For a boy growing up in rural Illinois in the late 1940s, before the age of television, the best source of knowledge of the wide world was radio. A boy with an imagination could find any number of programs that told of excitement and adventure. As exciting as those shows were, they could not compete with another activity that I learned about through the radio.
In those boyhood days, I discovered that the most exciting, glorious activity in the world was major league baseball. In truth, my mind, heart, soul, and imagination had been captured by Harry Caray’s broadcasts of the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball games. Harry’s enthusiasm for the game and his dramatic voice, not to mention his vivid descriptions, convinced me that major league baseball was as sacred as any religion. Harry could make an infield popup seem like the Apocalypse and a Cardinal home run the answer to a fervent prayer. The more I listened to Harry’s broadcasts the more I believed that major league baseball players were gods, not mere mortals. If not gods, then they were knights on a quest for the Holy Grail.
It was the early 1950s before I attended my first major league game. A kindly neighbor invited two of my friends and me to go to a Sunday doubleheader in St. Louis between the Browns and the mighty Yankees. It didn’t matter that the Browns were the worst team in baseball or that the Yankees were the best; I was realistic enough to know that on this day David had very little chance to defeat Goliath. What mattered was that I would be able to see the gods with my own eyes. At last I could go to the cathedral and worship.
The kindly neighbor knew that we had never been to a major league baseball game, and he made sure that we arrived early enough to watch batting practice. I will never forget how green the grass was and how the sky was a perfect shade of blue. The stands were almost completely empty, but that did not bother me. The Yankees were taking batting practice, and the neighbor said, “Boys, that’s Mickey Mantle in the batting cage.” Mickey Mantle? Not Mickey Mantle! Yes, Mickey Mantle, who was supposed to be even greater than the majestic Joe DiMaggio!
I begged for the binoculars to watch Mickey, thinking that I could pick up some tips to improve my own hitting. Mickey finished his swings and began to leave the batting cage. I followed him through the binoculars to see who the next hitter would be. It was Yankee right fielder Hank Bauer, standing at the cage. Bauer looked up at me, our eyes locked, and he flipped me the bird. Instantly my heart went dead. I felt as if I had been shot, stabbed, or told that I was the most worthless twerp this side of Quincy. I wanted to cry; I wanted to die on the spot; I wanted to leave the ballpark; I wanted to do anything except stay in that awful place. My faith had been shattered. I had come to the cathedral to worship, and a god had peed on my votive offerings.
Now flipping the bird was not the common gesture then as it is today. And certainly Bauer was not the only baseball player to use it. In fact, years later I watched pitcher Mark Lemongello of the Houston Astros flip the double bird at the fans in Wrigley Field, but they had been taunting him unmercifully, and his gesture seemed a very human thing to do. But I had not been taunting Bauer; on the contrary, I was sitting there in awe, in total reverence. It seemed to me that Bauer’s gesture was an act of unnecessary cruelty, a mean slap in the face, the unkindest cut of all. However, I am sure that to him it was as unimportant as tossing a candy wrapper out the window of a speeding car.
I saw several outstanding ballplayers that day: Johnny Mize, Marty Marion (the playing manager for the Browns), Yogi Berra, Mantle, Johnny Sain, and the great Satchel Paige, who came in to pitch an inning of relief. In other circumstances, it would have been worth it just to see Satchel pitch, but I sat through both games with a heart gone dead. The humiliation was so complete that I could not tell anyone about it, not the kindly neighbor, my friends, my parents, or even my faithful dog Brownie. Bauer’s mean-spirited gesture became the defining moment for my entire summer.
The story does not end there. Some years later I was to experience one of life’s delicious ironies. I was a sub on my high school baseball team, and we were playing Quincy High School. The Quincy players were so much better than we were that they won by the ten-run rule at the end of five innings. However, the coaches decided to play the full seven innings so that the subs could get some playing time. My coach sent me out to play right field. Now the game was being played at Q Stadium, the home of the Quincy Gems of the Three I. League. As I stood in right field, bewildered to find myself in an actual game and praying that no ball would come my way, it suddenly occurred to me that Hank Bauer, in his journey to the majors, had played for a short time for the Quincy Gems. I realized that I was standing on the very ground that Bauer had patrolled several
years ago. Before that day in St. Louis, I would have considered this to be holy ground, but now it was just an ordinary baseball field, completely without magic or charm.
I was unable to understand Bauer’s action until several years later, when I heard Ray Bradbury, an authentic hero who was the polar opposite of Bauer, say, “If we aren’t careful, the gargoyles will take over the cathedral.” Bradbury’s remark was like a light bulb coming on in my brain. Still, I was not able to talk about that ignominious moment in St. Louis until one day I was teaching an initiation story in an introduction to literature class at Western Illinois University. Since an initiation story involves the collision of youthful idealism with a world that is not sympathetic to idealism, my experience that sad day provided me with a perfect example. So I told the class about that Sunday in St. Louis, and, when I had finished, I sensed that my students understood clearly what can happen in an initiation story. Afterwards, a student came up to me and said, “That story sounds too perfect; are you sure you didn’t make it up?”
I replied, “I assure you that the story is true; I have never wanted the gargoyles to take over the cathedral.”
Dr. Loren Logsdon is the much-loved English professor who has inspired students at Western Illinois University and Eureka College for many years. He lives in Eureka with his wife, Mary, and writes a weekly story for the Woodford County News Bulletin.