I don’t think I can pinpoint my very first awareness of the St. Louis Cardinals, yet my story is one that plugs into the expansive nature of what is "Cardinal Nation". You might say my story emanates from the extreme edges of The Nation. Visualize, if you will, a kid (a Red Sox fan) living in the mountains of New Hampshire, to be more precise, in a small city tucked in a valley in those hills. Because of that geographic circumstance and the quirky nature of AM radio signals - well therein lies the origins of my story.
AM signals from Boston rarely came in to my town on a consistent basis. Even Boston’s powerful 50,000 watt clear channel WBZ was blocked by the hills. Anyway, I had in my room an inherited oversized old RCA radio. At night I would start surfing the airwaves and pick up stations from locations which seemed at the time to be somewhat exotic: Buffalo; Chicago; New York City; Pittsburgh; to name a few. In 1963 I came across another 50,000 watt channel… KMOX out of St. Louis. How cool was that, coming in loud and clear! One of those nights brought Harry Cary and Jack Buck into my house painting a vivid picture of the Cardinals playing in that other League, teams the Red Sox never played. It was that ability to describe a ballgame in such a way that you felt you were there, with great banter between them to boot that hooked me for life.
My parent’s bedroom was adjacent to my room and I would wait until it seemed all were asleep and crawl into a tiny closet where I would hole up and listen to the broadcasts. They made a run at the Dodgers that year who eventually prevailed with their dominant pitching staff, but it was an interesting summer.
What gave me the ultimate jumpstart was the fact that in unprecedented fashion Ken Boyer, Dick Groat, Julian Javier, and Bill White, were the starting infield for the NL All Star Game. That began in earnest my scrapbook of cutout pictures of Cards players from my scouring of the sports publications of the times.
Then came the most incredible year, 1964. By then, the Cardinals were the focus of my attention. It was easy… the Red Sox were beloved bottom dwellers then. After the bleakest winter of discontent following that momentous day in November of 1963 where a black pall enveloped the country, mourning turned to morning as the sun rose in the east with the British Invasion and the beginning of spring training. The collapse of the Phillies and surge of the Cardinals was a script you would be hard pressed to dream up. Then an incredible seven game World Series, which back then were all day games. I remember clock watching in school then running as fast as I could the mile to home to get in front of that black and white TV – riveted to every pitch and lurching with the drama each game had. That fall and winter I remember reliving those games hitting out of hand tin foil balls I hit in the imaginary ball park of my yard at home going through the lineups of that Series. While the Yanks were in a state of decline, they still had the legendary names like Mantle and Ford. The bizarre departure of Johnny Keane after winning added to an already improbable year.
Fast forward from the Improbable to the Impossible Dream Year of 1967 where the dormant Red Sox came to life on the back of Carl Yastremski’s heroics – only if you lived through it could you understand how his year was one of the greatest of all baseball time. Running parallel was an equally exciting Cardinal team and my circuits were overloaded. It was such pure perfection for me that these two teams met in another great seven game World Series, I was equally passionate about both. My older brother, who never really understood how I could be a Cardinal fan, and I made the trip down to Fenway without tickets to just be around the excitement of the series and try to climb one of the signs outside the Park. We got there early and we decided to go to the area where the ball players entered the Park when a bus drove up. With nobody in front of us the door opened but a few feet from where we were standing and the entire Cardinal team stepped out bigger than life… Cepeda, Gibson, Flood, Brock… a moment forever emblazoned in my mind.
Fast forward again to 1982 and another thrilling nail biting World Series win. A tough couple of losing years for the Cards and then in the spring of 1985 expectations were the Cardinals would finish out of contention again. Yet I told my wife (who’s always put up with my Cardinal obsession) that this team was going to make it, I could just feel it. We bought tickets to the last three home games of the season scheduled against the Mets. What a summer of baseball that was – Whitey Ball!
We arrived in St. Louis for the first time and the atmosphere was electric. Early afternoon we walked the block from our hotel and turned the corner to have Busch Stadium appear before our eyes, the poles with the Championship Flags flying and Stan The Man’s Statue. It was like I had been on a life long pilgrimage and finally reached the shrine. The awe struck look on my face caught the attention of a local TV station crew and they were interested enough in our story of a New Hampshire to St. Louis journey that we saw ourselves on the evening news in St. Louis. Three games to keep the Mets from taking the National League East lead and it came down to winning on the last day. What really caught our attention was how the fans were so into the nuances of the game and cheered small ball like American League fans would cheer home runs. A generalization to be sure, but not far from the truth.
One play summarized the whole Cardinal style for us. I believe it was Mookie Wilson who hit a ball off the centerfield wall that Andy Van Slyke quickly retrieved. Ozzie stood nonchalantly straddling second base glove hanging down first base side. Having been deked, Mookie looking at Ozzie must have thought he had it made except Van Slyke threw an amazing ball that landed in Ozzie’s glove without him having to move it at all except to slap the tag. The crowd roared a standing ovation as they knew what had just happened. Baseball at another level.
In 1996 our second and only other trip saw us bring the kids along so they could catch some first hand Cardinal fever.
I have to wrap this up I know but one last anecdote. Three years ago we attended the wedding of my niece in southern California. Most of my family had gotten back to the hotel before me. Walking into the large open area lobby with a
bar I see my wife waving me over. She says that there is somebody she wants me to meet. There was this elderly gentleman sitting there quite dapperly dressed. She said I would like you to meet Mr. Orlando Cepeda. Of course I thought family members knowing my being a fervent Cardinal fan were pulling a fast one… well it was Cha Cha. After I was able to rattle off his rookie year and career stats from memory, I had his attention and he loved hearing the story you just heard and how much of an impact he had on my life… and the reality of Cardinal Nation!