Baseball’s Greatest Men
“Who were the greatest men in baseball to make the hall of fame?” Pop that question to a testosterone-laden group while watching the World Series. If the answers first given include only a bevy of stats, repeat the question and emphasize the word ‘man.’ If that doesn’t get their attention, and it usually doesn’t, you’ll have to be more obvious by saying that the question wasn’t the best player, but the best man. You may need to explain, and that’s the problem.
Ty Cobb, with a lifetime batting average of .376 and over 4000 hits is arguably the greatest player of all time. Babe Ruth’s home run record stood for the ages and a lifetime batting average of .342 makes him undoubtedly one of baseball’s legendary greats.
But being a great man takes more than stats. Rob Rain’s Intentional Walk dives into the lives of the men who play for baseball’s greatest franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals. In a previous blog I told of an invitation my wife and I were graciously extended to spend the afternoon with Stan and Lillian Musial, the result of Mr. Musial having read my first novel, The Bridge. Stan Musial was a great man; he also had an illustrious career with the Cardinals.
Branch Rickey was a lousy baseball player and may still hold the record for yielding the most stolen bases as a catcher. While manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey shattered major league baseball’s race barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. In those days Robinson was referred to as a Negro; today he’d be called African American. Rickey and Robinson signed the contract and shook hands in Rickey’s cluttered New York office under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, another great man, but a wrestler, not a baseball player. Rickey, using Christian principals, coached Robinson, also a Christian, on how best to handle the perpetual heckling that Robinson and his family were forced to endure throughout his professional baseball career. The relationship endured and the Dodgers eventually beat the Yankees in a World Series.
That single lifetime achievement qualifies Rickey has a good man, but he did more. During his stint with the St. Louis Cardinal management, Rickey introduced what eventually became professional baseball’s farm system. I like to claim that the St. Louis Cardinals were the birthplace of the farm system, but it was clearly Rickey’s idea.
Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial were born worlds apart, but within months of each other. Musial, born in Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Monongahela, and Robinson, in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers. Both men played their careers primarily with one team. Both men are revered for their actions on the field and their humbleness off of the field. Both served in the armed forces during WWII and both were devout Christians. Both men married young and remained faithful to one wife throughout their famed careers.
Rickey, Musial, and Robinson achieved great things in baseball. And they are remembered for their contribution to the game of baseball. But they are remembered most for the example they set as men of integrity and their contribution to baseball’s culture. Material wealth is too often followed by spiritual poverty. All three of these men enjoyed the first without suffering the later.
The World Series is about to begin. Ask the question. America is in need of cultural reform. Let the discussion be about great men who happen to be great baseball players.