Article Thumbnail

A Supremely Heartfelt, 120-Year Cultural History of Athletes Thanking Their Mom

From Lou Gehrig to Kevin Durant, we proudly present the proudest mama’s boys of sports

“Practically every boy has as his sweetheart his mother — and that the surest way to appeal to him for his best efforts in building his character and his grades — those things greatly to be desired — was to remind him of the deep happiness his mother receives.”

These are words proclaimed by the late Frank Hering, the University of Notre Dame football coach who some consider to be the “father of Mother’s Day.” In 1896, Hering joined Notre Dame as the quarterback and coach of the football team, and within a few years he was running the entire athletic department as well as coaching basketball and baseball. One of Hering’s regular practices was to have all the boys on his teams write a monthly note to their mother as a way to ensure they’d be on their best behavior. On February 4, 1904, Hering proposed the idea of the “setting aside of one day in the year as a nationwide memorial to the memory of mothers and motherhood” to a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, an organization of which he was a member. He also worked with the fraternity to bring public attention to the idea.

Now, Hering was far from the only person advocating for such a holiday — most notably, copywriter Anna Jarvis deserves the bulk of the credit for leading a movement that resulted in a presidential proclamation of Mother’s Day in 1914. But Hering’s efforts are noteworthy because, while athletes no doubt thanked their mothers before Hering, his high-profile proclamation set the stage for a century dominated by professional sports, one in which many pro athletes would follow in Hering’s footsteps by thanking their mothers for their accomplishments. 

Here then are some of the most notable of those thank you messages from the 20th century and beyond…

Early 1900s: Nap Lajoie

Nap “The Frenchman” Lajoie played in the major leagues from 1896 to 1916, and for a time, he was the most popular player in the game. According to baseball historian J.W. Stewart, Lajoie “took liberal care of his elderly mother. Nap visited often and would leave a hundred dollar bill or two for her to buy luxuries, to spoil herself, but to Nap’s great frustration, she put every dollar in the bank.”

1920: Tris Speaker

In 1912, center fielder and manager Speaker was named baseball’s MVP, leading the Red Sox to a World Series victory. This was in spite of a request by his mother to “quit baseball and return home to her in Texas to be ‘her boy’ again,” J.W. Stewart explains. In 1920, Speaker again was on the winning side of a World Series, this time with the Cleveland Indians, and when they won, he fought his way through fans and players alike to give his mother a kiss at her seat behind home plate.

1927: Lou Gehrig

The classic ‘mama’s boy’ in baseball was Lou Gehrig,” says baseball historian Edmund Werhle, author of Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball’s Campaign Against Its Biggest Star. Gehrig’s close relationship with his mother was a popular focus of the media during his time in baseball, and he would sometimes be derided as a “Mama’s Boy” by teammate Babe Ruth. Over the years, Gehrig would often pay tribute to his mother  — including in his famous farewell speech — but one of the most notable tributes to Christina Gehrig actually came from the fans.

It was during a 1927 exhibition tour with Babe Ruth that the citizens of Lima, Ohio, presented Gehrig with a gift for his mother, an eight-inch bronze statue with the inscription, “Hello Mother / With My Lima / Friends Today / Oct. 14 ‘27 / Lou.” The statuette would later find its way into the Baseball Hall of Fame when his mother passed away.

1940s: Stan Musial

Musial, who played with the Cardinals from 1941 to 1963, “owes his career to his mother,” says J.W. Stewart. “She bought him a bat, ball, glove and uniform at four years old and he couldn’t get enough of it from the start.” While his father urged him to go to college after high school instead of playing with the Cardinals, his mother advocated on her son’s behalf and eventually won the day. Later on, Musial would thank his mother by building a house for her.

Stan Musial with his mother, Mary

1950: Jim Fister

Baseball historian Bill Staples Jr., author of Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer, explains that in 1950, minor league second baseman Fister hit a home run for his mom on Mother’s Day. Not only that, but it was the third year in a row that he’d done so, which is a hell of a lot harder than simply remembering to call your mom on Mother’s Day.

1962: Earl Battey

In a 1962 interview, Twins catcher Battey credited his mom with teaching him to catch. “Mom was a catcher on a girl’s softball team back home in Los Angeles. She was a fine catcher, I ought to know. As a kid, I used to watch her play.”

1974: Hank Aaron

When Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, 1974, he had broken Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 714 career home runs. After reaching home plate, Aaron was rushed by his teammates for his stunning achievement, but he quickly broke free to run to the stands and embrace his family. He hugged his wife, then his parents, thanking them for their support and later said of his mother, “I never knew she could hug so tight.”

1978: Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was devoted to his warm and wonderful mother Odessa,” says Wehrle. On her 61st birthday, Ali remarked, “My mother is a Baptist, and when I was growing up, she taught me all she knew about God. Every Sunday, she dressed me up, took me and my brother to church and taught us the way she thought was right. She taught us to love people and treat everybody with kindness. She taught us it was wrong to be prejudiced or hate. I’ve changed my religion and some of my beliefs since then, but her God is still God; I just call him by a different name. And my mother, I’ll tell you what I’ve told people for a long time. She’s a sweet, fat, wonderful woman, who loves to cook, eat, make clothes and be with family. She doesn’t drink, smoke, meddle in other people’s business or bother anyone, and there’s no one who’s been better to me my whole life.”

Muhammad Ali with his mother, Odessa

1978: Eddie Mathews

According to sportswriter Wayne Stewart, author of Wits, Flakes and Clowns: The Colorful Characters of Baseball, when Mathews was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he singled out his mother in a funny, heartfelt tribute by saying, “I’m just a beat-up old third baseman. I’m just a small part of a wonderful game that is a tremendous part of America today. My mother used to pitch to me and my father would shag balls. If I hit one up the middle, close to my mother, I’d have some extra chores to do. My mother was instrumental in making me a pull hitter.”

1979: Chuck Tanner

Baseball historian John Fredland, curator of Pittsburgh Sports History, says that for the people of Pittsburgh, the most memorable motherly tribute was when Pirates manager Tanner’s mother passed away on the morning of Game Five of the 1979 World Series. Tanner’s mother had suffered a stroke two weeks earlier, and when he called on the morning of October 14th, he was told “Your mother died at 7:40.” Tanner’s team rallied behind him and won that night’s game and eventually the series. But on the night of his mother’s death, he fondly recalled some of his exchanges with her:

“I never wanted to do any work around the house. I never wanted to wash the dishes like I was supposed to. One day I remember she poked me in the shoulder and said, ‘You don’t like to work; all you want to do is play ball.’ And that’s all I did whenever I could. There was a playground over the hill from our house in New Castle. I made sure I got there early, and I’d stay all day. I was only 8 or 9, and the other kids were 14 or 15, but they stuck me in right field and I played. And at lunchtime my mother would make a sandwich and bring it down to the playground for me.”

1988: Michael Jordan

In 1988, Disney ran a Mother’s Day special entitled Superstars and Their Moms, where several big stars of the day did an interview alongside their mother. For Jordan, it was revealed during his segment that, “when Michael sticks his tongue out at a game, it’s a signal to his mom that he knows she’s there.” Additionally, Jordan remarked, “Once that I see that [my parents] are [at the game], then I can go on and get 35, 40 [points] no matter what.”

While the segment is sweet, it also gets painfully awkward when they go to some obviously staged scenes of Jordan and his mother around the house, which conclude with the two of of them on a basketball court, where Jordan’s mom repeatedly schools Jordan and even dunks on him (though she’s clearly replaced by someone else in the scene). It’s pretty cringeworthy in retrospect, but hey, it’s that kind of corny stuff that moms just love — both in 1988 and today.

1989: Tony Wilson

So this isn’t exactly a “thank you” but it sure as hell should have been. In 1989, heavyweight boxer Wilson was taking a beat-down from Steve McCarthy when Wilson’s mother jumped in the ring and impaled McCarthy in his head with the heel of her shoe, which later resulted in four stitches. Once he was struck, McCarthy immediately exited the ring and Wilson was declared the winner, but rather than thank his mom, he banned her from all future bouts. 

1993 & 1999: Tony Gwynn

In a remarkable bit of timing, Padres Hall of Famer Gwynn ended up reaching two amazing milestones on his mother’s birthday. On August 6, 1993, Gwynn got his 2,000th Major League hit, which just happened to be on his mother’s 58th birthday. Six years later to the day, Gwynn got his 3,000th hit in a game against the Montreal Expos ⁠— a singular tribute to a hard-working mom.

2000: Shaquille O’Neal

When O’Neal was drafted in 1992, he made a promise to his mother that he would still get his college degree. While Shaq’s subsequent superstardom meant that he’d never need a diploma, his promise to his mother was very important to him, so he took classes during his the off season, and in 2000, he fulfilled the promise by getting a BA in general studies.

Shaq and his Mom, Lucille

2012: Ken Griffey Jr.

When Wayne Stewart was writing his book Baseball Dads: The Game’s Greatest Players Reflect on Their Fathers and the Game They Love, he interviewed Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., son of another Major League ballplayer, Ken Griffey Sr. When talking to Stewart, Griffey Jr. wanted him to know that his mom was incredibly important to him, too, and that he thanked her by hitting seven Mother’s Day home runs over the course of his career. 

Stewart also stresses that when it comes to Major Leaguers who had Major League dads, they repeatedly pointed out to him that “for much of the year it was their mother and not their father who raised them. Their mothers helped them and got them to their practices and games because the father was away from home so often.”

Ken Griffey Sr., Ken Griffey Jr. and Alberta Griffey

2014: Kevin Durant

When Kevin Durant won the NBA MVP in 2014, he delivered a beautiful acceptance speech, but it was the ending tribute to his mother that has become the stuff of legends:

“And last, my mom. I don’t think you know what you did. You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later, I came out. The odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be there. We moved from apartment to apartment, by ourselves. One of the best memories I had is when we moved into our first apartment — no bed, no furniture, and we just all sat in the living room and just hugged each other. We thought we made it. When something good happens to you — I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here. You waking me up in the middle of the night in the summertime, making me run up a hill. Making me do pushups. Screaming at me from the sideline at my games at eight or nine years old. We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe, you kept us off the street. You put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”

The speech received massive coverage at the time and it’s still the first example many sports fans think of when it comes to athletes thanking their moms. Many athletes, of course, have thanked their moms since 2014: Think Serena Williams’ tear-jerking open letter to her mother; the beautiful “Thanks Mom” Procter and Gamble ad between Simone Biles and her mom; and, on the lighter side, Jerome Baker’s hilarious efforts to locate his mom during a Dolphins game in 2019.

But Durant did something special. He not only thanked his mom, he set the gold standard for gratitude, putting to shame anyone who decides just to write, “Love, fill-in-the-blank” on their Mother’s Day cards. 

Seriously fellas, that woman gave birth to you — take a page from Durant and put some thought into it.