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Sports Authority

Kramer: The heroes we never knew

| Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Alongside those rom-coms that we secretly hate to adore, sometimes I wonder if we have any valid reason to love people that we never had a chance to meet. While the score feels unbearably tough to settle — and I’ll leave it to the Viewpoint team to duke out — we nevertheless hold near and dear grand legacies of ancestors that might prove the truth of Rob Reiner, Gary Marshall and Nora Ephron’s work. My grandfather undoubtedly tops my list.

A devoted baseball champion at heart, Eugene Kramer dominated high school pitching mounds in the 1930s. The plains of rural Minnesota painted the landscape for his humble upbringing in a household of eight siblings. His father, a Missouri synod preacher, provided a modest wage for the necessities of a budding family. Eugene and his brothers often turned to affordable, easily accessible forms of competition to pass the time and cultivate a riveting spirit amidst their homely lifestyle. Naturally, the batch of rugged and resilient boys found baseball to be a glimmer of joy, an escape from the pervasive, persistent toil of the 20th century lower class.

As he matured, Eugene’s mastery of the sport flourished. His shadow loomed over high school hitters as he commanded his starts with a devastating duo: an overpowering fastball with late break and a tight curveball that left opponents buckling at the knees. He quickly rose as a hero in his hometown of Norwood with his nearly un-hittable pitch design. Seasoned beyond his years, his velocity and command led him to average nearly 2.5 strikeouts per inning. With those numbers in today’s game, modern fans would endearingly refer to him as a “freak.” The praise showered by local newspapers even spurred professional scouts to see the talent for themselves while sprinkled in Carver County bleachers.

Shortly after graduation at the dawn of the 1940s, Eugene opened his mailbox to discover a letter from the Brooklyn Dodgers, his name etched on the envelope, offering him an opportunity to participate in an upcoming tryout. He showcased his signature pitching to the delight of team executives, and after little deliberation, the Dodgers presented him with a contract for the upcoming season.

Understandably overjoyed, Eugene shared the news with his father, who vehemently refused to support his son’s budding future in the MLB. The overall team culture felt too “morally corrupt” to the strict preacher; he vowed to disown Eugene if he accepted the Brooklyn deal. Always the honorable son, he reluctantly drafted a rejection letter to the organization and effectively sacrificed his dream out of respect for the house that built him. He would have played with Jackie Robinson in 1947.

The prospect of college financially fell out of reach, and with the Japanese having struck Pearl Harbor, he sought a worthy cause for his raw athleticism. The Navy needed patriots, soldiers to mend the wounds of an altogether fractured nation. With hope for a return to baseball, he left his trusted glove behind and enlisted as a medic on a Pacific cruiser.

He left Minnesota an MVP and returned a patriot. When the national catastrophe drew to an emotional close, Eugene rekindled his passion for the diamond after a day’s work for Ford Motor Company. He spearheaded a polished Norwood town ball team, toeing the rubber against his own brothers on the neighboring Young America squad.

On a particularly renowned Independence Day in 1946, Eugene took to the mound in the ninth inning of an iconic border battle. His Norwood team held a 2-1 over Young America, and his brothers geared up in the opposing dugout in anticipation of their late-inning at bats. With one out and a runner on first base, Eugene craved bragging rights; the temptation proved too heavy in this original edition of Kramer v. Kramer. He intentionally walked two consecutive batters to load the bases, bringing both brothers to the plate, back-to-back, in a dangerous scoring situation. But in almost routine fashion, he finished the game with a dagger: two brilliant strikeouts. As he made for the dugout amidst the stadium’s pandemonium, fans remember Eugene saying, “Now I can eat in peace.”

Nearly twenty years since his death — and over seventy years since the peak of his career — have passed. And yet, in spite of what we call “progress,” Americans finds themselves in circumstances quite like the arc of his lifetime. Authorities halt our hopes and aspirations at our doorsteps; that next big promotion, pay raise, graduation ceremony or athletic season slips through our fingertips. Moral corruption infiltrates the daily strides of our lives with a simple tip of the cap. Distancing from the moments and opportunities that entered our mailbox just weeks ago increasingly feels like more of an obligation than a choice. The acts of patriotism grow ever-honorable, even when alternatives become compromised. Sporting events have become as lethal a weapon as the bullets on the coast of Hawaii.

But when the trials and tribulations of our time flatten and peace between ourselves and the forces of nature forms, an amazing thing happens: our loves find us again. What follows writes the stories that people remember for generations.

Take this extended metaphor how you will. May it bring you hope for a future in emulation of the heroes that came before us, the heroes that we never knew.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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