Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.

A short story to start things off

I wrote a story about something I picked up at a garage sale last week.  So how does one get their thoughts out to the world nowadays? By putting it on a blog, right? So I started a blog to put this (and future musings) out there for whoever might care to read it. And putting it out there somewhere just has to be better than letting it die in my brain or on my desktop. 

My hometown of Springfield, Illinois has a rich baseball history that most people don’t know, or care, too much about. In fact, three members of the baseball Hall of Fame were born there (and in case you’re curious, they are pitcher Robin Roberts, executive Ed Barrow, and umpire Al Barlick). That may not sound like much, but consider that 21 states haven’t produced so many Hall of Famers as a town of 125,000, and it does seem like something.

Maybe that history is what caused the St. Louis Cardinals to move their triple A farm team from New Orleans to Springfield in the late 1970s. The team, which was named the Springfield Redbirds, even had the great Satchel Paige in their front office. I certainly wish I knew more about who he was back then, and that I had the foresight to hold onto the program that he signed for me at one of their games.

But the real draw for the team was probably that Springfield, located only a hundred miles from St. Louis, is right the middle of Cardinals country. And that was my problem growing up. Somehow, in the middle of all that, I had to get by as—get ready for it—a Cubs fan.

The Cubs had the cooler ballpark, so far as I could tell. WGN and Jack Brickhouse  brought Wrigley Field into my family’s home every afternoon. Jack Buck and the radio couldn’t compete with that. Besides, the Cardinals had astroturf on their field, and this big batting donut-shaped ballpark with arch designs all around the top. After attending one game at Busch Stadium with my dad, I knew that I couldn’t follow such a team. But this other team, the one with afternoon games in the funky ballpark and a grandfatherly TV announcer, was just what I had in mind. And so an agonizing relationship began, and it continues to this day.

But back to the Redbirds for a moment. One of their promotional giveaways in the late 1970s was batting helmet night. Kids at the game received a Springfield Redbirds batting helmet, which was actually a Cardinals batting helmet with a Redbirds logo covering up the Cardinals insignia. My desire to get a free helmet–albeit a red and thus Cardinals-related one–trumped my personal misgivings about the Cardinals and their farm team.

I can still remember seeing a picture, which was obviously taken the next day, in which my brother, sister, the neighbor across the street, and I are all proudly wearing our bright red batting helmets. We played a lot of backyard whiffle ball in those days, and we wanted to look the part of a real ballplayer. The red helmets allowed us to do just that.

But time went by, and as it did the whiffle ball games stopped taking place. The dirt spots that marked the bases eventually returned to the grassy state that my father preferred.  I don’t know what became of those helmets, either, but I imagine my mom tossed them out one day. Maybe she looked at them wistfully when she did, and maybe she didn’t. But for my part, I never really gave it any thought at all. That is, until I went to a garage sale this afternoon.

There wasn’t much to be had at the sale, and I was about to walk away when I spotted a batting helmet, just like the one I had when I was a kid. But this one was blue, and had a Cubs logo on it! My inner 10 year-old thought Man! If only I had one of these back in the day, instead of that freebie Cardinals/Redbirds one that I got at the ballpark, I would have been the happiest kid there was. So for the grand sum of one dollar, I bought a whole bunch of memories, and I thought about how much my life has changed since those carefree days in the late 70s.

After I made off with my find, I had to adjust the inner lining (called the “Adjustrap”) to its biggest possible setting. After all, these things weren’t really made for men my age. Once I put it on my head, though, I wore it around the office for the entire afternoon. The feeling I got from it is something I can’t fully put into words. If only every dollar I spent could bring me so much happiness, and every garage sale could transport me back to a time and place I had long since forgotten about.