Athletes are honored more than enough in our culture. The endless accolades are further adorned with mindless riches and a veritable free pass, smoothing the path to most anything one’s heart may desire. All of this goes with the territory.
The truest of “America’s guests” are the blissfully anointed who play our games well. Which is why we are so astounded when the likes of a Rocket, a Tiger, or a Big Ben come along and rain on their own parades. “Don’t insult us,” is about all we ask. Otherwise we’re willing to worship most any thinly disguised fool or pathological egomaniac as long as he or she can secure for us a pennant, a title, or a gold medal.
Anyway, some of the fundamental contradictions of the matter seemed to me to be aroused the other day when Presidential Medals of Freedom – the nation’s very highest civilian distinction – were awarded to 15 highly distinguished Americans in elegant ceremonies presided over most gracefully by President Obama. Those cited included an ex-president, a German chancellor, two civil rights crusaders, notable leaders of the law and labor, a poet, a philanthropist, a cellist, and two gentlemen who indeed played games for us with memorable splendor.
Now, let’s be clear about this much. No one in his right mind would quibble about the sporting greatness of baseball’s Stan Musial and basketball’s Bill Russell nor deny they displayed exemplary character along the way and were indisputably the glory of their times. Both were honored as much for their stature as men of dignity and purpose as for their achievement as athletes.
Musial, long beloved as Baseball’s Shining Knight, reminds us that the highest aspiration of the games is to raise the standards of decency, civility, and honor. Russell, a true warrior in the civil rights struggle, affirms that the games can have greater meaning than the matter of who wins or loses or even how those games were played.
But do athletes – no matter how unquestionably noble and inspired they may have been – need to be singled out in this way? That is my question. How can there be a fair competition for such honors between a star of the ballpark who has dominated the headlines for a quarter of a century and a star of the symphony whose fame is so much quieter and select, let alone between the stars and poets?
Aren’t there enough Halls of Fame already for the immortals of sport? Is grace under fire on a football field really comparable to grace under fire at the barricades of social justice?
Fans of the delightful Musial, who has just turned 90, essentially demanded he be so honored, mainly because those fellow legends of his era – the mighty Messrs Theodore S. Williams and Joseph Paul DiMaggio – had been tapped years ago, when they were still with us. This has long rankled Stan the Man’s friends and admirers and they are countless. Williams and DiMaggio may have been held in more awe, but Musial is much more beloved. They rightly argue that Stan was every bit their equal and had too long been obliged to take a backseat to Teddy Ballgame and Joltin Joe mainly because they were deemed more colorful, which was mostly because they were also controversial.
There’s no disputing the validity of this point. But ought such considerations be governing factors in the determining of who should be ushered into what amounts to our national Valhalla? To take the argument a step further, was it necessary to elevate Williams and/or DiMaggio? Were they not honored enough in their lifetime? Were they insufficiently appreciated? The point is at least arguable.
Just a few weeks ago the estimable Bob Feller died at the age of 92. The near mythic Iowa farm boy had a long, lovely life of great attainment and immense personal satisfactions. Crustier than Musial, albeit not as profane as Williams or as cynical as DiMaggio, Bobby didn’t qualify as loveable, but while he was blunt about what he believed and more than willing to share it, he could hardly be termed controversial. As a player, he was the dominant right-handed pitcher of his era capable of unbelievable audacity and endurance. He had every bit as much stature as Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial.
But more importantly, Robert William Andrew Feller had a war record stunning by any measure. At the height of his fame and ability, he signed up with the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and went on to win eight battle stars and five campaign ribbons in four years of service as a lieutenant commander performing the hugely responsible role of fire captain aboard the battleship USS Alabama, one of the great dreadnoughts of the U.S. Fleet, sampling all the heavy action in the Pacific including the kamikaze nightmare.
Feller’s crustiness had a marvelous quality of consistency. Some of the finest baseball players in the known world were stationed at Pearl Harbor during the war with most of them never leaving there; the quality of the baseball featured being obviously quite major league. When, late in the war, the Alabama came into Pearl for repairs, word reached the base that the world’s best pitcher was within reach. Informed by high ranking brass that shore duty could be easily arranged, Feller spurned it. If the Alabama’s enlisted men weren’t leaving ship, then, he said, neither would he.
In the Big War, Feller was the real deal. So was Warren Spahn, the greatest and most dominant left-handed pitcher of his era who was also easily the equal in stature of the illustrious Williams-DiMaggio-Musial troika. In his three and a half years with the U.S Army, Spahnie earned a battlefield commission and a Bronze Star at the Bulge and narrowly averted paying the ultimate price while serving with a unit that seized and held bridges that cross the Rhine, an effort that military historians will tell you shortened the war by many weeks.
A verified heroism on the field of real live battle, which, of course, Williams also demonstrated in Korea, is not necessarily a condition for an athlete being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Maybe it should be. The book is doubtless closed on Feller and Spahn, both now departed. Posthumous freedom medal citations are uncommon, although one wonders why. But it seems interesting in retrospect that neither Feller nor Spahn made an issue of the matter, nor was any fuss ever made about them not getting it.
The thing about these awards, and indeed about all such honorifics, is that for everyone who gets one there are another dozen who are equally deserving; or maybe several hundred more. If Musial belongs, then why shouldn’t Hank Greenberg be considered. If Jackie Robinson, why not Roberto Clemente? If Muhammad Ali, what of Joe Louis? On and on it goes. It does get tangled, eh? We deal with this complex problem every year in baseball’s Hall of Fame proceedings. That’s why near infinite care need be exercised in the making of every choice and why the criteria ought to be carefully defined.
Russell was a good choice, maybe a more valid one than Musial. Russ was a true pathfinder. His old buddies, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn, will tell you the big guy went through a lot more torment than we remotely understood at the time or cared to hear about thereafter. If Russell seems a hard guy, there are good reasons.
But if Russell belongs, why not Red Auerbach? I would fiercely argue that Red was a greater factor in the de-segregation of American sport than Branch Rickey, who gets more credit than he deserves for shepherding Jackie Robinson’s cause. Red was a more important factor in America’s epic civil right struggles of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s than he has ever been given credit for. More to the point, if there’s no Auerbach, what becomes of Russell?
Questions! Many of them provocative. It seemed a simple and harmless little ceremony at the White House, but maybe it was more than that.