Small-town America, with its values and virtues, hasn’t vanished completely in today’s maze of superhighways and supersized “metropolitan areas”-you just have to look a little harder to find it.
I found it recently in a town called Marcus Hook, near Chester in Eastern Pennsylvania, where many of the 2,300 residents gathered to honor an old ballplayer in a scene that just as easily could have taken place in 1890, 1910 or 1940.
Flags and bunting fluttered everywhere you looked in the town park. A Dixieland combo tootled its way through folk songs. Civic leaders made speeches. Spectators gulped free sodas and scarfed free hot dogs. Children dashed hither, thither and yon while adults discussed the unusually warm fall weather, the start of another school year and local politics.
Marcus Hook’s residents are known-no snickers, please-as “Hookers.” As one onlooker at the state park noted: “This is the only place in the world where a female politician could say she’s an old Hooker and draw applause.”
The old ballplayer being honored was Mickey Vernon, and he was quite a ballplayer. He played in the major leagues (mostly with the Washington Senators) from 1939 to 1960, with time out for military service in World War II. He won two American League batting championships (1946 and 1953), his lifetime batting average was .286 and he was the most graceful first baseman of his era.
When his playing career was over, he managed the Washington Senators for a couple of years. That didn’t work out too well for two reasons: (1) Lousy players and (2) he was just too nice a guy to be an effective manager.
Vernon should be in baseball’s Hall of Fame, but that wasn’t really why his hometown was honoring him. You see, he was and is an even better person than he was a ballplayer-the kind of modest, kind guy whom everybody seems to like.
To give you a better idea of how the townspeople feel about him, they were paying homage to a native “Hooker” who hasn’t lived there for more than 50 years; after the war, Mickey and Lib Vernon moved to Wallingford, a few miles down the road.
But nobody in Marcus Hook seems to take his defection personally.
Finally, the band stopped playing and parents gathered their wandering offspring to hear an assortment of local politicians sing praises while the man of the hour shifted uncomfortably on a temporary stage. One of the speakers was Rep. Curt Weldon (R.-Pa.), another Marcus Hook native, who passed along congratulations and greetings from President Bush.
“The President reminded me that his father was a first baseman, too, [at Yale],” Weldon said. “And at the time, the first President Bush liked to think he was as good as Mickey Vernon. But he knew there was no way.”
When everyone else was done, Vernon stepped to the microphone. Tall and handsome at the age of 85, he told the crowd, “Baseball gave me so much – it gave the opportunity to see the country and make so many wonderful friends. I’m so grateful to the game and to everybody here.”
Then a man pulled a ripcord, and a sheet whisked off a marvelous, life-sized bronze statue of Vernon finishing his left-handed swing that evermore will grace the entrance to the newly renamed Mickey Vernon Park. Cheers filled the air, people surged to congratulate him and pose for pictures, and the band began playing again.
In an era when so many professional athletes are overpaid soreheads who think they are God’s gift to mankind, it is a delight to recall that men like Mickey Vernon existed as super people rather than superheroes. And to learn that small-town America and its values still live.