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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Of Harry, KMOX and Summer Baseball 1965

Of Harry, KMOX and Summer Baseball 1965
“I just got hooked on the radio, the voice of it all. It was my connection to metropolitan America, if you will. Sports, in particularly baseball then 'cause of its rich sediment of numbers, was one of the first things a young person could peg up with adults on - that is, you could know as much about Jimmy Fox as your father did.”
George Will

Harry Caray
For an eight years old boy in the summer of 1965, when the sun goes down his world expands beyond the limits of rural Missouri. Equipped with only a $4 Sears’ transistor radio, a cheap pair of ear phones and a stash of AA batteries; major league baseball is magically carried through the wonders of the AM airwaves and into his darkened bedroom.

Like a Bob Gibson fastball splitting the night air, the smooth voices of legendary announcers - Hall of Famers like Bob Prince, Jack Brickhouse and Ernie Harwell - mesmerize a boy who lives for nothing but baseball. It allows him a glimpse of greatness, of faraway places, of men who threw and hit baseballs so hard and far that they disappear.

When these radio broadcasting giants speak of America’s pastime; drums roll and flags unfurl. Each summer weekday night KDKA carries the Pittsburgh Pirates; WGN the Cubs (only on the road, Wrigley Field has no lights); WCKY the Cincinnati Reds and if the air wave gods are cooperating this night, the Tigers on Detroit’s clear channel WJR 760.

Ernie Harwell broadcast Detroit Tigers games for over 40 years. In his final broadcast on Sept. 29, 2002, he told his listeners, “Thank you for letting me be a part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage Up North, to the beach, the picnic, your workplace and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers.”
However, these are the backups, mere seconds, only to be tuned in on those rare sticky muggy summer nights when the hometown’s St. Louis Cardinals are idle. Most nights; like a favorite Uncle, KMOX radio broadcaster Harry Caray will bring to a wide awake boy all the trials and tribulations of his Cardinals. Set to 1120 on the dial of the red plastic incased radio’s screen, KMOX is the best sports radio station in the history of the worlds’ of 8 years old boys. Caray, the longtime voice of the Cardinals, is the anchor for a city’s ongoing love affair with its baseball team. 

The boy’s dad saw summer life through a prism of family, farming and work. He liked his Schlitz beer cold, his Teamsters’ union strong and his kids quiet and orderly. His two favorite Cardinal mangers were the last one and the next one.

May 1965, the boy accompanied the father to his first live Cardinal game, his first trip to the soon to be abandoned and torn down old Sportsman’s Park. A victim of urban blight, city leaders said. But, seen through the eyes of an 8 years old, it was just like Harry had promised it would be; an awe inspiring and breath taking green cathedral.

The new smells and sounds of a major league baseball park are intoxicating to the boy. The cigar smoke hangs heavy but sweet over the green and lush outfield grass. He arrives early enough for batting practice. The ringing sound made by the crack of a major leaguer’s bat (his ears has never heard such a dominant and forceful sound in the local sandlots) has him on the edge of his left field bleacher seat, glove in hand, just in case.

 Sportsman's Park
If he could have gotten just a little closer, he could have seen with his own eyes the dent in the scoreboard atop the left field sun soaked bleachers caused by Mike Shannon’s 1964 World Series rocket shot home run. Harry said it traveled at least 450 feet from the home plate where 3’7” midget Eddie Gadel had once been sent to pinch hit in a Bill Veeck publicity stunt. That had been years earlier, and not even by the Cards but by the dearly departed St. Louis Browns, but Harry loved to retell the story, at least once every home stand. It was the same home plate Enos Slaughter had touched after scoring from first on a single, a famous mad dash that won for the Birds the ‘46 series, another of Harry’s favorite stories.

A boy’s first trip to a live Cardinals’ game with his father is a sacred part of growing up in St. Louis, MO; a welcome rite of passage, a treasured father son experience the boy would make with his own son to the “new” Busch Stadium, 30 years later. However, for a boy who came of age in the Cardinal’s golden years of Brock, Gibson and Musial; summer baseball memoires are of the radio; KMOX and Harry.

Mom’s routine never varied. Never. Just make sure your bedroom door is left open.  Nightly rounds are made at precisely 9:55 when the lights in the kitchen down the hallway go dark (head phones out, radio under pillow) followed by footsteps (roll on to side, feign sleep), then stir slightly and sleepily mumble when tucked in for the night while awaiting the “all clear” signal, the closing of the bedroom door. Just follow the plan. It is the perfect crime carried out night after summer night, the great escape to the magical after-hours world of Cardinal baseball.

Win or lose, no matter how dire the Cards situation may appear, to not remain always the loyal listener would be treasonous. Late September, 1965 finds the Red Birds mathematically eliminated from the National League pennant race, double digit games behind the hated Dodgers with only single digit games left to play, hopeless. The West Coast game will not start until 10 pm and will not end until well after midnight. This is a school night. So? Koufax is on the hill for the Bums and this minor league wunderkind of whom Harry’s rave reports from down on the farm have teased fans all that long and frustrating summer is to make his Cardinal debut tonight. Bobby Tolan, speed to burn and Harry says he is the perfect future right field complement to All Stars’ Curt Flood in center and Lou Brock in left. This kid can’t miss, Harry assured (but he did).

Fifty years later, in a now middle aged man’s life, the memory of 1965 Cardinal baseball on a cheap transistor radio is lovingly ingrained deep and vivid. Like a well thrown fastball that hisses as it sears the muggy night air; an unhittable aspirin tablet, bringing fear to all those who might dare to disrupt the secure summer nights of an 8 years old boy.

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