I’ve always loved baseball. Even though it’s a team game, I found solitary ways to embrace it’s poetic rhythms. I was a baseball Walter Mitty, transported to Busch Stadium in St. Louis. I straddled the mound glaring at the batter with annoyed disdain. I emulated Bob Gibson, throwing a rubber baseball against the brick wall of our house, aiming at a strike zone drawn with a chunk of sandstone.
My heroes were perfect, immovable blocks of granite, statues without flaws. But I soon learned that heroes turn to piles of stone, and from piles of stone, perfection rises once again. Curled up next to the console radio doing homework in the evenings, I dreamed the dream of possibility, like Lucy entering Narnia through the wardrobe door. My fantasy was playing in front of a big league crowd that came to see me pitch a remarkable game as Harry Caray called every ball and strike.
During the autumn of 1968, the wall of hero-worship came tumbling down in a heap. The Detroit Tigers squared off against my St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Since all the games were during the day, I brought my transistor radio to school in hopes of listening on the playground during recess. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Karbosky, would never allow a broadcast of the World Series in her classroom, or so we thought. She brought an element of deportment to my midwestern upbringing, an air of dignified carriage replete with reading glasses strung around her neck with a silver chain and an erect proud posture. It was my first encounter with the upper class whom I’d never met personally but had read about in books like the Great Gatsby. I didn’t know if Mrs. “K” was wealthy or was just socially aloof, but I was sure that the rich folk acted like she did. However, she had moments of humanity that defied her veneer of aloof formality. I skipped school once when Grandpa died, and I came back to her class the day after the funeral. Mrs. Karbosky expressed her condolences for the passing of my Grandfather, told me she was sorry. She seemed a little more human to me after that, like she knew I had a life outside her sterling fiefdom of a classroom.
Mrs. Karbosky made famous the expression, “Class, I would like your undivided attention.” I had never heard anyone talk that way nor had I ever attempted to divide my attention purposely. So, I was shocked when she let me and a buddy listen to the 1968 World Series in the back of the classroom. Shocked because it broke her wooden rule of focused attention long before the advent of multi-tasking.
By sheer force of intellectual elegance, Mrs. Karbosky ruled over her 4th grade minions as the queen of proper behavior. I approached her desk with Stan to ask if we could listen to the World Series, frozen with the fear of her belittling my banal desire to listen to a silly game, to “divide my attention” as it were. To my amazement she said yes, so Stan and I huddled in the back of the classroom listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call the game as Bob Gibson dueled Mickey Lolich. During recess we took the transistor radio to the playground and listened in between taking turns at tether ball on the playground. The game still had a few innings left when the 3:00 bell dismissed us for the day, so I ran down the hall, burst out the double doors and sprinted two blocks to my home to watch the end of the game on television. The Cardinals lost that seventh and final game of the Series and I walked out my front door and yelled, “I hate the Tigers!” Then I went back inside and cried.
My heroes were, after all, not invincible, but it made me sad to watch them defeated. When they tore down my school a few years ago, a different sadness, whimsical and melancholy, came over me. The asphalt playground and the stone walls of Limestone Grade School were plowed into rubble. I have a few pieces of demolished wall sitting on my back porch, mortar still stuck to the edges of the stone. In another now demolished building, the 1966 version of Busch Stadium in St. Louis, I saw a Cardinal hero and got his autograph.
I never saw Stan Musial hit a baseball, except in grainy old videos. Dodgers Coach Ted Lyons once said that Mr. Musial “waits for a pitch in the unforgettable left-handed corkscrew crouch peering over his right shoulder looking like a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops are coming.” He was referred to by the Brooklyn Dodgers as simply, “The Man,” a name that stuck, along with two statues outside Busch Stadium, one of which bears the words of former baseball commissioner Ford Frick, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” He was as transparent as Joe Dimaggio was mysterious, as elegant as Mickey Mantle was country, and as humble as Ted Williams was arrogant. Stan the Man signed my Rawlings baseball and handed it back with a sprawling blue autograph. The signature, “Stan Musial”, was decipherable only because I watched the Man sign it across the table.
I lost that autographed ball, foolishly using it as an everyday ball in my backyard. It turned up years later, like an old friend, a memento of the time I was close enough to touch him and watch him scribble his name on my baseball. A buddy told me to put the ball in a safe place, but I didn’t always take advice. I should have listened to the advice of a grizzled St. Louis concessionaire who sold me a hotdog at Busch Stadium when he admonished me to “Stick that five dollar bill in your pocket and quit waving it around!” I stared at him mouth agape, unsure of his meaning, and felt the friction of the currency leaving my hand, whereupon I turned to stare in disbelief at a boy my height and weight running up the ramp behind the row of concessions with my five bucks clenched in his fist. He stole my cash and my innocence.
That summer of 1969 was a summer of justice. A time to consider why a boy would steal my five bucks and how a pot-bellied southpaw like Mickey Lolich could beat my Cards three times in a World Series. I sought redemption for the Cards defeat in the 1968 World Series. Redemption through games played in my yard next to a driveway of gravel. My heroes, Lou Brock LF, Curt Flood CF, Roger Maris RF, Orlando Cepeda 1B, Tim McCarver C, Mike Shannon 3B, Julian Javier 2B, Dal Maxvill SS, Bob Gibson P, all hit better and pitched stronger in my yard than they did at Busch Stadium in 1969, and they never lost a game to the Tigers all summer.
I can still recite that lineup because I built a stadium in the backyard of my mind where these ballplayers came to practice their hitting, emerging from the oaks that surrounded our home like Shoeless Joe Jackson appearing out of a cornfield in a dream. That lineup of Cardinals spent the summer slugging gravel into the oak trees of our backyard using my wooden bat, a 30″ Louisville Slugger autographed by Mickey Mantle and stamped by Hillerich and Bradsby.
J.R.R. Tolkien said, “I am at home among trees.” I too, was at home among trees, playing fantasy baseball alone in our yard, framed with oaks in a gentle arc. I imagined the trees as the outfield fence at Busch stadium in the evening gloaming, the shadows casting doubt on my reality and my fantasy. In my insular nine year-old universe of gravel baseball, I concocted World Series scenarios replete with standing room only crowds cheering lustily as they mingled with the the oak trunks. I envisioned an elaborate game of rock hitting with metrics to assign singles (hard grounders into the trees), doubles (line drives into the lower trees) triples (line drives into the upper canopy, home runs (soaring shots clearing the tree tops) and outs (any swing and miss or dribbled grounder). In that manner I would bat through the Cards lineup mimicking each Cardinal, batting left handed for Brock, Maris, McCarver, and right handed for the rest of the lineup. I would pooch out my butt when Cepeda batted and flair the right elbow while standing erect when Flood hit, and deliberately hit a few weak grounders when Maxvill, barely a .200 hitter, was at the plate, although I once had him hit a home run late in a game just to improve his hitting morale.
After a summer of gravel baseball, somewhere deep within the gathering dusk of a late August afternoon, the head of the bat flew into the oak trees during an Orlando Cepeda plate appearance as the bat barrel could stand no more abuse, chiseled by the pounding of a nine year-old slamming one inch limestone aggregate deep into the trees, again and again, wood to woods. Before that final swing and goodbye to my Louisville Slugger, it looked like a beaver had taken a hungry bite from the meat of the bat head. Worn to a precarious sliver, it was gone.
I always knew my wooden bat from the summer of 1969 would die and things would never be the same again. Backyard games fade to oblivion as do our heroes, but our memories live on. I still recall fondly that bat with Mickey’s signature burned in script on the barrel. That bat head flew into the trees along with Mickey Mantle’s legacy as his life spiraled into addiction, partying coupled with the deterioration of his knees. As one writer put it, Mantle was “a million-dollar talent propped up on dime-store knees.” This once fleet and nimble outfielder staggered under the towering fly ball of life against a blazing sun.
Musial and Mantle help me frame the scene that took place in the summer of 1969 at Busch Stadium. We were sitting on the third base side and I asked, “Dad, can I go get a hot dog?” Remarkably, he let me go alone. We lived in a safer world then, or perhaps we were simply oblivious to the Soviet ICBM’s pointed at us, kids pedaling bikes without helmets trailing the fog of DDT, safe in the assurance that a saccharine-laced Fresca washing down a hot dog was invigorating and healthy.
I can still see that boy running up the ramp with five dollars. I wonder where that kid is? Did his Dad take him to the ballgame and teach him how to hit, how to conduct himself, how to live? I knew nothing of his grief and pain, his joy and passion, his hunger and thirst. I’ve always wondered what he looked like viewed from the front.
The Man, the Mick and the boy battled for what they wanted. A legacy of greatness…a streaking comet lifestyle…a five dollar bill. Next spring, I’ll sit in the sun with the crowd and watch a ballgame. I’ll eat a hotdog and think about how I miss the backyard ballpark where squirrels ran for cover all summer in 1969, dodging the rain of gravel as Cardinal hitters slammed stones deep into the leafy upper deck with a flawed legends bat. Mickey Mantle taught me about home runs but also about striking out and bat heads flying away broken and spent. Stan the Man taught me about excellence, professional dignity, work ethic, and loyalty. And the boy? He’s still teaching me.
Somewhere out there the boy is now a man. We share the same world and a five dollar bill and I hope he’s stopped running. If I ever see him, I’ll thank him. Not for stealing my five bucks, but for making me understand folks have passions and needs I can’t understand. Folks who haven’t found their wooden bat and a pile of gravel inside a leafy stadium. A place to swing like a hero, a place where you are no longer a boy, you are The Man, and you hit until your hands are blistered and your bat breaks in half and soars deep into the woods.