Strength of character a common thread among sports greats

THIS is about a challenge. I was asked to do the commencement address for Lincoln High school in my hometown of Tallahassee, Fla. I've done several such talks at universities, which didn't bother me, as I was dealing with young adults. But what do you say to 342 assorted 18-year-olds? Especially when you hope to say something that a few of the young people might remember. Then, too, these youngsters didn't know me. My last year broadcasting baseball at Yankee Stadium was 1966, two years before they were born. My last World Series was 1952. That I began in radio in 1930, was in the big leagues 33 years, did Rose, Sugar, and Orange Bowl football games meant nothing to my captive audience. I knew they hadn't read any of my books.

The brief introduction took care of the years I had been in radio and television. That broke the ice. The young people sitting before me waited in polite silence.

``I am 78,'' I began. ``Sixty years ago I was sitting where you are sitting this afternoon. Many of my years have been spent around athletes. Let me tell you something else -- a champion athlete is not only a physical person but is also a spiritual person. In a moment I want to tell you about Roger Bannister, Ben Hogan, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson -- all men of tremendous spirit.

``To me the great miracle of creation is that no two things are identical -- no two people are alike. Each of you is a distinct individual -- each of you is different from every other human being. Each of you is spiritual.

``Jim Turner was the pitching coach of the New York Yankees when I was at the Stadium, and he used to say that a timid man can't pitch -- that a pitcher can't stand on the mound, face a great batter, and wish he didn't have to pitch to this man at this time.

``George Sisler, who once batted .420 and taught batting for years, told me that an afraid man can't hit -- that a batter can't stand at the plate and worry about a fastball coming at his head . . . that he must concentrate on the ball, decide whether to swing at it or not, and should the pitch be at his head, then allow his reflexes to take him away from the ball.''

The attention held. We were now acquainted with each other over a distance of threescore summers.

``Roger Bannister was a medical student in London, England. He was also a crack runner -- the mile was his specialty. This was in the 1950s. In all history, no man had run a mile in less than 4 minutes. It was considered too much to ask of a human being. Bannister decided to break the 4-minute mile. By himself, for some two years, he trained, ran, studied. He knew he would have to take more out of himself than he knew he had inside himself. May 6, 1954, Bannister ran the first mile in less than 4 minutes. He showed the way. He showed other runners it could be done. Today you are no miler at all if you can't do under 4 minutes. In fact, the mile is run now in less than 3:50.

``Ben Hogan was a crack young golfer whose car collided with a bus in Texas. That was early in 1949. The doctors said Hogan wouldn't live -- then, that he wouldn't walk -- then, that he certainly couldn't play competitive golf again. Hogan told me he heard what the doctors said, but he made up his mind he was coming all the way back. He asked for two rubber balls, and he squeezed them repeatedly as he lay in bed -- retaining as much strength in his hands as he could. Then, as he told me, he forced himself to sit up 10 times, walk in his room 10 times, walk around the block 10 times. Whatever he had to do, he forced himself to do it 10 times. The next year, 1950, he won the US Open -- won it again 1951, and again in 1953 . . . Had Hogan not forced himself, he could well have been in a wheelchair.

``Branch Rickey, a white man, decided he would break the unwritten law of baseball that said the game was for white men only. He told me in March of 1945 what he was going to do. His family begged him not to do it -- that it was too much. Every owner in baseball was against him. Rickey acted on his own, by himself. He had his scouts select the best black player physically. Rickey knew that physical talents would not be enough -- that spiritual strength of great magnitude would be required. He laid it all out for Jackie Robinson. He told him of the curses, of the bitterness, of the resistance should he, Robinson, a black man, try to make the white big leagues. Finally, he told Robinson the only way he could be the first black player was to not answer back. He told Robinson that if he tried to integrate baseball, he must remain silent for three years. For three years he was to not answer back. Rickey said, `Can you do it?' Robinson said, `Mr. Rickey, I've got to do it.' As we know, he did it. Martin Luther King Jr. was still in high school in Atlanta, Ga.''

It was time to close. The attention still held.

``Bannister, Hogan, Rickey, Robinson were all great men of the spirit. Each of you young people has a spirit. Each of you has something else -- you have freedom of choice, you have free will. Each of you can decide what you will do. Each of you is free to throw away your future, throw away your life.

``Robert E. Lee on the campus of Washington and Lee University met a woman with her baby son. She asked the general to pray for her boy. General Lee did, then said to the mother:

``Teach him to deny himself.''

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