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.