Plymouth, Massachusetts – Late October 1944
The leaves had already gone to technicolor and fall was already and fully upon us. But this had been an Indian Summer day and we had just finished what would probably be our last baseball game at the Summer Street playground for this year. As the New England chill of fall replaced summer’s fading warmth, football would be the activity of choice for all of us now.
I had had a very good day for me, going 3 for 4 with two doubles over the short fence that ran behind first base and and paralleled Summer Street itself. It was a short poke and the fence got in the way of anyone trying to make a catch. Bottom line, it was the cheapest way to get on second base and provide me with crowing rights over those who sought more challenging ways to get on base. The brothers, Bubba and Sonny Gavoni, and I had just left the playground and stopped into Clough’s store for  post game rewards. They had Nehi Orange and to further gloat and celebrate my performance I had a Baby Ruth bar. Not satisfied with the cheap three hits and the self-congratulatory candy bar, I needed to rub it in even more and did so when Bubba Gavoni inquired, ” Why didn’t you get Orange Crush like you always do ?”
“I got a Baby Ruth .I’m  just like Babe Ruth because I hit just like Babe Ruth. “
” Do not. “
” Do too.”
” You don’t hit like Babe Ruth, and you can not be like him neither.”
” Can too. You just jealous because Albie Heath struck your ass out three times.”
” Dumb ass, you can’t be like Babe Ruth because he is white and you’re colored . Ain’t no colored guys in the big leagues. So no Negro can be like any major league ball player. What do you think of them apples ? “
” I think you are just pissed because Albie Heath struck your no-playing ass out three times !”
” You still can not be like Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, Bobby Doer, or any of those good guys.  I can cause I ain’t colored !!!”
The established and indelibly embedded protocol and practice in our neighborhood at such a junction required that this discussion immediately turn into a fight and whoever was left standing obviously had won the debate. I knew I could take Bubba, but Sonny Gavoni was still there. Although he was a year younger than us, he was a formidable force because he literally went beserk when he fought. He would start to cry and tears would stream down his face as the rage came out. Then the tears would join up with the snot that would come from his nose and cascade down over his mouth and chin making for the most disgusting sight imaginable. You had to be real angry to get up enough disregard for streaming and spewing mucus that went all over the place when Sonny fought. I knew if I started up with Bubba, Sonny would join his brother. That prospect required more courage than I could muster at that time. A little ashamed and a bit embarassed by my lack of resolve to end this encounter properly, I lamely offered, ” Joe Louis can beat any white guy out there !”
“You ain’t no Joe Louis either.”
” Yeah, well you ain’t no Ted Williams. Albie Heath could never strike out Ted Williams “
Mercifully, by now we were at their house and Mrs. Gavoni called the brothers inside. As I walked up High Street to my house, I thought about what Bubba has said and sadly accepted the fact that as a colored guy, I could not be like a white star. I consoled myself with the fact that I still had Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. I didn’t like Sugar Ray that much because he had a “conkolene” which was a way that black men straightened their hair with heavy grease to make it look white. Joe Louis was my man and I put away any thoughts of having white athletes as idols. By the time Joe Louis was to fight Rocky Marciano I was in high school.  Plymouth High School had a lot of Italian students whose parents migrated to Plymouth to work in the Plymouth Cordage Company that was located in North Plymouth. When the Louis Marciano fight was about to take place, there was naturally a lot of whoofing and bragging about whether or not the Italian tough guy could beat the Negro idol and icon.  As a matter of racial pride and personal prejudice I knew I had to go with Joe all the way. Besides, no white guy, tough Italian or not, at 189 pounds could beat the heavyweight champion of the world,… and all Negrodom. I bet the deposit money for my class ring on Joe Louis. I lost the deposit money, the class ring, and the desire to ever again vicariously live through someone else as a role model or idol.
So I imagine it is easy to see why and how a person with this kind of mindset finds it ludicrous, and well beyond ridiculous,  for people to see elite athletes as role models. In the years since Bubba straightened me out about Babe Ruth, and Marciano took care of Louis, I have been able to observe many elite athletes at very close range. No matter what the sport, the one common denominator that runs throughout athletic performances at the very top and extremes of sport,…. any sport, is the need of the athlete(s) involved to compenstate or overcompensate for a real or perceived need. The athletes at the very uppermost extremes of sport have a special itch that only certain kind of competitive excellence and or performance can begin to scratch. The trick for them is to find an acceptable and rewarding avenue to gain the recognition, status, indiscriminate love and acceptance that they  so obsessively crave. Some have the ability to keep these compulsions relatively socially acceptable in nature. However, some are not strong enough and this results in the anti-social and destructive behavior we see on the front pages of newspapers  and television, on an almost daily basis. Most of us recoil and claim we do not understand how young people making millions of dollars can act in such self-destructives extremes. Bottom line, people we see and respect because of the extremes they achieve in athletic performances, can only push themselves to those extremes if they have extreme needs and motivation.
What the typical defensive player in football does on Saturday/Sunday on the field would be criminal felonious assault in the parking lot. To think that this psychotic behavior can always be limited and confined to just the playing field is naive in the extreme. There will always be spillover because these athletes have these needs 24/7/365. What has happened since Bubba set me straight is:
1. We expect even greater extreme performances from athletes
2. The material rewards are much greater and increase each year
3. The mental and psychological pressures have gone up disproportionately
4. There is more scrutiny that goes along with greater exposure
Coaches and sport administrators make very little effort at channeling these drives and compulsions by athletes into constructive and productive pursuits.
As long as they can perform at a high level, athletes that fall from grace ( Ray Lewis, Pacman Jones, etc. ) are dusted off and allowed to return to the very same lifestyle and conditions that contributed to their fall in the first place.
Baseball has known for many years that it had a real serious drug problem. Of the minor league players that were tested for candidacy on the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team, it was reported that 40% of these players could not pass the IOC drug test. Tommy LaSorda was the coach and was very well connected within the baseball comm
unity. It was common knowledge that Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were juicing when they were team mates in Oakland in the 80s. We, in track and field used to laugh at all of the steroid use manifestations by these two and many others at that time. The very same useage would have resulted in a bust in track and field, but went “unobserved” and unsanctioned in baseball. A team that should get special scrutiny is the Texas Rangers. Who in high places shoudl/could have known what when about drug use on that team ?
The thrust of all this is to state that no matter how you arrive at the conclusion, having, or suggesting, elite athletes should be role models is the same as asking a cripple to get up and sprint. People we expect to do extreme things, by definition have extreme needs. If we want abnormal performances, then we had better seek out people with abnormal attributes, gifts and drive. If you want a girl scout or boy scout troop, then for God’s sake do not look for it in the major leagues of any sport. The responsibility to see reality in sports does not end there. What follows is the companion responsibility to assist and support efforts that allow eilte athletes to get at that itch through more acceptable avenues. If Michael Phelps wants to get “high” and not , as advocated by a former first lady,  “Just Say No !”, then a slap on the wrist with no accompanying efforts at behavior modification merely proves to him that he is “bullet proof” and can undertake an even greater bad behavior risk later as his needs and itch grow greater.
It is this “bullet proof” feeling and sense of entitlement that allows for elite athletes to rationalize that they can get away with the offenses they often find themsleves engaged in. Much of their efforts and work has been to deny and get away from the vulnerbility and sense of inferiority that haunts them when they are left with their own private and innermost thoughts. It, in many cases, is the need to overcome vulnerbility and a sense of inferiority that drives these athletes to overcompenstate and in some cases supercompenstate. Do these have to be converted into anti-social and self-destructive behavior ? The answer is a resounding “NO !!!”. However, authority figures involved with these athletes can not merely turn a blind eye in order not to jeopardize performance, association, affiliation and profit. Coaches need to do more than train and teach. They need to insist on certain elevated norms of behavior for people they help to reach elevated levels of performance and status. In some cases their efforts will be met with success and, unfortunately, in some cases with abject failure. But there is a certain amount of value and consolation in knowing that you did not actively and directly contribute to an athlete’s becoming a “rogue model” or a “model rogue”.
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