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When Pro Sports Lost its Superhero Cape

Childhood remembrances of athletes who have been taken away.

 

Growing up, I was the kid who loved listening to music and watching professional sports. I was obsessed with both.

When an album from a favorite artist was released, I’d study the liner notes and read every lyric. I knew every song.

When the newest Topps and Fleer football or baseball cards landed on the shelves at Frank’s Stationary or Mini Mart, I’d beg my mom and dad for their spare change and get as many packs as possible. I’d pull the players of my favorite team from the decks and throw the rest into a box.

It’s not the same now. Kids pluck songs a la carte off iTunes. They’ll buy a box of cards and search for the hottest rookies and those that have the most value. Team loyalty has lost some of its significance over the past 40 years. I wonder if the popularity of fantasy leagues is contributing to it.

I remember admiring a few players from other teams such as Roger Staubach and Cal Yastrzemski. But I’d never dress like them. It seems kids wear jerseys of their favorite players now, regardless of their team. Free agency deserves some of the credit for that.

Sports tragedies are different. They have a way of settling in our heads and staying there regardless of allegiances. We all own them.  

Without any research or support from Google, I’m going to pull together some memories of those athletes whose deaths impacted me the most.  

Roberto Clemente died on my birthday (Dec. 31). I was either nine or ten at the time. What I remember most is that he was bringing supplies to a country that had been devastated by an earthquake. I also recall the story of his son or daughter begging him not to go because of a recurring nightmare about a plane crash.

I was 9 years old in 1972 but remember the Munich Massacre of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team very well. The image that sticks with me is of the masked gunmen on the balcony and Jim McKay on the screen telling us that all the hostages were gone.

Bob Moose, a pitcher for the Pirates, died in a car accident on the way to his own birthday party. I knew him mostly because of his baseball card. That card stayed on our end table for the next week.

Lyman Bostock was shot and killed about two years later. He was a guy who I’d always pictured as a Yankee. His baseball cards were kept in the special box set aside for such players as Freddy Lynn and Rod Carew.

Troy Archer was a young defensive end for the NY Giants who I liked a lot. It was during training camp before the 1979 season that he was killed in a car crash.

During the early 70s, when the Yankees were simply awful, Bobby Murcer was my idol. When he was traded for Bobby Bonds, I wrote a nasty letter to the Yankees. He came back to NY (not because of my letter) the year that Thurman died and then later became a Yankees broadcaster. He was the first of my childhood heroes to pass away in my adult years.

But nothing can compare to the numbness I felt when I heard about the death of the Captain, Thurman Munson. I was a freshman in high school and at home watching TV. A sportscaster came on Channel 11 — eyes red. There was footage of a mangled plane and a picture of the Captain from the day before. I spent the rest of the night in search of more info. Later they showed Billy, Murcer, Reggie, and Piniella — all devastated, all with red eyes. And a few days later, on Monday Night Baseball, the Yankees took the field. Each position was filled with a player, except behind home plate. No number 15. And later, there was Bobby Murcer, winning the game in honor of his best friend.

Something changed for me that day. A young man let go of the little boy who fought hard to hold onto bubble gum-scented cardboard heroes. It was the day that sports lost its superhero cape.

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