Joe’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Azores. Joe helped raise his brother after his dad died. He was the man of the family. His mom worked in a shoe factory doing piece work. Her twelve hour days left her exhausted. Joe, barely 17 when the war came, was a gifted athlete. Major league scouts watched him hit a baseball. Some claimed he was the next Dimaggio. Others said he was next Williams. College football scouts drooled watching Joe return punts and kickoffs for touchdowns for the high school team. Everyone told Joe he was going to make it big and become famous. Then, life happened, WWII came and the Army drafted Joe. He was an infantry soldier and landed in Normandy on D-Day. He fought on the front lines until the war ended. When the war ended and Joe was discharged, his mom was waiting at the train station for. A loaf of his favorite Portuguese sweet bread guarded carefully in a basket hanging from her forearm. His mom shouted to him in Portuguese as he stepped off the train. They embraced and cried and his mom made him eat her sweet bread. She died two days later.
Joe took a job as groundskeeper for the community athletic fields. He lined the ball diamond during the spring and summer. He chalked the track for high school track meets in the spring. In the fall, he lined the football field and was an assistant coach for the high school football team. In his spare time, Joe coached little league.
During the long hot summers, Joe stopped mowing the grass to pitch batting practice to the boys who showed up and wanted to play ball. He hit fly balls without tiring. He backed the boys to the backstop and played pepper with them. He was a dad to every boy who showed up. It didn’t matter who the boy was or where the boy came from. If he wanted to play ball, Joe welcomed him.
Every once in a while, when the day was hot and no one wanted to play ball, Joe would grab a bat and say to anyone who listened, “If I can hit a ball over the fence (some 400 feet away) in twenty pitches, I’ll buy watermelons.” The boys all ran on the field to shag the balls. And the pitcher grooved one pitch after another to Joe. You could see it happening. Joe was a kid again, slapping a ball this way and that way. He was toying with the boys. Then, around the 15th pitch, Joe became serious. He’d drive the ball deep toward the fence. He knew, he always knew. He hit the 18th pitch over the fence, the boys cheered and piled into Joe’s pickup to get watermelon.
Why this story? It’s true, I knew Joe.
Joe’s life mirrors your life and mine. He had dreams. He had a gift. Then life changed it all for him. Joe never complained. Joe never held a pity party. He made the most of his life with what life gave him.
Joe is one of the heroes. Everyone who makes the most of life, whatever the circumstances are is a hero like Joe.
I used a photo of Joe Dimaggio for this post – it felt right. Joe, either one, wouldn’t mind.