Top 10 Favorite Athletes

One of my friends, a former teaching colleague posted his list of his 10 favorite athletes. I did so too. Here they are from me.

  1. Muhammad Ali: Sat next to him at a fight in Madison Square Garden. Nicest guy ever. Sad what happened to him. I remember when he met the great but ancient Joe Louis who was in a wheelchair, drooling, nodding and mentally out of it. Ali said, “I will never become like that.” God has a vicious sense of humor doesn’t he? Ali wound up far, far worse.
  2. Joe DiMaggio: Kind of a family tradition. Met him at Yankee Stadium in 1953. Despite what authors have written about his aloofness, he shook my hand and talked to me about my (MY!) playing baseball. I was six years old and I remember the meeting clearly. So I am a die hard Yankee fan because of that meeting.
  3. Jackie Robinson: He’s in heaven now (if there is a heaven). Took a lot of crap and performed athletically and intellectually at the highest level. Not many men could have done what he did and done it brilliantly. Met him once at Ebbets Field. I was also a Dodgers fan until they moved to California.
  4. Oscar Robertson: The best of all time. I know, I know everyone thinks it is Jordan but Oscar is and was the man. His nemesis, Jerry West, was another great one but no one was Oscar.
  5. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson: Entwined together in my mind. The greatest rivalry in basketball of all time. Two of the top 10 greats in the sport.
  6. Sugar Ray Leonard: Just a shade below Sugar Ray Robinson, the fighter who was truly the greatest of all time. Leonard fought the best of his generation in some spectacular matches.
  7. Jesse Owens: Fuck you Hitler! An American who showed the truth about himself and the freedom to compete in a free society (well, not quite as free for some Americans). Of course, it has taken almost a hundred years of struggle but we are (I hope) moving in the right direction. Jesse Owens showed us that we can win.
  8. Lou Gehrig: One of the five greatest baseball players of all time. Courage and class all the way.
  9. Babe Ruth: A serious abuser of food and booze and cigars. Those three things should now be banned from sports because look what they did for “the Babe.”  An amazing hitter, an amazing pitcher, an amazing guy. His statistics topped many entire teams in his day and they are still a high standard to live up to.
  10. Willie Mays: One of the five best baseball players of all time. Brought joy to the game and was great to watch even when he was older.

(There you go. I do have my “don’t like” list too. Maybe someday I’ll post that. There is no football or other sports on my list since those aren’t in my vision.)

What Happened to the Negro League?

This is really a sensitive – as in very sensitive – issue, and I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what and why I am writing this. It is about how a really good thing – a thing that had to be done – can also have unintended bad consequences. (The good thing outweighs the bad consequences here but the bad exists nevertheless.)

I just finished watching the movie 42 which I enjoyed. I saw Jackie Robinson play — I was really, really young — and my father had nothing but praise for the man. I remember my father saying, “It takes courage to do what he is doing.” My father was a Jackie Robinson fan. I only had a vague idea of what he was talking about.

I even had some conversations once with Roy Campanella, who was injured in a terrible automobile accident. I worked as a maintenance man in the Smith Houses in Manhattan for four summers as a high school and college student and that is where I met him. He was paralyzed and in a wheelchair. By then I knew what he and the other black pioneers had meant to major league baseball. It meant the joy of watching Willie Mays and Hank Aaron in the outfield.

“Campy” joined the Brooklyn Dodgers just after Robinson broke the color barrier.

And now for the sensitive part of this article: Whatever happened to the ball players from the Negro leagues that were not good enough to make the major leagues? What happened to the white players who were replaced by the better black players?

I know the Negro Leagues ended soon after the integration of major league baseball. I know most of their players did not make the major leagues. I know the white players who were replaced by better black players did not play in the majors once the color barrier was broken.

The good was accompanied by the end of employment for those who would have played professional baseball but were now just not talented and skilled enough to make it all the way to the new, and better, major leagues.

American baseball today has players from all over the world; South America, Mexico, Canada, Latin America, Cuba, Japan. The painting of today’s major leagues is a medley of colors and ethnic groups. The best of the best will face off against each other for 162 games.

Yes, integration was good for the quality of the game (and for our society) but it had a cost – as many good things have costs – and we must recognize that getting better does not make everyone become part of that betterment. That is why I am a firm supporter of those Negro league museums. We mustn’t forget those guys, especially the great ones who never got to the major leagues because of racism or the ones just not good enough to get there once the game opened its doors.

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