If the beaches in Heaven ever become too crowded or there is the urge to experience something different, I also envision Heaven as being a place where whenever you want you can go out to the green fields and either play the game or merely watch a game of baseball outside in the bright sunshine, lean back and enjoy the special rhymes and flow of the game, either by yourself or in the socially warm surrounding of friends of good cheer. Or maybe just have a beer or two and have a hotdog that you know won’t kill you.
To me baseball is, to paraphrase Catholic columnist, Robert Lockwood, not only a Catholic game, but more importantly God’s game. Its lack of urgency and the scenic nature of its celestial origins, make it timeless. Theoretically, even on earth, a game could go on forever. As Yogi Berra said it is never over…until it is over. It is not an odd coincidence that the first recorded game of baseball was played on Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846.
Baseball has always been my favorite game. 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, had a thick Spanish accent but spoke very little recognizable English. He started by saying Thank you, berry, berry much. … Base-ball … been berry, berry good to me. … Thank you, Hane.
I can easily affirm Chico’s deep appreciation of how good baseball has been. I have passed a lot of quality time, watching on TV, listening on the radio or sitting in the stands where I could drink in its curious mixture of sweat, peanuts, and beer. As a young boy trying hard to get a focus on life and his place in it, I flocked to this game for its quiet wonder, unmatched by anything, except maybe chess.
In 1950 my father took me to see John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima. 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, personified everything a hero should be. He was the team’s leader, and he played the game with the same silent grace and dignity that my contemporaries in St. Louis must have seen in Stan The Man Musial. Reese and his teammates were the players that writer, Roger Kahn called the Boys of Summer. To me they were my men for all seasons.
As a sandlot player I calculate that I only had 50 at bats, which might be considered 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 had one bunt single and only two extra base hits. I could run and I was a fearful but determined player at 3rd base, my favorite position. One year I did steal seven bases in eight attempts.
Two derivatives came from my participation. During my 8th Grade season in 1957, we had a single man coach us and I use the word coach word very loosely. I don’t remember any practices or teaching. George basically kept order and assigned who would play where. One night a few days before a Saturday 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, such as Butch, Whitey, Spider and his younger brother Hoss. And they were much bigger than we were.
Two of their Jewish players were known as Big Beak and Little Beak, names than not even Roger Kahn would have dared conjure. 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 High School, not too far from my Xavier. I caught that game as I remember and our team prevailed.
Little did I know that these childhood experiences had prepared me for coaching my two sons and well over a 100 boys in a modestly competitive league, Ladue Baseball, which I served with pride for 13 seasons, twice as Commissioner. I once calculated my composite record as 110-48 and I can still remember most of the losses.
Several years prior to Pee Wee’s induction into the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, 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 was 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 Boys of Summer. While it was too late for him to speak we did have a leisurely dinner before I drove him to the radio station for his interview. The class warranted me an invitation from NBC’s Today Show and I spent an exciting three and half minutes with Gene Shalit on May 9, 1974.
Local sportswriter, Bob Broeg, who is honored in Cooperstown, in the writers’ wing, started calling me the Professor of Baseball. I turned it around so that the sobriquet, The Baseball Professor, has been part of my identity ever since. I treasure that name and have used it ever since in my email ID and on my vanity license plates. I officially registered it as a service mark over 30 years ago.
When Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1984, I was there to honor him. 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 17 out of 795 men who wore the Brown and Cream from 1902-53. Three died in August of 2016. It is truly a dying franchise since it is the only long-lived team name to have been stricken from the modern history of baseball.
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 and dollars of St. Louis’ baseball fans.
The current 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. Early this season, the Cardinals announced they would host a Gaedel Bobblehead Night on September 9th. It proved to be the best event in the Club’s long history.
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 my 13-year old heart with his move of the Dodgers to the Gold Coast for the 1958 season I longed for a team like them. Even though 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 Terrific, I feel strongly that God is in His Heaven and all is right with my world.
This past year’s experiences with the Kansas City Royals underscored that my ability to feel and experience the human 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. I never changed channels. I took my loss stoically with dignity and much disgust. And this is why we enjoy sporting events so much. Baseball brings it out every April through October.
Imagine eternity at the ballpark when the game keeps going on…and on…until we decide to do something else. Some die-hards would probably never leave.