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Respecting Our Elders

Posted by Larry Doyle on December 22, 2010 9:23 AM |

Growing up in an Irish Catholic household, “spare the rod and spoil the child” was very much the order of the day. Along with that, there were many other principles that left a profound imprint on me. One of the strongest was the tenet that we ‘respect our elders.’ I believe experience is the best teacher. I also believe basic respect is a precious virtue. Combining the two, ‘respecting our elders’ is not only an admirable quality but an overriding tenet encompassing ‘sense on cents.’

On this note, I especially appreciated the following commentary written in today’s Wall Street Journal by former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent. From Antietam to Joe Dimaggio,

For reasons I cannot explain, I have been blessed for most of my life by friendships with older people. I recall how much, as a grammar-school kid, I enjoyed hanging around a small struggling haberdashery in my neighborhood that was owned and run by Christie Pontillo.

Those were the days of the Yankees-Giants-Dodgers rivalry in the New York area, and Christie and I would sit in his back room and debate the merits of his Dodgers and my Yankees while he worked on his bookkeeping. He was some 20 years my elder, but he treated me nicely and tolerated my presence with a friendly acceptance that left me very sad when he died suddenly and his tiny store was closed. Ever since I have migrated toward those much older and have been richly rewarded.

My experiences with the older generations came to mind recently when I came across a passage in a letter written by the former headmaster of the boarding school I attended, whose biography I am attempting to write. George VanSantvoord was the head of The Hotchkiss School from 1926 to 1955, and for much of that period a senior trustee of Yale University. He had been a Rhodes Scholar and was badly wounded in World War I. A warm and brilliant man, he had an enormous effect on many of his students—including me, which explains my book effort.

In a letter written to his nephew in 1970, he emphasized the need to teach children family history and warned against the “current fashion of insulating them from all social contact and personal acquaintance with their elders. . . . They miss much. I remember hearing my father’s grandmother telling of hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba; it brought history to life. And in Pittsfield in 1908 my great aunt told of the [French Army’s brutal] taking of Schenectady in [the colony of New York] in 1690, related by her grandmother who heard the story from her grandmother.”

These stories are all around us. In the 1970s, I was at a board meeting and sat next to an elderly New York lawyer who in the late 1920s clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. I was reading a Civil War history and asked whether Holmes had ever talked about his experiences in the Union Army. I knew he’d been wounded three times while a young officer in a Massachusetts regiment.

My friend replied: “Once he took me and my fellow clerk to the Arlington cemetery and as we stood over the graves of some of ‘his boys’ he told us, ‘They talk today of the bloody war in Europe [World War I]. They should have been with me at Antietam.'”

The brevity of our history is illustrated by Holmes, who was born in 1840 and died in 1935, so he remembered seeing veterans of the American Revolution march in Boston and lived to meet FDR early in the New Deal. My friend linked me to Holmes, who linked me to the Revolution. We are indeed a young country.

My respect for elders long preceded my time in the early 1990s as commissioner of Major League Baseball, but few institutions have more regard for its history than baseball. It was my great good fortune to know and listen to such old timers as Tommy Henrich telling of Lou Gehrig sitting and smoking cigarettes after going 0 for 4, Bob Feller talking of his wartime duty on the USS Alabama, Buck O’Neal proudly extolling Negro League baseball, Warren Spahn describing the collapse of the Bridge at Remagen in World War II, and Larry Doby praising his friend and mentor, the legendary promoter Bill Veeck. What joy it was to listen to them. I had similar times with many other old ball players including the iconic Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

Bart Giamatti, my pal and predecessor as commissioner, once pointed out that baseball has special regard for oral histories. And the stories are not just told by players. Each of us has stories to tell. The stories of who took us to our first game or of the time we met a great player will surely be told to our children as they will, in turn, tell their stories to their children.

We who respect our elders and ask them to tell their histories are reinforcing the oral tradition that is at the heart of all history. Those stories, as Mr. VanSantvoord noted, do make history come alive.

Larry Doyle

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I have no affiliation or business interest with any entity referenced in this commentary. The opinions expressed are my own and not those of Greenwich Investment Management. As President of Greenwich Investment Management, an SEC regulated privately held registered investment adviser, I am merely a proponent of real transparency within our markets so that investor confidence and investor protection can be achieved.

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