The American infantryman crossed the Ludendorff railroad bridge in darkness, crawling on his hands and knees, his gear dragged along on the chance, if he fell in the Rhine River below, that it would not pull him like an anchor to the bottom.
He survived, though the next week shrapnel from a German artillery round wounded him in the left arm and leg.
A fellow American came along, looked down at him and took his rations.
Despite his ghastly appearance while prone on a World War II battlefield, he recovered, rejoined his outfit and would get orders to return to the United States in April 1946. The ship sailed into New York Harbor, right past the Statue of Liberty.
The soldier, Jack Buck, who would go on to become a Hall of Fame sports broadcaster, wrote in his autobiography, “Many happy tears flowed that day.”
This image stuck with me, and I recalled it last week when I watched 22-year-old video footage of Buck calling a historical moment in baseball.
His calls managed that rare trick of being in-the-moment while also professionally detached, knowing fully his audience without being fawning.
In that late summer of 1998, however, watching the St. Louis Cardinals’ slugger Mark McGwire shatter the single-season home run record long held by Roger Maris, the camera caught Buck in the broadcast booth, tears rolling down his face.
This scene played out in the documentary “Long Gone Summer,” part of the ESPN series known as “30 for 30.” The film follows McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa in their nip-and-tuck battle for the home run record and its attendant immortality.
The story proved compelling, then and now, because of its context and circumstances.
Big-leaguers had alienated many of their fans just a few years before with a labor strike that cut short a season and, for the first time since 1904, caused cancellation of the World Series. Turnstile numbers declined in the aftermath.
Into this void came a riveting narrative, a chase to conquer a 37-year-old record, not just by one player, but two. And they played in ballparks only five hours away from one another on two teams of long-standing rivalry.
Of course, all this appealed to me at the time because I grew in small-town Missouri listening to the Cardinals on radio and, by extension, hating the Cubs.
Yet McGwire and Sosa, in the midst of this, did not seem to have ill feelings for one another. In fact, they sensed, looking one to the other, that no player understood the nature of this sporting hurricane but their opponent.
Superbly made, this documentary cast the two cities in soft, golden-hour light. It felt so good to watch it except for the reveal in the last 15 minutes, which held no revelation at all.
In short, it was a scam. Well, the batted balls actually went over the fence, and fans again embraced baseball, but the players would be tied to the steroids scandal of the period.
They pulled this off, but they cheated.
I wonder about this, a documentary 22 years from now, about the year 2020, however it started with impeachment and bled into pandemic and followed up with social unrest and ended who knows how.
Will there be that reveal, that part in the last 15 minutes where it turns out people denied the virus and thought the protests to be caused by shadowy gangs of anti-fascists?
With McGwire or Sosa, things became true because people wanted them to be so. Even in its illusions, a good story can be sold.