Very few, if any, of my boyhood heroes were of the religious variety.
Everybody I knew held tremendous affection for Billy Graham. But what I noticed about the famed evangelist was his story of the time when, as a boy, he shook hands with Babe Ruth.
He said he didn’t wash his hand for a week. I understood completely.
You see, truth be told, most of my role models wore a large glove on their hand and, when given the opportunity, hit a small white ball with an ashen bat. I grew up loving baseball and idolizing those who did it well.
Despite my disaffection for the New York Yankees, I did like their second baseman, Bobby Richardson, the 1960 World Series Most Valuable Player.
I liked Bobby because he was a Southern Baptist, and he let his faith show through. That must not have been easy for someone whose teammates included the infamously wild and raucous Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford.
Richardson’s testimony made quite an impression on an 11-year-old boy who was trying to live out his baptism – albeit, with a glove on one hand while occasionally hitting that white ball with an ashen bat.
As I got a bit older, my perspective shifted.
I remained a baseball fan, but maturity taught me that real heroes did not play a game as much as they sought to change culture and society, and make our world a better place in which to live.
I was 19 when Dion recorded the song, “Abraham, Martin and John.” It was an ode to lost heroes, for by that time we had witnessed the tragic slayings of those who refused to settle for the status quo.
It was the summer of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen that made us all realize, finally, that we were not living in Camelot.
In the spring of that year that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, I was in Little Rock, Ark., that weekend visiting with my college roommate, Clif Springer, and his family.
I recall the fear and, yes, the paranoia. We had gone to church that Sunday morning, and, as I recall, nothing was mentioned of the tragic events. That, by itself, says a great deal, I suppose.
Nevertheless, Clif’s dad cautioned us about our return to Ouachita in Arkadelphia. He gave us an alternative route through Malvern, one that would help us avoid some of the “troubled” areas of town.
While the subsequent years have sharpened within me the consequences of what happened that spring, it obviously made quite an impact on me even then, for my memory would not be so acute had I not taken such a keen notice of it.
We recently commemorated King’s birthday, while at the same time inaugurating, for the second time, an African-American president.
Such an occasion calls for reflection on what has transpired these last 45 years. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
Yet, it is obvious we still have a long way to go, considering the partisanship and anger that accompanies much of our public and private discourse these days.
Unfortunately, the wheels of human progress grind exceedingly slowly, but the more I see that as true, the more I realize how patient God must be with his human creation. That gives me a measure of hope.
For those of you who did not grow up with a glove on one hand and an ashen bat in the other, you might not have taken notice of the passing of another hero. Stan Musial died on Saturday, Jan. 19, in his beloved, adopted hometown of St. Louis.
Stan was the first hero that I can recall. Despite his notoriety as a baseball player, he was a man of faith and humility, and his approach to life and baseball made an indelible mark on me.
Though I never got to meet him or shake his hand, two of my proudest possessions bear the autograph of “Stan the Man.”
In August 1960, I went to St. Louis for a weekend series with the league-leading (and eventual World Series Champions) Pittsburgh Pirates. I sat in the right-field bleachers for the Friday and Saturday night games.
Each night, Stan hit game-winning home runs in the bottom of the ninth that sailed directly over my head and into Grand Avenue.
It’s good for a boy to have memories and heroes — even after all these years. Maybe those memories will turn into something that will truly make a positive difference.
After all, isn’t that what heroes are for?