George Altman and the Art of Living

george_altman_autograph

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.

13213819

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.

altman-ernie-bily

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.

x9h7a3e6kcmdmce

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.

20170112_094110

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.

————————————–

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 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.

My Seven Fathers

getPart

This comes late. Late because Father’s Day was last month and late because this essay was appropriate 50 years ago.

I read several “Father’s Day” blogs this past June. Only then did I realize I had multiple dads. To discover this in my seventh decade was quite a surprise.

When I say I had more than one, I don’t mean official stepfathers. Nor did my dad die young, followed by others trying to fill his spot. Yet, the truth is, others did, with his knowledge. I bear no grudges about this. My father was, as the trite saying goes, “doing the best he could,” working as many as four jobs at a time, providing for us all. I never doubted his love. I never doubted his pride in me. Still, he was not present a lot. Not for me, not for my brothers Ed and Jack, and not for my mother.

Not there physically. Elsewhere. Away.

Part of a parent’s job is to be home, but that’s not always possible or easy. It wasn’t for him, a child of the Great Depression, claimed by the necessity of making a living. Every other consideration came after the long shadow of a scary time.

There we were, Milton Stein’s family, with him in the lead, racing hard to escape his shadow. My mom ran to catch up, pursued by her own shadow, holding hands with me and my brothers. All of us were in a dash for dad and his time. To the good, dad won the race with the specter of financial ruin, in reality if not psychologically. Ed, Jack, and I settled in the second shadow behind mom, a darker place than the first: a mixture of her personal insecurity, teenaged malnutrition and tuberculosis, poverty, her alcoholic dad and paranoid mother.

I like to say I came upon my interest in psychology honestly. Including the extended family, living examples of text-book emotional problems could be studied every day.

Other father figures embraced me. Did they recognize what I needed? I’ll never know. What follows is a tribute to these men and all the nameless adults who fill-in for a biological parent. They are rarely acknowledged. It took me much time to realize they should be.

sc0021ec3b

One was a portly, white-haired, candy store owner named Mr. Sharon, who talked with me about our favorite team, the Cubs, and called me “son.” A neighbor — movie-star-handsome Mr. Maddock — sometimes played catch with me. Add to the list Mr. Hanel, a tall man with a small dog. On his walks down the alley behind my house he let me play with his pet, something my brothers and I didn’t have. The roster includes a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Friedman, who believed in me enough to give me a double-promotion. Nor should I forget Jim Bryan, my adviser in graduate school. His letter from Northwestern, informing me I’d be his teaching assistant, said he would “work with me and on me.” He did, to my benefit.

By far the most important father substitute was my Uncle Sam, mom’s only brother. As the first Fabian grandchild I received lots of attention, the most from Sam. My parents, Sam, and his wife purchased a two-flat building together in West Rogers Park, Chicago, when I was six. Sam and Charlene Fabian lived upstairs and the Steins lived downstairs. Until Sam had a male child (Marty) I was almost his adoptive son. My cousin calls us brothers of a different mother.

Uncle Sam took me bowling, to baseball games, and introduced me to famous bowlers. My dad didn’t know anybody famous, so you can imagine the thrill of meeting the keglers I witnessed on TV. I met Carmen Salvino, Don Ellis, and even received bowling tips from an older bowler, Joe Wilman, who’d once been named Bowler of the Year in the 1940s.

Sam secured autographed pictures inscribed with my name from Hall-of-Fame baseball player Luis Aparicio and Billy Pierce. We watched Mickey Mantle, the Yankee slugger, hit two home runs (one batting right-handed and the other left-handed) from box seats on a May evening in 1956. Mom’s brother built a table-top basketball game we played, carving the “shooters” and the baskets out of wood with his own hands.

Best of all, my uncle talked about his view of life. Sam offered guidance in how to live — how to “make it” in the world. My youthful home provided little wise parental advice. The house was a place where I often had to figure out how to proceed by my own inexperienced wits.

sc00228858

Most of the adults I knew reacted to the world. Unlike them, my uncle took charge, created a business, displayed leadership. Sam was 6’4,” outgoing, generous, and unafraid of voicing strong opinions — a person with a large presence in every sense. His fatherly embrace and powerful hands offered a tangible understanding of what it meant to be a “man.” His interest in me conferred a feeling of worth almost by osmosis.

Things changed between us when his son, Marty, was born. I became yesterday’s news and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine how it could have been any other way. At 16, I worked a regular after-school job for Sam, but my employment loaded the relationship with unbearable emotional weight. We occupied the dual roles of uncle/boss and nephew/employee at a time when even one role was too much.

The growing psychological distance became a physical one, too. My folks purchased Sam’s portion of their two-flat at his request and the Fabians moved from Chicago to the suburbs. With the end of high school I saw relatively little of him. Sam died of a heart attack at age 49, leaving a wife and three children with an emotional vacuum impossible to fill.

Perhaps we expect too much of relationships: that they should be forever fulfilling, at least as long as both parties live. Experience tells us most serve for a time, not more. We change, the other changes, the times change. Life goes on with new people and fresh concerns. Accepting this reality is difficult. Sam served more than well in his fatherly role and, perhaps, I was what he wanted for a time: a son borrowed, not yet born. As Marty says, we are “brothers of a different mother,” and therefore sons of the same father, in tandem.

Still, when I think of Sam it is with a sense of wistfulness. I regret few things in my life, but wish we had been closer at the end. Given a magic wand, I’d like to spend a few more minutes with him, knowing all I know now. I’d give him a big hug and say thanks.

Seven fathers. A lucky number. I could have done much worse.

Much worse.

The top photo displays four generations of the Hebert family, three of whom are (or are about to be) dads. From the rear, Tom, David, Keith (my son-in-law), and ______? The fourth generation is shown in an ultrasound image. The compilation was created by my daughter  — Keith’s wife, Carly.

The second photo was taken at my Uncle Sam’s wedding. Left to right: Aunt Charlene, me, Uncle Sam, and Aunt Florence Fabian. The final image is of my father and mother.

Looking For Someone to Take Care of Us

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/78/US_Navy_051014-N-8796S-046_A_Pakistani_child_sits_in_his_fathers_arms_aboard_a_U.S._Navy_MH-53E_Sea_Stallion_helicopter_while_his_mother_and_father_are_air_lifted_to_medical_treatment.jpg/256px-US_Navy_051014-N-8796S-046_A_Pakistani_child_sits_in_his_fathers_arms_aboard_a_U.S._Navy_MH-53E_Sea_Stallion_helicopter_while_his_mother_and_father_are_air_lifted_to_medical_treatment.jpg

I woke up in tears: torrential, engulfing, uncontrollable. I was flailing and alone — oh, so desperately heartbroken and alone. My mother was dead. It was the worst moment of my life and remains so to this day; even worse than when she actually died.

I was having a nightmare. Sitting up in bed, daylight snatched me from the kidnap of bad dreams. The sleep-induced catastrophe that bound my psyche disintegrated. And what followed was a sense of gratitude and relief that was equally unique in my experience. I was a school-aged boy, old enough to know about death; old enough to know that it meant never again being with the deceased, never having the guidance, comfort, and security only a parent provides.

What does one do in these moments when something awful and beyond our control is in the room with us — inescapable, hovering, mocking — towering over us and burrowing inside of us? What can provide comfort when a parachute is not in reach and the emptiness in our stomach tells us that we are falling from a great height; when we are drowning and there is no Houdini to help us escape the watery prison filled with our tears and our terror?

I dare say that some of us pray or feel like praying, even if we don’t believe in God. We scramble for something that will provide security. We look for someone to take care of us, an entity bigger and stronger who will make it all better. The battlefield tells a version of the story, where badly wounded, fetal-positioned soldiers cry out for their mothers.

This sense of impotence doesn’t require a situation that involves life and death. I have heard professional musicians tell me that they have more anxiety when their students perform in an important recital than when they perform themselves, fearing the worst will happen. They feel the lack of control, the troubling absence of direct influence on events; the sense of being up a creek without a paddle. If things go badly there is nothing that they can do. They can only watch the slow-motion, life-passing-before-your-eyes unraveling of things until the performance ends.

We feel this with our children, too. A child’s suffering, especially when the world treats him unfairly, can insinuate the same feeling of helplessness in the parent. We are taken hostage, as Francis Bacon said, by the misfortune of those we love. Better it should happen to us than to them.

Many of us are drawn to those who recreate the small child’s impression of parental, god-like omnipotence. These are the people who will “be there” for us in a pinch. I’ve always thought that Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was popular more for the rock-solid sense of reliance he inspired than for the particulars of his political philosophy or accomplishments. He seemed bigger than life and able to sooth all doubts about our national future. With him in charge, one didn’t have to worry. No matter the storm, he would bring the ship of state safely to port.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a8/US_Navy_110818-N-XK513-070_A_Sailor_shares_photos_with_a_Ghanaian_child.jpg/256px-US_Navy_110818-N-XK513-070_A_Sailor_shares_photos_with_a_Ghanaian_child.jpg

How badly do we want someone to care for us, to protect us, to hold us in the palm of his hand? Surely, this is the appeal of Psalm 91:4 of the Hebrew Bible, where God is described as someone who will “cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…”

What happens, though, when the gods seem to be turning away from our misfortune or unhappiness, or worse, creating it? Greek myth tells us that Achilles’s immortal mother Thetis held her child by the ankle as she dipped him in the river Styx, thus making him invulnerable except for the place where she grabbed him (his Achilles heel, which the magical water did not touch). Achilles’s father was a mortal, which meant that their son would eventually perish without special attention from his mother. Yet she failed to dip him a second time to cover the baby’s vulnerable ankle.

The story has been told that a group of prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz went so far as to indict God, although many, many doubtless did so privately and alone. A court proceeding of sorts ensued, complete with judge, prosecutor, and defense. Ellie Wiesel, 83-year-old Nobel Laureate, author, and survivor of that place says that he witnessed a small number of inmates playing out this “trial” of God: “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something.’ Then we went to pray.”

“Then we went to pray.” We do so need a god-like figure, a father, a mother, a protector, don’t we? Even a god who has been “convicted;” even a parent who is less than perfect, as all parents are. As the old Gershwin song tells us, we want “someone to watch over me.”

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c7/Mother_and_Child%2C_1912.jpg/256px-Mother_and_Child%2C_1912.jpg

There’s a saying old, says that love is blind
Still we’re often told, “seek and ye shall find”
So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind

Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet
He’s the big affair I cannot forget
Only man I ever think of with regret

I’d like to add his initial to my monogram
Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb?

There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see
I hope that he, turns out to be
Someone who’ll watch over me

I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could, always be good
To one who’ll watch over me

Although he may not be the man some
Girls think of as handsome
To my heart he carries the key

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh, how I need
Someone to watch over me

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh, how I need
Someone to watch over me

Someone to watch over me

The top photo is a Pakastani Child Sits in His Father’s Arms aboard a U.S. Navy Helicopter, where his mother and father are being airlifted for medical treatment following the October 8, 2005 earthquake. Next,Yoeman 1st Class David Honegger Shows Pictures to a Ghanaian Child. Finally, Mother and Child by Henry Essenhigh Corke. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.