Commentary

In his arms

It was my first visit to Target Field. I was watching the Twins play the Cleveland Indians. Whenever the PA announcer mentioned Casey Kotchman, the Indians first baseman, I wanted to shout, “No! Hal Trosky is the first baseman.”

Actually, Trosky was the Indians first baseman, but that was in the ’30s and ’40s. He lived across the street from my family in the tiny town of Norway in East Central Iowa, the place where he grew up. His sons were my everyday playmates; with them I listened to his exploits on the big Zenith console radio in their living room.

David Valen

I began to notice that a boy named Johnny showed up frequently, but was never invited to join the fun.

Trosky’s major league stats are impressive, to say the least. One year he led the American League in RBI (runs batted in) with 162, surpassing both Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. That year he hit 42 homes runs and batted .343. Not suprisingly, he was the progenitor of an amazing string of ball players from Norway who played on college teams, in minor leagues, and, for four or five of them, in the majors.

This tradition led to Norway’s designation as the “baseball capitol of Iowa,” and being featured in the Hollywood film (now available on DVD) The Final Season. To say that Hal Trosky was the quintessential hero of our town would be an understatement.

Expanding the circle of inclusion

But what I most remember him for is an incident that occurred in his backyard one summer when migraine headaches kept him off the playing field. Most summer evenings, we boys gathered in the Troskys’ “lower lot” adjacent to their house. There we fashioned a baseball diamond of sorts where we played sandlot ball.

I began to notice that a boy named Johnny showed up frequently, but was never invited to join the fun. Instead, he sat alone on the bank overlooking the ball field. Being one of the younger boys, I never asked why Johnny couldn’t play, and I didn’t know him well enough to ask him. I wondered if it was because folks spoke of his family as being “poor.” They lived in a house with no electricity or running water, the only such house in town.

One evening Johnny got up to leave and fell, rolling down the bank. He cried out in pain, but no one paid any attention. The game went on.

Suddenly, Hal Trosky ran from his house to Johnny’s side, picked him up in his arms, carried him to his car (the only Lincoln in town!), and took him to the doctor in Amana.

Several weeks later, Johnny again showed up and, to my great surprise, he was invited to play! His status had completely changed. I concluded then, and believe still now, that being carried in the arms of our hero turned the tide.

Every time I think about Johnny, the words of Mark’s gospel come flooding in: Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’

We all are Johnnys.

David Valen is a retired ELCA pastor.

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