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The recent death of New York Yankees hall-of-fame pitcher Whitey Ford provides me personal recollection of how, as children, we choose our role models and heroes.
Ford won 236 games, more than any other Yankee, and was a mainstay on legendary teams including the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra. He shined especially in the World Series, where over his standout career he won ten games.
I crossed paths with him once, long enough to learn a lesson in hero-worship.
But he wasn’t the hero.
This was the early 1950s, and we were a long way from Yankee Stadium that post-season autumn night. In the Fairgrounds ballpark of Northern New York’s remote Watertown, a group of pro barnstormers was annihilating the local nine. Seeing Ford, the Yankees’ Hank Bauer, and a mixed array of stars and journeymen from other teams was a major league thrill for our small gathering in the grandstand.
Between innings we could abide it no longer and bolted for the dugout, urging Ford to come out and sign our scorecards.
He waved us off disdainfully. As we began an abashed retreat, an unfamiliar player wearing the uniform of the Milwaukee Braves – previously the Boston Braves – popped out of the dugout and said he’d be happy to sign.
We scratched our heads when we read his name: Sibby Sisti. Later, we looked him up and discovered Sebastian D. Sisti, a mediocre utility player with an unexciting lifetime batting average of .244.
A few decades later as a grown-up, I reprised in a Providence Journal column how gracious he was, stressing that his mediocrity did not lessen the pleasure he brought us that long-ago night.
A few weeks later, an envelope with my name on it appeared at the Journal Building, bearing the return address of the sender: Sibby Sisti.
I froze, wondering what he had thought about my public assessment of his skills. I needn’t have worried, for in a two-page, handwritten letter, he wrote: “I want to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to you for writing such a nice article about a non-super star who ended up with a .244 career average.
“It is so nice to be remembered after all the years gone by. At the time you wrote about, I was only trying to fulfill my father’s advice when I started out as a 17-year-old rookie…always sign autographs for kids.”
When he wrote that, Sisti, who died in 2006, was retired from baseball after 13 seasons as a player and stints as a coach and minor league manager. He was driving a tractor-trailer for a freight company in Buffalo, N.Y., and had three children and eleven grandchildren.
My brief encounter with the more talented Whitey Ford gives me no portfolio to judge his brusqueness with my gang a character flaw, and I wish him good rest. He had a family, too, and was playing obscure locals on a snappish fall night a million miles from the glitter of New York.
His brilliant achievements on the mound, his sometimes-flamboyant background, and his admission of occasionally doctoring baseballs in his later playing years, is on record to be examined by anyone who cares.
As for the “mediocre” Sibby Sisti, the record says he had his qualities: speed, skill at bunting, and the ability to fill in at every position but pitcher and catcher. He likewise achieved non-stardom in the movies, playing the Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager in the classic baseball film, “The Natural.”
In his toilings there was no sunburst of glory. But the lifelong impression he left on one boy, now an octogenarian, is proof enough that when it comes to choosing those we would emulate, we should think long thoughts.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org), an occasional contributor, is a retired Providence Journal bureau chief and columnist.