A friend who lives in the New York area wrote this about Derek Jeter’s last home game before retirement. The game was played last Thursday night: "Unbelievable how many calls to sports radio about people in their 20s and 30s crying and being so depressed. They grew up with Jeter and didn't know anything different for 20 years."
As though the legend wasn’t rich enough already, the game ended with Jeter hitting a single to drive in the winning run.
Because New Orleans did not have a big league baseball team, those of us who grew up here in those pre-Breesian days never got to experience local sports star worship – at least for a baseball player, so we had to borrow from other cities.
As another baseball season ends and Jeter packs for Mt. Olympus, I am reminded about Nellie Fox.
Fox played second base for the Chicago White Sox and was distinguished for the wad of tobacco that puffed one of his cheeks. I know because as a kid his baseball card was in my collection. In later years he would be remembered for something else among men of my generation.
Baseball cards were produced by The Topp’s company. The cards had an action shot of the player in front, with trivia and statistics on the back. Included in the package was a slab of pink chewing gum. Enough gum and we too could puff out our cheeks, just like Nellie Fox.
Across the nation there were probably billions of baseball cards stacked in millions of shoeboxes stored in thousands of closets. Most of the boxes, I suspect, eventually disappeared at the hand of the same powerful force: Moms.
I am not sure when my collection met its demise but it must have been when I was away in college and my parents moved to a new house. Like a rookie from Pawtucket trying to play for the Red Sox, many of my childhood items did not make the cut.
Today whenever I hear mention of the baseball players from my youth, I remember them best if I had their card – such as Nellie Fox’s.
I was in college when I heard the news that the former infielder had died of cancer. I was stunned. I had never thought about my baseball card players being mortal.
A few years ago I was in a bookstore in Chicago where I saw a history of the White Sox. I glanced through the pages and stopped when I saw a section about Fox. The author’s statement stunned me: To a whole generation of boys, he wrote, Fox’s death was their first experience with the passing of a player from their youth.
I hadn’t realized that what I thought was a personal sentiment was shared by males across the country. We were collectively hit in the face with the same hardball.
An earlier generation that saw the great Lou Gehrig succumb to a disease that would be named after him must have felt the same way.
In 1997 the late Nellie Fox was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That will certainly add value to his baseball card among vintage collectors. Like Derek Jeter, future generations will be able to know about him in the way that they should – for how he lived.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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