Remembering the Old Breed

In the aftermath of World War II, as the United States and Soviet Union remained the last two nations standing tall over a battered and broken global community, the world watched and waited to see what would happen and how the coming years would transpire.

It was a world where everyone considered and thought of the big picture in terms of nation vs. nation or capitalism vs. communism, and they dreaded the seeming possibility of World War III. This was the shadowy time period between the jubilation of defeating the Axis Powers and the clear start of what would soon be known as the Cold War.

However, one man, just one of billions, found himself stationed amid global turmoil in the Hawaiian Islands, and he was to impact innumerable lives in a much more meaningful way than the contemporary international upheaval ever would.

Frank G. Ryczak was a young man and a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and, like so many men his age at this critical juncture in history, he found himself abroad and garbed in the military uniform of his country. But there was one thing in Hawaii that no doubt eased the minds of these young men: the game of baseball.

The paradisiacal climate of the islands allowed for the game to flourish, and at this time baseball was the unquestioned king of sports. Every man and boy seemed to play it, listen to it on the radio, and follow the box scores in newspapers, and the servicemen stationed in the Pacific were no different.

The squad that Frank Ryczak was a part of was managed by an old baseball mind, a hardened man named Dick Hough. While Ryczak was in Hawaii, there were times that he would babysit Hough’s young son—MLB knuckleballer and 200-game winner Charlie Hough—and he still speaks with fondness and reverence for his manager nearly 70 years later.

In the 1940’s, millions of men went to war, including athletes and actors, and Ted Williams in particular won great fanfare for his sacrifices in the military during both World War II and the Korean War, but he was not alone as countless young men like Ryczak joined him. Luckily, Ryczak, due to his sterling talent, happened to be one aspiring player who was given the opportunity to follow his dream.

As a hitter with alluring power and strength, terrific hand-eye coordination and excellent instincts for the game, he stood out as a promising prospect for scouts, and it was this skill set and reputation that would earn him the greatest honor of his baseball life.

In 1949, Ryczak was offered a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics. This was no minor development, but it wasn’t life altering either, for this was still a time when most baseball players worked jobs in the offseason to eke out a living. These men were an older breed of ball player, far removed from the players of today’s game. Baseball was still just a game, the national pastime, and had not yet reached the big business status that it has achieved.

Upon setting out on his professional course it appeared as though the young man had his chance to play in the league with Williams and Joe DiMaggio, and to perform on the fields that he had only seen from the stands or merely heard about. This young man from a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, who had given his time in service to his country, was presented the opportunity to solidify his name as belonging with those legends. Alas, an unfortunate injury on the field a short time into his professional career forced him into an early retirement before he was able to ever step foot on an MLB ball field.

FULL DISCLOSURE: It must be noted that Frank Ryczak is the author’s grandfather. He is an 86 year old man with the strength of an ox and the heart of a lion

The story of Frank Ryczak, although his career ended due to injury rather than a lack of ability, is a very familiar end for the vast majority of young men who begin playing organized baseball at the age of four or five. Only a slim percentage of players ever move on from the comradery of high school baseball to play in college or the pros, and, for those souls who never proceed on the path to glory, the long lifetime ahead without baseball can appear daunting. Thus, what a man does with those oncoming years is truly what measures his greatness, not his ability to hit a ball a great distance or to light up a radar gun with triple-digit speeds.

Ryczak spent the next 65 years of his life dedicating himself to one thing, the one thing that is far and away the most precious and important thing in the world: family. He married the love of his life, raised seven children, attended college to attain an engineering degree, and welcomed multitudes grandchildren and great-grandchildren into a world that he helped mold as a member of the Greatest Generation.

The game of baseball, at this date, is an American institution that has defied age as well as the changing and constantly evolving cultural landscape of the country. Baseball has endured 20 presidencies, two World Wars, cultural revolutions, and technological innovations that would shock the pioneers of the game. While much of the sports world has fallen into a depressing cycle of commentary that focuses more on off-the-field issues and locker room drama in a sort of E! News-like vulgarity, baseball has stayed above the fray (except for Alex Rodriguez), which may explain why it does not seem as mainstream as it did when it had its own tabloid fodder during the steroids era. But that is all for the best, for baseball is more than just another sport, and its lifeblood is a sort of timelessness that flouts the short attention span of a 24 hour news cycle.

The reason for the longevity of baseball is in the DNA of men like Frank Ryczak, a man who used the game not as an end, but as a means to an end. He used the game to forge friendships with his fellow servicemen in Hawaii, he used it as a tool to bring him closer with members of his family, and it has always been a pleasant diversion and passion to alleviate the mind in a tumultuous world like the one that surrounded him when he was a young man in a lost and worried world. And, most importantly, he never regretted or looked back bitterly at how his playing days ended. Baseball was never the ultimate dream, or the apex of happiness for Ryczak, rather it was in how he could use baseball to make life more special and happy with those that he loved.

These days, in a sports climate that uses clichés of “soldiers” and “war” to describe playing games like baseball and football, while featuring sanctimonious and uber-serious personalities and zealous fan bases that border on farcical, it is refreshing to know that baseball is, at its core, the same game that was played on dusty fields over 100 years ago. And for that we can thank the fathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, mentors, coaches, and anyone else who has helped us to see that baseball, despite all of the developments and advances, is still just a game to be enjoyed and shared.

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