many sportswriters.
The book dealt with the 1969 season, when Bouton played for the expansion Seattle Pilots, and in his years with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. It also dealt with Bouton’s struggle to resurrect his career (he had won 21 games with the Yankees in 1963) with what many baseball people thought was a gimmick pitch -- a knuckleball.
Bouton was not the first to write such a book. Jim Brosnan, another MLB pitcher turned writer, penned The Long Season, about his season with the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds in 1959; and Pennant Race, a memoir about the Reds’ championship season two years later. But those books did not receive nearly the pushback that Ball Four encountered.
Bouton also wrote, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, the following year, dealing with all the reaction he received from Ball Four.
So, why the adverse reaction to Bouton’s first book? A lot of the negativity had to do with its reporting of players’ infidelity, drinking and carousing, and the players’ use of amphetamines.
Many people in baseball felt that Bouton had betrayed the old baseball clubhouse code, “What you see here, what you say here, what you do here, let it stay here.” It was MLB’s version of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” long before the Las Vegas tourism board came up with that slogan.
The book cast aside the idyllic notion of professional baseball players retiring to their homes or hotel rooms after games, to relax with a good book and a glass of warm milk. It showed them for what they really are – human beings with shortcomings, foibles, dreams, and aspirations. It was a side of the players that the media had danced around or turned a blind eye to for years.
Never mind that the book gave a good and interesting account of a journeyman pitcher trying to revitalize his career. The critics clamped onto the more racy elements of Ball Four with a vise grip.
The book’s biggest sin, at least in the eyes of Major League Baseball, may have been that it showed Yankees’ great Mickey Mantle in an unfavorable light. Mantle had retired after the 1968 season, but The Mick was still baseball’s “Golden Boy”, and baseball long had circled its wagons to protect the slugger’s image.
Professional Athletes’ Responsibility?
The book is funny and irreverent. It also begged the question: Does the celebrity status of professional athletes (in the case of Ball Four, baseball players) hold them to a higher standard of behavior?
Some would argue that professional athletes are role models whether they want to be or not, because of their profession and widespread exposure. The argument is that kids are easily influenced and copy their favorite players’ behavior, and that professional athletes – with their huge followings from fans watching games, and on various social media platforms -- have a responsibility to engage in positive behavior that young people can emulate.
But, should athletes be held to a higher standard of conduct simply because of their athletic prowess, because they can run faster, throw harder, or hit a ball farther than a great majority of the people on this planet?
In a 1993 Nike commercial, NBA superstar Charles Barkley argued against that notion. “I am not a role model…Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” he said.
Barkley’s stance was that athletes are not surrogate parents, and that the parents should be the role models.
There was a time when others – such as doctors, clergy, and civic leaders -- served as America’s role models. Many still do. But, our nation’s immense appetite for sports increasingly has shifted that duty to athletes.
Should it be? While we look up to our sports heroes, they are not larger than life. They are flawed human beings like the rest of us – they just play sports a lot better. Is it fair to place that responsibility on them?
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.