Americans love heroes because Americans love symbols. In our media-saturated culture, everything requires a storyline. Nothing exists in a vacuum, but instead, lives and breathes and interacts with the world in a way that shapes and changes our understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. We love heroes because we crave the simple inspiration of a story that proves, against all odds, that the best parts of us are still pretty damn good.
Nowhere is this more true than in the world of professional sports. Athletes are revered for their feats of physical prowess and these feats are in turn translated into representations of character. An athlete who performs remarkable acts on the playing field is, rightly or wrongly, elevated to a cultural status that asks much more of them than mere physical brilliance.
The ability to run fast, jump high, and heave otherworldly amounts of weight into the air will always be impressive. But rare is the athlete that possesses these physical gifts in equal proportion to the kinds of traits that should be more readily worthy of hero-worship. We treat our star athletes like gods from Olympus, and then bemoan the fact that they have the humility and self-awareness of a Kardashian. These men spend their entire lives being told how perfect and flawless they are, and then we expect them to demonstrate their hidden virtuous nature for all to see? "Good luck," doesn’t even begin to sum it up.
But every so often, a jock is something more than a collection of well-defined muscles controlled by a pea-sized, self-involved brain. Every so often, we collectively bestow the "hero" moniker on an athlete who actually deserves it. Or at least kind of deserves it.
Such is the case with one of baseball’s all-time greats: Ted Williams. Williams is a complicated man whose prodigious talents on the diamond have long since cemented his legacy as one of the greats of the game. He was no saint, but in a sporting culture that makes myths out of men for no good reason, he didn’t need to be.
Over the course of his career, Williams had plenty of run-ins with the media, other players, and fans. He famously grew weary of the fickle nature of the Boston faithful and refused to acknowledge their fair-weather cheers. Is that kind of ridiculous? Yeah, sure it is. But it’s also the kind of principled stand that marks him out as a man who was willing to parse his feelings and stand by an unpopular decision because he felt it was the right thing to do. That combination of introspective intelligence and self-assured swagger are traits that we’d all like to see manifested in our family tree.
If this were a much longer article, I could speak at length about Williams’ military career. Although it got off to a less than auspicious start, he eventually distinguished himself as a ready and willing combatant who would not be content to let others fight while he sat back like an indulgent prima donna. Picture a modern-day athlete being pulled from his prime and plunked into active military service. I can’t imagine it would end with the same level of accomplished valor that Williams reached over the course of WWII and the Korean War. Actually, I just can’t imagine it happening at all.
He was a frequent, unpublicized visitor to the children’s wards of local hospitals in Boston, an active, involved proponent of the Jimmy Fund (a cancer research charity), and a vocal detractor of the seemingly unimaginable ignorance that prevented Negro League stars from joining the ranks of Major League Baseball long before Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier.
In short, Ted Williams was many things. He was an iconic athlete with a potentially short fuse, but also a fully-developed portrait of what it means to be a man who actually stands for something. As "heroes" go, I’d say that’s pretty good.
So today, on the 52nd anniversay of Teddy Ballgame’s last at-bat (naturally, a homerun), let’s all take a moment to remember that we shouldn’t assume that all of our athletes are worth emulating. But some of them truly are.
Remembering the legacy of a true legend who never forgot that he was just a man? Now that’s a reason to drink!