JSB: One Man’s Life
Last December I read a random obit from the L.A. Times and it got me thinking. It was for a man named Sam Chapman, who died at the age of 90.
Who was Sam Chapman?
For starters, he was an All-American halfback on the last University of California football team to win the Rose Bowl — in 1938 — who then went on to play pro baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics.
He grew up near Tiburon, California, where he was an all around athlete at Tamalpais High School. As a football player he was dubbed the "Tiburon Terror." If I were a football player, that’s a name I wouldn’t mind having. It would beat things like the “California Cutie” or the “Los Angeles Somewhat Scary Guy.” If you’re going to have a nickname, make sure it’s a good one. A guy I went to high school with was nicknamed “Wimp.” And this was by his friends! At our 20 year high school reunion, I was chatting with him when one of our old high school circle came up, a woman who was now married to a congressman, and she smiled widely with her arms out to the fellow and said, “Hi Wimp!” These things have a tendency to last.
Speaking of nicknames, Sam Chapman’s high school football coach was a man named Roy Riegels. Riegels was also a noted football player for Cal, but will always be remembered for his nickname, “Wrong Way Riegels.” That’s because he picked up a fumble during the 1929 Rose Bowl, got mixed up, and ran 69 yards the wrong way.
This was captured on film, by the way, much to the regret of Mr. Riegels, who nevertheless managed to live the rest of his life in somewhat good cheer whenever the incident was brought to his attention, which must have been all the time.
Can you imagine having a mistake hung around your neck from your college days, with a nickname attached to it? Good thing there were no cameras running in the apartment I shared with four other guys at UCSB. It might have captured the time I purloined a Sarah Lee cheesecake my roommate had bought for himself, to break out some night when he was studying hard. I’m glad the incident stayed private, or I might have been known as the “Santa Barbara Sarah Lee Bandit” or “The Cheesecake Cheat.”
I did tell my roommate I was sorry, by the way, and offered to buy him a new cheesecake. He said I didn’t have to do that, but please don’t take his food again.
He showed me grace. And isn’t that a picture of God? He doesn’t say to us, Go back and make everything right and then I’ll forgive you. He says I will forgive you right now. Then you can make things right, if you’re able.
Sam Chapman was also a darn good baseball player. He played 11 years in the majors, and in 1941 batted .322, with 25 home runs. That’s a Hall of Fame career had it been repeated season after season.
1941, by the way, was the year Joe DiMaggio went on a 56 game hitting streak, a record most say will never be broken. It was also the year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought us into World War II. Sam Chapman answered his country’s call, enlisting in the U.S. Navy, earning his wings as a pilot and serving as a flight instructor in Corpus Christi, Texas during the war.
He was part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” Like so many men of that time, he came back from the war and took up his life again. He finished his baseball career in 1951 and worked as an inspector for the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District. With his wife, who died in 2000, he raised a family and is survived by four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In Tiburon, they will raise a life sized bronze statue to a hometown hero, the Tiburon Terror, Sam Chapman.
It seems to me Sam Chapman lived a full life, using his gifts to the best of his ability, and not for mere self-indulgence. He fought for his country and his family. He fought for excellence on the football field and baseball diamond.
Maybe I responded to this obit because Chapman was a lot like my Dad. They were about the same age. My Dad was a standout athlete (played baseball at UCLA with Jackie Robinson), a WWII vet, a hardworking man who provided for his family.
There’s something inspiring about those “old fashioned” values. I guess that’s how I see myself as a writer. I’m no gifted literary genius. I get up every day and work and try to get better. That’s all I can do, all any of us can do. It’s what I learned from my Dad, and men like Sam Chapman. And I’ve also learned that this is enough, even if they don’t erect a statue in your name.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. – 2 Tim. 4:7
James Scott Bell
“The Suspense Never Rests”