Tag: 1970

Riding High in Gatlinburg

GatlinburgTN_August1970 (2)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missing Baseball? It’s in the Cards

MajorLeagueMemories_1970

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.

LouBrock_1969

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.