Diamond Vision

Originally Published 08/24/2011

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It was a typical Saturday afternoon at Kelly’s: Cards/Cubs on the tube, Old Style on tap and in pounders, armchair analysis going around the bar. Tim and John, both Cubs fans but, more broadly, both baseball fans, were arguing the game on the TV and the games already played.

“Okay, you’re tellin’ me the Cards are more universally beloved than the Cubs?” John asked Tim, mocking his jaw falling to the bar.

“I’m not saying more beloved!” Tim replied. “I’m saying more historically significant!”

“What in THE hell you talking about?” John spat back. “Hack Wilson, Ron Cey, Ernie Banks! Hey, let’s play two! Harry friggin’ Caray and Wrigley Field!”

“Yeah, well Harry Caray was the voice of the Cardinals first, ya know!” Tim replied, proud at scoring a point. “And think of this: the St. Louis Cardinals changed the game twice.”

“Twice?” John asked?

“Twice.” Tim affirmed. “First, Branch Rickey – the man who later signed Jackie Robinson, no less – was the Cards General Manager, and he developed the farm system and spring training. Used to be a ballplayer would go home after the season and spend the winter drinkin’ and gorgin’. Rickey put ‘em to work in the hot sun before the season to get ‘em in shape. An’ he developed the farm system and hid his best prospects low in the system. Used to say that every small town in America in the ‘30s had an A&P and a Cardinals farm team.”

John was suitably impressed. He knew about the influence of Rickey, of course, but hearing it from Tim was revolutionary. But there was more to hear. “Okay, that’s once. How did the Cards revolutionize the game twice, smartass?”

Tim knew he was about to deliver a roundhouse to the chin. “Okay, think about this. In the course of twenty years – less than a generation – the Cardinals went from being one of the most fiercely segregated teams in the game to one of the most fiercely integrated teams in the game.”

John just stared at his friend.

“1947. Robinson breaks the color line with Brooklyn. At the time St. Louis was the farthest stop west and south in both leagues, and the closest thing to a home team for the deep south. Those were the Cards of Harry Walker, Whitey Kurowski, Enos Slaughter and Joe Garagiola. Some of those Cards agreed to boycott games against Robinson and the Dodgers. Slaughter and Garagiola, in spite of his later sunny persona on the Today Show, were notorious for spiking Jackie, race baiting, all that crap.”

John continued to stare, disgusted and fascinated in equal measures.

“1967. A mere two decades later. Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda. Roger Maris, Bob Gibson. Steve Carlton, Curt Flood. Total integration and a team that was completely there for each other.

“Think about that. Twenty years! It happened in Chicago, but not as dramatically. Sure, Ernie Banks was first for the Cubs in 1953, and the Cards integrated in 1954. But the integration of the Cards was absolutely unprecedented, and frankly one hell of a great American story.”

John was absolutely dumbstruck and silent. Kelly’s grew quiet, the most prominent sound being the play-by-play on the tube.

“You win!” he said, turning back to his beer and a slick 6-4-3 double play live from Wrigley.

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