A Legend among Legends…
Most baseball fans remember attending their first major league baseball game. For many of us, it happened during our childhoods so it was a special event to spend time with a parent, grand-parent or older sibling. In my case, I attended my first game with my step-father. My own father had died a few years earlier and he did not have the health in his final years to take me to any games.
I was excited when my step-father informed me that we could be traveling to St Louis by bus to see the Cardinals play. My step-father had been a life-long Cardinals fan so he was probably as thrilled about the trip as I was. My step-father had been very active with the local Elks club chapter, as a member and officer of the organization. The bus trip to St Louis, a five hour drive, had been sponsored by the Elks club. I am not sure why that’s relevant to this post, but it’s probably just a tribute to my step-father for the passion and support he gave the Elks over the years.
The date of the game was May 29, 1974, and it featured the Los Angeles Dodgers against the St Louis Cardinals. It was a nice spring Missouri day at the old Busch Stadium, with the Arch looming in the background. When I look back, I am in complete awe of the players who took the field that day. At that point of my childhood, I considered myself a bigger football than baseball fan. Like many of my friends, my favorite baseball team were the Oakland A’s. I would not become a Yankees fan until the end of the year when A’s starting pitcher and Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter would leave Oakland as a free agent to sign with the Yankees.
Thinking about the game, several players stood out to me that day as a kid attending my first professional game. I was mesmerized by the Dodgers starting pitcher (and future Yankee) Tommy John and his pitching motion. Surprisingly, I remember John more that day than the starter for the Cardinals, the legendary Bob Gibson.
For the Cardinals, centerfielder Bake McBride made the biggest impression…well, at least until the latter innings. I thought the name “Bake” was rather cool, and he seemed to move effortlessly with great speed in the field. He did not do anything with his bat that day, but I enjoyed the grace he displayed in the field. Late in the game, the Cardinals brought in closer Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky even though they were trailing. The intensity that Hrabosky brought to the game when he entered to pitch still gives me chills. He brought the crowd alive, and although the Cardinals would lose the game, 5-2, Hrabosky made me a believer and he became my first favorite closer. I would have subsequent trips to St Louis and I always loved watching Hrabosky pitch while he was in his prime. I think I’ve always had a favorite closer through the years as a result. Rich “Goose” Gossage and Mariano Rivera are two other all-time favorites.
The memory of these players vastly overlooks the legends on the field that day (as I now recognize). The Dodgers were managed by the great Walter Alston, while the Cardinals were led by long-time manager Red Schoendienst. Some of the Dodger names that would have prominent roles in the ’77 and ’78 World Series agains the Yankees were there…Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, Ron Cey and Steve Yeager. The Cardinals had Joe Torre at first and Ted Simmons behind the plate. It is amazing how differently the game looks to me today as I recall it as opposed to my perception in May 1974. I was blessed with the opportunity to see so many legends that day.
As memorable as the game was for me, it was, believe it or not, a trip to the restroom that has endured the test of time as one of my all-time favorite baseball moments. It was the fourth inning and I made my way to the restroom. Over the speakers, I heard that I missed the opportunity to see my first home run as Ron Cey connected off Gibson. After using the restroom, I was walking down the corridor back toward my seat. I saw a line of people waiting to see a guy who was signing baseballs and books. There were actually two guys signing autographs. I went to the shorter line, and it was famed St Louis Post-Dispatch sports writer Bob Broeg. Nothing against Broeg, but I was more intrigued by the other gentleman as he was garnering the most attention. After getting Broeg’s autograph, I got in the other line and worked up my way up to shake hands with none other than the legendary Stan “The Man” Musial. I had been familiar with who Musial was through my step-father as he always spoke very fondly of the Cardinals great. I was in awe but admittedly I did not appreciate the moment at the time in the way I do today. Mr. Musial was very kind to me and it is an encounter that I will never forget. I can still remember going back to my seat and telling my step-father, “I just met Stan ‘The Man’ Musial!”.
I was very saddened to hear the news of Musial’s passing this weekend. I have always been grateful for the few minutes I had with him and he’ll always hold a special place for me as one of my all-time favorite players. He will be missed and as many have written, he was “The Man”…