November 10, 2011
I don't know about you, but after this week in sports - kidnappings, deaths, scandals - I could use a nice, uplifting story or three. Let's see what we can find:
The first thing to come to mind is the famous scene from "Pride of the Yankees", where Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig promises to hit two home runs in the 1932 World Series for "crippled" Little Billy. He hits the first one, as any reputable superhero might, but word somehow gets to the Cardinals' pitcher about the promise before he can hit number two. The pitcher - quite obviously the most vile villain in all of sports movie history - then tries to intentionally walk Gehrig instead of giving him his shot at keeping that promise. Gehrig will have none of that though. After inching as close to the plate as he's allowed, Gehrig takes a cut at would-be ball four and wallops it into the stands to help win the Series. Billy sits in stunned silence back in the hospital and, later, learns how to walk again - all thanks to Lou. It's a scene on par with George Bailey's return to Bedford Falls on the uplifting/tear-jerking scale.
As you might expect from a Hollywood production, though, it's about as true as the George Bailey scene as well. The sequence did, however, have a real-life inspiration. During the 1926 World Series, 11-year-old Johnny Sylvester was at his family's home in New Jersey when he was thrown from his horse and later kicked in the head. A member of Sylvester's family wired the Yankees and Cardinals in St. Louis with his story in an attempt to cheer him up. The family soon received a package from Babe Ruth with two balls in it - one signed by the Yankees and one signed by the Cards. Ruth also included a note that said "I'll knock a homer for you on Wednesday." That Wednesday, in Game 4 of the Series, Ruth hit three home runs in the Yankees' victory. Before Game 6, Johnny received another note from the Babe, saying "I will try to knock you another homer, maybe two today." Ruth didn't hit any homers that day (though he did the next day) and the Yankees lost the World Series, but it didn't matter to Johnny - he got his home run. After the Series, Ruth visited Johnny and received some consoling of his own. "I'm sorry the Yanks lost," Johnny told him.
With such a long history, baseball is filled with positive stories. They may not all be as dramatic as the Babe Ruth/Johnny Sylvester story, but they are just as inspiring. It could be a star bringing a disadvantaged family to the ballpark for a game. Or someone buying out a section for the local Little League. Or it's just a story of personal triumph, like when 35-year-old Jim Morris made his major league debut for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Disney even made a movie out of that last one - though I was always confused why they made it into a story about a 12-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking to angels. Other little stories - Tony Conigliaro's return, Luis Gonzalez auctioning off his chewed gum for charity, everything Buck O'Neil ever did and a thousand others - can be found all throughout Major League Baseball's history.
My favorite of the "little stories" from recent years happened in 2009. Brewers third-baseman Casey McGehee has a very young son who has been stricken with cerebral palsy. On this particular July day, little Mack McGehee threw out the first pitch of the game. With Casey catching behind the plate, Prince Fielder helped Mack out of his walker and stood him at the edge of the home plate circle so Mack could make the throw. The ball didn't quite reach Casey, but it was fun to watch.
Late in the game, McGehee came in as a pinch-hitter and smacked a two-run homer into the Brewers bullpen to put the team up for good. "Good hit, daddy!", Mack told him after the game. "That was about as good a 'congratulations' as I could get."
The world isn't always a happy place, as this week has shown us. It's a truth we can't hide from. It's important to remember, though, that the world is a good place much more often than we realize. We just need to focus on those things every now and then.