By Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Former Milwaukee Brewer Larry Hisle works extensively with young, disadvantaged males. He uses physical competition to connect to youth. Hisle has mentored hundreds of boys.
At any hour of the day or night, Larry Hisle’s cellphone is liable to ring. On the other end, almost invariably, is a judge or a teacher, a cop or a social worker. The message is always the same.
A young man is in trouble, or headed that way fast. He’s angry and defiant. He’s hanging with a bad crowd. He’s skipping school. He’s running the streets. Nobody can get through to him.
Larry, will you please try?
And so Hisle will leave his comfortable home in Mequon and show up at school, at jail, at the front door of a crumbling house in a rough neighborhood.
Imagine the look on that young man’s face when he sees the 64-year-old grandfather standing before him, a World Series ring on his finger, a smile on his face. Imagine the smirk when Hisle opens his mouth and out comes the softest, kindest, gentlest voice that kid has ever heard.
How can this man possibly relate?
What does Larry Hisle know about pain?
Oh, he knows plenty. He knows heartache and emptiness, isolation and despair. He knows physical pain, too, from an injury that cost him a chance to achieve great things on the baseball diamond.
His life, you could say, has been about overcoming the worst kind of pain a man can endure.
Bud Selig will never forget meeting Hisle for the first time at the Pfister Hotel in November 1977. Selig, then owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was about to sign the powerfully built 6-foot-2-inch outfielder to a free-agent contract.
“My initial impression of Larry was, ‘What a wonderful human being,’ ” said Selig, now the commissioner of Major League Baseball. “He is one of the nicest human beings I’ve met in my entire life. And I really mean that.”
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Hisle spoke softly and carried a big stick. At 30, he was a five-tool player coming off a season in which he drove in an American League-leading 119 runs for the Minnesota Twins. He ripped 36 doubles and cracked 28 home runs, stole 21 bases and batted .302.
Hisle played left field for the Brewers in 1978 and had the best season of his career, hitting 34 homers, scoring 96 runs, driving in 115 and making the all-star team for the second consecutive year. He finished third in AL most valuable player voting.
“People have forgotten how good he was,” Selig said. “He was awesome. He wasn’t just a good baseball player. He was great.”
Hisle was almost embarrassingly humble and modest, characteristics that were seemingly at odds with his intensity on the field. He was on a mission to be the best player in the game.
“My goal was to win that MVP,” he said. “I never brag or boast but that was something I would have been privileged to have the chance to achieve.”
Early in the 1979 season, on a chilly night in Baltimore, Hisle chased down a ball in the gap, came up throwing and felt searing pain knife through his right shoulder.
“That,” he said, “was basically the end of my career.”
He had suffered a torn rotator cuff. A year of painful rehabilitation failed to strengthen the shoulder. He grew a beard because he couldn’t raise his hand to shave. He ate left-handed. He slept with his right arm tied to his side because recurring dreams about playing baseball made him thrash around.
He finally underwent surgery in 1980 and had a second operation in 1981. In ’82, the year the Brewers went to the World Series, he played in nine games and batted .129. He was done as a player, though he would earn World Series rings as the Toronto Blue Jays’ hitting coach in 1992 and ’93.
“There is no doubt in my mind he could have been an MVP,” Selig said. “As good as we were, with a healthy Larry Hisle playing there’s no telling how good we would have been. You stick him in the middle of a lineup with Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Gorman Thomas, Ben Oglivie . . . my goodness.”
Hisle, who has never smoked a cigarette or so much as sipped a beer, believes he could have been a highly productive player for 10 more years.
“To this day I’m haunted by the fact that I couldn’t finish out my career,” he said. “There was so much that was left undone.”
It wasn’t the first time life had dealt him a lousy hand.
Poor but happy childhood
Hisle was born in 1947 and grew up an only child in working-class Portsmouth, Ohio. His father, Hubert, died of a brain hemorrhage when Larry was a young boy. His mother, Claudine, struggled to make ends meet. The telephone was disconnected. The water was shut off. Claudine refused to ask for help.
“We were very poor,” Hisle said, “but I was the happiest kid on the planet. My mother had this uncanny ability to make everything enjoyable, whether it was my homework or doing the chores. She would sweep the floor with me and say she was going to sweep better than me and it was like a contest.
“She was the most extraordinary human being I have ever known or ever will know.”
He knew her, as cruel fate would have it, for 10 short years. When she died of a kidney infection that went untreated too long, there were no siblings or close relatives to comfort a boy with a broken heart. Imagine the loneliest day of your life and multiply it by 100. That was what Hisle felt. In some ways, it is what he feels to this day.
“When my mother passed away, I wanted to go with her,” he said, his voice a whisper. “It was that painful to me.”
Hisle lived for several years with one of his mother’s best friends and then was adopted by a couple, Orville and Kathleen Ferguson, who “treated me better than any son could be treated.”
He threw himself into sports and was driven by the desire, irrational or not, to make his mother proud of him. Nothing was beyond his grasp if he could only work half as hard as she’d have worked.
“I lived in a housing project adjacent to a park and I’d go out there every morning and practice,” Hisle said. “When I’d begin to get tired and think of going home, I would ask myself, ‘What would my mother do if she were in my shoes?’ She would do her absolute best to be the best she could be.
“I’d stay out there and work harder.”
At Portsmouth High School, Hisle blossomed into an All-American in both basketball and baseball. Basketball was his first love, and he was among the top recruits in the nation. He visited the University of Michigan with five other blue-chip recruits, including Lew Alcindor and Butch Beard. Oscar Robertson called him at home one morning to talk up the University of Cincinnati.
Hisle decided to accept Ohio State’s scholarship offer, but the Philadelphia Phillies picked him in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft and tried all summer to sign him.
“They drafted me after I begged them not to draft me because I told them I was going to go to college,” Hisle said. “They would call every 10 days. I kept repeating my answer, ‘Thanks, but I’m going to go to college.’
“Three weeks before school they called and asked if the owner, the general manager and their attorney could fly to Portsmouth and talk to me about playing professional baseball. I remember telling them I don’t mind them coming but they’ll be wasting a trip.”
The Phillies were persuasive. Hisle wound up signing the contract, which made him ineligible to play college basketball. He attended Ohio State that fall and vowed not to go to a basketball game. Just before Christmas, he broke his promise – and walked out before halftime.
“I left because I felt there wasn’t a player on either team that loved the game as much as I did,” he said. “I truly felt at that time I was a much better basketball player than I was a baseball player.”
In 1968, the year Ohio State went to the Final Four, Hisle reached the big leagues with the Phillies. The next year, at age 22, he hit 20 home runs. He continued to improve and was on the verge of superstardom when he came up throwing on that chilly night in Baltimore.
“The death of my mother unquestionably was the most difficult challenge I had to overcome in my life,” he said. “Later, hurting my shoulder was equally difficult, but in a different way.
“To this moment, I haven’t been able to get over either of the two.”
Where to begin?
How do you describe a man who has impacted the lives of thousands, who has mentored hundreds of broken kids from broken homes, who gets involved in their lives and goes to their schools and detention centers and group homes, who meets with their teachers and counselors, who takes them to Brewers games and college campuses, who drives them to car dealerships and through affluent suburbs to “manufacture dreams,” as he puts it . . . where do you begin?
You go to John Boche, the principal at St. Marcus Lutheran School on N. Palmer St., where Hisle always asks for “our toughest nuts to crack.”
“He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met in my life,” Boche said. “He’s looking to put in his time with the kids who are really, really struggling.
“The thing that’s golden about Larry is that he keeps his commitments. If he says he’s going to meet with a kid once every two weeks, he’s coming once every two weeks. You just don’t see that. You see people who come by and say, ‘I love your mission. I love that you’re educating kids in the city.’ Most people are flash in the pan. It’s interesting for a while and then life gets busy.
“That’s not how it is with Larry. He is one of the best things happening in Milwaukee right now.”
You go to Chuck Jones, director of the Milwaukee chapter of Hope Worldwide, an international charity.
“Larry Hisle has been a pure joy to work with because of his passion, the way that he loves, the way that he cares,” Jones said. “A celebrity is like currency, and Larry has given over $1 million of himself to others.
“He continues to be an all-star to every single person he meets and he has done this humbly and quietly.”
You go to 17-year-old Jason Dashner II, a student at Hamilton High School and one of the scores of young men Hisle has mentored.
“He came to my house, he ate dinner with us, he took me to Brewers games, and I got to go on the field,” Dashner said. “He would pick me up in the morning and take me to Concordia College and I would work out with him. I always thought of him as a big brother.
“He made it a goal for me to do better in school and I started getting Bs and Cs. I have my ups and downs, but I’m doing better.”
Hisle does draw a salary. He is employed by the Brewers as the manager of youth outreach. He makes appearances and speeches on behalf of the team and interacts with community organizations.
“The most brilliant thing the Brewers ever did was putting Larry on payroll,” Boche said. “That’s the kind of guy you want representing your organization.”
But Hisle’s day almost never ends when his work for the Brewers is done. Dozens of people and agencies who work with disadvantaged young men in Milwaukee have his cellphone number. He has never turned down a request.
“I don’t think Larry is ever off the clock,” said Tyler Barnes, the Brewers’ vice president of communications. “I think if you asked him he’d say this isn’t a job, it’s his life. It’s his passion.”
Hisle’s only rule is that he will help anyone who asks for it.
“Wherever there are children in need, I go,” he said. “Any race, any color, any gender, any age.”
One day, he is invited by the Running Rebels Community Organization to speak to 40 teens who were caught with guns. The next day, he is at the United Community Center or the Boys and Girls Club or driving to a detention center in Madison. The day after that, he is at Children’s Hospital, cheering up a young man with cancer.
Eric McLean of Whitefish Bay has an acute form of leukemia and has been in and out of treatment for several years. During one of his hospitalizations, his brother contacted the Brewers to see if a player could stop by and say hello.
McLean was hoping for Ryan Braun. The Brewers sent Hisle, who spent hours with him and returned the next day. And the day after that.
“Larry, to me . . . gosh, it’s so hard to describe,” McLean said. “There’s no one else like him that I’ve ever met in my life. Every time I’m in the hospital, he motivates me to want to get up and do that little bit extra.
“The cancer I have, the odds are less than 20% to live five years if you have it once. It’s come back three times and I think Larry is a big part of the reason why I’m still here.
“I can honestly say I love him.”
Hisle insisted that whatever he has done for McLean has been paid back tenfold.
“One of the best days of my life was the day I met that young man,” he said. “He has forever changed my life for the better.”
That’s the thing about Hisle. He gets more out of all this than he gives, and he gives a lot. He does it for the smile he puts on a kid’s face and the joy it brings to his heart. His most important work goes virtually unnoticed except by those whose lives he touches.
“I work with a lot of different athletes and, without naming names, they want that $5,000 or $10,000 up front for their foundation,” said Jones of Hope Worldwide. “That’s not Larry. I’ve worked with all of them on all levels and Larry is No. 1.”
While politicians talk and community leaders wring their hands, while so many look to others for answers, Hisle knocks on doors and breaks down barriers.
One smile at a time. One kid at a time.
“I tell people all the time I am the lucky one,” he said. “I’ve witnessed so many miracles in the lives of so many young men that society has written off.”
It’s not easy to gain the trust of kids who have been told they won’t amount to anything, who distrust authority, who have no positive male role models in their lives. Hisle wears his World Series ring not only to break the ice but to make a statement: he’s no pushover. He stays in shape because in the inner city, he said, “strength is power.”
He might take them onto the basketball court, back them down in the post and show them moves an old man shouldn’t be able to make. Then he’ll put his arm around them, ask them about goals, ask them to define words such as “manhood” and “hero.”
“I just want children to be left with a better life than what I was left with,” he said. “I want them to experience the feeling I had in my life when I realized that I really mattered.
“Every day, these young men are bombarded with negative images and statements about what they can’t do and what they won’t accomplish. Over time it takes its toll and they begin to believe what is said.
“Somehow, I’ve got to change that mind-set.”
Hisle’s mentoring takes him into neighborhoods rarely visited by people with Mequon addresses. At night, in certain areas of the city, he’ll wait for a group of men to pass on the street before he gets out of his car. He’s seen guns but has never had one pointed at him.
“I’ve never had anything happen to me,” he said, “that would make me think about not doing what I do.”
Of course, no mentor of troubled kids, not even one as determined and passionate as Hisle, bats 1.000.
“I speak at prisons and every time I go a young man will come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Hisle, do you remember me? We met 10 years ago,’ ” he said. “So I do experience failures, many more than I would like. I try not to take it personally, but it’s tough.”
Imagine if there were 1,000 Larry Hisles in Milwaukee. Imagine if they were doing what he does.
“It would change the city,” Boche said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
A long time ago, Hisle was one of the strongest men in baseball. Strength on the athletic field is fleeting, but thankfully, for the kids whose lives he touches, strength of character is forever.
“I hope that guy doesn’t get to heaven before I do,” Boche said, “because I won’t be able to stand next to him.”