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Sportsman’s Park, Part Two: The People

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It’s like a litany of baseball saints, the St. Louis Cardinal and Brown players who called Sportsman’s Park home and never knew the “cushy” setting of Busch Stadium downtown: Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick, Frankie Frisch and, of course, Stan Musial.

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Add in every Hall of Famer who played between 1909 and 1966 – when Sportsman’s Park hosted both National and American League games – and the location is almost as sacred in baseball lore as Cooperstown.

Sportsman’s Park had its share of big moments – both highlights and low lights -- during its 50-plus years on Grand Boulevard on St. Louis’ north side.

Seventy-five-year-old George Koenemann remembers his first game as a fan at Sportman’s like it was yesterday, and with good reason -- it was Babe Ruth Day. The retired superstar took a national tour of MLB ballparks in 1948 promoting American Legion baseball.

“Oh, golly, the youngest I remember going (to Sportsman's) is five or six years old, and the Browns had Babe Ruth in to visit,” he said. “I went with several older kids in the neighborhood.”

Ruth was a sick man when he made that final appearance at Sportsman’s – eight weeks later he was dead of throat cancer at the age of 53.

One of Koenemann’s favorite Brown players was not quite as famous as Ruth, but it’s no wonder pitcher Ned Garver made an impression on the youngster. In 1951, a season in which the Browns lost 102 games, Garver went 20-12 with an ERA of 3.73 – the only pitcher in the modern era to win 20 games for a team that lost 100 or more.

Warren Briesacher, 93 years old, has lived in Belleville his whole life, but as a child spent a week each summer in St. Louis with his uncle, who made a special point of visiting Sportsman’s Park.

“Back then all the men wore what they call straw katies. They were flat-top hats, made of straw,” Briesacher recalled. “The last game of the season, the last out, they’d throw those things on the field. You’d have a whole field of straw katies.”

“In those days, these players were not making the money they are now. I remember a player by the name of Rollie Hemsley. He was a catcher for the Browns and he was a good ballplayer,” Briesacher said. “As soon as the season was over, he’d come over and work for the same outfit I worked for. He had to.”

Hemsley was a five-time All-Star who played for the Browns from 1933 to 1937. His salary in 1934 was a paltry $5,500 – no wonder he needed an off-season job!

Both Koenemann and Briesacher had fond memories of the Knothole Gang, a program ran by both the Cardinals and Browns which offered free passes to kids from throughout the city.

“Those Knothole kids, they put a lot of noise in the stadium,” Briesacher said.

They probably weren’t cheering for the longest home run at Sportsman’s: a 430-foot monster blast by Ruth in the 1926 World Series against the Cardinals. The ball sailed over the wall in right-center and broke the display window of the Wells Motor Company, a Chevrolet auto dealership across the street on Grand Boulevard.

Musial never hit a ball quite that far, but he hit more in one day at Sportsman’s than Ruth ever did: a total of five during a double-header on May 2, 1954. His two homers in the second game came off of knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, and Musial was able to power both over the right-field fence and onto Grand Boulevard.

Amazingly enough, the only other MLB player to hit five homers in a double-header, Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres, was in the stands at Sportsman’s that day. Colbert was a native of St. Louis and attended the games as an eight-year-old.

Sportsman’s Park hosted 10 World Series, including the “Streetcar Series” of 1944, which saw the Browns taking on the Cardinals. Of course, the Cardinals won.

Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra, who grew up together in The Hill in St. Louis, both played major-league baseball and took the field at Sportsman’s, but in "Sportsman’s Park: The Players, the Fans & the Game," by Dan O’Neill, Joe Garagiola noted his favorite memory of the stadium.

“The most poignant moment in my broadcasting career took place in Sportsman’s Park during the 1964 World Series between the Cardinals and the Yankees,” he said. “I remember looking down at the dugout when it hit me: Yogi was managing the Yankees in the World Series and I was broadcasting the event for NBC.”

Who can forget Pete Gray, the Brown’s one-armed outfielder, or Satchel Paige sitting in his rocking lounge chair in the bullpen at the end of his career? And then there was the underwear-eschewing Pepper Martin, the Cardinal utility player who “caught more balls with his chest than he did with his glove,” according to Warren Briesacher. “He’d get in front of a ball and he’d stop it somehow.”

In 1951, 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel took one at-bat in a game wearing a uniform numbered 1/8 (which actually belonged to batboy Bill DeWitt Jr). He walked on four pitches.

A few days after the Gaedel appearance, Brown’s owner Bill Veeck had a Grandstand Manager’s Day promotion. Fans in one section of the park voted on all coaching decisions – who would be the starting pitcher, when to warm up a reliever, whether a runner should steal. Fans held up signs with a green No or a red Yes to vote. Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia A’s, could see the proposed moves, but it didn’t help, as the Browns won 5-3.

Then there was the “Mad Dash” by Enos Slaughter in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Slaughter, running from first on a double by Harry Walker, blew through a stop sign from the third base coach to score the go-ahead run for the Cardinals.

But for a kid at the ballpark, sometimes the food proved to be a bigger attraction than the play on the field.

“They had soda and Cracker Jack was a big thing, and hot dogs. All the staples,” Koenemann noted.

“I always liked to watch the peanut vendors. That guy would toss the bag across the rows of seats,” Briesacher said. “It was always amazing to me how good they could toss a bag of peanuts."

Some things never change, whether it's Sportsman's Park circa 1940 or Busch Stadium of today.

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