More than Basketweaving

More than Basketweaving

As I near the end of my fourth score I am still trying to understand the meaning between my life brackets. Like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the best place to start is at the beginning. I was born on September 6, 1943. I was my mother’s second and last pregnancy but first child because she had suffered a miscarriage in 1939 that would have been my older sister. As a result, my parents were very protective of me. 

I did the usual things every red-blooded boy did in those days. We played touch football, stickball in the streets, sandlot baseball, war games and were curious about everything, especially girls. My Jesuit high school was also a military school and one of the best influences on my life. In American culture, one of the most important choices in the journey of life is what one does for a living. The guidance counselor at Xavier said that my score on the Kuder Preference Test suggested I be a clerical worker.

The importance of one’s profession has changed drastically in the Church, especially for women. I remember reading Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray’s groundbreaking book, We Hold These Truths, published in 1960. While his focus was on the separation of church and state and Catholicisms relationship with our Constitution, I remember Father Murray’s statement that since Heaven was the ultimate destiny, women in the Middle Ages spent much of their time weaving baskets to pass the years before going to God. Basketweaving reminds me of Ulysses’ wife Penelope in the Odyssey. To ward off her 108 suitors, she spent three years sewing and removing the threads of a burial shroud for her absent husband.  

Since I knew there must be more to life than basketweaving, discerning what I wanted to do with my life became the hardest, most difficult, frustrating, painful, and ultimately the best thing I had ever done. September 6th fell on a Labor Day in 1943. When I was still young, my mother explained how hard my birth had been. She was in labor for 18 hours. I decided I never wanted to do any of that stuff! 

So, explaining my work is another story. My entire family were candidates for therapy when asked What does your husband, father do for a living? I still get asked that, most recently in a meet and greet session with our new family doctor. Sometimes I use a line from a Mafia movie when a hitman is asked what he did for a living. His answer: I am a businessman. There is a large grain of truth in my quip. *  

While in high school, I seriously thought about going to law school. My friend, whose dad was a lawyer, gave me a book about what to expect in the legal profession. The main thing I remember was that 5-10% of law school grads flunked the bar exam because of illegible handwriting. My handwriting was and still is atrocious. I was not going to go through that arduous course of study, only to fail the bar exam because the grader could not read my writing.

The rest of high school and my years at a Jesuit college, instilled in me a deep desire to teach. I always had done well in school and loved the nine-month regimen with generous summer vacations. I had majored in History. All throughout my education, I had many good and bad history teachers. The few good ones had hooked me on history as a profession because it encompassed all of life and culture. 

In light of the Kennedy challenge to do something for our country, I decided to do something for my church. The Church sponsored the Catholic Lay Extension program which sent teachers, nurses, medical technicians, and social workers to poor and under-staffed parishes across the country. (For most of my lifetime, the Church has encouraged a variety of apostolates in the name of God. Since 1986 I have been an untiring advocate for the unborn.)

Being a novice teacher in Charleston, Missouri for Extension was one of the most challenging tastes of reality I had ever had. I taught all the history courses in the high school, a religion class and coached the basketball team. I also married the town’s prettiest nurse and moved her to New York City. Many of my former students are either related to me or friends of my late wife’s family.

My second job was at a Catholic grade school in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn. My four eighth grade classes were comprised of 168 students. All but one were Italian. The pronunciation of many of their names was a never-ending challenge. Thank God for Polaski; it was the only name I did not stumble on. As had been the case in Charleston, my bosses were nuns. They made my teaching life much easier. I really loved those kids and often think of about them today. 

My next position did not turn out as well. It was a Catholic prep school for boys on Long Island. The few education courses I had taken and some of my preparation for Extension prompted us not to smile till Christmas. I was a Jesuit product and used to the military discipline. I came on too strong. These kids were mostly spoiled and impervious to discipline. I falsely assumed the administration would punish all trouble makers as did my high school. 

Despite all of this, I did well with three of my four classes. My homeroom was another story. They were a ruthless pack of connivers, loudmouths and angry young men, especially their leader, whom I privately dubbed the Kingfish, after Huey Long, the notorious Governor of Louisianna. Nothing I had learned anywhere, had prepared me for what they did to me. Calls at three AM, flattened tires and a tangible anger that made every moment raise my own visions of Gethsemane.

After Christmas, I tried a different tactic. I lightened up a bit and showed an interest in a few of them after school. While I usually finish what I start, the school administration thought elsewise. They fired me before the Easter break. I found out later that my homeroom had gotten another teacher fired the year before. They had targeted me the first moment I set foot in the classroom. I nearly begged the school to let me finish the year. That was not to be. Anyone who has ever been fired, knows how humbling and even humiliating it feels. So, I hid at my parents’ home while finishing my thesis.

In retrospect, it was a blessing. My wife had encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. College teaching now directed my focus. I liked the sound of that better because I doubt disciplinary problems would plague me on a higher level. After three years at St. Louis University, another Jesuit School, I had my doctorate in hand.

Finding a college position was a daunting quest. The harvest of historians in 1972 was bountiful. During my dissertation year, I attended several History Conventions and had 40 job interviews. The best I could do was in St. Louis. It was only part-time but at least my foot was in the door and I would not have to unroot my family.

Maryville College encouraged people like me to suggest unique courses to supplement our course load. I suggested an Asian History course. Asian courses like historians were plentiful in St. Louis. During my summer of unemployment, I had read about a professor named Harold Seymour who had taught an accredited baseball history course at Finch College in New York City. He had eventually published his dissertation as Baseball’s Early Years.

I suggested a Baseball History course. Thirteen women signed up as well as two walk-ons, a plumber, and a banker. For a guest speaker, I had asked Roger Kahn who had just written the enormously popular The Boys of Summer. Kahn’s book was a poignant history of Jackie Robinson and his teammates on the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers. Similarly, the summer between graduation and Maryville, I had decided to research a short book about the same Brooklyn Dodger team, from a fan’s perspective.  

Kahn had politely refused because he was busy promoting his book. My second choice was Negro League baseball star and St. Louisan, James Cool Papa Bell, who was past his prime when Robinson played in 1947. When he arrived, I instantly understood his nickname. He was nattily dressed as if he were addressing a room filled with dignitaries. For an hour he mesmerized us with his baseball stories. My course eventually led to an appearance on the NBC Today Show with Gene Shalit in 1974.

The next year I taught a month-long baseball course in April. Shortly after it ended, I got a call from Kahn, wanting to know if my offer was still open. He was in town for an appearance on KMOX, a 50,000-watt radio station**. Even though the course had ended, we had an early dinner together. We discussed my favorite subjects, the Brooklyn Dodgers and writing. He gave me the name of his agent at William Morris, one of the most successful agencies in the business. If teaching did not work out, I could become a writer. Though I later had a series published on baseball history with a national syndicate, wrote 42 book reviews for the local daily newspaper and syndicated a weekly newspaper column called Krank’s Press, William Morris was way out of my league. 

After my two years at Maryville, I taught for three years at a community college. I offered sports history at Webster University for three summers and then returned to Maryville for seven years where I taught, first adults on satellite campuses and then back at their main campus. My last class at Maryville was so dull and unprepared that it soured me on the classroom.

In 1973, I had joined the Society for Baseball Research. One member sent me a manuscript of the St. Louis Browns, (1902-1953) someone had sent him. I spent five years working to salvage the author’s poorly-written, badly organized and inherently unreadable history. In 1978, I self-published my work as First In Shoes, First in Booze and Last in the American League. I printed 1500 copies and thanks to a friendly media, sold every one of them. My reputation continued to rise.

In my Dodger book, A Fan’s Memoir, which I had self-published in 1982, I had promised that if Pee Wee Reese, the captain of the Boys of Summer, ever made it to Cooperstown, I would attend his induction. He did and I did with Ron Gabriel, the Founder of the Brooklyn Dodger Fan Club. While on the tarmac in the Albany airport, waiting for our plane to take off, I had an epiphany. I thought someone in St. Louis should start a fan club for baseball’s lovable losers

Two months later, 28 men and women, including one former player and his wife, assembled at the Mid-County YMCA in Brentwood and the BFC was born. Our mission statement was to resurrect and maintain the historical memory of the St. Louis Browns who were gone but not forgotten. After 39 years, the Browns Fan Club not only survives but thrives.

During the early years, our own history paralleled that of the team. Never enough money! We still published a newsletter, several books on Browns history, held annual banquets with from 8 to 18 players in what became their homecoming. The players loved mixing with their fans, old and new. For at least 10 years we tried pulling the plug on the club, but the players begged us not to. Over the years their numbers dwindled from 240 to just three living players.    

The sad irony is when we first started, we had many as 60-75 different players coming to one of our several functions but no money to spend on them. Today, the club has a bulging bank account, thanks largely to our current president, Tom Wheatley, who quickly got us a book contract. Our tabletop, The St. Louis Browns: The Story of a Beloved Team was a best-seller. He hosted several Round-table discussion groups, procured bobblehead nights with the Cardinals and the Gateway Grizzlies, an Illinois independent team. He also landed us contracts for two documentaries on the team with PBS. The first received a nomination for a Midwest Emmy and the second one won one. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. Albert Burke’s TV program A Way of Thinking. Though I only saw 2-3 episodes in 1960, they had a profound influence on my intellectual development. I did not know then but what I wanted to do was to use my mind to comment on interesting subjects as he did. From 1984 through 2006 I had my own weekly radio program on WGNU. During my several one hundred hours of airtime, virtually every moral, religious and political view I had was challenged, vilified, or attacked.  

During my virtual hiatus from the Browns, I concentrated on writing essays. I wrote the monthly newsletter for the Mindszenty Report from 2002 through 2013. I had a blog, The Gospel Truth, was a columnist for the St. Louis Catholic Review and have been with the Catholic Journal for nearly eight years. I even found time to author three plays, which were produced in St. Louis, touching on subjects such as aging, abortion and suicide. Though I received much joy from teaching, there has been nothing that has given me more joy than talking and writing about what I have learned on my journey. I cannot help but see the Hand of God at work every step of the way.

If a life is measured in total earnings, I can truthfully say mine has been a failure because I really never had a definable career. What I did was never very lucrative. As the old adage says, find something you love and you will never work a day in your life. That’s why I cite as my life’s motto: Born on a Labor Day and haven’t worked since. 

*While it was never a profession, running the ‘family business’ provides me with the luxury of pursuing my intellectual dreams.

**I later worked as a paid guest, appearing six times over 18 months.

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Written by
William Borst