In a 1978 segment of Saturday Night Live, Co-anchor Jane Curtin welcomed a new member to our Update team, the former All-Star second baseman for the New York Mets, Chico Escuela. Chico, a Dominican ballplayer, deftly played by Garret Morris has a thick Dominican accent and speaks very little English. He starts by saying Thank you, berry, berry much. … Base-ball … been berry, berry good to me. … Thank you, Hane. …
I can easily second Chico appreciation of how good baseball has been. Especially for a young boy trying hard to get a focus on life and his place in it.
In 1950 my father took me to see John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima in 1950.
Even at age seven, though I found war movies exciting, my concept of hero was reserved more for the baseball diamond than any tale of sanguinary combat.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were the darling underdogs of the 1950s. While they won a number of pennants, they always lost to the Yankees in the World Series — until 1955.
While all the Dodgers were heroes that year, to my adolescent mind, the quiet Kentuckian at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese represented to me everything a hero should be.
He was the team’s leader and he played the game with the same grace and dignity that my contemporaries in St. Louis must have seen in Stan The Man Musial.
These were the players that writer, Roger Kahn called the Boys of Summer. To me they were my men for all seasons.
When Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1984, I was there to honor him.
As a player I calculate that I only had 50 at bats, which might be considered a part of an organized baseball game. Most of my experience was playing with a few friends but hardly ever in a game with two nine-man teams.
My success rate for those games was 12-50, for an even .280 mark, mediocre at best. I could run and I was a fearful but determined player at 3rd base, my favorite position. I had one bunt single and only two extra base hits. One year I did steal 7/8 bases. A perfect throw nailed me at third base.
Two derivatives came from my baseball participation. During my 8th Grade team in 1957, we had a single man coach us and I use the word coach loosely. I don’t remember any practices or teaching. He basically kept order and assigned who would play where. One night before a game, he called me and asked ME if I would take over the team for the next game. I was only 13 years old! The first thing I did was recruit my neighbor who was a year below me in our school and therefore eligible to play. Gerry lived just down the block and if I had a best friend while I was growing up, he was it. I knocked out his two front teeth during a roller hockey game years later.
With Gerry on the mound and me at shortstop we prevailed 5-3 and I had my first victory as a manager.
I spent most of my adolescent years in the country, staying with my maiden Aunt Mal as we called her. With my country friend a Jewish boy from the Bronx, named Stevie Gardos I played all kinds of ball. One year we organized a team to play the older boys from Coolidge Trail. They had such intimidating names as Butch, Whitey, Spider and his younger brother Hoss. Two of their Jewish players were known as Big Beak and Little Beak, names than not even Roger Kahn could have conjured.
We played four games and we did win one of them. That was the game I recruited another pitcher. This fellow was a lanky Italian who had played freshman ball at LaSalle HS not too far from my Xavier HS.
Little did I know that these childhood experiences had prepared me for coaching my two sons and well over a 100 young boys in a modestly competitive league, the Ladue Baseball League, which I served with pride for 13 years. I once calculated my composite record as 110-48 and I can still remember many of the losses.
Several years prior to Pee Wee’s induction (1973-74) I taught what is arguably the first accredited Baseball History course in the Midwest at then Maryville College in Suburban St. Louis. James Cool Papa Bell, a player from the old Negro Leagues who later enshrined in Cooperstown was my guest speaker.
My first choice had been the aforementioned Roger Kahn but I never heard from him until the following year when he was in town promoting his BOS. While it was too late for him to speak we did have a wonderful leisurely dinner before I drove him to the radio station for his interview. The class also warranted an invitation from NBC’s Today Show. I spent an exciting 3 and half minutes with Gene Shalit on May 9, 1974.
Local sportswriter, Bob Broeg who is honored in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame in the writers’ wing started calling me the professor of Baseball. I turned it around so that the sobriquet has been part of my identity ever since. It is part of who I am. I treasure that name and have used it ever since in my e-mail ID and on my vanity license plates. I officially registered it as a service mark over 30 years ago.
It was at Pee Wee’s induction that I got the idea for the St. Louis Browns Fan Club, an organization that is still going strong, despite the demise of most of its players, who now number a mere 19 out of 795 men who wore the uniform from 1902-53. It is truly a dying franchise since it is the only team name that has been stricken from the modern history of baseball, save the short-lived Seattle Pilots who moved to Milwaukee in 1970 after just one season.
On August 17, 2015 the St. Louis Cardinals honored my fan club with a night at Busch Stadium. We had 200 people buy tickets. Our Cardinals’ host, Brian Finch regaled us with an informative history of the Browns. This was quite a big step since the relation between the two teams was never that good when they were rivals for the affections of the St. Louis public.
The owner of the Cardinals, William DeWitt II has a very strong interest in the Browns. His father owned them when he was a little boy. It was his small uniform that they used to clothe the most famous pinch-hitter in baseball history, the 3’7” Eddie Gaedel who had one major league at bat. As Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up.
While my participation in the game has waned as I have grown older, my passion for the game is still vibrant. When Walter O’Malley broke a 13-year old boy’s heart with his move of the Dodgers to the Gold Coast for the 1958 season I longed for a team like them.
While the New York Mets probably have broken my aging heart more times than the Dodgers ever did and no player can compare to Pee Wee, save maybe Tommy Terriffic, I feel strongly that God is in His Heaven and all is right with my world.
This past month’s experiences with the Kansas City Royals underscored that my ability to feel and experience the thrill and abject pain of a bitter and devastating defeat at the hands and bats of a superior team has not lessened in any way. Though it hurt badly, I do not want to lose the inner ability to feel because it is part of what makes us human. Baseball brings it out every April and October.
Nearly 10 years ago, my thespian daughter had a supporting role in a play, Going to See the Elephant. She played the traveling wife from a larger urban community with a sick husband. The lead character was an older woman, who was tied to her farm in Osbourne County, Kansas shortly after the end of the Civil War. Though her life was the personification of routine and drudgery, she still had a vivid imagination of someday being able to visit foreign lands.
The title of this 1982 play, which my daughter’s short-lived theater company, The Orange Girls produced was an American idiom that indicated overwhelming emotion, and according to Belle “Maw” Wheeler it was a colloquial term for daydreaming that created a reverie that gave people a respite from the boredom and drudgery of their mundane lives. Presumably the Elephant represented exotic travel to faraway lands…from Kansas, such as India or maybe even Africa.
I have been fortunate enough to have traveled to most places that I have always longed to see such as Rome, Dublin, London and even Malta, I never had any desire to go see any elephant in India or even in the San Diego Zoo.
But recently I had this yearning to see the Russian…Vladimir Tarasenko, who is the latest young phenomenon to skate for the St. Louis Blues Hockey team. Vladimir Andreyevich Tarasenko was born on Dec 13 1991. in Yaroslavl, Russia. Only in his 3rd season, Tarasenko, the team’s leading scorer with 23 goals was just named to the NHL All Star Game. He is also a former Russian league scoring champion and a Russian Olympian to boot.
There seems to be something special about him that inspired my Elephant Moment. Perhaps it was his Russian origins, his size or the cool grace with which he plays the game. Perhaps I think he will be the next Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history, whom I saw lace up his skates twice.
I am not what you call a hockey fan by any stretch of the imagination. The last hockey game I attended was probably in the last century. The Blues changed players so often I could not develop any attachment or interest in any special player. I did see the aforementioned Wayne Gretzky when he briefly played here as well as stalwart, Brett Hull whose father I think I saw play when I was young.
Well last night my yearning was satisfied when I saw Tarasenko lead the Blues to a 7-2 victory over the same team, the San Jose Sharks whom they had beaten by an identical score just a week ago.
What impressed me most about him was not just his size, but also the smoothness and fluidity with which he transversed the rink. It was more of art form, germane to the European game than the pure brute strength of North American hockey. In fact virtually the whole team demonstrated the grace and speed with percise passing in stark contrast to the type of goon hockey that has characterized the sport in the NHL for so long.
The influx of several European players is largely responsible, including several Russians. They have taught the North Americans how to really played the game. This reminded of one of late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s best lines: I went to a boxing match the other night at the Garden and a hockey game broke out!
Last night’s game was almost uninterrupted by penalties and there were no fights at all. The crowd was energized and very much alive but not angry, drunk or rowdy.
While Tarasenko did not score a goal for me, he did assist on the first two scores and was always lurking around the maw of the goal for a scoring opportunity.
I went to the game with an unusual combination of multi-generational family, including my younger son, my youngest granddaughter and my only son-in-law. While we had the complete family out for dinner the evening before, this evening had a special meaning for me.
There was a diversity of family relationships, each with its own innate character and hierarchy. While I was the patriarch of the 11 family members at dinner, this night I was not only the “patriarch”– in reality the family matriarch rules the family–I was a father, grandfather, and father-in-law. My son Matthew was a son, uncle, and brother-in-law. Tim was a father, a son-in-law and a brother-in-law. Olivia…now 12 was a daughter, granddaughter and niece.
Even though I was “plugged up” to protect what little natural hearing I have left, I was able just to feel our special family aura in my soul.
At the first period intermission, my son and I went on a hunting expedition—there were no elephants in the trade center that night— to see the exhibit on the third level, dedicated to the St. Louis Browns, a team with which I have had a strong posthumous relationship.
Over 30 years after they left for greener pastures in Baltimore, a few others and I founded a Historical Society (1984) in their honor. Four years ago I joined with announcer Bob Costas, St. Louis Cardinals’ owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and the late Tom Phelps, in funding the exhibit as part of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. This had been my first chance to actually see the exhibit and my name on the plaque that joins the two-glassed cases that is stocked with Brownie history, legend and lore, including two of my short histories of the team.
The entire evening was one of those moments that I will treasure until the end of my days. I guess I had one of Véronique Vienne’and Fr. Richard Rohr’s Naked Moments. (see last Post) I owe it all to the Russian.