I am going to break an unwritten rule today. It’s a baseball rule. No, it’s not the rule that says no crying in baseball, though that might be broken today, too.
It’s the one that says baseball players can’t be heroes.
We’ve been told it’s sacrilegious to say baseball players can be heroes.
The hero status is reserved for Marines who unselfishly sacrifice their lives for their country. Heroes are those who give more than they ever receive and never ask for anything in return – not even a thank you.
And heroes are fathers who put family first above what they want out of life. It’s the little things that become big things in life that make people heroes.
But I tell you today a baseball player did all of those things.
He was a part of my life for 56 years.
He’s my dad – Kenneth Paul Maier, and he’s my hero.
Yes, he was a baseball player. You won’t find him in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But he could play ball.
When I was kid, I remember looking in my dad’s sock dresser where he had these little compartments in the top drawer. One compartment was where he had a pack of Raleigh cigarettes and several coupons he collected from the packs. Apparently, back in the day if you collected enough coupons you could get some nice lawn furniture. I don’t ever remember seeing him light up (he quit when I was little), but I always wondered where we got our lawn furniture.
To the right of those cigarettes were little brass and silver baseball trinkets on a little key ring. I asked one of dad’s poker buddies about what I found and he told me that Dad was a very good baseball player – good enough to play in the majors. You can imagine what that meant to a little kid. My eyes lit up. Dad could be playing with Henry Aaron, I thought when I was about 7-years-old. I was thinking like any little kid: Dad’s obviously an undiscovered legend and I can get his autograph anytime I want.
Maybe Dad’s poker buddy told a tall tale to a little boy, but years later when I heard he was playing in a senior league with some players who were years younger, it got me dreaming like a little kid again. Maybe it wasn’t a tall tale. The local news even did a story about his softball team – and we have the video somewhere in the house to prove it. So just maybe…
In the senior leagues, Dad, of course, could hit the ball so far – that for anyone else it would be an inside-the-park home run – but his back was in pain and his legs were no longer what they used to be – so he couldn’t round third to be safe at home.
Still some said he was simply the best player on that team. He played well into his 80s and then when he couldn’t play, he managed the team.
We bonded watching baseball – ever since he took me to my first game when the Milwaukee Braves hosted the Pirates. Wearing a huge glove, I was determined to catch a foul ball even though I feared it was going to pop me in my head.
Years later, we watched the 1982 World Series between the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals and a few weeks before he passed the Orioles (my adopted team) and the Royals’ playoff game. And nine months earlier, we watched the Broncos in the Super Bowl. (All the teams I rooted for lost – so don’t invite me to your house if there’s a big game and you want me to root for your team.)
Dad never pursued playing professionally. Instead at 17, he volunteered to join the Marines and enlisted as the war was coming to a close. He became a China Marine. While victory was declared, anyone who knows anything about China knows the war didn’t end on that day in China.
He never talked much about what happened in China and really never encouraged his three sons to enlist – maybe because he had seen enough – or maybe, as he used to tell me, eating Spam every day just wasn’t that much fun.
You can say Dad chose my mom and his kids over his personal dreams like baseball or taking major financial risks like buying a donut shop that he once considered doing because he loved donuts.
Truth be told, you couldn’t raise a family on trolling in the minor leagues and even the big leagues paid less than a salesman or fundraiser could earn and you would have to sell a lot of donuts to pay the mortgage.
But that was Dad – always thinking of others first. Maybe the best example is the countless number of vacations we took that involved fishing and staying in cottages with a bat attacking mom. Yeah, Mom, I remember Dad taking a broom and chasing the bat while you – Mom – hid under the blanket. Those were great memories. We would fish all day – catch a boatload of perch and bluegills and Mom would cook it and we would have a classic Milwaukee fish fry.
Years later when I asked Dad about going fishing, he confessed: he never liked fishing. He only did it for us.
After the war, he graduated from Marquette in three years. He didn’t understand and joked how I could be on a five-year plan, or that my older brother Greg was on a seven-year plan – though I never saw Greg’s diploma and Greg never really showed Dad any grades. So I haven’t seen any proof that he graduated, but he has had quite a successful business career and a great family.
A high school counselor advised my oldest brother Mike to forget college. But Dad believed more in Mike than that high school counselor. Mike graduated with advanced degrees and raised a great family, and did a lot of work on computer systems for cities in Florida, supposedly to protect those cities from a major attack. Knowing my brother was behind protecting those cities, that’s why I don’t live in Florida.
Dad could be firm when he needed to be. I remember returning from Seattle – a post-graduation trip – and getting dropped off at the Wisconsin state border. I hitchhiked back to our home. Never told you that Mom. For a few months, I didn’t do very many constructive things – I partied until 2 in the morning and had a great time. I had it made with the magic laundry basket and the magic table. My laundry was always done – thanks Mom – and food was always on the table – thanks again Mom – glad you cooked and not Dad – although I could have done without the pot roast surprises And it was free. I really didn’t see the point in looking for work. Until one day, Dad told me he sold the house and I had 30 days to find a place to live.
Sold the house? Yeah, right. Dad had been saying that for years. But this time he was serious. He got an apartment in Theinsville, Wisconsin.
I asked him, “How many bedrooms?”
He said, “Two.”
I said , “Perfect. I will take one and you and mom can have the other.”
No, the room was going to be used for his office, he said.
I didn’t understand how was I supposed to fit my stuff in the room if he put his office stuff there. That would be too much stuff.
Simple, he said. “You have to find a place to live – with your stuff.”
“But I don’t even have a job,” I said.
And it was his message – to get my act in gear and start making my way. It was the best gift he ever gave me. And years later, he did the same thing to my older son when he graduated and was living with my parents for a few months until he got the boot. I am sure my son will come to appreciate that lesson as much as I do now.
Dad was always there, giving me words of encouragement, like life’s journey was more important than actually getting there so fast.
At times I was so broke – and of course when you have money problems – cars always fall apart. With me, let’s just say I wasn’t so good about keeping oil in the car – make that two cars – and I was financially challenged. No problem; the Bank of Dad, as he used to say, is always open. And he never asked for a cent back.
He was always there.
It didn’t matter what it was – like when I moved to the East Coast and I was waiting on results regarding a possible tumor. Dad just said: “Don’t worry we will be there immediately.”
Fortunately, no tumor. It turned out the spleen I ruptured in a pick-up high school football game in the 1970s supposedly was growing back and rubbing against some internal organs – 20 years later.
I wasn’t the best of sons – screwing up financially, messing up career choices and generally not having much direction for the first quarter century of my life.
I drifted a lot – ran restaurants for six years, lived in Bristol, England, and eventually went back to school to become a writer – something I think he knew I always would become, but he wanted me to figure it out for myself.
But Dad still believed in me – even if at times I didn’t. His faith in me was as strong as his faith was in God.
“Look at Reagan,” he said. “He was an actor, broadcaster governor and president. He doesn’t know what he wants to do.”
He said I would have several careers in my life just like Reagan.
Dad was right.
So I eventually became a writer and an editor for newspapers, magazines, online websites. I wrote hundreds of stories, appeared on Sunday morning talk shows and even had a movie made out of some of the work I did, although the actor who played the reporter was short and fat. Typical Hollywood.
My journalism background helped me trace our family roots – something Dad had been doing for years. Dad had traced it back to Mississippi , but couldn’t find out information about his family known as the Fitzgeralds, who owned a newspaper. Turns out one of Dad’s relatives was Charles Fitzgerald, the first U.S. Postal Inspector in the United States and the first one slain in the line of duty. Dad had written letters to a Mississippi newspaper years ago trying to learn things about the Fitzgerald family, but nothing came of that letter until a Smithsonian researcher discovered the letter as they were putting together a tribute to Postal Inspectors in DC. The researcher located Mom. They called Mom to get the only known photo of Charles Fitzgerald, which was framed on the wall in my parent’s basement. All those years we didn’t even know who was in the photo – and now we knew.
I showed Dad the photo of the Smithsonian exhibit a month before he passed. This time his eyes lit up like mine did as kid when I thought I might be living with a baseball legend. Dad was obsessed with finding out about his roots, which became my quest once I learned my great, great uncles were newspapermen and a famous postal inspector. Dad and I bonded over that journey, which came to a wonderful ending. He died finally knowing his ancestors. It’s as if he directed me on a journalism journey to find out our roots.
During all those years in journalism, I always wondered what Dad thought about my career choice.
I got the answer recently rummaging through Dad’s closet and I was stunned – he kept every article I ever wrote for a political magazine and every book where my work was cited.
I always knew he was proud of Greg and Mike, but Mom, I think he was proud of me too.
That meant a lot to me to open up that closet.
I can tell all of you – I am so proud of Dad.
I told him that years ago when I got married and my wife Susan was expecting our first child. Dad asked me if I was ready to be a father. I said, “Yes, because I had the best teacher.”
I don’t know if I am half the father Dad was to me or if I ever will be. It’s a work in progress.
But what a legacy Dad left – three successful sons, six grandchildren, a great-grandchild and more on the way – and Mom who is still telling me to comb my hair and what shoes to wear.
But let’s go back back to baseball. I have one confession to make – I never was really a good ball player – not like Dad. I could never hit a curve ball, but Dad taught me how to handle the curves in life. He taught me what it means to be a real baseball player – one who places his team – that being his family – above himself.
He might not be in Cooperstown, but he’s a hall of famer in my book.
And if I close my eyes, I can see him on Heaven’s team hitting the ball so hard and rounding third. I know for sure that today his back and legs are fine and finally he’s safe at home.
Kenneth Paul Maier
Dec. 30, 1926 -Nov. 13, 2014.
In lieu of flowers, please donate to the American Cancer Society.