Cy Young or “the” Cy Young?

If Cy Young had been able to beat death the way he beat other baseball teams, he’d have celebrated his 153rd birthday today. Born March 29, 1867, Denton True “Cy” Young remains the winningest pitcher in baseball history. That won’t ever change. Dude won a ridiculous and untouchable 511 games in his career. He also pitched the most innings, tossed three no-hitters, won 30 or more games in a season five times. He has an award named after him. You might have heard of it.

But the weird thing about all this is, when I woke up this morning I had no idea it was Cy Young’s birthday, after thinking about him, abstractly, for most of the night (I don’t know what’s weirder – the coincidence that today is his birthday, or that I was thinking about him in the middle of the night).

Anyway, I was up half the night tossing and turning mainly because of an aching back. But there was also a rotating playlist of random, nagging thoughts that also managed to chase sleep from the room. One of those thoughts, one that kept repeating itself, was this one: I couldn’t stop wondering how many 300-game winners in the history of baseball were also .300 hitters at some point in their careers. The list of pitchers who won 300 games is an exclusive club, with only 24 members, and Cy topping the list. Given the nature of how the game is played today (well, when there isn’t a global pandemic), there probably won’t be another 300-game winner.

Players who bat .300 are not nearly as rare as 300-game winners, but those .300 hitters are among the highest paid players in the game. A pitcher who can bat .300 is exceedingly rare, because pitchers are notoriously lousy hitters, thus the employment of the designated hitter rule in the American League nearly 50 years ago (I know, I know, even my inner thoughts are long-winded – you should hear them from this end). So a pitcher with 300 wins in his career, who also hit .300 (at least for one full season), has to be almost non-existent, I thought.

When Cy won his 300th game in 1901, he became the sixth thrower to reach that plateau. And then he became the first 300-game winner to bat .300 in a full season when he recorded a .321 mark in 1903, a year in which he won 28 games and helped lead Boston to victory in the first World Series.

It was another 20 years before another top ace batted .300, but in 1921 Grover Cleveland Alexander (who would win 373 games) hit .305 for the Phillies. Next to do it was Walter Johnson, who is second to Young in all-time wins with 417, and was renowned as a hitter among hurlers. Johnson batted . 433 in 1925, while earning 20 victories for the Senators, who won their second straight American League pennant that year (he topped .340 his last season, two years later, by the way).

The last 300-game winner to bat .300 over a full season (not interrupted by injury, war, etc.) was Warren Spahn. A .194 career hitter, the lefty batted .333 in 1958, hitting two of his 35 career home runs, while leading the National League in wins (22) and innings pitched (290) as his Braves won the pennant.

More numbers. I know, big deal.

Even though the trivia question is what bugged me, and was the thing that needed to be fed, the most satisfying thing I absorbed this morning wasn’t the statistics. It was Cy’s birthday. Seeing it listed there, after this absurd trivia question burned my brain all night, had a bigger meaning for me than strange coincidence. I was reminded of a story from 30 years ago when, as sports editor of The Madisonian (an old, tiny weekly that used to exist in Madison, Georgia), I was digging through old copies of the paper and came across some old articles about a short-lived semi-pro baseball circuit in central Georgia called the Million Dollar League in 1920, when the star player for the Madison team was none other than Cy Young.

On the highly-competitive and stressful sports history beat, this was a real scoop. I even pitched the story to Sports Illustrated and they almost bit (I think someone must have discovered that Bronko Nagurski was a cross-dresser, and that pushed me and Cy out of the running).  Anyway, found an old local resident who remembered the league and insisted that this was, indeed, “the” Cy Young, who would have been 53 at the time. Then I tracked down the author of what was, at that time, the only available biography about Cy Young, and he told me, “it certainly could have been him.” Because he knew that Cy had pitched a little some exhibitions in his post-big league years, and could have come south to take money from rich local yokels running a second-rate independent league stocked with college players and professionals.

Digging a little deeper (i.e., going to the local library to pore over the Baseball Encyclopedia, which listed every person who ever had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and their statistics) I discovered there were several players named Young from olden days who took the nickname “Cy” (as it turns out, I think about half the population had that nickname – keep reading). The story I wrote left the question hanging, and I didn’t find out until this morning that the Cy Young who pitched for Madison, Georgia, in the Million Dollar League was actually a guy named Harley Young, a journeyman pitcher who spent most of his career in the minor leagues (but that made him a ringer in the sticks).

The most hilarious thing I found was a tiny news item in the The Atlanta Constitution from July 20, 1920, under the header, ‘Cy Young to Million Dollar.’ The story is written, perhaps unintentionally, as a fine old joke, reporting that Young “jumped the Petersburg (Virginia League) club, having accepted an offer with one of the clubs of the Million Dollar League.” And then there is the punchline: “Following the jumping of Young, a warrant was issued for the arrest of ‘Cy’ Pierce, scout for the independent league. The warrant charges him with soliciting labor illegally.”

In Denton True Young’s case, “Cy” was short for “Cylone,” because the backstop fences he destroyed with his blazing fastball looked like a cyclone had hit them. Harley Young undoubtedly borrowed the nickname (or it was conferred upon him by hopeful observers) from “the” Cy Young, hoping the magic would rub off on him. It didn’t (he was 0-3 for his big league career). And Cy Pierce? He’s just the punchline in an old joke, but I hope he beat the rap.

***

Several years ago I went to Boston for a few days for a writing gig. It was March, cold, before the baseball season. In addition to getting some work done, I had a couple of personal missions: Visit Fenway Park, and find the site of the first World Series, the 1903 classic between the Boston Pilgrims (before they were the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh Pirates. I’d heard there was a statue of Boston ace Cy Young, so I went a lookin’ …

… and I walked past it twice before spying it, hidden in a garden behind the Cabot Center, an athletics facility on the Northeastern University campus. It marks the spot where the pitcher’s mound was in the old Huntington Avenue Base Ball Grounds. As the picture shows, I was really geeked to be sharing the mound with “the” Cy Young.

Matty was Bigger than Baseball

I’ve been thinking of Christy Mathewson lately, a great hero who died prematurely from an illness of the lungs that may have been related to a global influenza pandemic.

Matty’s tuberculosis could have been the lethal side effect from an accidental dosing of poison gas during a World War I training exercise in France, an unfortunate incident that Ty Cobb described in detail in his autobiography: “I can recall Mathewson saying, ‘when we were in there, I got a good dose of that stuff. I feel terrible.’ He was wheezing and blowing out congested matter.”

Branch Rickey – like Mathewson and Cobb, an officer in the Chemical Warfare Service – didn’t recall it that way, saying that he’d been through the same training with Matty, and later that day watched the great pitching ace beat everyone in a broad jumping contest, “by a considerable margin.”

It could be that Mathewson’s lungs deteriorated as a result of the flu, which caught up with him (as it did to about 500 million people, killing 16 million) on the cold, damp sea voyage to Europe. Or perhaps the combination of super flu and poison gas gave his lungs a deadly one-two punch that took seven long years to finish him.

What we do know for sure is that Christy Mathewson died on October 7, 1925 of tuberculosis pneumonia. He was 45 and it was 11 at p.m., “only hours after ‘Big Train’ Walter Johnson, whose right-handed pitching feats had constantly been compared to Matty’s, defeated the Pirates in the first game of the World Series,” wrote Ray Robinson in his terrific biography of Mathewson.

The public outpouring was massive. Newspapers in every big city or small hamlet had something to say, some of it a bit overwrought (imagine that, says yours truly, who never saw a sentence that he couldn’t overwrite, including the one you’re being tormented with right now). One claimed that Matty overshadowed George Washington. Mathewson’s longtime manager and friend, John McGraw, put it best (as related by Robinson) when he said, after his friend’s memorial: “I do not expect to see his like again but I do know that the example he set and the imprint he left on the sport that he loved and honored will remain long after I am gone.”

Mathewson the man has always been more interesting to me than Mathewson the pitcher (who may have been the best ever – no one will ever equal his 1905 World Series performance, when he threw three complete game shutouts to lift his New York Giants over the Philadelphia Athletics). He won 373 games (twice as many as he lost) and posted a lifetime earned run average of 2.13 in his 17-year career, relying heavily on what he called the “fadeaway” pitch, which was basically a screwball. He was the face of baseball in the early 20th century.

But something about Matty lured others to him like a gravitational pull. His positivity, his work ethic, his fair-mindedness, and level-headedness. In a sport that employed a lot of rough tactics back in the day, played by tough guys, Mathewson not only held his own, but rose above all of them. Saints and sinners alike respected Big Six (one of his many nicknames, taken from a famous New York City fire engine of the day). He was highly competitive, and all class whether he won or lost.

He was no brute or ruffian, but nor was he a boy scout or lightweight. The idol of millions, including people who hated McGraw and his Giants, Christy was one of those guys that you just wanted to be around. I would have liked to meet him.

Anyway, the picture.

The book is from 1912. It was mostly written by a guy named John Wheeler, from interviews with Mathewson. There are places where Matty’s distinctive voice comes through (and the book has been very popular for more than 100 years), but critics have said it could have been  better if it had been written entirely by Christy. The baseball card is a 1911 T-205 (tobacco card). Both of them came into our care accidentally (in other words, I wasn’t actively seeking Mathewson memorabilia, mainly because it’s way out of my price range).

I found the book in a Madison, Georgia, flea market about 30 years ago. It was in a bin with a bunch of other books and it cost me a buck, bargain of the century. The card cost even less, as it arrived in a stack of cards as part of a gift, purchased, no doubt, from someone who had no idea of what he or she was trying to part with. The Mathewson card arrived with a few other treasures (a 1940 card of Connie Mack and 1933 Dazzy Vance, among others). A sweet, unexpected gift.

Honestly, from the looks of them, they’re probably not worth much in the way of dollars. I’m not planning to get rid of them, anyway (although my dear, departed friend, Col. Bruce Hampton, offered to take them off my hands after saying, “Gawd, you have those?”). Anyway, these little scraps of history don’t belong to me. The way I see it, they belong to the four of us – Jane, Samantha, Joe, and I. As the oldest among them, and the one with the most experience as a baseball fan, and also the one who knows where they are kept, I’ll be their steward, whose primary task is to keep these things in a safe place and write about them, sort of like a show-and-tell, every time I do some spring cleaning.

The kids will have control after I’m gone, because Jane is very, “meh,” about it. Don’t get me wrong, she knows most of this baseball lame brain stuff because it’s the kind of stuff I’ll spew on a long ride to keep myself awake (which has the opposite effect on her, oddly enough). So, the kids will get to decide what to do with it when I shuffle off to the green room at the end of the universe, where the beer is cold, imported, and free.

I doubt that the kids will look at these items with the same sense of awe and loss that I get. These artifacts mean more to me than their trade value. They are a direct connection to the past, an imprint from everyone else whoever touched it (a scary thought these days). These little things are a handheld time machine that drive my imagination. I wonder what the world would have been like if Christy Mathewson had never gone to war, or never gotten the flu (or inhaled poison gas), and what would it be like if he had lived a full life. He was, by all accounts, a good dude. What further good, I wonder , could Christy Mathewson have done, either in baseball or outside of it. Also, I can’t help thinking about the irony that this baseball immortal known for clean living appeared on baseball cards that came with packs of cigarettes and then later died young from a lung disease.

But mostly, I imagine what it would have been like in 1912, when these items were brand new and can’t help thinking, damn, Matty has three great seasons left and then a short-lived career as manager of the Reds, and president of the Braves — he only has another 13 years left to live! And it kind of sucks, because when the world lost Christy Mathewson, it lost more than a baseball hero. It lost, in the words of Grantland Rice, “a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains, and personality.”

We can always use a little more of that.

Opening Day Called on Account of Plague

For some of us – and it’s been said over and over again by all manner of baseball egghead, including yours truly – baseball is more than a sport or a corporate enterprise. It really is a state of mind. It is both giddy thrill and deep comfort.

It is an imperfect but consoling and cherished companion on the transient existential road and, for some of us, it can be a spiritual salve that, more than religion, imparts a sense of a joyous (or even monotonous) eternal life: extra innings can, theoretically, go on forever.

But not today. Not on Opening Day. The game has been called on account of plague, and I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of messed up about it. I haven’t been the kind of ball fan that hangs on every pitch from every game, not for a long time. Hell, we haven’t had regular TV service (i.e., ESPN and other TV stations that broadcast ballgames) for at least 10 years. When I do take in a game, it’s been on the radio most of the time, or through box scores and stories online.

Even in those rare times when I didn’t give a damn, or I was pissed off at the game, just knowing it was there, marking the seasons, doing its job, gave off a sense of desired normalcy and permanence, kind of like gravity: something you don’t see or think about very often, but you’re really glad it’s there, because when it’s not you float listlessly into space, which is kind of how I felt in 1994, when the season (and World Series, which the Braves woulda won, and Tony Gwynn’s chance at batting .400) was cancelled because of a labor dispute. But this is much worse. At least the labor dispute didn’t cause people to get sick and die.

So, on the one hand, I’m really glad that there is wisdom enough in the world to postpone crowd-heavy events like Opening Day (and March Madness, and the NBA season, etc., etc., etc.) in an effort to somehow corral this historically bad virus. It makes total sense and is exactly the right thing to do. On the other … I don’t have to like it, damn it.

Today is a day I was really looking forward to, the big “Play Ball” to the 2020 baseball season. Well, I still looked forward to today (and look forward to tomorrow), but for entirely different reasons. We’re deprived of Opening Day for now, but it’ll come back. Maybe in May, June. Can’t say right now.

If this virus doesn’t finish us, Opening Day will come back. But since, temporarily, we can’t experience any new games  and new statistics and new records (the fantasy baseball enterprise is really struggling, I’m sure), here’s an example of some of the most memorable Opening Days:

1901 – The Detroit Tigers, playing their first game ever, scored 10 runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 14-13, in what still stands as the biggest Opening Day comeback. The Brewers left town the next season and became the St. Louis Browns (who became the Baltimore Orioles).

1910 – President William Howard Taft starts a long tradition with the presidential first pitch on April 14, then sticks around to watch ace Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators blank the mighty Philadelphia Athletics, 3-0. The first pitch tradition lasted a century. The last time it happened was on the 100-year anniversary of Taft’s inaugural toss. Our nation’s last legitimate president, Barack Obama, threw out the ceremonial pitch on April 14, 2010, before the Washington Nationals’ season opener.

1912 – On April 20 the Boston Red Sox opened Fenway Park with a thrilling 7-6 win in 11 innings, just a few days after the sinking of the Titanic.

1923 – Babe Ruth christened brand new Yankee Stadium (known, naturally, as the House the Ruth Built) with a home run on Opening Day (April 18) in front of a record (at the time) 74,200 fans.

1926 – Walter Johnson did it to the Athletics again. This time he hooked up with Eddie Rommel as both hurlers went all 15 innings in a game Johnson and the Senators won, 1-0.

1940 – On April 16, Bob Feller threw a no hitter against the White Sox, the first of a career-high 27 victories for the fireballer.

1947 – Probably the best Opening Day ever was April 15, when Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in “organized” baseball, starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. If you ask me, all the baseball records before this date should have an asterisk.

1974 – Let’s just fast forward to April 14, 1974, the day that Henry Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, hitting No. 714 off Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham.

1988, 2001, 2018 – George Bell (Blue Jays, ’88), Tuffy Rhodes (Cubs, ’01), and Matt Davidson (White Sox, ’18) each hit three home runs on Opening Day.

1999 – The Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres, 8-2, in Monterrey, Mexico – the first international Opening Day (unless you count games in Canada). Since then, there have been a number of other openers in other countries, including Japan (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2019) and Australia (2014).

2012 – The Indians and Blue Jays met in the longest Opening Day game ever, a 16-inning affair won by the Indians, 7-4.

Now that you’re totally bummed out that there will be no Opening Day (I was planning to tune into the Braves at Diamondbacks tonight, but I might watch Eight Men Out instead), let me leave with you some Opening Day wisdom from that legendary philosopher and catcher from St. Louis, who plied his trade in the Bronx, Yogi Berra: “A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road.”

The Secrets of Hitting

When I was 13 years old and still secretly clinging to an unrealistic dream of playing professional baseball (preferably as an outfielder though I would have gladly considered a permanent move to third base if it would help the ballclub), I discovered a classified ad in Boys Life magazine that I thought may ensure my place (in some distant, silver-lined future which has already passed) in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

For a buck, an outfit that called itself Baseball Associates (based in St. Petersburg, Florida) offered the answers I was seeking (beyond having actual talent) to starting a career in baseball. They promised that I would “surprise everyone.” I’d been seeing this ad, or variations of it, for several years in the magazines and comic books that comprised most of my reading material in those days. Some of the Baseball Associates ads called it a “baseball career course.”

That sounded like just the ticket for me, especially since now as a newly minted teen, I was truly desperate. I’d just completed a somewhat successful campaign with the Dixie Youth League Cardinals in Lilburn, Georgia – “successful” in that I managed to play most innings of most games and throw runners out at home plate and we won almost all of our games; “somewhat” in that I could barely hit my weight (I weighed about 130 pounds in full uniform, with fielder’s glove).

I sent the buck and prayed (in lieu of extra batting practice). The picture that accompanies this confession tells part of the story. For my hard-earned dollar, I received a pamphlet of “Paul Waner’s Batting Secrets.” This would have been 1973, maybe 1974. Paul Waner had been dead almost 10 years by then, and hadn’t played ball since 1945. A useful first hitting tip would have been, “don’t be dead.”

Instead, the pamphlet contained pages of cartoon versions of Big Poison (Paul was Big Poison and his little brother Lloyd was known as Little Poison) demonstrating cartoon strike zones, suggesting which cartoon pitches to swing at and which cartoon pitches to ignore. There was nothing that helped me learn how to stand in against a good curve ball, or lay off the high fast ball (or even catch up with one).

At any rate, I headed into the next season with a new team (the Hornets) in a new league with my handy hitting secrets, and new-found confidence, which you can clearly see in this picture from our annual spring photo day. And it also showed in my improved batting performance that year as my weight increased to 145 pounds.

Later, after being ignominiously cut following the first round of tryouts for the high school team, I hung up my spikes and retired from the game to focus on more attainable baseball goals, like watching baseball games and occasionally writing about baseball, which allows me to know it all without actually knowing how to do it all – in short, the kind of work I was born to do. Thank you, Paul Waner!

Meeting Newk

Don Newcombe was the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards during his career, and the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, and the first black pitcher to win 20 games in the post integrated (and therefore, bona fide) Major Leagues, where he also became the first black pitcher named to an MLB All-Star team. He was also a great hitter (for a pitcher), batting .271.

One thing that Don wasn’t, however, was very good in the postseason. He had a decent 1949 World Series. In fact, I’ve often wondered if what happened in Game 1 of that series somehow affected subsequent performances, or just set the cosmic eight ball rolling against Don in October ever after. I mean, he pitched brilliantly in Game 1 of the ’49 classic, giving up just five hits while striking out 11 in a complete game that he lost 1-0 when the Yankees’ Tommy Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run to right.

After that, Don was never the same in the World Series, racking up an astronomical earned run average. But he was an absolute beast the rest of the time. Still, as a result of his poor late-season performances, he got an unfair reputation for being “gutless” in big games. What the hell does that mean? The people that called Newcombe gutless probably never played the game. Don even belted some loudmouth in the parking lot who used the g-word on Newk after one of his toughest losses.

Whatever the case, I don’t buy it. Gutless? The only reason that Don’s Dodgers got into so many big games is because Don (and his teammates) were so damn good. They played baseball, the hardest sport to play well, at its highest level, stood in, persevered, and won a lot of games, all of which takes an abundance of guts.

Anyway, I met Don Newcombe once, randomly, in the tunnel between the Braves dugout and their clubhouse in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. There he was, a giant looming in front of me all of a sudden, and not only because he was 6-foot-4 and well north of 200 pounds. I’d grown up with stories about Newk and his contemporaries that made the Olympian gods look like bush leaguers.

My father was a big Yankees fan, and his team benefitted more than any other when Don suffered a post-season collapse. But Dad never took that for granted, because he also he knew how great Don Newcombe was. Dad, the Yankees fan, did have a little bit of love for the boys in Flatbush … except at World Series time. Dad was a big Newcombe fan.

When I met Don, I was tongue-tied. This was completely unexpected, this meeting in the tunnel, and I’d be lying if I said anything profound came out of it, other than the fact that I got to shake Don Newcombe’s hand (a profound experience for me, anyway). I was so completely unprepared mentally, I forgot about the notepad I was carrying in my hand and the pen poised, as ever, on top of my ample ear.

All I could do was mumble and stutter something about my old man and his friends and how much they loved and respected Newcombe and even though most of them were Yankees fans, they never thought Don was gutless, at which point I thought to myself, did I actually say that? Don, all class, said, “well, I really appreciate that, especially coming from Yankee fans.”

Don Newcombe left the planet little more than a year ago, his soul traded to whatever team plays its home games on the Elysian Fields, where knowledgeable fans have sense enough to recognize real talent when they see it, and understand the difference between being gutless and having some bad luck, and where everyone has guts and good luck and all the games go into extra innings.

Or maybe I’m confusing that with a cornfield in Iowa.

It’s Roberto, not Bob

These two baseball cards tell stories that go far beyond the photos on front and the statistics (which are impressive) and anecdotes (meh) on the back.

First and perhaps most obvious to serious collectors is the year of the cards, both issued by the Topps company. The one at left is from the 1962 set, the one at right from 1973. Second, and equally obvious to the same folks is the condition of the cards – not great. Creases and bent corners. Ugh. They definitely wouldn’t fetch more than a couple of bucks at at a baseball card show, if there still are baseball card shows.

To me (though I’ve obviously not spoiled them as they deserve), they are priceless, because of who is on the cards, and the other story they tell.

Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker, better known as Roberto Clemente, was born in Puerto Rico, where the Spanish practice of using the last names of both parents was in play. So Roberto had the first last name of his father (Melchor Clemente), followed by the first last name of his mother (Luisa Walker).

As Roberto Clemente, he was the quintessential five-tool player, one of the best to grace a baseball diamond, delighting fans for 18 seasons – all of them as a Pittsburgh Pirate – with vicious line drives, daring base-running, amazing catches, and breath-taking throws from right field. In 1973, through a special election following his untimely and heroic death, he became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When he was enshrined his plaque (an ugly likeness, like all of the Hall of Fame plaques) called him Roberto Walker Clemente, a post-humous anglicization of his name. Now look at the names on these cards. The 1962 version calls him “Bob Clemente.” The 1973 version (issued after Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, an ill-fated mission of mercy to bring aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua) calls him “Roberto Clemente.”

This Bob vs. Roberto thing was always a point of contention for Clemente, whose Major League debut was in 1955. As a black person whose first language was Spanish, he faced a double dose of discrimination. The media and, obviously, the baseball card company Americanized his given name, calling him “Bob” or “Bobby” or even “Robby,” nicknames that Clemente hated. He had the audacity to insist on being called by his given name, Roberto.

It took him years to get the baseball card company to pay attention, and there’s an interesting kind of evolution to the whole affair. Clemente’s first two cards, 1955 and 1956, are typical of those beautiful-looking, horizontal oriented sets, in his case featuring the same portrait of his handsome face both years, but different inset action shots – Clemente in his batting stance in ’55, and making a spectacular catch in ’56. Both cards also call him “Roberto Clemente,” and feature a facsimile of his signature, also, “Roberto Clemente.”

Then, beginning in 1957, for some inexplicable reason and certainly against Clemente’s wishes, Topps started calling him “Bob Clemente.” Some of the media (including broadcasters) were calling him Bob, but not most. I did a quick search on Newspapers.com for “Bob Clemente” and “Pittsburgh Pirates” for 1956 and came up with 706 hits. Then I did the same search replacing “Bob” with “Roberto” and came up with 5,156 hits. But from 1957 through 1969, the Topps company insisted on calling the great Clemente by the wrong name.

The 1959 card is interesting because Topps brought back the fake autograph on the card. But Roberto wouldn’t play ball, apparently. The card company printed “Bob” but his autograph says “Roberto,” and he’s wearing a triumphant look, and I imagine it all as Roberto’s small act of defiance against the purveyors of cardboard gods and stale, lethally-sharp sticks of pink bubblegum. Right on, Roberto.

I wonder if it was this episode with Clemente that inspired Topps to shy away from facsimile signatures for a number of years, until 1967, when they brought back the fake autograph. This time, both his printed name and signature say “Bob Clemente.” Was this a fake signature of the fake name? I don’t know the story behind the story. Did Clemente acquiesce and sign his name as “Bob” to appease Topps? Or was this the work of some staff calligrapher at Topps? Did Topps have staff calligraphers?

Roberto finally won the quiet battle of his name in 1970, with Topps’ oddly attractive gray-bordered series of cards, in which he was immortalized on card No. 350 as “Roberto Clemente,” and so he remained for the rest of his baseball card life.

After dying tragically in that overloaded plane, shortly after taking off on Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente was remembered around the world as much for his great character and philanthropy as for his ability to hit triples and throw out baserunners. And the baseball industrial complex did the correct thing with his immediate Hall of Fame enshrinement (players typically have to wait at least five years after retiring).

Then, for the next 27 years his plaque at the Hall of Fame read, incorrectly, “Roberto Walker Clemente.” Finally, in 2000 it was changed to its proper Latin American form, “Roberto Clemente Walker.” A posthumous victory for Roberto over the anglicization of his most personal and cherished possession.

Clemente’s story about the use or misuse of his name has some relevance today when I think of the widespread practice of anglicizing names among international students. I was reminded of Roberto and these cards when I met a young Chinese man at Georgia Tech. His name is Yichen, but he explained to me that he was encouraged to change his name to something that sounded ‘White,’ because first names often shape the way people are treated, and can even affect their job prospects.

Yichen chose the name “Payne,” because he recognized it as an unusual name, even for Western ears. But soon after I met him, he went back to introducing himself as “Yichen.” Good for him.

He chose his own identity, even though research has shown that white professors respond more to Chinese students with Western names, and employers prefer applications with anglicized names. Yichen is, or soon will be, a scientist making discoveries that will affect all kinds of people, regardless of how their names are constructed. Yichen may never be depicted on a trading card but he definitely took the Roberto Clemente route. He knows who he is and insists on that identity, regardless of a small piece of a piecemeal world that would prefer he was called something else.

We can’t all be Roberto Clemente, but we can all be who we are and be remembered for who we were. I know that when Roberto Clemente went down in that plane, he didn’t go down as Bob or Bobby or Robby, and that’s not how he’ll always be remembered, whether or not it’s in the cards.

Bye, Bye, Uncle Bob

One of the first things I noticed about Bob Nerem was, he liked way too much of that fancy cream in his coffee, the French vanilla stuff that comes in tiny blue tubs. I saw Bob often around that coffee pot, which ought to tell you something about both of us though I’m not sure what it is, other than we both really like – in his case, liked – coffee. Truth is, I like the same cream that he liked, just not so damn much of it.

We were all expecting the bad news any day, because Bob’s health had gotten steadily worse. His kidneys were failing. When the news came that he’d died peacefully in his sleep in the wee hours of Friday morning, March 6, it was expected, but still kind of a shock, as it always is when you lose anyone that you’ve grown used to, and care deeply about. A sad numbness, a glance at an empty chair, a memory.

It was a busy Friday when Bob died, the kind of Friday at the Petit Institute that would have made him glad. It was graduate recruitment weekend across Georgia Tech, when hundreds and hundreds of the most brilliant young people toured the campus, broken up as is into different schools, departments, and disciplines. The Bioengineering Graduate program – BioE – is headquartered at the Petit Institute, or IBB, for Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience. More than 200 students from around the world visited and toured the building that Bob built, interested in pursuing an interdisciplinary research path that Bob helped blaze.

But that’s not why Bob would have been glad, not over his decades-old achievements. This kind of event would have provided him an opportunity to meet a lot of new people and ask a lot of questions. That’s one thing he seemed to have an unlimited supply of – curiosity about other people, especially young people. I never saw the man happier than at a function for Project ENGAGES, the high school education program he co-founded with his former student and current superstar researcher, Manu Platt. With a leadership team that includes the amazing Lakeita Servance, it’s a program that can’t fail, and it’s succeeded beyond even Bob’s wildest dreams. Every one of these kids winds up going to college – usually, a really amazing college. And it’s not because kindly old Uncle Bob greased the skids. He didn’t do that. If you entered a Bob program, you were going to work hard, like every one else. What Bob did so well was create opportunities. One of his friends and longtime colleagues, Barbara Boyan, the dean of engineering at Virginia Commonwealth, put it really well, calling Bob, “an indefatigable advocate for diversity in our field.” He was. Bob championed women and underrepresented minority faculty and students whenever and wherever he could. He found joy in the success of others.

He didn’t do it for himself, or the warm fuzzy feeling it gave him, and that was plain. It was simply the right thing to do, so it made total sense to him to do it, and that’s why he had so many friends and admirers. Sure, the science helped. I can’t comprehend most of what he did as a researcher, but I can say that a lot of very smart and reliable sources tell me that he was a true leader and pioneer in the fields of bioengineering and regenerative medicine. He won many awards and honors and even had a prestigious medal named after him. In his field, he was Babe Ruth. What I can comprehend is human nature, and I really liked his. Bob was enthusiastically fluent in humanity. And on that Friday when he died, when the halls of IBB – which everyone knows really stands for Its Bob’s Building – were buzzing with human energy, I took time to just walk the halls.

I remembered the stories Bob told me about the early days, of why they planned this building with the open atrium, creating a space where people could meet over coffee and too much cream – research is a people business, he always said. I thought of leader Bob, public speaker Bob, convivial host Bob, sincere Bob, friend Bob. His influence and therefore his presence was everywhere in the institute. This is his building, I thought, and this is what it felt like to walk around Yankee Stadium the day Babe Ruth died.

The first time I met Bob, in 2009, it was for a story I was writing about stem cell research and the biotech industry. He impressed me immediately because he could speak my language (that is to say, explain scientific things so my liberal arts brain could understand them). But most impressive to me the journalist was his willingness – no, his insistence – on speaking truth to power. Telling it like it is, as Howard Cosell used to say.

I reported that Bob was leading a movement to support new research in Georgia, where elected leadership was threatening to limit and even criminalize stem cell research. Bob said, “We should be working to provide patients in Georgia access to the most advanced therapies and treatments, including those that are derived from embryonic stem cells. Unfortunately, our elected leadership doesn’t seem to get that. And they’re sending signals to the rest of the country, and internationally, that you’d better be careful about making a bio-investment in Georgia.”

That was one of my few glimpses into Big Bad Bob. I liked him. But I also liked Uncle Bob a lot, my coffee pal, who prayed for me after my stroke, and said to take care because my family and friends need me, and who wondered if I’d seen any good documentaries lately and strongly recommended The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and who used to come into the office that I share with my colleague, Tim, and sit in that empty chair and hold court, talking trash, or discussing the news, or sharing a story tip. That’s the Bob I knew. He’d been a world traveler and launched great explorations of the biomolecular universe and shaped the way thousands of geniuses do their work today, and he was still that guy, though he didn’t make a big deal about it. The Bob I knew, the same Bob and just as impressive, moved slowly and steadily through this building, his building, stopping at offices along the way to visit his friends and colleagues, listening to their stories and telling some of his own. I’m going to miss that Bob.