You never really get over a childhood hero. Jerry Seinfeld remains obsessed with Superman. Eminem pays homage to Spider-Man. For me, it was Lou Brock — a flesh-and-blood superhero whose recent passing stirred complicated emotions dating to my youth.
As a kid in the St. Louis suburbs, the Cardinals of the 1960s were a big part of my life. They went to the World Series three times that decade, winning twice. Years later I would name my first cat Brock. My second cat would be named Gibson. Only a family intervention stopped me from naming my bulldog McCarver.
But Sweet Lou was my main hero. I would hide my transistor radio in the drawer next to my bed and fall asleep wearing earphones. Harry Caray and Jack Buck tucked me in more often than Mom ever knew. When I felt drowsy, I shook my head to stave off sleep until Brock came to the plate one more time. Sleep deprivation was a small price to pay for the potential thrill of hearing another Brock base hit, and stolen base, in real time.
I’m convinced my admiration for an athlete of color helped steer me, a white kid, away from the racism that was all around me. In the second grade, nuns dressed me in blackface for a school play. When grandpa fell ill, the family sent an orderly, a “darkie,” and Grandma wouldn’t let him through the door. Caught throwing rotten apples at a mailbox, the homeowner shamed me thus: “That’s the kind of crap n-word people do.”
One summer my friends and I got word that the great Brock was house hunting in our middle-class neighborhood. How cool would that be? We fantasized about life with Brock as a neighbor. Heck, maybe he’d coach our Little League team.
The adults on our block spun their own fantasy. If Brock moved in, “others” would follow. They did not mean ballplayers. A group of parents sent a message to Brock’s real estate agent: Sell him a house on this block, and you will never get another listing around here. The great Lou Brock, a future Hall-of-Famer and hugely popular World Series hero in this fanatical baseball city, bought a home elsewhere and fulfilled some other kids’ dreams while the grown-ups in the neighborhood took a bow for securing property values.
I always believed the only way to defeat racism was through generational change and so, even as a young boy, I found it encouraging that my parents were less bigoted than their parents, who were less bigoted than theirs. My lineage had been evolving, though at this rate, true illumination would not occur before the rapture.
Bombarded by racist experiences that did not sit well, I longed to advance the family’s worldview. Maybe as a color-blind baseball fan I could, in effect, skip a generation and get straight to enlightenment. After all, the Cardinals’ best players were not only black but my future cats’ namesakes. My head was in the right place.
Fast forward to 1979. I was a 22-year-old newbie reporter for The Tribune in Fairview Heights, just east of St. Louis. My grizzled editor, Rube (who owned the paper), told me to drive to Busch Stadium and cover Fairview Heights Night, a promotional evening where our town’s residents got special recognition.
“The story isn’t the game,” he instructed. “Get some quotes from our people enjoying themselves and take lots of pictures of babies.” Rube knew how to sell a paper.
After the game, I went into the dugout. There was Ted Simmons. There was Keith Hernandez. Still a consummate fan, I was too awed to speak to them. I sat on the bench, where my imagination ran wild. As I stared out over the playing field, on my left Lou Brock, now in his last year as a player, emerged from the dressing room tunnel.
I suddenly felt like the same kid who had drifted to sleep so many times waiting for one more at-bat. I moved toward him, starry-eyed. Brock could see I was not a beat writer and that I was struggling with my approach. He must have been ready for just about anything. But not this.
“Lou,” I said, “you changed my life in ways you cannot imagine. Can I have your autograph?”
It was among the most unprofessional acts of a trade I would be a part of for the next 40 years. I was a fan, not a reporter. And I would do it again.