From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

True Heroes Earn the Title

Star athletes have played an important part in the lives of young children as far back as history remembers sports and its heroes. Every youngster has had at least one hero that he worshiped above all others. Such idolization is not always etched in stone, however, and heroes have been known to change for many reasons. I was involved in such a change in 1960.

My father was an Air Force master sergeant stationed at a radar station in Bellefontaine, Ohio. The Cincinnati Reds offered discount seating to military personnel in uniform, and my father decided to take a group of airmen to a game at old Crosley Field. I was included as an afterthought and was thrilled at finally being able to see a big-league game. The doubleheader between the hometown Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates was going to be a highlight in my relatively short life.

Although I was an avid New York Yankees fan, one of my favorite baseball players, Roy Face, was a star relief pitcher for the Pirates and I was hoping to get his autograph. My father bought me a brand-new baseball just in case. I could hardly contain myself on the drive to Cincinnati.

We arrived at the stadium a few minutes before the players were due to take the field, and I lined up with several other youngsters at the entrance to the Pirates locker room. As the players filed out to enter the runway to the dugout, I looked anxiously for Roy Face. I finally saw him coming and in my best manners stepped up and asked him for his autograph. He calmly ignored me and proceeded down the runway. I was stunned! One of my favorite heroes had brushed me off without the slightest acknowledgment at all. I stood there pondering what to do next when a large arm appeared around my shoulders and a hand took the ball from my grasp. I looked up to see a beaming smile beneath a Pirate hat and a large 21 on the jersey. The man handed me the ball with a wink and headed onto the field. I looked down at the ball and could not believe that it now proudly bore the name ROBERTO CLEMENTE in bold black ink. Roy Face’s spot on my hero list had just been filled by one of the greatest players in the game. Clemente played an important part in the Pirates’ sweep of the doubleheader that day and helped lead his team to a World Series victory over my Yankees that October. Despite that, he remained one of my greatest heroes until his death in a 1972 airplane crash while flying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. By this time I had followed my father into the air force and was stationed in Southeast Asia. When I learned of Clemente’s death, I could only marvel that the man who had helped find me a hero had been a bona fide hero trying to help an entire nation.

Only die-hard fans will remember who Roy Face was, but children who were not yet born when Roberto Clemente died can tell you all about him. That is heroism at its finest.

Michael J. Feigum

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