Bye Bye, Mr. American Pie

Aug. 15, 2002
Ted Williams' legacy contrasts with the regard we currently have for corporate leaders

The last American hero died this summer. Well, he may have been my last hero.

I was a skinny, left-handed Little League pitcher with a bad curveball when Ted Williams hit a homerun in his very last major league at bat in 1960.

I was one of only maybe 9,000 fans in Fenway Park on the day everyone knew was Teddy Ballgame's last. That didn't mean anything to me then, because it gave me and my Dad a chance to watch the game from some empty box seats closer to the field.

Today, I'm a little amazed that the place wasn't packed, given the magnitude of the day. But that was during an era when the Red Sox didn't wait until September or October to break your heart. They were normally bad starting in April. They rarely drew a million fans in an 80-game home schedule, compared with two and a half million these days.

Ted's death--the outrageous behavior of his kids aside--reminded me that this was a guy who knew only excellence. He's considered by most baseball experts to be the greatest hitter ever.

This was the last guy to hit .400. He was 22 when he did that. On the last day of the season, he was at exactly .400. Some suggested he sit out the doubleheader, so as not to risk it. He played both games, got six hits to finish at .406.

This was a guy who hit .388 and 38 home runs when he was 39. This was a guy who feuded publicly with the media, but was appreciated by teammates as a player they could depend on when needed. He was one of the first baseball stars to put his full weight behind a worthwhile charity. His was the Jimmy Fund--long-term cancer research for kids.

This was also the guy who, at the height of his career, was a combat fighter pilot in World War II and later in the Korean War. Most baseball gurus project staggering statistical achievements if he'd played those five lost seasons.

He never considered them lost seasons. He just became a great fighter pilot. John Wayne probably wanted to be Ted Williams.

I mention all this because it contrasts so much with the regard we currently have for corporate leaders. Heroes they ain't. At least they aren't perceived that way.

I mention it, too, because of some of the comments we received with this month's salary survey results from disappointed and untrusting readers who expressed fears about executive greed. There's an underlying concern that excellence, trust, teamwork, and a long-haul attitude aren't part of the equation.

There's work to be done in order to fix this. I mean besides sending the weasels to jail. We don't need heroes, but we do need to show that most companies do still think that employees, management, and, in the case of publicly traded companies, shareholders can benefit together.

So, how do we do it?

A significant portion of you own machine-building or system integrator businesses. A bigger portion of the readership works for them. For our part, we can start talking about the good things, the success stories, the examples that--at least in our corner of the industrial universe--show things aren't as bad as it sometimes appears.

A lot of you have the stories to tell. I have the paper to print them on and a web site to post them on. Seems to me that it's our time to step up to the plate.

What do you say?

E-mail Joe at [email protected].

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