George Altman and the Art of Living

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Nineteen-sixty-one began well for George Lee Altman. The year also looked positive for Jack Randolph Stein — my brother, Jack — the ballplayer’s best nine-year-old fan. Jack studied the newspaper box scores and memorized Altman’s statistics. He defended Altman to any “unbelievers” who might have preferred some other big league star. No defense, however, was needed in 1961: by baseball’s All-Star break Altman led the league in hitting. The 6’4″ black outfielder blasted a home run in the game. Only a better Cubs team would have made the world of George and Jack perfect.

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Ah, but the baseball gods are capricious and the long ball Altman drove over the fence proved the highpoint of his Major League career. After another All-Star year in Chicago he was traded to St. Louis and then to the New York Mets at a time when a ballplayer might be considered a “well-paid slave,” to quote Curt Flood about his own baseball career. But this story ends well so don’t lose heart. George Altman never did.

I offer you two stories here: one, a brief recounting of the life of an extraordinary athlete and man, and the other of a little boy who admired him. A tale, too, of the unexpected turns you meet if you live long enough.

Altman was 27-years-old in 1961, Jack at the age boys acquire heroes. Baseball permitted the love of a man of a different race in a way not allowed by almost any other public activities of the day.

Jack modeled himself after Big George. He adopted a similar left-handed swing of the bat; played the outfield as his hero did. My brother even hoped to spend time with him, something impossible after a ballgame in an ad hoc autograph line.

Jack wrote to the athlete at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. “Mom will cook you a meal of steak and beer,” he included as an enticement. No brewery inhabited our basement and no beer lived in our refrigerator, but the letter found its way out the door. Jack waited. The whole family waited and wondered.

My brother received a picture-postcard with Altman’s photo on one side and his autograph on the other. No mention of steak and beer. No comment at all.

A little history: George Altman played a part in advancing race relations in the United States. In 1947 Jackie Robinson, enabled by the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager (Branch Rickey), broke the informal collusion among Major League Baseball’s owners to keep the game white: the color line. From Robinson’s arrival it took until 1959 — the same year George Altman joined the Cubs — before every team had at least one black man. Big George was among the last to play ball in the Negro Major Leagues (a gifted dark-skinned player’s only alternative to the barred door of the Majors). They began to unravel when some of their best athletes found jobs in the newly integrated big leagues.

A rough road greeted “colored” men (as they were then called) even if they did leap the first barrier. Salary was modest, most took off-season jobs to survive, and racism among some of their white teammates presented itself. Managers were all white and informal limitations prevented “too many” dark-skinned men from taking the field as “starters.” Blacks had to room with blacks, whites with whites. Segregated hotels sometimes separated the races further. Little inter-racial socialization happened after the game ended and, even in the dugout, the dark and light often sat apart.

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Altman had another superb season in 1962, but his trade to St.Louis left both the ballplayer and brother Jack disappointed. Injuries undercut much of Altman’s remaining time in the big leagues, but he eventually became a huge star in Japan for eight seasons. Even then, however, he was a person on the outside. No longer an African-American in a white world, nor a college-educated-man in a group of men of more limited learning, he became an American in Asia.

George Altman grew up in North Carolina. His mother died of pneumonia when he was four. Willie Altman, his dad, made a living as a tenant farmer who became an auto mechanic. The senior Altman could be a hard man, a man of few words and hidden feelings; one who didn’t encourage his talented son’s growing athletic success or attend his games. But the junior Altman gave his all to succeed at everything he tried, including the back-breaking labor of picking cotton and tobacco during teen-aged summers. Altman graduated from Tennessee State thanks to a basketball scholarship. He later became “semi-conversant” in Japanese during his playing days overseas, and a commodities trader at Chicago’s Board of Trade representing himself from the seat he purchased with some of his relatively high Japanese earnings. Along the way he beat down colon cancer.

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Before he left Chicago, George Altman started a chess club for young people and helped build the Better Boys Foundation. The 83-year-old continues a focus on high school-aged kids and combating the evils of drug abuse, but Chicago claims a special place in his heart.

The tall childhood hero once again came to Jack’s mind with the recent World Series Championship of the Cubs. Perhaps, he hoped, a 55-year-old meal ticket could be punched as well. Jack tracked down his 1960s idol and made a date to visit him near Altman’s Missouri home.

The men who broke baseball’s color line are thought of as having advanced the status of their race despite the initially punishing reception of white baseball. Surely this is correct, but not the whole story. They also served all Americans of the time, not only by displaying their particular genius for the game. Blacks were not just stereotyped, but invisible in mid-twentieth-century America: no black newscasters, no blacks in commercials, few blacks on TV or in the movies; and then, almost always in roles fueling the worst stereotypes of the time.

That changed with the vanguard of “Negro” baseball players. Even bigots now observed African-Americans in a new role, heard them speak in radio and TV interviews, and read human interest stories written about them. Unseen, anyone can be stereotyped. A man or woman in the flesh becomes a person, not so easily molded into an object of derision. The black athletes of Altman’s generation played baseball well, but they played a more important role in transforming America. The frozen, deformed national consciousness of people of color reformed because of their courage. We are better because of them, if still not perfect. We are better because of George Altman.

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Expectations nurtured over time become unspeakably high. The goal, once achieved, usually disappoints: too much pent-up anticipation. Not this. The still trim Altman met my brother at the appointed restaurant. The ballplayer didn’t remember the “steak and beer” invitation, nor did the pair dine on the menu items Jack had promised, but the 55-year-old wish was otherwise satisfied — and not only because of the former Chicagoan’s pleasure at the success of the World Champion players who wore the same uniform he did. Here is Jack’s voice:

After a while I brought up some of the tragedies he endured, from poverty to racial prejudice to his son’s death in a head-on collision with a drunk driver; the loss of his grandson, too. Despite all this, George is an absolutely positive guy who appreciates his life and how he handled his most difficult times.

Since George is not legendary ballplayer, he seemed surprised anyone would drive a long distance to spend a couple of hours with him over lunch.  He enjoyed my detailed interest in his career and the recollections we shared of some of his greatest games.  For me, as I have learned more about George from his autobiography and our meeting, the hero of a nine-year-old boy became his hero again at 64-years-of-age. It was a happy experience for both of us.

Responding to a note of gratitude from Jack, George Altman wrote this:

Jack,

I thank you for the honor of your visit this afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You reminded me of some great experiences I had in baseball. Thanks for the memories. I’m honored that you would drive almost 700 miles (round trip) to have lunch with me. I am amazed at your knowledge of my career.

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

Where do resilience and grace come from? In the dedication of his autobiography, Altman first thanks God and then his mother, “whom I never really knew. Everyone who knew her said that she was a beautiful, kind, and loving person. I have tried to use her legacy as a guideline for my life.” Then he names his wife, Etta; children, relatives, and friends, all acknowledged for “their love, comfort, and support.” Last, gratitude is expressed to five coaches, perhaps father figures, individually identified. As John Donne famously wrote, “No Man is an Island.” Whether he knows the line, George Altman knows the lesson.

The Stein family, ca. 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

The Stein family, circa 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

Back in the childhood I shared with my brothers we never thought about players writing books or their lives in retirement. We were too busy watching those still active. The “stars” were, quite literally, in our eyes.

Mid-twentieth-century America presented an easy opportunity to believe in heroes. I mean the celebrated athletes of the time, especially baseball players. As Homer said of Trojan War combatants, some were “godlike” men. The human imperfections of anyone in the public eye today, however, have become inescapable. Each man’s and woman’s Achilles heel is x-rayed, dissected, and shamelessly exposed. We live in an age of full-frontal-news. We know more, but are perhaps poorer because of it.

And then there are George Altman and other people like him, quietly living out their lives. There are never too many: intelligent, decent, and hardworking; gifted, grateful and resilient. How many of us can stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old? The 64-year-old version of that little boy, my brother Jack, would tell you he met one last year: a man who made a difference, the rare example of a life well-lived.

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The video tribute that follows is worth the attention of any baseball fan. After a number of vintage photos there are some wonderful clips of Altman in action. Younger fans will note how much Wrigley Field has changed over the years. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.

22 thoughts on “George Altman and the Art of Living

  1. Great story Doc! Thoroughly enjoyed it!

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  2. What an inspiring story with a beautiful ending. Its not the getting through the tragedies and injustices of life but the grace and dignity with which its done, and not tainted by bitterness. That is something worthy of admiration. I’m finding life is like panning for gold, you have to sift through the dirt and muck and stay with it to find the little gems of gold, but you have a choice on what you focus on, to think that you are wasting your time because there is so much dirt or believe you are a rich man because you found the rare nugget of gold. I love especially that your brother met up with George years later, I love those special occasions when two peple have that moment of human connection that meant something to both persons, those kind of memories last a lifetime. Sometimes you get that in therapy. 😊⚾️

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    • Thank you, Claire. Dignity, indeed. Yes, to some degree we have a choice. In fact, the Stoic philosophers emphasized that even under awful conditions a man still needed to take responsibility for his attitude and actions. And yes, as you know from experience, such moments of connections can happen in therapy too.

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  3. Dr. Stein:
    Thank you for a wonderful portrayal of one man’s journey through a difficult, challenging, but joyous life. I have been truly blessed to have some loving, talented and inspirational people in my life. People like you and Jack make it all worthwhile and give us courage to press on in times of adversity.
    I am impressed with your literary talent and look forward to reading your future posts.
    Sincerely,
    George Altman

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Dear Mr. Altman:
    I am pleased that you are pleased, but it is I who must thank you. Not only for giving us someone to cheer for back in the day, but for remaining today as someone worth looking up to in a difficult time. All the best to you and your family.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Dr. Harvey Friedson

    I remember George Altman. From your description a truly accomplished and gifted man. Kudos to you and your brother. Beautiful story, beautifully written.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Much thanks, Harvey. A terrific guy by all accounts. I’ll pass your kudos on to Jack. Take care.

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  7. Thanks for that inspirational story. There really are people among us who are all that: kind, intelligent, hard working, responsible, good human beings. Thank you for telling Mr. Altman’s story and for telling the tale of your brother’s dedication. I think it is so cool that he followed up with the lunch 55 years later. And , I agree. If you can “stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old” then that speaks volumes about how you have lived your life.

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  8. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing George Altman’s story. Athletes like Mr. Altman paved the way for greater integration between white and black America. We have come a long way, but we still have many more miles ahead towards racial equality.

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  9. No question, Rosaliene, and certainly you know this in a way that I cannot. But, even in as fraught a moment as we now live in, I’m reminded of the old Chinese saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is a terrifically wonderful story bringing me back to those great times in Chicago. Educational too. Plus, I was good friends with Jack. So many fond memories.
    Rick Bojak
    West Jordan, Utah

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    • Thank you, Rick. I remember hearing many stories about your own athletic exploits. Apparently your are a well-remembered fellow. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

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  11. I love stories like these that show how human the heroes of our youth truly are. I would love the opportunity to sit down for a meal and a few hours with a few of those ball players from my youth. Ron Cey comes to mind. I did get to have wonderful conversations with Bob Feller and Duke Snider regarding service in the Navy (my branch) in addition to the cursory baseball chatter.

    It is uncanny the physical resemblance shared between Mr. Altman and Sammy Sosa (especially in the Cubs uniform).

    Thank you for sharing!

    MS

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It reminds me of a day many years ago when I overheard a conversation in an elevator between two men. One was at least middle-aged at the time. He appeared to be someone working in the hospital I was in at the time doing a consultation. The fellow mentioned that he had played with the St.Louis Browns, which, as I suspect you know, moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in the early ’50s. My point being, many of these men are now pretty anonymous. You might be able to track a few down. Very cool that you got to talk with Feller and Snider! If you search for Snider in my blog, you’ll read a story that might interest you.

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      • I recall being at an event where the late Catfish Hunter was present to sign autographs for fans. He was well into his late 40s (not yet diagnosed with ALS) and showing the signs of aging (more than I currently do and I am a few years older). A few teenagers were walking by and noticed the middle aged gentleman with gray, receding hair. One boy, after reading the sign with Hunter’s photo and name, asked the other, “who’s that old dude?” The other boy shrugged his shoulders. Mind, you that this was a baseball event held at a baseball stadium and it was attended by few other current players (none of their names come to mind).

        It doesn’t matter what we do in life to most other people. We will still be obscure people to the greater majority of society. There is a very small list of people whom I hope will care about what I did during my later years; not for my career but rather my character. I want to see my children exhibiting my better traits in their own lives. Nothing could be more rewarding. No one is going to reach out to me (beyond them) and ask me to sit with them as they (somehow) remember what I did in my career or this current endeavor of discovering and sharing (military and baseball) history.

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      • Well, I do hope you get some approbation from those interested in the latter two endeavors. But, as you say, we all become relics of a bygone era and hope our kids have a good measure of our value. Sic transit gloria mundi, one of the only two Latin expressions I know, pretty much captures it. Our desires for our children tend to change as we age, don’t you think? Not so much becoming “great,” whatever that is, but becoming good and having a life of which they and we can be proud because of their character. And, of course, avoiding catastrophe. Thanks again for the attention and conversation.

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      • Being a bit of a relic myself, these interests are merely reflections of a life that has crested and is on the downward slope, speeding towards the single trough. So few of today’s younger generations take an interest in history or are mislead by those who re-write what was handed to us by the people who actually lived it. It seems that all life can be symbolized or is paralleled by some facet of baseball. Today’s youthful fans have no personal connection to the game’s greats and regulars who now have monuments covering their permanent residences (death, the great equalizer). Describing to my son how it was to watch Hank Aaron blast #715 off of Al Downing and the incredible build-up to that moment is entirely lost on this kid who was born amid the culmination of the Sosa-McGwire synthetic, single-season HR battle as (in my opinion) the asterisk (should have been) moved to a new name.

        I digress.

        My ho-hum life is one that, I am sure, has positively touched one or two people and though it is on its back half, it isn’t yet over. I am not so concerned with making a name for myself (my parents gave me three) or to leave the world a better place than what was left to me (seems an arrogant objective). I just want to live a full, healthy and meaningful life and get my behind to a few more ballgames along the way.

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  12. Sounds like a goal that you can reach. I only wish the ballparks were less noisy. One of the things required by most of us who have a chance at aging well is the ability to make modest goals and, pretty much, live in the moment. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, notes that about the surest way of guaranteeing unhappiness is to aim for something almost impossible, like becoming an international opera singer, an Olympic gold medalist, etc. You sound like a man who has learned some things from his time on the planet. Congrats! (As you know, not everyone does).

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  13. Gerry,
    The story that you told of my experience as well as George’s life story was almost as satisfying to read as it was to experience. Telling it so eloquently has touched so many lives and as I see from the wonderful comments to your blog continues to do so!

    Thanks again,

    Jack

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I wrote to your continuing hero, Mr. Altman, it pleases me that you are pleased. But I would add, that without your decision to contact George Altman and his willingness to meet, none of those lives would have been touched. Your words are, in any case, much appreciated and I’m proud at what you were able to accomplish for yourself and now others.

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