Ed Byers: The Many Boys of Summer

by Ed Byers | The University of Louisville has many shortcomings, but none as public as those associated with the men’s basketball program.  Currently on probation by the National Collegiate Athletics Association for violating recruiting practices, the university faces an additional investigation for improper payments to the family of a top recruit.  The public scandals are disgraceful and tarnish the U of L in ways that are not easily whitewashed.  Nor should they be.

There seem to be weekly newspaper stores about college and professional athletes who are arrested while fighting in public or are found in a hotel room with cocaine and surrounded by people of dubious character.  Using racist words, attacking umpires or referees, and driving under the influence are so common that we accept this misbehavior as normal.  By nearly any rational standards, this is not behavior that we wish for our youth to imitate.

As these athletes enter the professional stage of their sports, some of them stand to make millions of dollars for playing a game.  We should expect better conduct of highly paid professional sports people, after all we are paying their salaries via ticket sales and the purchase of items endorsed by them.

I had only one sports hero, Steve Hamilton.  He was never a nationally recognized figure, but he was from Charlestown.  My mother and Steve’s mother were friends throughout their lives.  Steve was a relief pitcher for the New York Yankees in the early 1960s and I don’t think that professional athletes were paid nearly as much as they are now.  Many pros had second jobs to support themselves and their families.  Steve taught at Morehead State University during most of the year, but during the summer he did a magical transformation.  Not only did he become a member of the storied New York Yankees professional baseball team, he was from my small hometown!

On those hot and humid summer days, my friends and I would watch television and cheer when he pitched.  He was far more that just a New York Yankee during those summer days, he was someone that would visit our church with his mother.  He was a real-life hero that I could actually see, which was heady stuff for a kid in his innocence in the mid-1960s!

During one hometown parade, Steve Hamilton was the guest of honor and rode in the back of a new Ford convertible.  The whole town waved and yelled to him as he passed.  Fred, my older brother, place me on the corner of Main Cross and Main Street so I could get a good view of my hero.  As he approached, Steve saw me holding my baseball glove.  He reached down and held up a hardball and looked me right in the eyes.  I was stunned when he threw the ball directly at me.  So stunned, Fred later told me, that all I could do was watch the ball sail right past me before my friends quickly grabbed it.  I could not move a muscle.  My hero had looked right at me and made a personal connection that an eight-year-old boy could not comprehend.  My buddies were elated that they retrieved the ball, but I was heartbroken that I missed it.

Steve Hamilton

Fred left for a few minutes and returned with another hardball signed by Steve Hamilton.  I can still recall the joy when he placed that ball into my glove.  My friends were envious because the ball he threw was not signed.  How many millionaire baseball players today would perform such a class act?

Steve died in 1996 after suffering from a terminal illness. At that time, I was again stunned.  In my imagination Steve Hamilton was still in his early 30s and wearing a pinstriped baseball uniform.  My hero, like myself, had aged.  I had only recently accepted the fact that I was aging, and I had forgotten about all those people from my childhood that made Charlestown a special place.  Especially my hero….

As the University of Louisville climbs out of the moral abyss of the sins of its athletic program, I suggest that we demand that future college athletes possess character and morals.  I think that an enforceable moral clause into each recruit’s signing contract to stipulate that violations will result in termination from the program is needed; no arguments or legal loopholes.

I do not follow that they are “just young people growing up.”  Young people who have just graduated from college do not make salaries in the seven figures.  Even the appearance of an improper action lessens their value as a public figure.  A few of these college athletes will make millions of dollars for playing a game but they need to take responsibility for their actions.  They need to realize the importance of being some kid’s hero as opposed to some reporter’s scoop.

Steve Hamilton was my childhood hero and his compassion touched me in a special way.  If the truth was known, Steve probably influenced many people in his life; students at Morehead State, kids hanging off the fences at many dugout doors, and the recipients of the other acts of grace and kindness that he did on a regular basis.

Today’s athletes need to realize that their actions can have a direct influence on their fans; like signing a baseball for an overweight eight-year-old boy crying at the corner of Main Cross and Main Street during a long-ago summer in Charlestown.

I miss you Steve, more that you could have known…

IMG_4316Ed Byers is a resident of Charlestown and a retired United States federal agent.  He is finishing his Ph.D. program at the University of Louisville in Criminal Justice with a specialty in policing and is an adjunct professor at that university.  His dissertation examines factors involved in police shootings.

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