Tag: Bob Gibson

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A View from the Bleachers

As a suburban white kid of the sixties, growing up in the segregated St. Louis area, I had no black classmates, teachers, acquaintances or neighbors. Until I went to college (and more so as I built adult relationships with black colleagues and friends), my only first-hand experiences with black people occurred while riding a city bus, tuning into the latest episode of Room 222, swimming in a public pool or watching Bob Gibson and Lou Brock play ball from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium.

I’ll admit it, as I wrote that previous sentence, it felt very odd and constricting … even shameful. But this was the world I came from. Occasionally, at family gatherings, one of my uncles would take a puff from his nasty cigar and proceed to talk about “blacks moving into the neighborhood.”

As a boy, that kind of hateful rhetoric and the smoke hovering in my parents’ living room brought tears to my eyes. As an adult, it still makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, at the time none of the other adults spoke up. I felt like I wanted to run out of the room, but I didn’t.  I knew what he said was wrong. It was racism. It was painful.

Moving a few years ahead, maybe on some level I also thought “if people are saying bad things about black people just because they have a different skin color, what will they say about me if I tell them I’m gay?”

At times, it was a claustrophobic life of placating those who were the most vocal. Denying your true feelings. Walking on egg shells to keep the peace. Sadly, it was only a more distant chapter of simmering anxiety and poor race relations than the one we know well today.

On a personal level, I was able to learn and grow from it by honoring my own internal compass, broadening my experiences, meeting new and different people, traveling to new places, keeping an open mind … even for a time co-facilitating diversity training as a consultant and challenging managers and employees to draw from the strength of their differences rather than rejecting them.

Fortunately, both of my parents were decent people. They instilled in me a value of simple living. Caring for the disadvantaged. Saving for a rainy day. As a result, on some level, I’ve always identified more with the “have-nots” than the “haves”. It pains me to see people flaunt their advantage … their white privilege, their economic status, their lofty and meaningless titles.

Despite my limited experience with diverse people in the 60’s and 70’s, I was always comfortable sitting in the bleachers with Dad and the masses–mostly poorer black and white blue-collar workers–rooting for our hometown St. Louis Cardinals. Besides, it was all Dad could afford.

I recall one night. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town. It was a close game. I don’t remember the score or the outcome, but the bleachers were full and Dad and I were in the middle of a buzzing crowd. Between pitches, I asked him why some of the black patrons, ordinarily faithful to the Cardinals, were cheering for the Dodgers.

“It’s because of Jackie Robinson,” he said. “Back when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, he was the first black ballplayer in the Major Leagues. Ever since then, some black people are loyal to the Dodgers. They opened the door for others to follow.”

Now in 2020, with the recent murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests and general mayhem and destruction, I’ve been thinking of this Jackie Robinson moment with Dad. How little I knew of the plight of black people back then. How much more I know now about loving other people no matter their skin color, speaking up for your rights, voicing your views, and demanding justice.

I’m not condoning the opportunistic looting in cities around the country, some of which we’ve seen here in Scottsdale, Arizona. But, in honor of George Floyd’s life and of many other black men and women who have died needlessly before him, we must find a way to heal as a nation.

We must acknowledge that racism in our society exists just as it has for a long time. We must listen to the “have nots” of our world. We must read more and follow the teachings of history and science.

We must elect leaders, nationally and locally, who will advocate for the rights of all Americans … no matter their skin color, cultural heritage, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.

Get Well Soon, Bob Gibson

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Over the weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Bob Gibson is battling pancreatic cancer. The flame-throwing, right-handed, Hall of Fame pitcher–who spent his entire seventeen-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals–is eighty-three years old. He is likely to begin chemotherapy this week. (This photo of the acrobatic and intimidating delivery of the Cardinals’ ace pitcher came from the cover of one of my 1960s scorecards.)

In 2017, as a tribute to the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s, I wrote and published the following story about “Gibby” and an historic, astounding moment my dad and I witnessed. The full piece, titled The Transistor Radio and the Crack of a Bat appears in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book of twenty-six true stories about my Missouri youth.

***

Many of my memories are forever embedded as sounds. Of course, there was “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”–that profound yet tinny phrase Neil Armstrong uttered on July 20, 1969, when he became the first person to step on the surface of the moon. That sound and a few sketchy images broke through our black-and-white TV.

But two years before Armstrong’s historic moon walk, there was another sound that echoed through my childhood. This one emanated from my portable, pocket-sized transistor radio. It was July 15,1967. Bob Gibson was on the mound pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals that day at Busch Memorial Stadium. He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad and I were sitting in the right field bleachers. I had my baseball mitt on my left hand and my transistor radio in its tattered leather case blaring away in my right …

Together Dad and I had the good fortune of watching Gibson pitch at least twenty different times in my childhood. I’ll bet he won seventeen or eighteen of those games. But on this particular hot summer day, all of us in attendance were in store for something stunning, unimaginable, and apparently catastrophic–and the transistor radio would play a big role in a shocking St. Louis moment that is forever sealed in my memory.

Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, stepped to the plate to face Gibson. I remember the crack of Clemente’s bat, booming across the field and through my transistor radio. (Harry Caray and Jack Buck–arguably the best baseball broadcast team ever–provided the color commentary on KMOX Radio.) Clemente had smacked a line drive off Gibson’s leg, just above his ankle.

In spite of the warm temperature, the fans went stone-cold silent. The Cardinals’ trainer rushed to the mound to attend to the perennial all-star pitcher. After the trainer applied a freezing agent to the area, Gibby took a few soft tosses from the mound and then waved off the trainer. He was ready to resume pitching. A collective exhale filtered through the crowd and my transistor radio.

But the relief was short lived. After walking Willie Stargell and retiring Bill Mazeroski on a pop up, Gibson swung into his pitching motion and delivered a 3-2 pitch to Donn Clendenon. That’s when he collapsed in a heap on the mound.

A palpable hush blanketed the ballpark. It echoed and hung in the smoky bleacher air as vendors–suspended in slow motion–passed peanuts, beer, and hot dogs into waiting hands. Overriding the silence, the only sounds I can recall were the concerned voices of Buck and Caray cascading through my transistor and those of countless other fans muttering around their squawk boxes throughout the ballpark. After the Cardinals’ medical team removed Gibson from the field on a stretcher, we soon learned he had suffered a compound fracture. Caray and Buck told us through our transistor radios. It was devastating news.

As you would expect, Bob Gibson was sidelined for much of the year, but a young, unproven right-handed pitcher named Nelson Briles took his place in the rotation for the remainder of the regular season. Briles led the National League that year with a .737 win-loss percentage and a 14-5 record. His performance silenced the skeptics, who insisted the Cardinals wouldn’t recover from Gibson’s debilitating mid-season injury.

Remarkably, Gibson returned to the Cardinals in time to face Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, “In the end, Gibson was clearly the difference, winning three complete games 2-1, 6-0, and 7-2 while striking out twenty-six and walking only five.” That included the deciding game 7.

Though Dad and I weren’t in the crowd to see any of the 1967 World Series games in St. Louis, we were there to hear the crack of Clemente’s bat reverberate throughout Busch Memorial Stadium. We witnessed an unlikely moment shared by two of major league baseball’s future Hall of Famers.

Ironically, four years later on August 14, 1971, Bob Gibson was on the mound against the Pirates again. This time the tables were turned. On this night, pitching at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Gibson achieved something that had escaped him previously. He recorded the only no-hitter of his illustrious career. I wasn’t in Pittsburgh that night to witness Gibson’s historic moment in person, but I listened intently from my bedroom in south suburban St. Louis. Propped up on my elbow, I heard exuberant Jack Buck exclaim, “Gibson’s thrown a no-hitter!” Best of all, I heard the man do it. I heard every pitch on my trusty transistor radio.

***

Ironic postscript: this evening–exactly fifty-two years since the Gibson-Clemente moment–the Cardinals and Pirates will renew their long-standing rivalry. It will the first of a three-game series at Busch Stadium (the Cardinals’ current home, which opened in downtown St. Louis in 2006).

In the off chance that Gibby reads this, there’s only one more thing to say. Get well soon, Bob Gibson. Just as I did in 1967, I’m rooting for your speedy recovery.