Baseball is one of the great contributions of the American culture, to the joy of living. It is truly an American invention. It exemplifies the heart of the American dream; team effort conquers all and the team is the effort of each individual in concert with the others. In the end, the individual is supreme. This concept built this nation. Baseball is one evidence that the dream works. Watching a baseball game proves we love this dream and believe in it. It refreshes us. It reaffirms our faith in the system.
Individual athletes become larger than life. They are role models for the young. We pretended to be our favorite, in those sandlot games of our youth. Yet, many criticize the young for considering "jocks" as heroes. After all, a child should emulate his father, or a great educator, or a scientist. Who are these tobacco-chewing, muscle-bound, stupid jocks to presume that they could provide a positive influence on the young of this country.
In my youth, Roy Campanella was my hero. There were others on his team whom I liked, Duke Snider, Gil Hedges, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo, Preacher Roe, Clem Labine, Joe Black, and Jr. Gilliam, all the old Brooklyn Dodgers. But Roy Campanella stood above them all.
Number 39 on his uniform. Short. Heavy. Flat nose. And all the time smiling. As a kid, I used to listen to the Dodgers games on radio. I remember the thrill when "Dutch" Holdren, a neighbor, let me watch a Dodgers game on his television. I sat frozen in my seat when Roy Campanella came to the plate to bat. I was awestruck. Here in front of me was Roy Campanella, only eight inches tall on the screen, but he looked ten feet high! He hit a home run! Wow! I went bananas! Doggedly, I hunted for his baseball card, spending every nickel on "Tops Bubble Gum". There were five baseball cards in each pack. I never found his card, but I saw that card once in another kid's collection. I held it in my hand, as one would hold a sacred religious icon. I would have traded my bike and my sister to have had that card.
Tragedy befell Roy Campanella, and I cried. I was well into my teens, but I cried. My hero from childhood days was paralyzed. He could no longer play the game. And I loved him all the more.
Years later, I have had time to reflect on hero worship. I have thought a great deal about it. The hero is a role model, of course. But a hero should exemplify some virtue that transcends his occupation. To be a hero in any culture, one must exemplify the virtues and beliefs of his culture. This is the real model any hero should strive to be. For in so doing, he bequeaths the values of his culture's religion and politics.
In baseball, we see the playing out of the American system...individuals pulling together as a team. And winning. This is what those Bums of Flatbush were to me. And still are, in my reverie. Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson did as much for racial equality as any men have ever done. Not by setting records. Not by winning a World Series. For the first time in this country that I know of, they allowed black male heroes for small white boys.
Whenever I watch a baseball game, regardless of what team it is, I think of Roy Campanella and how important he was in shaping my later views as a man. I think he was the greatest catcher who ever played the game. Wherever he is today I sincerely hope that life is good for him, because he has been good for life.
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