Remembering when pro athletes lived next door

by Cory Franklin

A friend of mine who lives in Cleveland recently told me a story that calls to mind a time before sports were fundamentally altered by sky-high salaries, exorbitant ticket prices, broadcast rights, team sponsorships, stadium deals, greedy owners and gambling.

My friend, his parents long gone, was unpacking boxes from his childhood home when the news broke that Frank Ryan had died. Ryan was the Cleveland Browns quarterback in 1964, the last time the perpetually inept Browns won an NFL Championship — before there was a Super Bowl.

My friend said that when he heard the news about Ryan, he found a box of things from when he was a boy, including an autographed 8-by-10 photo of Ryan addressed to him: “What a thrilling souvenir for me, a 10-year-old kid, to have an autographed photo from the starting quarterback of the world champions.”

He described how it came to be: “Back in the 1960s, before players made millions of dollars, they typically would rent houses in modest neighborhoods or suburbs. The Browns had a star offensive lineman who blocked for (Browns fullback) Jim Brown. His name was Mike McCormack, and he lived down the street from us for one season in one of the same little 1,200-square-foot bungalows that we lived in. Ryan, being the star quarterback, could afford a better place than an offensive lineman, so he lived in Lyndhurst (in Ohio), a big step up from South Euclid where we lived. My sister’s girlfriend babysat for the Ryans on game days, and she got me the photo. I am going to frame it and hang it up here at our house.”

It seems unimaginable today, but most professional athletes were once part of their local communities, and, at least during the season, they lived in neighborhoods, perhaps even down the block from their fans, rather than in gated compounds and palatial estates. This was before money drove sports to new heights.

The story of New York Yankees great Yogi Berra, recounted in the 2022 documentary “It Ain’t Over,” is much the same. Berra was a Hall of Famer who happened to win more World Series championships as a player than anyone else in MLB history.

For his service to baseball and his charitable work, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. If Yogi were playing today, he would be commanding tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in compensation. But for decades, he lived unassumingly with his wife and children in the New York suburb of Montclair, New Jersey.

He won Most Valuable Player awards and World Series with the Yankees; he also worked offseason jobs, such as running a Christmas tree lot, working in a hardware store and a menswear shop, and managing a bowling alley. For an offseason personal appearance, he reportedly was paid with a wristwatch.

Even Willie Mays, regarded by many as the greatest living MLB player, lived in a modest first-floor Harlem apartment when he moved to New York to play with the Giants, before they decamped to San Francisco. Rumor has it he learned to hit a curveball by swinging a mop handle to hit a Spaldeen on the streets of Harlem in neighborhood stickball games with local youths. On game days, he would walk from his home to the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ stadium. No taxi and certainly no limousine for the legend known as the “Say Hey Kid.”

British author L.P. Hartley opened his classic novel “The Go-Between” with the memorable line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The influx of money into sports has on balance been a positive development. Players are compensated more fairly, even luxuriously, and the financial incentive for players and teams makes for a more competitive product for fans. Female college athletes such as Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, who essentially played for free until recent changes allowed college athletes to earn compensation from advertisers, can justifiably become millionaires.

But with these rewards accruing to those who fill arenas, something is lost, and there is an ineffable sadness to realize that my friend’s experience is unlikely to be repeated today. A 10-year-old will probably never again know the excitement of getting an autographed photo from the star NFL quarterback who lives in the neighborhood. It is a thrill gone for good.

Dr. Cory Franklin is a retired intensive care physician.