AP File Photo
This is a March 5, 1968 photo showing Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. Miguel Cabrera became the first winner of baseball’s Triple Crown since Yastrzemski in 1967.
Who or what is a sports hero? Is winning enough? Or being supremely good? Making your teammates better? Overcoming on-the-field adversity, setbacks and injuries?
If your favorite player, when you were 10 years old, was Jackie Robinson, your standards are high beyond matching. Back then, I don’t remember thinking much about moral fire and social heroism. Robinson’s forbearance, his courage, the price he paid — all that was part of the grown-up world, a vague background to the thrill I felt when he rattled opposing pitchers with the challenge of his quickness on the basepaths.
Robinson’s presence alone, his daring assurance, could make the opposition crumble.
In 1951, the first season I was capable of paying attention, Robinson had a very good year. He batted .338, with 25 stolen bases, 19 home runs and 88 runs batted in. His on-base percentage was .429. In the 14th inning of the last game of the season, he hit a home run that put the Brooklyn Dodgers, my favorite team, into a playoff with the New York Giants. (The less said about that, the better.)
A very good year, but players have had better years — the great Miguel Cabrera just achieved one. For reasons beyond statistics, Robinson remained for decades my personal sports hero, whatever the phrase means. I looked up to him. (He was about the same age as my father, the slugging catcher for a successful New Jersey Shore team called the Jewish Aces.)
Carl Yastrzemski might seem the opposite kind of figure from Robinson: an extravagantly gifted ballplayer at bat and in the field, but one known in his early years as a spoiled brat, the talented young loafer who replaced Ted Williams in left field. Even in Yaz’s landmark triple crown year of 1967 (a year currently in the news because Cabrera’s is the first triple crown since then), Eddie Stanky, manager of the opposing White Sox, told reporters that Yaz was “an All-Star from the neck down.”
My first year in Boston was 1967. My wife and I, both Brooklyn (not L.A.) Dodger fans since childhood, knew who Stanky was. In his playing days, he was known as the Brat — in a far different sense from the brattish qualities of Early Yaz, whose reputation was that of a languid natural star, nature’s athletic darling. Stanky was a cunning scrapper, a little borderline guy who used guile and aggression to make up for his deficiencies. I remembered him as a rules-stretching infielder for the enemy Giants.
I was too young to recall Stanky’s time as a Dodger, when he actually defended Robinson against racist heckling from opposing dugouts by yelling back at the jerks — yelling being an essential Stanky weapon, as speed was for Robinson. Stanky was famous for kicking a ball out of Yogi Berra’s glove in a World Series game. I’m sure that his remark, needling the new, maturing Yaz, was an attempt to goad him back into his unreliable rookie ways. Stanky was trying to work on Yastrzemski from the neck up.
I was a kind of rookie myself, dealing with publishers who were returning my poetry manuscripts. Their polite, teasing notes recognized my work’s virtues and extended their regrets. I kept working hard — at writing itself, and also at overcoming discouragement at rejection. Among other distractions from that double struggle, we went to a few games at Fenway Park. Walk-up tickets were easy to get, and bleacher seats cost only a dollar or two. We began following the Red Sox broadcasts of that exciting season. We exchanged the old “B” on the cap for a new one.
Yastrzemski, I noticed, was the same age as I was. In a certain way, you never feel older than you do at 27. Youth is about to end, and what have you done? The dentists and lawyers of your age cohort had reasons to feel better about this pressure: they had entered their career groove in a good way. And how, you might ask yourself, are you making out in yours? For artists as for athletes, the answer wasn’t always reassuring.
In the Boston Globe sports pages, stories began to appear about Yastrzemski’s fierce concentration on improving and maintaining his skills. Certain left-handed relief pitchers gave him trouble; so he asked to practice against stand-ins who had a similar delivery. With his strong, accurate throwing arm, he worked hard, regularly, on playing wall caroms off the Green Monster, setting a model of perfectionism for the team’s younger outfielders. I particularly remember a story (could it have been written by the young Peter Gammons?) about Yaz working on a little defect in his large, fluid, dynamic swing: he had a clubhouse guy throw a ball of wadded athletic socks to him, over and over, till he could hit the fluffy things consistently with the barrel of the bat.
When I was a child, the qualities of boldness, daring and speed were embodied for me by Jackie Robinson on the basepaths. (Jackie Robinson in life, embodying greater qualities, was mostly beyond me.) In my late 20s, Yastrzemski embodied qualities that were now more important to me: work, resolve and concentration. Against bitter, powerful opposition, Robinson demanded and won respect. Against his own weaknesses, Yastrzemski attained an inward respect for his own gifts, overcoming his early tendency to coast with them — a lesser but considerable achievement. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that I looked up to him: but I looked to him, as an example of focus. In that way, he was a useful hero.
In the context of Boston’s academic snobbery, I and many others enjoyed Yastrzemski’s distinctly non-Harvard style: here was a local sports hero who came from a Long Island potato farm and Notre Dame, which he attended as a business major on a basketball scholarship. In a tense way, Yaz actually smoked cigarettes in the dugout, and to relieve the tension he would rush to after-game beers in the clubhouse. The elegance of that oversize, sweeping swing and of his fielding, the smooth precision of his arm, made an agreeable contrast with the homey inelegance of his speaking style. In his farewell speech at Fenway Park, in front of 30,000 people, he thanked God for giving him a great body.
Carl Yastrzemski and I did not and do not have much in common. (He fishes, he golfs, he supported a Massachusetts governor whom I did not.) That reality doesn’t diminish my admiration, but underscores it, purifies it: in his realm, Yaz applied grown-up qualities I aspired to, and still aspire to, in mine.
Robert Pinsky, the U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, teaches in the MFA program at Boston University.
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