Growing up, my heroes fell into three categories – historical figures, astronauts and test pilots, and professional athletes. Every year, many famous people die but only a few are heroes. I think we lose a part of our childhood whenever one of our heroes dies. With all the athletes and astronauts who died recently, almost all ties I still had to childhood faded over the past year as most of my remaining heroes passed away.
I went to 1st grade in Dallas so, aside from Daniel Boone, my historical heroes were those who defended, fought, and died at the Alamo – Col Travis, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, et al. Every year we built a fort; called it the Alamo, slept in it, and defended it against attacking neighborhood kids. Of course Daniel Boone and those Alamo defenders were long gone before I arrived. That was not the case with my sports and astronaut heroes.
In the 1960’s, astronauts were the “pop” idols of their day. They appeared on magazine covers and regularly on talk shows. National Geographic ran articles about the X-15, Project Mercury, Project Gemini, and Apollo. I remember during 1st grade listening to the radio of John Glenn’s orbital flight aboard Friendship 7 – the launch, orbit, splashdown, and recovery. In 2020 we lost several aeronautical heroes to include Al Worden (Apollo 15) and Chuck Yeager. Aside from the Wright Brothers, there is probably no larger figure in aviation history than Yeager. He was a WWII “ace”, shooting down 11 German aircraft. Yeager is best known as the first person to break the speed of sound, flying his X-1 over the Mojave Desert on Oct 14, 1947. Including the X-1, he piloted over 360 different aircraft, though never flew into outer space. Yeager was inducted into numerous halls of fame to include the International Air & Space HOF (1966) and the International Space HOF (1981). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Chuck Yeager, Godspeed on your journey into the Wild Blue Yonder.
After 1st grade, we moved to far northern Illinois where we lived about 50 miles from both Chicago and Milwaukee, and received TV stations from each. In the 1960’s, WGN televised every home-game played by Chicago teams in baseball, football, and hockey. The Cubs, White Sox, Bears or Blackhawks were always playing. Throw in the Milwaukee Braves and we watched sports daily. Each summer, my brother and I watched upwards of 75 baseball games, then went outside and threw batting practice to each other. Come autumn, we did the same with football, watching the Bears and the Packers. Ditto in winter with the Blackhawks - we went down to the lake, shoveled the ice, and made a skating rink. We watched our heroes; then tried to emulate them.
Every summer I watched the likes of Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, (future Cub Hall of Famers), Hoyt Wilhelm (HOF - White Sox), Hank Aaron, Joe Torre, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro (HOF - Braves), Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, (HOF – Bears), Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Phil Esposito (HOF - Black Hawks). Also, I watched the Packers during their Vince Lombardi championship years with such standouts as Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Herb Adderley (HOF - Packers). I didn’t know it at the time but I grew up watching some of the very best those sports have ever known, not only on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Green Bay teams but their opponents as well. Opposing players included Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale (Dodgers), Willie Mays, Willie McCovey (SF Giants), Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan (NY Mets), Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Stan Musial (Cardinals), Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle (Yankees), and Al Kaline (Detroit Tigers). Sadly, many of those players have passed away, some in 2020. Let me highlight a few who recently died.
The NFL’s Central Division was known for “3-yards and a cloud of dust” except when Gale Sayers touched the ball. He was Barry Sanders smooth, long before Sanders. Sayers set a rookie record of 22 TD’s in 1965. I remember watching him score six TD’s in one game – on a punt return, a pass, and four rushing. Due to injuries, Sayers played only five good seasons. However, he was so talented that he was selected to the HOF with fewest games played and youngest ever elected. RIP Gale.
There was no better baseball team in the ‘60’s than the STL Cardinals. They won the World Series in 1964 and 1967; then, in 1968, lost an exciting 7-game series to the Tigers. Lou Brock and Bob Gibson were key players on those teams. Brock finished his career with 3,023 hits, a .293 batting average and 938 stolen bases. When he retired, he held the record for stolen bases. In the ‘60’s only Koufax had a better fastball than Gibson. “Gibby” won three games in the 1967 World Series. In 1968 he was unhittable; his 13 shutouts, 1.12 ERA, and MVP award are proof. Gibson was so dominant that MLB changed the rules by lowering the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches; the strike zone was made smaller, and ushered in the Designated Hitter. Farewell Lou and Gibby.
The Braves in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s weren’t that good but they had some great players. In 1974, I watched Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s home run record while sitting in my college dorm room (no sports bars back then). Aaron claims he received death threats as he approached Ruth’s record. Very sad because everyone I knew wanted him to break the record. Aaron was the epitome of consistency with a .305 batting average, 3,771 hits, 755 HR’s, 2,297 RBI’s, and 21 All-Star Games. Forget Barry Bonds, Hammerin’ Hank is my Home Run King. Phil Niekro was Mr. Consistency on the mound. He pitched 24 seasons, 318 wins (121 wins after he turned 40-yrs old), 3,342 K’s, and 245 complete games. His 5,404 innings pitched are the 4th most in MLB history. As good as Aaron and Niekro were on the diamond; they were better people than they were players. We’ll miss them both.
Weekly Thought: Other Farewells to heroes lost: Curly Neal (Harlem Globetrotters); Tom Seaver (Mets); Henri Richard (Montreal Canadians); Don Shula (Dolphins); Willie Wood, Willie Davis, and Herb Adderley (Packers); Al Kaline (Tigers); Don Sutton (Braves), and Whitey Ford (Yankees).