I’m not talking about Kiner. I’ll have more to say about him later. The hero I’m talking about was my grandfather, William Dyer — my mother’s father.
My grandfather took over the role of my father for several years while my father was working in South America.
In 1950, my father was asked to help operate a new steel mill in Conception, Chile. He signed a five-year contract to work in Chile. For him, it would be a major stepping stone as a supervisor in the steel industry. Prior to going to South America, my father often found himself out of work because of labor disputes or layoffs. That would all change with his new job.
I was 6 years old at the time and really didn’t have any idea how life would be in South America. After two years, I began having health problems and a doctor advised my mother to take me back to the United States. My mother, brother and I returned to live with my grandparents in Elizabeth, Pa., until we found our own home.
It was summertime and the Brooklyn Dodgers ruled the National League. The Pittsburgh Pirates, my grandfather’s favorite team, finished dead last. But that didn’t stop him from listening to every game on the radio. I listened with him.
My grandfather knew a lot about baseball. He had played semi-pro baseball as a young man, but gave up his favorite pastime to raise a family.
He would fill my head with stories about some of the greatest Pittsburgh Pirates. Ralph Kiner was one of them. My grandfather told me about the majestic home runs Kiner had hit at old Forbes Field. He hit 54 home runs in 1949, the highest number of homers in a season (National League) before the Steroid era. He would hit 369 home runs in a 10-year career, which was shortened by a back injury.
I was fascinated with my grandfather's knowledge of the game and I would soon pick up his love of the game. I would peruse the Sunday sports section, memorizing batting averages and other statistics of Major League players. And we would sometimes play catch.
In 1953, we finally moved into our own home in the gritty steel mill town of McKeesport, Pa. My mother promised me she would take me to see Kiner play.
The day came in June. The Pirates were playing the Chicago Cubs. On the streetcar ride to Forbes Field, I excitedly talked about finally getting to see Kiner play. A man sitting near us overheard me and politely informed me that Kiner had been traded that day to the Cubs. I was devastated. I would get to see Kiner play, but not for the Pirates. I was torn. I wanted the Pirates to win, but I also wanted Kiner to hit one of his long home runs.
The Pirates did win that day. Kiner didn’t homer, but he did hit a double.
I never got to tell my grandfather how much I appreciated the attention he showed me during those years without my father. He did a wonderful job.
But the death of Ralph Kiner did remind me that I had a true hero in my grandfather. Of course, he didn’t fit the description of someone who exhibited extraordinary courage, such as our veterans. But he did fill an important role while my father was away. I credited my grandfather for helping me with developing determination to be successful at whatever task I attempted.
We all have heroes who play important roles in our lives. Our parents or guardians, of course, play important roles in how we function as adults. We also remember some of our teachers who were instrumental in our career choices.
An English teacher who complimented me on a sports story I wrote helped inspire me to become a writer. She suggested that I would be a good newspaper reporter.
I joined the Navy after high school, but I didn’t forget about her encouraging words. I became a journalist.
Our true heroes, of course, are all the veterans who put their lives at risk to defend our country. I was fortunate to have written a number of articles about heroic veterans. I often imagined how I would have reacted in a battle situation. Their courage and determination inspired me.
T.J. Oshie, who scored the winning shootout goal for the USA hockey team over Russia at the Sochi Olympic Games on Friday, put it best when someone referred to him as a hero. He said the real heroes are the men and women in camouflaged uniforms.
He is right. It’s OK to call someone who helped your life a hero. But we do need to keep in mind who our true heroes are — the men and women who sacrifice their lives for our country.
— By Len Painter, Tribune editor emeritus