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.
13) In the spring of 1972 I received my doctorate from St. Louis University. While it never materialized into a real career it gave me the necessary tools to handle a lot of different things. While my teaching jobs were never fulltime that freedom allowed me to write and most importantly spend 28 years behind a radio microphone discussing the issues of the day. It was WGNU radio that provided me with a forum to learn more about human nature and truly find out just what I believe and why I believed it. It was better than a Ph.D. I was also the station’s general trivia champion twice.
14) In 1974 I had my first professional article published in St. Louis Fan Magazine. I called it The Greening of a Cardinal Rookie. The Cardinals gave me my first press pass so I could interview third baseman, Ken Reitz who had broken in the September before. He gave me six quotes in the locker room and I wrote 3500. Even then I knew how to expand and embellish.
15) On May 9, 1974 I appeared on the NBC Today with Gene Shalit for three and half minutes. I was there to talk about my baseball history course at Maryville College. I argued that it was probably the first accredited course of that nature in the Midwest.
16) Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Broeg started calling me the Baseball Professor. I parlayed that into my own TV show on local cable that ran for 17 months. I wrote, produced and starred in this baseball variety show, named The Baseball Professor, I did it all except film it. No notes just my memory and fast-speed voice tempo. I think all of 11 people saw at least one episode of this unique show.
17) It was after the visit to Cooperstown that I had an epiphany at the Albany airport. I decided to start a historical society for the old St. Louis Browns. One of their former players, Rick Ferrell had been inducted along with Pee Wee and I was saddened by the fact that no team would retire his number like all the other inductees. (I don’t think he ever had a number with the Browns I later learned.) We are celebrating our 30th anniversary which is eight more than the number of living members of that defunct St. Louis team. (22)
18) Having grandchildren is sometimes a lot better than having children. I will never forget the first one. Unlike her daddy I saw her just minutes after her birth. From such a tiny red little human being she has grown into the fine figure of a young woman, now preparing leaving home for college this coming fall.
19) Her brother could not have been a better athlete. He has excelled at every sport he has ever tried and were it not for his penchant for concussions—one each in football, basketball and lacrosse–who knows how far he might have gone. He has now taken up tennis, his dad’s game. And after a slow start he won his last his last five varsity matches before Districts. For years we really bonded while playing Madden Football. I must have a little of his aggressive spirit because I got tired of losing 60-0. Once I learned how to play I would beat him at least 40% of the time. He just hated that. And when I beat him in three of four chess games–look out!
20) Their baby sister was born with a small hole in her heart. She had open-heart surgery at 18 months and now can run a mile in 7:18. I never could run one that fast. She has the same aggressive spirit as a dad and brother. And she is a whiz with the books and a fantastic volleyball player, slated to follow in her sister’s footsteps.
21) My daughter’s only child is our intellect. With a verbal IQ of 153 she we have been talking politics for years. She’s almost 12. Six years ago she informed me she was a liberal Democrat because she loves their principles. She reads more books than I do, acts, sings and even ran for Student Council. For her poster she chose the Most Interesting Man in the World, the Mexican beer guy, who happens to be my new hero.
22) The best vacation my wife and I ever went on was the trip to Southern France where we spent a week on a French yacht the Le Poniard that we boarded in Nice. While traveling all up and down the Amalfi Coast, one evening after a sumptuous dinner we stopped to see Stromboli belch fiery lava while we listened to Pavarotti on the top deck of the boat. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
23) One of the greatest nights of my public life occurred at the Birthright dinner in 1996. I was given their prestigious Monsignor James Hartnett Award for service to the organization. It was more than an honor because I had known Monsignor for many years. He not only baptized my third child but introduced me to Stan Musial. What made it even more special was that the dinner occurred on my 56th birthday with 700 hundred of my closest friends in attendance. But if that was not enough for some reason I had hoped that Bob Costas would be there. Why I don’t know. I just prayed for it. To my knowledge he had never attended one of these dinners. Whom should I see leaning against a wall as I enter the reception area but BC himself. In talking to him I discern that he is totally unaware who the birthday boy is and I don’t tell him. When my acceptance speech was over he rushed up to my tables and got down on one knee to apologise. I thought I had died and gone to heaven right then and there.
24) Massage therapy has been the elixir that has giver new joy to my older life. While she is relatively new to my experience I had the good fortune of getting a series of massages from a young therapist in Florida quite by accident. (Does the name Wally Pipp mean anything?) She had a kind and gentle aura that warmed the cockles of this old man’s heart. She is the kind of woman who should be ministering to old people because she had patience, understanding and a kind heart that made me feel very special in her presence. It is fitting that I saved my regular MT for last! Her magic hands have not only provided me with a boatload of inspiration–three articles, one play and a short story–but have been a foretouch of the world yet to come that has made everything else pale by comparison.
I am thankful for all these many memories!!!!