There were two men who defined their sports when I was a little boy.  Their careers overlapped for 15 years and each was the leader of the greatest dynasty in their respective games.  They were not in any way similar personalities.

Exasperated, the team finally bought the senior league and changed its status to professional.

Mickey Mantle was a guy from Oklahoma.  His name may be the first I ever learned associated with sports.  He was muscled and blond and like to carouse.  He would’ve been described at the time as a man’s man.  He was the undoubted leader of the New York Yankees when the ball club was at its zenith in a long dominant history.

Sportswriters protected Mantle from a side of his personality the general public didn’t often see.  Mantle may have begun his career as a sweet fresh-faced kid from the Midwest but celebrity took a toll.  I’ve heard stories from people who encountered Mantle and describe him snarling even at children.  It’s too easy to say the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history was a flawed hero.

He liked playing baseball.  He didn’t like the loss of his privacy.  Mantle couldn’t go out and eat his breakfast in a diner without getting pestered by fans and autograph seekers.  I’m not being apologetic because some guy in a mine would’ve gladly traded places but I have an inkling of the experience.

I’ll never know the adulation and celebrity with which the Yankee star lived.  I’m a small-market radio guy and, still.  Many years ago an old friend invited me to dinner.  We had worked together and he had been given the news he was going to die young.  We arrived at a restaurant and ordered our meals.  Just as the hot food arrived a man from another table got up and walked over.  “I recognize that voice,” he said to me.  “What are you doing?” asked the guy.

“I’m trying to eat my dinner while it’s hot,” I replied.  He laughed and then just started talking as if he expected I would do an encore for him for the next twenty minutes.  Finally, exasperated, I shared I was off the clock.  He was miffed.  “You aren’t very nice, after all!” he sputtered.  No kidding!  Magnify my experience a thousand times with Mantle.

I wish I was more Jean Beliveau.  You may not recognize his name because he played in the NHL for 18 seasons when the game wasn’t known in much of the United States.  He was captain of a team that won 10 Stanley Cups during his career.  He could’ve had more.  Instead, he delayed turning pro to play in a senior league (a name for a league where players who’ve reached the age where they can play professionally remain because usually no one has made them an offer).  He was one of the most dominant players of his era.  He had an agreement with the Montreal Canadiens.  If the day arrived when he decided to play for better money he would play for the club.  Exasperated, the team finally bought the senior league and changed its status to professional.  Beliveau joined Montreal.

He hadn’t been in a rush because he believed the people of Quebec City had been good to him and he owed them something in return.  He was devoted to wife and family.  After the tragic death of a son-in-law he turned down an appointment as Governor General of Canada.  Because he believed his grandchildren needed a man in their lives.  He would appear at sandlots and play baseball with children.  Usually in jacket and tie.  He had time for anyone stopping him on the street.  Beliveau was tall (6’4”) and slender.  His dark hair was always in place.

When he died 4-years-ago a writer in his home country told the story of his big heart.  Her father admired the retired hockey player.  The old man had a struggling business and decided to take his product to a trade show and badly needed to get people into his booth.  The daughter bypassed a sports agent and spoke directly to Beliveau and explained she couldn’t pay much.  “Can I bring some books?” was his reply.  He showed up and signed hundreds of free copies of his story.  Walking to a parking lot after the show he turned to the woman.  “Your father is very proud of you!” he offered.

These men were among the great heroes of my youth.  I never had their athletic skills but I can try and emulate people skills.  Unfortunately, I’m more often a Mantle than a Beliveau.

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