My earliest memory of baseball was in St. Louis in 1940 as a 9-year-old, where we all played every second we could – stick-ball in the streets after school, and sand-lot pick-up games on the weekends. Grandma Irene (who was in her seventies – caring for us three kids while our mother worked long days) was an avid Cardinals baseball fan, but mostly from listening on the radio. From her enthusiasm I learned the names and skills of all the players: Red Schoendiest, Enos Slaughter, Joe Garagiola, Dizzy Dean, and especially Stan Musial, all from listening to the radio. Grandma taught us the ‘real’ game, starting with how to mark the little box score sheets provided by the milkman, where with Xs and Os we tracked each hit, out, or error of each player as the game progressed.
By the time I was 11, summer game days were about sitting around the kitchen on high stools on both sides of the ‘breakfast bar’ listening to the radio broadcast of the day’s game – Grandma, my sister Alice and I, and sometimes our little brother Charles. The ‘bar’ was made on the spot by a deaf carpenter named Arthur, out of plywood and pine, done in trade with my mother for lip-reading lessons (after a while you wouldn’t know he was deaf unless he wasn’t looking at you when you spoke). The breakfast bar was a little rickety, but it was special because Arthur made it, 6 feet long and rounded on one end with shelves held up with dowels, and a linoleum top trimmed with a thin aluminum molding strip tacked on to hide the plywood side. The radio with a wood case sat on the bar against the wall end, booming out the baseball broadcast. With Grandma Irene explaining the finer points we sat around, filling out our baseball cards, – inning by inning – eating cookies and whooping it up when the Cardinals scored.
I loved the game, and knew every player by name, both on the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns (later the Baltimore Orioles), because they both played in Busch Stadium. We all could chant the St. Louis city slogan, “First in booze, first in shoes and last in the American League.”
Then the game came totally alive when our Grandma finally took us to a real game, a thrill for sure, especially when she pointed out the actual players (They were Olympians to us kids). At the same time she coached us about the rules as the innings went by. As we left the stadium to catch the streetcar home, Grandma spotted the radio announcer (his name was Harry Carrey) and got him to come over and kneel down to say hello to Alice and me. I’ll never forget it because he had been the voice on the radio, the only baseball we had first known was through his telling.
As I grew older – like 12 – I now could take the streetcar with a couple of friends (nobody worried about kids riding public transport then, even transferring to another route). It was so exciting to be with all the ‘mix’ of people, ages and colors going to the game. I remember a jug band often got on the streetcar, 3 or 4 guys with a harmonica, a lapful of jugs which made deep sounds when blown across the mouth, and a guy with a keg with a broom-stick holding a single gut string that thumped one note only.
When we got to the stadium we went to the ‘knothole gang’ window where for ten cents we could sit high over the third base line with all the other 10 to 14 year olds with our cub scout and boy scout caps. Stan Musial, the great Cardinal slugger, was back from the war after being wounded, but was now hitting 350 again – a baseball God. He was our personal hero, everything a boy like me wanted to be at that age.
As a fan, I became an acute listener. Even when I was getting a hot dog in the cavern under the stands, I could tell just from hearing the crack of Stan’s bat contacting the ball what happened—fouled off, popped-up, a clean single, or even out of sight over the wall for a home run.
To watch Stan play right field was equally a thrill always, like when he raced toward a sure homer, throwing his body high in the air at the wall to snag the ball at the last desperate minute on the tippy end of his glove. While I was totally astonished at what I just saw a human being do, Stan never cracked a smile, just threw the ball back to the infield as casual as a sand-lot game.
So four years ago, at 81, I mourned for Stan the Man Musial when he died in his late nineties. I still root for the Cardinals, my team. I know where they stand throughout every season because I check their box scores every morning, just before I read the obituaries.