Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2001 / 16 Elul, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- HANK SAUER, my first sports hero, died recently. Collapsed on a golf course in the Bay Area. Gone - like one of his 288 homers.
What I can't figure out even all these decades later is why he appealed to me so. What's the deal with sports heroes, anyway? Ponder along with me here, if you like, unless you need to go rotate your tires or reboot your cat.
Hank was a tall (6-foot-2) outfielder for the Chicago Cubs when I first figured out how cool baseball was and started collecting baseball cards in 1953. The year before that, he was the National League's most valuable player, even though he played for the Cubs, who, not having won a World Series since 1908, now are in their 93rd year of rebuilding.
Hank was not a handsome man, no Greek god, for sure. In fact, in the 1950s-era pictures I've seen of him recently, he looks a fair amount like my own father, who could appear quite civilized when all dressed up and was in no way ugly but would not be mistaken for a movie star.
Sauer conked homers with considerable alacrity. In the days before the juiced ball, before the lowered pitcher's mound, back when batters at Wrigley Field were looking out not at blocked-off bleachers with a clear view of the ball coming in but at bleachers full of fans wearing white shirts and trying to pick the white ball out of that background - way back then, Hank smacked 37 homers in 1952 and 41 in 1954.
He acquired this nickname: "Mayor of Wrigley Field." That was good enough for an 8-year-old kid like me who lived an hour-plus from Chicago and watched a lot of games on black and white TV.
There was a lot both of us didn't know back then, Hank and me. For instance, in a piece about Sauer published in the Chicago Sun-Times less than two months before he died, Sauer said this about chewing tobacco: "I chewed it for years. No one knew then what they know now about cancer and stuff. The left-field fans in Wrigley Field hung (tobacco) pouches down on fishing lines fo
r me. My wife finally made me quit. I guess I'd better thank her." Tobacco pouches on fishing lines. What a vision.
In 1953, the Cubs acquired slugging outfielder Ralph Kiner from the Pittsburgh Pirates. That made the outfield Kiner, Sauer and Frankie Baumholtz, who had come to the Cubs in 1949 with Sauer in exchange for the mortal Harry "The Hat" Walker and the mortal Peanuts Lowrey. (Peanuts ' real first name was Harry, too, but you don't stick with just Harry if you've got something slick like Peanuts working for you.)
Anyway, here's Sauer's recollection of what happened in 1953: "Cavvy (manager Phil Cavaretta) moved me from left field to right field, saying, 'Ralph can't run or throw.' I said, 'Well, neither can I.' but I had to go, anyway. They say we almost killed poor Frankie Baumholtz playing center between us, but I don't think Ralph and I were all that bad."
Here was my hero - a tobacco-chewing slugger who couldn't run or throw, a guy who looked like my father in a loose-fitting uniform. My father, by the way, had zero skills as a baseball player. By the time I was 8 I could whip him at any skill required of the game. So why did a guy who looked like him become my hero? Well, I'll let the psychoanalysts work that out. I'm just glad he didn't look like my mother.
Was Hank my hero forever? Heck, no. By 1956 he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, and I was by then a forever-follower of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks.
And Ernie didn't look a thing like Dad. My father was a full inch