Heroes need not be bigger than life. One of mine, in fact, was a rather diminutive man, whom I met only when he was in his later years.
I was eight years old when my parents bought their first (and only) home together, a two-family structure wherein my family would occupy the first floor. Upstairs, there lived an elderly couple, John and Alice Mackey, who had already been tenants for many years.
John Mackey had a “yes” face, which – I imagine – must have put many people at ease over the span of his years. His features were soft and kind; and, his thinning white hair, frame-less glasses, and understated mustache all contributed to his grandfatherly countenance. He was hard of hearing, walked with a Walter Brennanesque limp, and always sported a simple wooden cane. I came to love him dearly.
John was a huge Red Sox fan whose history with the team could be traced back almost to the local nine’s very beginning, around the turn of the last century. He had actually seen many of the greats of yesteryear – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, etc. – ply their craft; and, he had a storytelling gift that brought their exploits to life again for me, a budding fan.
I was not conscious of this at the time, but I now understand that John must have recognized the void in my life. And, in his own quiet and generous way, he tried to fill it. Consequently, many summer days of my childhood found me at Fenway Park with him.
Daytime baseball was common then, and crowds were nothing like they are today; so, John would buy us inexpensive tickets, and we’d gradually move to vacant seats in our favorite location, the grandstands behind first base.
Those games were a baseball immersion experience for me. I’d watch Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski), Boomer (George Scott), Rico (Petrocelli), and the other stars of the day playing on the field, and, between innings, I’d listen in rapt attention to tales of Ted Williams, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, and so many others. What a gift!
Around the sixth or seventh inning, John would reach into the paper bag he’d carried into the park and proclaim: “I have a surprise for you.” Then, he’d hand me a home-made egg salad sandwich, cut diagonally and carefully wrapped in wax paper. Even though the gesture was far from a surprise, and despite the fact that I was not at all a fan of egg salad, it was a part of our routine – our relationship – that I really came to depend upon. “Grandfathers” are thoughtful like that.
As traveling became more difficult for him, John and I would sometimes watch baseball games together on his television. We both missed the ambiance of the ballpark, but it was still a privilege to be in his presence.
Baseball got into my blood largely through John Mackey’s influence. My continuing love of the Red Sox is, at least in part, the legacy of that very good man’s kindness to this little boy.
Today, my wife and I own that same two-family house purchased by my parents in the mid-sixties. And, we live in the space once occupied by John and Alice. I think of him (and them) often… and smile.
Heroes often disappoint when their true character is revealed. John’s true character is precisely what made him my hero.
To this day, my preferred seats at Fenway are the grandstands behind first base.