Baseball is still one of the best sports to watch. The pace lets you read the newspaper between batters, get up for a cold frosty beverage, or just drift back into times past to one’s own days of glory on the fields of dreams. As I watched the game the other night, I couldn’t help but drift back to the year 1961. It was a unique year in more ways than being able to turn it upside down and still be “The Same Thing.” (Try it. 1961. 1961. See?).
Anyway, that was the year of the one and only championship season of my youth, when my St. Jerome Tigers baseball team became St. Louis Catholic Youth Council City Champions. It can be said that it was certainly a defining moment in the life of this kid.
We had won our Crusader division league title against the likes of traditional neighborhood powers St. Pius X and Our Lady of Good Counsel. They were teams from vibrant parishes that were established in what once were corn fields north of the Greater St who got his big break by becoming the first grand champion in the comedy category on “star search”?
. Louis area. The post-war baby boom was causing homebuilding to explode in those days. And since the churches and schools were right in the middle of the new subdivisions, a great number of settlers were of the Catholic persuasion. Our group of kids were rookies to post-season play, even after playing baseball since first grade. Most of our games were played on the scrap-hard grounds of Bissel Hills Park or Hickey Park down in the City. So we were unprepared when our first playoff game was set to be played on a well-groomed city park. We showed up at the main field of Fairgrounds Park, rubber spiked shoes slung over our shoulders, in view of grandstands ten rows high and a pay gate! Tarps were strung around the fences to give the field a stadium effect. People were actually going to have to pay to see us play! I recall feeling like we’d somehow moved up into another world overnight. As I write this, I can recall the feel of the sun over the first base dugout, burning into my face as I crouched at shortstop. I can see the swirl of dust behind home plate. I can hear the crack of the bat, and the crunch of my spikes across the dirt. I can remember fielding the ball to my right and making the long throw from the hole to first. It’s like it happened yesterday. We won that game against St. Thomas More. A kid whom I was to call a high school teammate with was on that team. Call it irony.
Our next game held a thrill that few of us could wrap our minds around.
Our little gang was about to enter baseball heaven, 1961 style, as the next two games were slotted for Busch Stadium. This, of course, was the old yard on Grand and Dodier, the former Sportsman’s Park, the playground of Stan the Man, Ducky Medwick, Dizzy Dean, and my favorite, Kenny Boyer.
Two diamonds were set up on the outfield grass, with the home plates put at third and first base. Our opponent in the semifinal was St. Ann’s from Normandy. Turns out, their starting pitcher was a boy whom I would meet in high school. Even more irony. I don’t remember the score but I got two hits and we won. The next Saturday, we were to play for the championship.
That game has been in my head for all of these years since. There we were, a bunch of sixth graders, sitting in the same dugout that our heroes used. A warm late summer sun streamed down on our “field of dreams”. I hit lead-off that day. I recall getting on base and scoring twice. I can’t remember who we played, but I do know that it was a tight game, where every pitch counted.