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My Father’s Hero

June 16, 2017

Written on May 21, 2007

I lost my only brother at 25 but I have been blessed with a father for 50 Father’s Days. I have watched and admired how someone who had so much ripped away can still be delighted by his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He listens and plays with them as if he were their brother, as if he were their age.

 

My father’s hero was Hank Greenberg. In my father’s childhood, “Hammerin’ Hank” became the most prolific hitter on the Detroit Tigers. The first Jewish superstar, Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur when the Tigers were fighting for a pennant. In 1938, he hit 58 home runs, the most home runs since Babe Ruth’s 60 and in 1942, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

As my father and I walked the corridors of Comerica Park and viewed Greenberg’s photo and his 1945 Detroit team, I listened to memories of “the magical season” when my dad was 13, the hometown hero returned to his city, and the war ended.

This was the first time my father and I went to a Major League baseball game in decades and his first trip to the “park” that replaced Tiger Stadium. As the Tigers and Orioles battled in the sixth inning, the wind started gusting and the rain fell hard on our heads. We decided to escape the rain over our heads and watched the game instead on a 19” TV screen above the concession stand.

As we watched Gary Sheffield come to the plate, my father told me about the return of Greenberg. My dad and his friend had paid 50 cents to get bleacher tickets for a doubleheader on July 1st, 1945, Hank’s first game since joining the army. The Tigers were up in the early innings of the game but Hank was many batters away. My dad joined his friend who said there was plenty of time to get a hot dog. The lines were very long and the disappointment severe as the thunderous ovation erupted. They missed Hank hitting his first home run. Hank didn’t homer again that night and didn’t even play in the doubleheader’s second game. After he told the story, we heard a loud noise and watched Gary Sheffield, on instant replay, hit his first home run since joining the Tigers.

I couldn’t remember when my dad and I had last seen a Tigers game. Even though we worked together for two decades in the company he managed, I didn’t recall going to a game with him during or after hours. Instead, I remembered Little League when I had slugged my first good hit over the left fielder’s head with the bases loaded and trotted the bases from first to second, heading to third. I couldn’t forget the third base coach, my dad, screaming at me to keep running. But I was too tired and stopped at third base as he yelled at me, “You could have had a grand slam!” That’s what I remember now though my memory is selective, often focused on what’s most hilarious or horrible.

My father’s most towering memory is his worst, the night he went with my brother, Kenny, to a Detroit-Chicago baseball game in the summer of ’82 when Kenny was 13. On their way home, at the last traffic light before he entered his subdivision, another car went through a blinking red light into my father’s car, slamming into the passenger side.

My father has lived with so many what ifs in the last quarter century. What if he had swerved left? What if he had slowed down or sped up just five seconds? What if he had never gone to the Tigers game with his youngest son?

The last night he shared with Kenny can never be erased. The night has markers every year, always within six weeks after Father’s Day. This year is the 25th anniversary of the death of my brother, Kenneth Samuel, who was born on December 23, 1968 and died on July 21, 1982.

I often think of the grief of parents when I read of dead American soldiers in Iraq and know their aches may soften but the haunted wishes for their sons or daughters’ returns will never disappear.

I know survivors fortunate to have fathers are incredibly lucky, as I am, after my father survived the crash and stayed in my life for another 25 years.

My father was a tough boss and sometimes a demanding father, expecting a lot from me. Or so it seemed before my three children, before watching my oldest son, named after Kenny, ready to enter his fourth year of college.

I lost my only brother at 25 but I have been blessed with a father for 50 Father’s Days. I have watched and admired how someone who had so much ripped away can still be delighted by his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He listens and plays with them as if he were their brother, as if he were their ages.

My mother, sister, wife, and I know a 75-year-old man with lymphoma and veins prepped for kidney dialysis won’t live forever. So we must be thankful for the days we have left, the nights we won’t get again.

I am thankful for memories and imagination. After the seventh inning, when we left Comerica Park, I began to envision Kenny’s last night alive when he and his dad entered Tiger Stadium.

Hank Greenberg

I smiled when I imagined my father showing Kenny a photo of the one and only Hammerin’ Hank. I could picture the enthralled eyes of my brother, listening to his dad reliving his childhood in 1945, the year that he celebrated Hank coming home from World War II and leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series Championship.

Some memories can never be erased, even the imaginary ones.

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