Category: St. Louis History

Remembering Bob Gibson: The Man on the Mound

Life is a mysterious mish mash of beginnings and endings, wins and losses. Lately, the losses have been more prominent and painful for me and many of you. Yet we do what we can to endure in 2020.

Last night, Bob Gibson–one of the greatest pitchers ever and undoubtedly the most dominant of the 1960s–died of cancer at age eighty-four. Serendipitously, his team–the St. Louis Cardinals–ended their frantic, COVID-19-filled 2020 season the same night with a 4-0 playoff loss to the San Diego Padres.

As a kid growing up in St. Louis in the sixties, I followed every angle of Gibson’s story. He was a local hero, a one-time player for the Harlem Globetrotters, a flame-throwing right hander who still holds the ERA (earned runs average) record in Major League Baseball–1.12 for the 1968 season. It’s a record that will likely never be broken.

But this versatile athlete and fierce competitor was also a gifted writer. I remember browsing the local library as a kid and reading From Ghetto to Glory, his story about growing up poor in Omaha, Nebraska, and fighting his way to the top. “Gibby” was an inspiration and role model.

Bob Gibson passed away less than a month after Lou Brock, the legendary base stealer, fellow Hall of Famer and his St. Louis Cardinals teammate. The duo of Bob and Lou dazzled a generation of St. Louis fans on the field and appeared in three World Series–winning in 1964 and 1967.

Ironically, Gibson died on October 2, 2020. Exactly fifty-two years after striking out seventeen batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. To date, his record still stands.

If you enjoy reading stories about baseball, check out my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator. It includes a story about my dad and me watching Bob Gibson pitch on July 15, 1967 from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. That day, the crack of Roberto Clemente’s bat (another Hall of Famer), booming through my transistor radio, changed everything.

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Riding High in Gatlinburg

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In August of 1970, I felt I had lost my father. The trauma of his World War II emotional scars, heart disease and bi-polar diagnosis had consumed him. My thirteen-year-old self-consciousness and his fifty-six-year-old discontent didn’t know what to make of each other.

It seemed like the only thing Walter and I shared was our love for the St. Louis Cardinals. Muggy but mighty moments together in the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. Watching Bob Gibson dazzle and dominate National League hitters in the sixties, while Lou Brock stole bases and our hearts.

But beyond baseball, the schism between my father and me was more than a “generation gap” (a phrase you never hear any more). It felt as if a grand canyon–a dark and sinister abyss nothing like the Arizona wonder four hours north of me by car in my sixties–existed between us.

As Dad pursued my love, validation and respect, I withdrew further into the fear and anxiety of my crowded teenage closet. My sister and mother felt the weight of Dad’s unhappiness and family drama too.

Yet, fifty years ago with Walter behind the wheel of our boxy Chevy Biscayne, the Johnson family from the St. Louis suburbs (Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark) threw caution to the wind and set sail on a summer vacation.

Our destination? Huntersville, North Carolina–seventeen miles north of Charlotte–where we would spend a week with my mother’s family on the rocky-but-fertile ground of my grandparents’ farm in the Tar Heel State.

Past the midpoint of our journey, we drove up and around the hairpin curves of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Dad guided our clunky sedan into town, where we were welcomed by the grits and glitz of Gatlinburg.

Spontaneously, soon after we parked, we decided to board a ski lift (technically, the Gatlinburg Skylift) into the August mist. Mom and Diane boarded first. Dad and I trailed behind, climbing over the tall trees shrouding Crockett Mountain. I don’t remember much more about the day. Only that it felt as if the four of us had escaped our troubles into the clouds of Tennessee for a few hours.

More than five decades have passed. Since 2017, I’ve more closely identified with my father and his plight, because of my advancing age and our shared mild heart attack experiences separated by fifty-five years.

The grief for Dad has felt more palpable to me in the past three weeks, because the baseball team we loved and cheered for in the humidity of St. Louis summers–the team I still love today–has suffered through a COVID-19 outbreak; to date ten players and eight staff members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for the virus.

When the outbreak first appeared in late July, the team quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel for several days before heading back to St. Louis to live in isolation in early August, like so many ordinary citizens in a country consumed by viral hot spots.

During that time, the other twenty-nine Major League Baseball teams played on. But the St. Louis Cardinals sequestered themselves for more than two weeks, hoping for a string of several consecutive days of negative testing, which would clear them to resume their season on the field.

As the Cardinals season went dormant, I felt depressed. A portion of my past and present life had been pealed away and thrown in the dumpster. It was as if the last remnant of the troubled father I loved (a man who fought for his country and died in 1993) had been stripped away and laid to rest. His team. My team. Our team had become another COVID-19 casualty.

Finally, the fog–like a Gatlinburg mist–has begun to lift. This morning Diane sent me a text from her suburban Chicago home. “Cards driving forty rental cars via I-55 to Chicago … Playing fifty-plus games in forty days. Hope you’re feeling better. Love you!”

Indeed, on Friday, August 14 the St. Louis Cardinals are driving in separate cars from St. Louis to Chicago to resume their baseball season on Saturday. After a seventeen-day hiatus, Dad’s, Diane’s and my redbirds will resume their baseball season on August 15. They will play a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox and a third game on Sunday, before a five-game set (including two more doubleheaders) against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals will begin the long climb back with a new batch of young players from their farm system on their roster and a veteran, big-game pitcher–thirty-eight-year-old Adam Wainwright–on the mound. He’ll start Game One in the Windy City.

If the Cardinals are able to finish their season, they will complete fifty-five contests in the following forty-four days. It will require a herculean effort by a team with a rich history. Eleven World Series championships, more than any other National League franchise.

No matter how this version of the Cardinals perform, I feel the tide of hope returning. Seeing them back on the baseball diamond will feel like a victory. Plus, Diane and I will still have each other, our bittersweet memories of family vacations, and a string of glorious years to recall cheering with Dad for Gibson, Brock and the Cardinals.

Now, our 2020 team is about to take the field to restore a little of sanity to our world. As they do, I have the memory of Dad and me side-by-side on a yellow chairlift. Him with his trusty Daily Word magazine of inspirational thoughts tucked in his shirt pocket. Me smiling, but brimming with worry as I gripped the lap bar tightly.

In spite of our differences then, Dad and I had much more in common beyond baseball in 1970 than I knew or ever imagined. Together, we were fighting for survival. Riding high in Gatlinburg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bosco Days

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I was Walter’s only son: four-year-old Bosco.

It was an endearment my gregarious father bestowed upon me, because I painstakingly pumped and stirred chocolate syrup of the same name into tall glasses of cold milk.

In exchange, I sat in awe as he gulped his coffee and savored his soggy Shredded Wheat. We loved each other, our playfulness, and kitchen table excesses.

Since Tom and I arrived at our Arizona home three years ago today–six days after a heart attack in St. Louis in 2017 on my sixtieth birthday–I’ve walked frequently with Walter’s memory.

Especially when I step aboard the treadmill to strengthen my heart muscle and consider that we both survived heart attacks in the same city.

In addition to Walter’s World War II army trunk, uniform, dog tags, Army Good Conduct Medal, honorable discharge papers, and war-time letters he saved from his parents and sisters, I am fortunate to possess disparate pages of my father’s poetry … along with the American flag from his funeral.

I’ll never forget the December day in 1993 when two stone-faced soldiers folded and pressed it into a triangle and handed it to my mother. In turn, she gave it to me.

There is one more keepsake from Walter, which Tom and I carried with us when we came west: this electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign. Walter the salesman salvaged it from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.

In the early 1960s, before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement.

Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs at my mother’s Missouri home. Then later, on top of my refrigerator in my Mount Prospect, Illinois kitchen.

Strangely, somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona in 2017–as I was mending from my heart attack on the passenger side–the wheel disengaged. Probably one too many bumps on the road, though it was cushioned in our backseat.

I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but in 2018 I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.

Bob called two days later to tell me the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him and thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home.

We found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale high above my desk.

I plugged in the sign. I turned on the switch. The wheel turned. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced.

Just as Walter had in our Bosco days.

Thelma’s Rosy Response

Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.

***

World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.

Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.

In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.

My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.

Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.

No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.

Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.

***

Dearest Walter, 

Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …

Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …

I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …

With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.

Your loving sister,

Thelma xxxxx

***

I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.

Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.

This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:

To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters

Violet & Thelma, May 13, 1945

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What Happened Seventy-Five Years Ago?

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Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.

***

Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?

I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.

Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.

One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:

“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”

Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.

Missing Baseball? It’s in the Cards

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At the end of March, midway through a check-in call to see how we were fairing in our respective shelter-in-place homes, my sister posed this question from her Illinois domicile: “Are you missing your sports?”

At first, I thought she was referring to my interrupted gym routine … the one I so painstakingly established in the fall of 2017 during my cardiac rehab. But she went on to explain her question was really about my reaction to the loss of professional sports due to the global pandemic.

I don’t know for sure, but she may have been conjuring a memory of me as a frantic twelve-year-old baseball fanatic with a crew cut. Glued to my tattered transistor radio. Tuning out the world as I tuned into every pitch of every St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and Jack Buck’s color commentary on KMOX of Lou Brock’s base-stealing escapades.

At any rate, I told her I wasn’t sure Major League Baseball mattered as much to me anymore. But that was late March. The next day a few cravings surfaced. I dug out the official 2011 World Series film (a two-disc DVD stored in a plastic tray under our guest room bed here in Arizona) and watched my comeback Cardinals (down to their last strike twice in Game 6) defeat the Texas Rangers in seven games.

That primer led me to peel back another layer of the baseball onion. I began reading a book, which Tom … a life-long Chicago Cubs fan … gave me for Christmas: 100 Things Cardinals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, revised and updated by author Derrick Goold in 2019.

Times being what they are, I figured I’d better read this book pronto. (Incidentally, for lovers of the national pastime, my books Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator and An Unobstructed View include nostalgic stories about baseball that I think you’ll enjoy.)

Now we’re a week into April. This is about the time the first pitch on opening day of the new baseball season would have been thrown fifty years ago. Since I’m spending more time inside anyway, yesterday I reached to the top shelf of our guest room closet and pulled down a three-ring binder filled with my cherished Topps baseball cards from 1965 to 1971.

At that point, I was bitten by the baseball bug. Smiling ear to ear. Rifling through my collection of several hundred cards. Remembering the Major League Baseball all-stars and also-rans of my youth. Flipping over their cards to read their vital statistics and baseball anecdotes.

I’ve selected the following fourteen from 1970 to share with you … seven from the National League; seven from the American League … with snippets of information (in quotes) pulled from the back of each card. I’ve added my recollections too.

If you’re a baseball fan like me, no matter your favorite team, perhaps this will help rekindle the hope that one day (possibly sometime this summer) we will again hear a nameless umpire shout these two words:

“Play Ball!”

***

Matty Alou, Outfield, Pittsburgh Pirates: “Spray hitting Matty led majors in hits in 1969, also led Bucs with 22 stolen bases.” … I remember Matty as a tough out. In reference to his contact approach to batting, Dad would have called him a “Punch and Judy” hitter.

Don Kessinger, Shortstop, Chicago Cubs: “Don was the NL All-star shortstop for the 2nd consecutive year in 1969 … Led NL shortstops in assists in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, and in double plays in 1968 and 1969.” … As a kid, I saw Don play numerous times. He was a slick fielder and Cardinals nemesis for years.

Tim McCarver, Catcher, Philadelphia Phillies: “A three-sport star in school, Tim joins the Phillies in 1970. Two-time NL All-Star.” … McCarver was a hard-nosed receiver and long-time Cardinal before joining the Phillies. After retiring from baseball on the field, he moved to the broadcast booth.

Steve Renko, Pitcher, Montreal Expos: “Steve was a quarterback at Kansas University and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the 15th round in 1966 … he turned to pitching in 1967.” … Renko was a rangy right-handed starting pitcher. His team, the Expos, were part of major league expansion in 1969. Years later, they moved and became the Washington Nationals.

Tug McGraw, Pitcher, New York Mets: “Broke into pro ball with a no-hitter on July 3, 1964 … he was an important cog in the Mets” (1969) pennant drive.” … This emotional lefty was a bulldog relief pitcher. Whenever he entered the game, he slammed the door on the competition.

Jim Wynn, Outfield, Houston Astros: “Jim was Houston’s top slugger in 1969. First signed with Cincinnati in 1962.” … I remember the laser beam homers hit by the muscle-bound man known as the “toy cannon”.

Rich Allen, First Base, St. Louis Cardinals: “Rich again led the Phils in all offensive categories in 1969 … he was traded to the Cardinals during the off-season.” … The flashy and controversial Dick Allen (his preferred name) played for the Cardinals for just one year, but earned a place in the All-Star game.

Carl Yastrzemski, Outfield, Boston Red Sox: “Another great season for Carl in 1969, he was among the league’s top five in homers and runs batted in.” … Yaz, who later became a Hall of Famer, was a fierce left-handed power hitter and outstanding defender.

Jim Kaat, Pitcher, Minnesota Twins: “One of the finest fielding pitchers.” … Jim’s twenty-five-year career as a player ultimately spanned four decades. He played for the Cardinals when they won the World Series in 1982. After retiring from the game, he became an outstanding broadcaster.

Carlos May, Outfield, Chicago White Sox: “Carlos made the All-Star team last year (1969) in only his fourth year of pro ball.” … I remember Carlos as a clutch left-handed power hitter, who played first base predominantly.

Mike Hegan, Outfield, Seattle Pilots: “Mike enjoyed a fine year with Seattle in 1969, leading the club in three baggers.” … Though this card identifies Hegan as a Seattle Pilot in 1970, the franchise was sold and the team moved that year. They became the Milwaukee Brewers. Hegan also played for the Yankees and A’s during his major league career.

Gates Brown, Outfield, Detroit Tigers: “Pinch-hitter deluxe … Gates was an excellent high school fullback.” … Gates Brown spent his entire twelve-year, major league career with the Detroit Tigers. He hung up his professional cleats for the last time in 1975.

Gene Michael, Shortstop, Yankees: “Gene is called ‘Stick’ because of his slender appearance.” … After his playing career, Gene managed the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. As the Yankees’ general manager, he received accolades for building a team that became a dynasty in the late 1990s.

Sal Bando, Third Base, A’s: “Sal, Reggie Jackson and Rick Monday were all teammates in college at Arizona State University.” … Sal was a key member of the Oakland Athletics dynasty that won three consecutive World Series championships between 1972 and 1974.

***

There is one more card and story I need to share. One of Lou Brock, the perennial all-star left-fielder. Though the 1970s were lean years for the St. Louis Cardinals (a sorbet of sorts between the glory days of two World Series championships in the 1960s and another in 1982), Brock became the all-time major league stolen base leader in August of 1977. That’s when he broke Ty Cobb’s career record of 892 stolen bases. Brock’s record was later surpassed by the phenomenal Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s.

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Between 1964 (when the Cubs traded Brock to the Cardinals) and 1979 (when Lou retired), I was fortunate to see Lou patrol the outfield in St. Louis and burn up the base paths in person on dozens of occasions. (Ironically, in October 2015, Lou Brock’s left leg was amputated below the knee due to an infection related to a diabetic condition. But to this date he has survived that and multiple myeloma blood cancer diagnosed in 2017.)

Most important of all, for much of my muggy St. Louis childhood, I sat beside my father on the boards of the left-field bleachers at Busch Memorial Stadium. Together we watched the baseball gods of yesteryear dazzle us on the baseball diamond and break all sorts of records. Dad will forever be my baseball buddy.

Not a bad recollection to pass the time in 2020 as I hold my breath and wait with the world to see what happens next.