Since early in the 19th century baseball has mirrored American history. During the Civil War, after spending the day shooting at the enemy, soldiers would play ball in the evenings...rank didn't matter...officers played alongside enlisted men.
Nearly 100 years later, Major League Baseball became one of the first modern national institutions to break the color barrier and include black players. In the late 40s and early 50s black players from the Negro Leagues joined the previously all-white major leagues. Players like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays integrated the Major Leagues in a precursor to the Civil RIghts movement of the 60s.
But like any business, baseball has had its ups and downs...from the moral high point of Jackie Robinson entering the game...to the low point of the steroid scandals of the last two decades.
Players, too, have ranged from hero to goat. Players like Robinson, Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken Jr., are symbols of persistence and courage, while those like Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson and Pete Rose exhibit the moral failings to which humans can fall. Baseball is a human sport and has been painted with the brushstroke of humanity for good or ill.
In the last week, two of the positive role models in major league baseball have appeared in the sports news -- one who brought honor to himself after achieving a feat accomplished by only 7 other players in the sport's history and one who was honored for his achievements just months after his death.
Jim Thome Joins the 600 Club
Yesterday, Jim Thome, a 40 year old power hitter for the Minnesota Twins, became only the 8th major league player in history to reach a career total of 600 home runs.
Thome has achieved this over a 20 year career without fanfare, steroids or publicity. He did it with hard work and good, solid skills day after day, year after year. The short video of his comments after he achieved this milestone show a man who is humbled to be in the same class as players like Mays and Aaron.
How important is this? The game in which he hit home run number 600 (as well as number 599 earlier in the game) was played in Detroit. When Thome hit home run number 600 the game came to a halt and tens of thousands of Tiger fans rose in a standing ovation to this opposing team's player to honor his accomplishment.
You can see the post game interview with Thome here.
Ron Santo 1940-2010
Ron Santo, the late broadcaster/cheerleader for the Chicago Cubs and former All-Star Cub 3rd baseman, was honored with a statue outside of Wrigley Field. Santo's story was one of courage and hard work. He played his entire career with type one diabetes.
An ESPN Chicago obituary on December 5, 2010 read
Santo was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was 18. But he kept it from the team until he made his first All-Star Game in 1963, and fans didn't know about his diabetes for years after that.Melissa Isaacson, in her December 11, 2010 column, Saying Goodbye, wrote,
Santo was lauded for bringing awareness as well as millions of dollars to research for Juvenile Diabetes. But his countless private pep talks with people affected by the disease resonated just as deeply.
Santo was a diabetic, a double-amputee and a cancer patient, a symbol of courage for working at all, much less in a job that required the physical stamina of a major league broadcaster, and among those he inspired was the man was who presided over his funeral service, Holy Name's Monsignor Daniel Mayall, a fellow diabetic.
"One of my heroes," said Mayall, "while I was learning to live with the disease. … Ron was the voice of the Cubs but he was also the face of hope. … Ron was the poster boy of hope."Jeff Santo said, "He was giving a lesson on how to play third base, and he said this: 'When the ball is hit, you should always be moving forward on the ball. Never stay back on the ball and let the ball play you. You play the ball.' That's how he lived his life. He never stayed back on the ball."
Every challenge, all the adversity that came his way, he charged it like he was making a play at third base, grabbing it with his bare hand and firing it to first base.Here's a video of the unveiling...with comments from former teammates, his fellow broadcaster, and family members.