I should have listened to the grizzled veteran, the St. Louis Cardinals concessionaire who sold me the hot dog when he admonished me to, “Stick that five dollar bill in your pocket and quit waving it around like a 4th of July flag!” I stared at him mouth agape, not sure of his meaning, and felt the friction of the currency leaving my hand, whereupon I turned to stare in disbelief at the sight of a kid my height, weight and age running up the ramp behind the row of concessions with my five bucks clenched in his fist.
He stole my innocence along with the cash. It changed how I view the world and people around me. From that point on I pocketed my money and within a few years a wallet filled the back right pocket of my Levi’s 501 jeans. Cash, credit cards, Wendy’s fries coupons, car wash vouchers—all nestled safely in the warmth of a genuine cowhide wallet. The boy was a thief and if I ever see him again, I’ll buy him a hot dog and I’ll ask, “How’s your life going? It’s been forty-five years since I saw your backside running up that gum-dotted ramp at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.”
In the summer of 1969, I learned about life from a boy at Busch Stadium, a man named Stan Musial, and a driveway full of gravel. Most of my trips to Busch Stadium in St. Louis to see the Cardinals play were happy memories. My heroes played baseball and I can still recite the batting order of the 1967 World Champions: 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.
I can recite that lineup because I built a stadium in the backyard of my mind where these same ballplayers came to practice their hitting with me, emerging from the oaks that surrounded our home like Shoeless Joe Jackson appearing out of the corn in a field of dreams. That lineup of Cardinals spent the summer of 1969 with me and I made them all use the same wooden bat, a 30″ Louisville Slugger autographed by Mickey Mantle and stamped by Hillerich and Bradsby.
We lived in a home with a gravel drive, our backyard tilted down into a wooded area. This yard was lined with oak trees in a gentle arc, and I imagined it 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 tree trunks and 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 3rd of the 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 rear when Cepeda batted and flair the right elbow…stand 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. Imitating Brock and Maris and McCarver provided a means to learn switch hitting since my usual stance was right handed.
After a summer of gravel baseball, somewhere deep within the gathering dusk of a late August Saturday afternoon, the head of the bat flew into the doubles section of the oak trees during an Orlando Cepeda plate appearance as the bat head 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 the end of 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, now it was gone. I always knew my wooden companion of that summer in 1969 would die and things would never be the same again. All backyard games of youth fade to oblivion as do our heroes, but our memories lives on. I can still recall fondly that bat and the man who signed it’s barreled head, along with a man referred to by his greatest rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers, as simply, “The Man.”
Stan the Man was the Will Rogers of baseball. He never met a man he didn’t like and the reciprocal was true…everyone spoke of Mr. Musial as the consummate gentleman. Many stadiums around our nation evoke memories of great players that have left indelible marks on a city. Stan Musial may be the only beloved sportsman who has two statues of his likeness. One of the two outside the new Busch Stadium bears the words of former baseball commissioner Ford Frick, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” The perfect knight perched atop the bronze base 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,” as Dodgers coach Ted Lyons once intoned.
Mr. Musial loved to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica and often greeted fans with the encouraging banter, “Whaddya say, whaddya say!” He was as transparent as Joe Dimaggio was mysterious…as elegant as Mickey Mantle was country…as humble as Ted Williams was cocky…and as consistently productive as any baseball player in history. Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, was explosive and a five tool wonder, perhaps the best player of his generation; but Mr. Musial was the counterpoint of Mays flashy style, a Whaddya Say picture of consistent excellence throughout his career, steady and rock solid. In an age when athletes speak of their exploits in the third person, it’s refreshing to remember Stan the Man, the greatest and most cherished Cardinal of all time.
But the guy with his signature burned in script on my wood bat was from Oklahoma and I wanted him to be my hero. That Mickey Mantle legacy flew into the trees along with my severed bat head as his life spiraled into addiction and late night 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 great fleet and nimble outfielder staggered under the towering fly ball of his 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 by the third inning, I was hungry and asked, “Dad, can I go get a hot dog?” Remarkably, he let me go to a place where I lost my financial innocence and gained some street wisdom. We lived in a safer world then, except for second hand tobacco smoke and the lack of bicycle helmets…and the threat several thousand Soviet ICBM’s pointed at us. Despite that soup of risk to which I was oblivious, I felt safe enough to drink a saccharine laced Fresca and go to the hot dog stand alone.
I think of the boy, the Mick and the Man from time to time. All three battled for what they wanted. A five dollar bill, a streaking comet-across-the-sky lifestyle, a legacy of greatness. And me? I just wanted to learn how to switch hit and so I practiced so much that I chewed through a wood bat hitting baseballs of stone imitating Cardinal batters.
I wonder where that kid is? Is he alive and has he thrived in life, did he have parents who loved him, a Dad who took him to the ballgame and taught him to hit and throw and how to conduct himself? Who noticed him? Maybe he invested my five dollars and he’s a better person now. I knew nothing of his grief and pain, his joy and passion, his hunger and thirst. That summer day I watched the back of a boy run up a ramp with my five dollars. I wonder what he looks like now?
Mickey Mantle taught me about great talent and how to have fun and keep swinging until the bat breaks in half, to leave the comfort of my seat and venture out to buy a hot dog. Dad could have taken me to get a hot dog, but he let me go alone. Some kids want to be protected but I never did, I wanted to leave the warmth of the sunlit stadium and venture back to the shaded walkways where the food was bought and sold and things were uncertain and concession vendor taught risk management, along with some good ‘ole fashioned horse sense.
Stan the Man taught me about professional grace and a plan of hard work and thoughtfulness, compassion, respect, friendship. To abide in the principles of good living and to abound in the world and take chances when necessary. I’ve learned to abide in the tradition and safety of the stadium where goodness, respect, love, and compassion cloister me from thievery and dark hallways, always affirming, always hopeful, always faithful.
I’ve also learned to abound, to step up to the plate and take a swing, to be brave enough to leave the comfort of the stadium to get a hot dog and to practice so hard that there’s nothing left, I’ve left it all out on the field, driven every stone I could find deep into the trees of my own stadium, until the head of my bat is laying totally exhausted at the edge of the woods, broken but smiling right across the chiseled self-autographed script.
Abiding and abounding is a pretty good way to be. This spring, I’ll sit in the sun with the crowd and watch the game…then, get up and throw down some hot dogs and swing the bat. Thank you Mr. Musial, and thanks Mick for all those strikeouts because without them, you never would have hit 536 home runs. And somewhere out there is a man about my age that I feel close to somehow, even though I’ve only seen him from behind, running. I hope he’s stopped running and is still walking this earth and if I ever see him, I’ll thank him too.