When I was 5 years old I was introduced to baseball; it has been a love affair ever since. Wood, leather, dirt and grass; there can be no better combination of elements to form the life of a little boy. With several young boys and girls in my area about the same age (we lived on a cul-de-sac), there was no choice; it was inevitable that we should all become baseball players somehow. Another related rite of passage in my day was “the allowance”. One thin dime per week, allotted with ceremony every Friday night; and when you were a young boy who loved baseball with a pocket full of cash, there was only one thing to do. Every Sunday after Mass, then a quick trip to Ralph’s Luncheonette in order to pick up my weekly ration of hero worship- a pack of Topps baseball cards. A dime purchased a thin slab of impossibly sweet and hard pink bubble gum along with the real object of purchase- five or so full color baseball cards (I cannot remember the exact amount).
These cards, with their powdery slick surface and smelling of cardboardy sugar, were the medium of exchange in my world. A short hard prayer, and off came the paper covering- then the feverish shuffling began. While all cards had value for flipping, trading or even placing on our bike frames with clothespins to emit a satisfying motor-like sound, there existed the elite few cards that constituted the iconography in our world. Among us all was the acknowledged pantheon of immortals that were held high for all; yet each of us had our own special Hero, one adulated individually in our own special sanctuary. For one it was Willie Mays; another perhaps Roberto Clemente, yet another Hank Aaron: but for me, there was only one real ballplayer- Mickey Mantle.
To affirm that Mickey was my hero was an understatement. I played first base because he did. I batted from both sides- the Mick did. I posed like him, my stance was as his- my favorite number was “7”. He even had a peculiar swagger in the on deck circle that I tried to copy. I did not pray to Mickey Mantle, but I venerated him in the truest sense of the word, and his cards (I was lucky enough to have THREE of them) occupied prominent places in my bedroom. As a young boy I understood the power of images and how they can affect ones lives for the better. Constant reminders of our heroes both in word and representation give us both consolations in hard times as well as goals to strive for in good ones.
As a child I did NOT worship or adore Mickey Mantle—and no one ever suspected that I held him as worthy of Deity; yet as an adult there are many who feel that these same actions when it comes to Catholic Saints- especially Our Lady- constitute foul Idolatry. Wrong. Ask any normal, healthy, American boy and he will tell you who his hero is and why; and there will be pictures of that hero all around the room- perhaps even some second or third class relics. Young proto-athletes, be they Catholic, Protestant or heathen, have a healthier understanding of iconography than many so-called adults nowadays. To paraphrase- unless one be as a child, one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Even today, Mickey Mantle is the standard that I measure all baseball players by—just as Mary the Virgin Mother of God is the standard by which I measure all Christians.