It seems as if the hits just keep coming—the ones to the psyche, not to the ears or in the ballpark. With Hank Aaron’s death on January 22, nine Hall of Fame players from baseball’s golden age of the 1960s have died in recent months. It’s a staggering figure that’s actually larger when you include the recent deaths of other great players from that age who are justifiably awaiting their own invitation to Cooperstown.
For those to whom baseball matters, it serves as a time for pause, remembrance and recollection—for both obvious, and perhaps not so obvious, reasons. For these players were leaders of note. Not only on the ballfield, but also in the manner that many of them overcame the kinds of injustice that society still struggles with today.
The most obvious reason for recollection is that these were the stars of our youth—well, for some of us. We followed these players on transistor radios and rabbit-ear-antennaed TV sets. They were the heroes for whom we’d cut class to watch play in the World Series—when the fall classic was still played in the fall, in the afternoon. They were magnetic players of extraordinary achievement whom we deemed worthy of emulation. For so many to die so soon and so close together in time is an emotional line drive to the gut, as if an entire chapter has been ripped from the book of our youth, without any advance warning. Time marches on, but in a very harsh way.
And these losses also come at a most inopportune time; when many remain unsettled from the pandemic, from the isolation of daily life and from instability of national events. In these extraordinary times, and in the deep of winter, the promise of the national pastime can offer great comfort and reassurance. It is the promise of normality. How heartwarming was the recent news that spring training could actually start on time?
We need baseball. But to lose these stars, these iconic memories of what we thought was a simpler and less complicated time—seems to take some of the luster off the usual expectations of spring.
Yet their passing should also be remembered for something perhaps more significant than the skill and glory with which they played the game. We live in a time when diversity is celebrated and its contribution to organizational success is recognized. But many of these Hall-of-Famers played their early careers in a time, and in places, where racial and economic injustice was part of ordinary existence; when diversity had such different meanings.
For the Hank Aarons, the Joe Morgans, the Bob Gibsons, the Lou Brocks and also the Dick Allens exhibited the kind of extraordinary perseverance and discipline that are the hallmarks of effective leadership. They survived minor league experiences in which segregation, inequity and cruelty were commonplace in many communities in which they played. As young men, in strange and often hostile environments, and under great pressure, they succeeded—where perhaps lesser individuals may have failed.
And similar leadership was demonstrated by the Tom Seavers, the Don Suttons, the Phil Niekros, the Al Kalines and the Whitey Fords, who by all accounts supported their teammates in their personal struggles to be treated with equality.
So as we celebrate Mr. Aaron and his fallen teammates of the 1960s, we remember their examples of diligence and dedication in overcoming the barriers of prejudice to achieve greatness. It is the kind of diligence and dedication that go to the very essence of leadership; stoicism and commitment in the face of great odds. As is the courageous effort of teammates who supported those who suffered. Leadership by example to the greatest extent.
These leadership traits only serve to embellish their Hall of Fame credentials. They are leadership traits that are important to remember as we celebrate their lives and their careers. And they are leadership traits that prompt us to remember that as a nation we still have room to grow in order to eradicate the barriers that Mr. Aaron and his heavenly teammates had to overcome.