This Christmas, don’t forget the things that are truly important

  • December 13, 2011

In this Advent season of expectation and worship, I was thinking about hero worshipping when I noticed that the other day was the 100th anniversary of the birth of my dad’s boyhood hero, Joe “Ducky” Medwick.

Unless you’re a diehard baseball fan, you’ve probably never heard of Ducky. But everyone in my family knows of him because my late father’s only encounter with Ducky has long been family lore.

It happened during the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Dad was born and raised in Washington, Penn., a small town outside Pittsburgh. He grew up loving baseball and his hero played for the St. Louis Cardinals, not the local Pittsburgh Pirates.

Medwick played 17 seasons and recorded a lifetime .324 batting average. In 1937, he achieved a rarity by winning the National League triple crown (highest batting average, most runs batted in and most home runs). No other NL player has done that since. He was a great player and he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

At the peak of Ducky’s career, the St. Louis Cardinals had a minor league baseball team in dad’s hometown. One summer in the 1930s, dad was thrilled when Ducky and the other Cards players, known as the “Gashouse Gang,” came to play an exhibition game against the minor league team in Washington.

Dad, 10 years old at the time, went down to the quaint minor league ball park really early and waited to see, and hopefully meet, his hero. He hung around the visiting team’s dugout with his Cardinals cap, baseball mitt, Brownie camera and, of course, his autograph book.

Finally, as the ball players were taking to the field for warm ups, he got a glimpse of Ducky. He screwed up enough courage to yell out: “Mr. Medwick, Mr. Medwick. Can I get your autograph?”

Ducky turned around and spit out: “Buzz off, kid.”

Actually, that is the sanitized version — Ducky used a different four-letter word.

Dad told that story many times, always to great laughter. (Depending on the audience, the story could be told in its sanitized form or in its gritty, true form.) His offspring continue to tell the story.

When I was young — but finally old enough to hear the exact dialogue, not the sanitized version — dad would wait until the laughter subsided and then end it with a warning: beware of hero worshipping because sometimes we worship the wrong things. Often, he’d say, what and who we’re worshipping turn out not to be what we thought. His warning has stuck with me all my life.

I don’t mean to pick on Ducky and speak ill of the dead. Maybe he wasn’t a curmudgeon who enjoyed pricking little kids’ balloons. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe he simply didn’t want to be there and he took it out on the first person who said something to him. He obviously never knew the impact of that one retort for 75 years and counting.

So, what does all this have to do with Advent and the Christmas season?

First, not just in the season of goodwill, but all year round, we should be mightily aware of what we’re saying and how our words can impact on others, especially on young impressionable minds.

Second, and more importantly at this time of year, it is too easy to worship things that aren’t important. Effortlessly, we can get caught up in the frenetic pace of shopping, decorations, gift-wrapping, parties and other distractions in December.

We all know the true meaning of Christmas, but sometimes other things receive a little bit too much worship.

One Christmas wish I have is that I can be more attentive to the needs of others, less dismissive when someone on the street approaches me for money, hug my kids a little more tightly, be more aware of the things I say to others and ever more mindful of that baby born in the manger.

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