Red Shoendienst died today. He was 95 years old. A professional ballplayer, 19 years with the old Saint Louis Cardinals. Though I never knew him personally he was one of the threads that connected me to my dad.
When you are a kid there is always teaching going on in the home. Mom and Dad are at it constantly. Now, when you are little you don’t really notice it but it’s always there. They are sculpting the clay while it’s still soft, building the adult you will be.
We had a kitchen table then that was shiny chrome in it’s legs and trim with a grey laminate top printed in a marble pattern. Nearly every family I knew had a similar one. They were modern and I believe mothers were tired of wood. You didn’t have to polish these, they didn’t dent or stain and in the 1950’s, if it didn’t have chrome it wasn’t “it.”
That shiny stuff was everywhere. Our Buick carried about a ton of it. The Sunbeam toaster, the mixer, saucepans, even the the salt and pepper sellars. The Art Deco shakers were put away in the back of a cupboard, not to see the light of day for fifty years.
Holding pride of place on the table was my dad’s radio. There were different kinds over the years, the last being a little transistor you could hold in your hand. The one most remembered was a small Philco. It was the size of a shoebox and was kind of a maple-ly color, lighter than a maple donut and darker than chamois. The dial was round and placed in the middle with little speakers, one on each side. The speakers were covered with a sparkling fabric and the circular dial had three, yes, three concentric rings. Each ring was a different radio band but the AM band was the one we used. AM radio, or Amplitude Modulated, travels much farther than FM and UHF. It is possible to actually bounce radio waves of the ionosphere and send signals around the world. It seemed magical to me as a child because I didn’t understand it. Neither did my father but, as an adult, he was content to listen and not worry about how it worked, it just did.
The great feature of this modulation was that radio stations, known in those days before cable as clear channel, could broadcast great distances if they were powerful enough. Few of these big boys are left now but at one time their signals could be heard in every corner of America. KNX and KFI in Los Angeles, KGO San Francisco, KSL Salt Lake City, KMOX in Saint Louis and XERB which operated out of Tijuana, Baja Norte, Mexico DF. when I was in high school it broadcast Wolf Man Jack into homes all over the west. Well, maybe not all homes, but millions of teenager’s old cars.
In a way little remembered today, radio connected peoples around the world. Not always positively either, The Imperial Japanese Navy used the radio signal from Honolulu’s KGU to home in on the island for the attack on pearl Harbor. If you lived in Arroyo Grande then and been tuned to KGU you may have heard the original broadcast. Three thousand three hundred twenty five miles as the crow flies, a long distance.
I don’t recall dad listening to music though he did love it, the radio was more of a tool than a source of entertainment. In the fifties a farmer needed radio for many reasons. Dad would stay up very late on winter nights to listen to the weather reports, hoping to hear good news, not bad. Farmers lived by frost reports, dew point, clouds, wind, worried about calamity that they had no way prevent. Adverse combinations of these can produce killing frosts which wipe out entire crops, in effect flushing your entire investment down the drain. The daily market reports out of San Francisco and Los Angeles kept him informed on vegetable prices and quantities. We didn’t use it for news much, life for the family was outside and time at the table was limited. News came from newspapers, local and big city.
Television didn’t arrive in our county until 1954 and it was awhile before we had one. Radio was how we connected with the world outside.
Dad played several sports in high school and college and followed his favorites. Basketball and baseball were his sports and the only way to follow it was by radio. The basketball team, the Lakers didn’t move to Los Angeles until 1960, two years after the baseball Dodgers. He followed the Boston Celtics, Shannon is our name you know. For baseball it was the Cards, the Redbirds, the Saint Louis Cardinals.
I sat at that table for years listening to baseball on the radio. The Cardinals came via KMOX in Saint Louis, Missouri and sometimes KSL in Salt Lake City. Dad loved the Cardinals, not because he was a rabid baseball fan but because when he was a young man they fielded a team fondly known as the Gashouse Gang, which seemed to be the epitome of the baseball teams that were primarily working class men. Not the “Boys of Summer,” as Roger Kahn wrote but the sort of men that came from hardscrabble farms and down and out southern towns where opportunity was scarce and a boy that could throw, hit and field might find a way out. No more picking cotton, no more steel mills or lead mines, no more endless drudge in a job you had to hate or even die for.
Take the “Ol Diz,” Dizzy Dean who hailed from Arkansas, a hillbilly by geography if not by choice, he won 30 games in 1934, a feat only equaled once in the past 84 years. The Cards won the world series that year, the same year my dad graduated from college. It was a national event when baseball was still the only real national pastime. The Tigers were an classy club from Detroit and they were beaten in seven games by a team of scruffy, tobacco chewing, fist fighting characters with dirty uniforms and a very, very bad attitude. Thats how the old boys played, spikes up, bean balls and real, on the field fights. Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Pepper Martin, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, Ripper Collins, Pop Haines, and Frankie “The Fordham Flash, They scuffled, fought each other in the dugout and won a world series. How could you not love “em. Maybe, just from my dads point of view, their chief attraction was they didn’t really play for money ’cause they didn’t make much in those days and the fact that a baseball career in almost all cases were very short, perhaps just three or four years, they eventually went back to working lead mines, painting houses and tilling the soil. This resonated with people in the depression, ballplayers might be famous, there were seven hall of famers on that team, but nevertheless, they likely were just like you. Might even be your neighbor too.
As we listened to the games, and I did my homework and dad spoke to the character of ballplayers the way he spoke of all men. He admired the work ethic of “Stan the Man” who worked in the steel mills of U S Steel as a youth and saw his own father die from the poisonous smog of 1948 that killed almost a hundred people in his hometown. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in a temperature inversion sending hundreds to the hospital including his father. Enos “Country” Slaughter typified the determined spirit and hustle of the game. “Baseball was the mirror of America,” dad said and in this sense Enos Slaughter was more than a consistent hitter with an accurate arm. He was also a reflection of the times in which he lived and played the game. He was raised on a hardscrabble farm in North Carolina and often said he developed his throwing arm by killing rabbits with rocks, for dinner. Red Schoendienst was the son of a coal miner and grew up in a house without electricity or running water. A high school dropout, he joined the CCC in 1939, played sandlot ball and was signed by the Cards in 1942 for $75.00 dollars. For the next 72 years he played and worked in baseball.
What was passed down here were lessons on hard work, perseverance, honesty and, most of all the transitory nature of things. Ballplayers are one swing of the bat away from the end of their careers each and every day. “It’s why those other values count,” he said.
So, we would sit there at the table with the little radio talking to use while he doodled figures on the back of an old envelope and drank coffee. I did my homework. We spoke of baseball and he picked up hints from the game to illustrate what he wanted me to know. A quiet word here and there was all you might hear.
When I was older and wiser I came to understand that the characters he used for illustration were as flawed as any other men. Somehow knowing that made the qualities my dad pointed out stronger than ever. You could be both good and not so good, weak but still strong. Knowing that helped me sort out problems and relationships that I was going to encounter for the rest of my life.
To use a baseball term, “Dad snuck one in over the outside corner for a called strike.”