Mickey Mantle, The Kid From Spavinaw: You Could Have Done Better

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 2012

(We are all Newtown.This piece is dedicated to all those affected by recent events. My thoughts are with those families directly impacted including the children and their parents and the educators. For that could just have easily have been my kids or your kids, or that could have been us when we were in school. This is a story of parents and the hopes and dreams they hold for their children.)

The kid from Spavinaw

The kid from Spavinaw

Oh, but love is fleeting/ It’s sad but true

When your heart is beating/ You don’t want to hear the news

Life is just heaven in the sun

From small things mama/ Big things one day come

Bruce Springsteen

Field in Spavinaw, Oklahoma where Mickey Mantle's first boyhood home once stood

Field in Spavinaw, Oklahoma where Mickey Mantle‘s first boyhood home once stood

In August of 1995, baseball and New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle died after battling through first, a liver transplant, and then liver cancer. During the eulogy at his funeral, broadcaster Bob Costas spoke for many when he stated,  “I guess I’m here, not so much to speak for myself as to simply represent the millions of baseball-loving kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and for whom Mickey Mantle was baseball. And more than that, he was a presence in our lives — a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic. Maybe Mick was uncomfortable with it, not just because of his basic shyness, but because he was always too honest to regard himself as some kind of deity. But that was never really the point. In a very different time than today, the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, said every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns. ”

Robert Hilligoss at Mickey Mantle Field, Commerce, Oklahoma 2012

Robert Hilligoss at Mickey Mantle Field, Commerce, Oklahoma 2012

Just as I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s loving the St.Louis Cardinals and players like Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, my dad was one of those who grew up in the 50’s looking up at Mickey Mantle as a role model. So it was with great emotional impact and meaning when my dad I went on a road trip this year through Oklahoma and stopped in the towns Mantle was born in and raised in……but I’ll get to that later.

Mickey Mantle was born October 20, 1931 in the town of Spavinaw, Oklahoma to Mutt and Lovell Mantle. He was named in honor of Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, Mutt Mantle’s favorite player. Later in his life, Mantle expressed relief that his father had not known Cochrane’s true first name, as he would have hated to be named Gordon. The picture above is of the area in Spavinaw where the house Mantle first lived in used to be but is now just an empty field with a small house and garage in the neighboring lot. In 1935, the family moved to Commerce, Ok so Mutt could work in the zinc mines that used to populate the area in the northeast part of the state. Mutt Mantle lived a hard,difficult life as a miner and didn’t want his kids to follow in his footsteps and wanted his kids to have a better life, as most parents do. Father also had a deep love of baseball and chose to pass it on at an early age to his first-born.

Mutt and Mickey Mantle, Commerce, Oklahoma

Mutt and Mickey Mantle, Commerce, Oklahoma

Starting at the age of six, Mickey started practicing a swing that would take him to the heights of baseball stardom. According to his brother, Ray Mantle in the fine documentary, Mantle from HBO Sports, “Dad would get off work everyday at 3:45pm and it was Mickey’s job to be at home for practice by 4:00pm. He’d always be there as soon as dad got home. And it would be trouble, big trouble if he wasn’t there on time. They’d practice ’til you couldn’t see. Dad would pitch to Mickey right-handed, and then granddad would pitch to him left-handed. He was teaching him to switch hit. They would play for hours and hours. They were obsessed.”

Mickey Mantle boyhood home, Commerce, Oklahoma

Mickey Mantle boyhood home, Commerce, Oklahoma

A few months ago, after hitting some dead ends and after having to ask a Commerce police officer for directions, my dad and I visited the house Mantle lived in until he left for the lights of Broadway. There are no markers in town to notify tourists and the house is not any type of historical site and stands with heavy paint chips around it, but does have a well maintained yard. The house is as it was when the Mantles lived there along with a heavily rusted steel shed to the side that was used as the backstop during practice by father and son. You can still see dents on the side made from their batting practice sessions.

The Natural, Ryan Hilligoss stands in where the Mick stood, Commerce, Ok

The Natural, Ryan Hilligoss stands in where the Mick stood, Commerce, Ok

They made up games to make the batting practices more enjoyable. The house and shed are set in a way that a batted ball would either hit the house or go over it. In the picture below, you can see the location of the windows on the side of the house. A ball hit below the window was a single, above the windows was a double, on the roof was a triple and over the roof was a home run. Mantle often said, “I was the only kid in town who didn’t get in trouble for breaking a window.”


Baseball was a shared bond between the two. Brother Ray Mantle again, “The biggest thing in his life was when dad took him to St.Louis to see the Cardinals play. It was 300 miles to St.Louis and dad wouldn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour. Took us more than a day to get there. Mickey would say ‘Dad, I can run faster than you’re goin’ and dad would say ‘Okay get out.'” As far as Mutt was concerned, the endless practices at home were only the beginning for young Mickey, and he pushed his son to excel as the years passed. According to Mickey Mantle’s wife Merlyn, “Mutt was pretty hard on him. Mickey told me, ‘I could do really good in a ballgame and dad would never say you did well, all he would ever say was “You could do better.’ And that really made Mickey try even harder to please him.”

After graduating from Commerce High School in 1948 where he had starred in baseball, football and basketball, Mantle signed a minor league contract with the Yankees by scout Tom Greenwade who just happened to be driving through the country on Route 66 and stopped to watch a game in which Mantle hit three home runs. He was called up to the Yankees team in 1951 and started the season on a hitting tear. But later in the year he struggled and was sent to play in the minors again in Kansas City where he struggled even more. His dad came to see him one night and Mickey, in a moment of weariness and low confidence, said, “I might as well quit and give up the game.” According to Merlyn, “His dad said, ‘Is that all the guts you have? Then get your things together and we’ll go home. I’ll put you to work in the mines and you can do that the rest of your life like I’m doing.’ He wanted his dad to sympathize with him and he did not. Mickey replied, ‘Well dad I want to stay and make a try of it.’ To which his dad said ‘Then quit acting like a baby and get out there and play ball like I know you can.'” Mickey always relied on his father as a friend, mentor and confidant and took his father’s rough edged advice to heart. Mantle took to the field again, went on a hot batting  streak, and was called up in August of 1951 by the Yankees for good.

The Yankee Clipper and #7, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, 1951

The Yankee Clipper and #7, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, 1951

I have often been reminded of this during the past two summers as my wife and I have coached our son Graham’s youth baseball teams. As coaches, we have tried to instill in our players an understanding of baseball fundamentals and skills while also teaching them the value of teamwork and discipline. Before each practice and game we ask the players to listen to your coaches, to try your best and to have some fun. We have been fortunate to have a lot of good kids; not good players necessarily but good, decent kids who listened, tried to the best of their abilities, and developed their skills as the season progressed. But part of being a coach is identifying areas that need improvement, communicating with the player and then implementing a plan to enhance their skills. If they did something well, we would heap praise on them accordingly, but if they made a mistake, we would pull them aside later and ask what they were thinking and then let them how they could have done it better and then worked with them on it at the next practice.

However, some players and parents did not agree with this philosophy, and the parents would tell their children that they were fine and not to worry about making an error. Fearful of being critical or providing constructive feedback, some parents choose to massage their kid’s self-confidence instead of building character, responsibility and self-respect. Yes these are young children, but when does it end and when do the kids figure out that everything they do is not perfect and they might need to be responsible for their own actions instead of relying on mom and dad to fix it for them. Are these the same parents who demand to know why little Johnny or Susie got a C on their report instead of an A? These are called helicopter parents, ones who hover and swoop in at the slightest sign of distress to make it all better. Somehow, there has to be a middle ground between Mutt Mantle never telling Mickey that he did a good job and parents soothing their child’s fragile egos.

During his stellar 18 year career, Mantle piled up the results and awards. Mantle was noted for his hitting ability, both for average and for power. Mantle once said that he put everything into his swing including his teeth. He remains the last player to win the Major League Triple Crown in 1956, leading both leagues in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBI). He currently is 16th on the all time home run record list with 536. He received three American League (AL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards and played in twenty All-Star games. Mantle appeared in 12 World Series, winning 7 of them. He holds the records for most World Series home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123). Mantle is regarded by many to be the greatest switch hitter of all time, and one of the greatest players in baseball history. Mantle was inducted into theNational Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974  and was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. .

Mickey Mantle and Robert Kennedy, Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium, 1968

Mickey Mantle and Robert Kennedy, Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium, 1968

I’m Gonna Live Forever

Retired from baseball left Mantle to his own devices, many of them negative, as he struggled with alcohol abuse starting in his playing days and on through the 90s when he checked himself into rehab and started life anew. His drinking caused untold hardships on his wife and kids and his career. But part of his drinking was trying to run from what he thought was an inevitable early death given his family history. Mutt Mantle, the man who had taught Mickey so much about baseball and life and was his best friend, died in 1952 at the age of 39 of Hodgkins Lymphoma. His fraternal grandfather, the one who had helped him learn to switch hit, died when Mantle was 13 of Hodgkins. And he had two uncles who died early deaths of the same cause. Mantle thought it was just hereditary but what he didn’t know at the time was the disease was exacerbated by the zinc dust in the mines that all those men had worked in back in Oklahoma. Upon leaving rehab clean and sober, Mantle was often quoted as saying, “If I had known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”

In 1995, after receiving a liver transplant, necessitated by years of heavy drinking, Mantle decided to address his fans at a press conference. In doing so, he publicly acknowledged the costs of drinking, especially on his family and was willing to expose his faults and frailties to a public he often shunned earlier in life. He decide to take a stand and let people know that he could have done better, not in baseball, but in trying to live a good, decent life. With cameras and microphones rolling, Mantle gave a heartfelt, honest appraisal of what a hero really looks like, “I would like to say to all the kids out there, you talk about a role model: this is a role model. Don’t be like me. God gave me a body and an ability to play baseball and that’s what I wanted to do. And I blew it. I want to give something back, seems like all I ever done was take.” With his dad’s words of ‘you could have done better’ echoing in his mind, he acknowledged his dad was right and admitted it to himself and for all those to hear and take heed in their own lives and families. So, the kid born in the small town of Spavinaw and the kid raised in Commerce, and whose dad demanded an extremely high level of effort, perseverance and mastery, rose from total obscurity and the hard life in a dusty corner of Oklahoma to the highest level of skill and gave boys and girls around the country and world a hero to hold onto. From small things momma, big things one day come. (Below you can listen to The Highwaymen sing Billy Jo Shaver’s Live Forever)

In giving his eulogy at Mantle’s funeral, Bob Costas stated, “The emotional truths about childhood have a power that transcends objective fact. They stay with us through all the years, withstanding the ambivalence that so often accompanies the experience of adults. I just hope God has a place for him where he can run again. Where he can play practical jokes on his teammates and smile that boyish smile. Because God knows, no one’s perfect. And God knows there’s something special about heroes.”

Well, for me, the truth is this: the memories and emotions in childhood of playing baseball and softball with my brothers and father will stay with me through the years and are the same truths that I will pass on to my kids. Everyday all over the world, with the their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, some kids play sports, some play musical instruments, some go fishing or hiking, some work out in the garage messing around with tools, and so on and so on. As the friends and family we once knew leave over time, the memories and shared experiences are the things that stay with us as we go through life. As time passes, those are the things that sustain us and bring us good health  and make us feel young again,if only for a brief time.

The Hilligoss Boys: Robert Lee, Kevin Lee, Ryan Barr and Graham Ronald

The Boys(Hilligoss) of Summer: Robert Lee, Kevin Lee, Ryan Barr and Graham Ronald


Back in Commerce, the house and shed still stand even though they are a little weatherbeaten, the house paint is peeling and falling, and the shed is rusty and leaning to one side. But, they still stand nevertheless. They stand as a testament to the love and devotion and shared time and pleasure between a parent and a child. They stand as a testament to the power of love and to the hopes and dreams that we pass on to those that follow. They stand as a symbol of the hope for a better life, for a good life, for a decent life, for a meaningful life that parents pass to their kids. For those that chose not to have kids, or want to but can’t for various reasons, they stand as a testament to just wanting a better world for all of us to live in and pass on the goods things from their lives to those around them.

Someday that house and shed will fall away to time and nature and will be turned into soil and rust and blown down that ‘old dusty road.’ At some point in time, that house and shed will long be gone. And years from now, people may not know who Mickey Mantle was or what he meant for so many, but the power of the love forged, so long ago, between a little gap-toothed, blond-headed  boy and his dad playing catch in the yard will never fade away.

Now when all this steel and these stories/ Drift away to rust

And all our youth and beauty/ Has been given to the dust

When the game has been decided/ And we’re burning down the clock

And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots

When your best hopes and desires are scattered to the wind

And hard times come and hard times go

Hard times come and hard times go

Hard times come and hard times go

Yeah just to come again/ Bring on your wrecking ball

C’mon and take your best shot/ Let me see what you got

Bring on your Wrecking Ball


Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball

Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball

The Kid from Spavinaw Video, video of Costas interview with Mickey in 1995 and eulogy and more road trip pictures

Robert Hilligoss at Mantle Field, Commerce High School

Robert Hilligoss at Mantle Field, Commerce High School

Below you can hear an exquisite song by the fine songwriter and singer Tom Russell that gets to the heart of the matter of the relationship between father and son.

Store front window in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. The only visible indicator that mantle was born there

Store front window in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. The only visible indicator that mantle was born there

Mickey Mantle and Vic Dimaggio listen to Satchel Paige school them on throwing the stinky cheese

Mickey Mantle and Vic Dimaggio listen to Satchel Paige school them on throwing the stinky cheese

Jim Thorpe: The Greatest Athlete in The World

By Graham Ronald Hilligoss, age 8, and Ryan Hilligoss, December 15, 2012

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.  F.Scott Fitzgerald

Thorpe Wheaties

In today’s sports world, everyone has a job they specialize in. Sure Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders toyed with baseball and football for a few years, but they were anomalies. Currently if you are a St.Louis Cardinals fan and see Jason Motte coming to the mound, you know it’s the ninth inning and he is there to close out the game with his 100 MPH fastball.  If you are watching the Chicago Bears and Robbie Gould jogs onto the field, you know a field goal is on the line. The ageless Jim Thome, still in search of a new team for 2013, has spent the last 15 years serving as a designated hitter. But, no one tries to break away from their strengths and tries to expand their possibilities like many athletes from the past.

In 2000, ABC Sport’s Wide World of Sports picked the top athlete of the 20th Century and the winner might surprise you. If you stopped and thought about it for a minute, I am sure you could come up with a lot of players you would have picked like Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer in golf, Jackie Robinson or Pete Rose in baseball or Michael Jordan or Bill Russell in basketball. But you wouldn’t even be close to the final winner: Jim Thorpe, athlete extraordinaire and Native American(before it was cool). ABC picked Thorpe because of the depth and prowess of his abilities. During the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe won both the decathlon, 10 separate events, and the pentathlon, 5 events. In winning events ranging from the 1,500 meter race, broad jump, discuss, high jump and pole volt among many others, Thorpe blew away the competition in a manner that caused King Gustav V of Sweden to proclaim, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics, Stockholm, Sweden

Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics, Stockholm, Sweden

On May 22,1887, James Francis Thorpe was born in the Indian Territory near what is today, Prague, Oklahoma. Thorpe’s parents were both of mixed-race ancestry. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux. He was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as “path lit by great flash of lightning” or, more simply, “Bright Path”. As was the custom for Sac and Fox, he was named for something occurring around the time of his birth, in this case the light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Thorpe’s parents were both Roman Catholic, a faith which Thorpe observed throughout his adult life.

His schooling career included stays at the Sac and Fox boarding school near Stroud, Oklahoma, the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and Carlisle Institute and Indian School in Pennsylvania. According to Virginia Stanford, curator of the Jim Thorpe historical site in Yale, Ok, Thorpe did not like going to school and preferred to stay at home helping on the family farm and fishing and hunting with his family. During a visit there this year by Ryan and Robert Hilligoss, Ms. Standford said, “Jim would run away from school many times and walk the twenty miles back home and would often times beat his father, who had dropped him off, back to the house. Then they would repeat these steps time and time again.”

During his time at Carlisle, he was mentored by legendary coach Pop Warner who soon found that Thorpe excelled at any sport he attempted, especially football and track. During his career at Carlisle, Thorpe helped the team beat an Army team which included future president Dwight Eisenhower in 1912. In that game, Thorpe’s 92-yard touchdown was nullified by a teammate’s penalty, but on the next play Thorpe rushed for a 97-yard touchdown. Future President Dwight Eisenhower, who played against him that season, recalled of Thorpe in a 1961 speech:

“Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”


During the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe travelled to Sweden with his coach Pop Warner and participated in one of the greatest Olympic achievements ever. He won two grueling records, for the pentathlon and decathlon, while also participating in the high jump and long jump. In the pentathlon, he took first in four of the events and third in another.

– 200 Meter Race- 1st place- 22.9 seconds

-1,500 Meter Race- 1st place- 4 minutes, 44.8 seconds

Broad jump– 1st place- 23 feet

-Discus- 1st place- 116 feet

-Javelin- 3rd place- 153 feet

At the awards ceremony, the King of Sweden said to Thorpe, “You sir are the greatest athlete in the world.” To which Thorpe responded, “Thanks King.” Thorpe returned to the United State to much fanfare and acclaim, but six months later, he was stripped of his awards when it became known that he had played semi-pro baseball which disqualified him as an amateur athlete. Sadly, he had only earned about $50 dollars for those baseball games. In 1983, the International Olympic Committee returned copies of his medals to the family and his records were reinstated.

American Athlete Jim Thorpe Crouching

He first played professional football in 1913 as a member of the Indiana-based Pine Village Pros, a team that had a several-season winning streak against local teams during the 1910s. He then signed with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. They paid him $250 ($5,743 today) a game, a tremendous wage at the time. Before signing him, Canton was averaging 1,200 fans a game, but 8,000 showed up for his debut against the Massillon Tigers. The team won titles in 1916, 1917, and 1919. He reportedly ended the 1919 championship game by kicking a wind-assisted 95-yard punt from his team’s own 5-yard line, effectively putting the game out of reach. In 1920, the Bulldogs were one of 14 teams to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which would become the National Football League (NFL) two years later. Thorpe was nominally the APFA’s first president, but spent most of the year playing for Canton and a year later was replaced as president by Joseph Carr. He continued to play for Canton, coaching the team as well. Between 1921 and 1923, he helped organize and played for the LaRue, Ohio, (Marion County, Ohio) Oorang Indians, an all-Native American team. Although the team’s record was 3–6 in 1922, and 1–10 in 1923, he played well and was selected for the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s first All-NFL team in 1923, which would later be formally recognized by the NFL as the league’s official All-NFL team in 1931).Thorpe never played for an NFL championship team. He retired from professional football at age 41, having played 52 NFL games for six teams from 1920 to 1928.

Jim Thorpe as member of NY Giants, 1913

Jim Thorpe as member of NY Giants, 1913

In 1912, Thorpe signed a professional contract to play for the New York Giants under the tough manager John McGraw. McGraw never warmed up to Thorpe and only played him sporadically in the field over three years. After playing in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1916,he returned to the Giants in 1917 but was sold to the Cincinnati Reds early in the season.  In his career, he amassed 91 runs scored, 82 runs batted in and a .252 batting average over 289 games. He continued to play minor league baseball until 1922.


After his retirement from sports, Thorpe held many jobs including minor movie roles, lecturer, and assisting with youth athletics. In 1917, he purchased a home in Yale, Ok and lived there with his wife, Iva, who wanted to be close to her sister who lived next door. Thorpe had four children with Iva and four more with his second wife Freeda. Thorpe died on March 28th, 1953 in Lomita, California and was buried in Mauch Chunck, Pennsylvania, later renamed Jim Thorpe. According to Virgina Stanford, Thorpe’s wife was upset with the Oklahoma state government which was unwilling to erect and memorial to him and began searching for towns willing to offer her money for allowing her husband to be buried in their town. When she heard that the small Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were desperately seeking to attract business, she made a deal with officials which, according to Thorpe’s son Jack, was done by Patricia for monetary considerations.The towns bought Thorpe’s remains, erected a monument to him, merged, and renamed the newly united town in his honor Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania even though Thorpe had never been there. The monument site contains his tomb, two statues of him in athletic poses, and historical markers describing his life story.

If you would like to read more about Jim Thorpe, his life,  and his baseball career in a fun baseball car adventure, read Dan Gutman’s novel, Jim and Me. Gutman has written several books in a series involving young Stosh who has the ability to travel back in time when he touches a baseball card with his hands. Other books include Satch and Me, Ted and Me, Roberto and Me, Honus and Me, and Babe and Me among others. Graham says about the books, “They are great!!!. I enjoy all of them.”

Jim and Me, by Dan Gutman

Jim and Me, by Dan Gutman

Goodbye Albert: Arch Fans Bid The King Adieu(Apologies to John Updike)

By Ryan Hilligoss, March 2012


“It’s part of my responsibility(being the face of a franchise) to play the game the right way and be an example to the community and to kids who look up to me, just like when I was a little boy and looked up to big league players. I know how many kids out there want to be like Albert Pujols.” Pujols, Sports Illustrated March 2012

Musial statue

Picture this: 1955. St.Louis, Missouri. A hot, suffocating, August afternoon. A steaming, asphalt parking lot outside Sportsman’s Park. A family of 4 from Springfield, Il on their annual vacation trip to St. Louis for a river cruise on the once mighty Admiral and taking in a Cardinals game. A mother and father, hard-working people from central Illinois, and their 2 daughters aged 12 and 15. There are a lot of fans waiting to talk to the players after the game and seeking autographs. At long last, Stan Musial, the man most have been waiting for emerges from the clubhouse and starts to talk to the fans who have come from far and wide to see their hero play. After playing hard in the hot afternoon sun, the easy thing would have been for Stan to beg off, plead exhaustion from the heat and head home to his family. But, he didn’t take the easy way out, he never did. He makes his way around the crowd shaking hands, saying hello and taking time to talk with each and every one of the faithful who waited.

The family from Springfield patiently waits their turn and are elated when he finally makes his way to them. After signing autographs on the day’s scorecard and exchanging pleasantries about their vacation, Musial asks them what hotel they are staying in, and knowing it is several blocks away and it is a usual oppressive St. Louis day, the star offers them a ride in his car to the hotel to spare the girls a long, hot walk. The father, a proud and humble man, thanks the star but declines the offer stating the family will enjoy the fresh air. Stan waves goodbye and climbs into his shiny red car and exits the parking lot. That family was my mother Donna, aunt Glenda, and grandparents Hubert and Ivy Barr. My mother and aunt talk about that memory often, and the kindness and decency of Musial is what they remember after all these years and that is where they leave him in their mind’s eye.

Saturday Post Musial

And in my mind’s eye, I begin thinking of a new baseball season, a new team and the idea of heroes. My hopes begin to rise with spring training in full swing and a new season starting for the Cardinals April 4th against the re-designed Marlins in their newly christened stadium in Miami. The 2012 Cardinals will look a lot like last year’s team. The old workhorse Chris Carpenter will be back at it again, pitching and playing a hard game every time it’s his turn. Adam Wainwright will be a sight for sore eyes having missed last season due to Tommy John surgery. Last year’s WS MVP David Freese will be back at the hot corner. But for the first time in years, 1st base will be handled by someone other than Albert, as Lance Berkman takes over for the departed Pujols. The “King” has truly left the building.

At the time of this writing, it has been 150 days since the St. Louis Cardinals played and won one of the greatest single games of baseball ever played, Game 6 of the 2011 MLB World Series. It has been 149 days since the Cardinals won Game 7 and took home the World Series crown, the 11th in their long, storied history. But after the victory parade was over, the ticker tape was swept up and the joy faded away. It has been 108 days since Albert Pujols left his perch here in the town of the Birds on the Bat, and flew to sunny LA to join the Angels.

Hope springs eternal with the dawning of a new day that comes with spring training. And just like Lazarus of old, the dead and forgotten Cardinals of August 2011 rose from the dead and fought back to take the crown, fighting past the mighty Phillies, Brewers and Rangers.  This typifies the kind of organization they have always been and will continue to be. St. Louis isn’t a sparkling jewel of the nation. It’s a hard town filled with hard-working, hard hit people. But we fight it out, and we’ll be here tomorrow and the next day and the next, just like the Cardinals, and we will stand together as a testament of the faith we hold in each other. While Albert is soaking up the warm rays of sunny Anaheim, we’ll be here where the warmth comes from within.

The easy out would be to say that I knew he was going to leave. But the declaration would just be that: an easy out. And I would be trying to fool myself and others .Within days of the World Series victory, I spoke to Sam Madonia on Springfield radio and I declared, in childish foolishness and naïveté that I thought both Albert and Tony Larussa would both be back. How wrong could I be? I really thought Albert would stay and finish his career here as a player. And then once retired, he would be handed the keys to the organization by ownership and asked what he wanted to do whether it be manager, GM, scouting, etc. With his innate and brilliant knowledge of the sport and his incredible abilities, I imagined him being a player-manager at the end of his career just like Frank Robinson and then transitioning to full-time manager. Albert Pujols as a manager would have upheld the level of excellence of the organization and of his own career.

But that was just the wishful thinking of a naive and romantic kid at heart. A romantic who was an 8-year-old second grader at Irving Elementary School in Alton, IL when the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982. A victory that ended with Bruce Sutter jumping into the waiting arms of his catcher, Darrell Porter. The next day, our school held our own “victory parade” and each class got a moment of freedom during which we paraded through the historic surrounding neighborhood high above the Great River Road.

In my jumbled memory, I remember the day as being cold and rainy outside with wet leaves under our feet in the late fall. But we didn’t care how cold it was outside; we carried the warm glow of victory in our hearts and “romantic dreams in our heads.” We did not really understand what it all meant, if anything, but we had a sense that all was right and true in the world. We held onto innocence, but we also held an idea of the promise of having all the time in the world before us. But what we didn’t understand is something the modern American poet Bruce Springsteen wrote in his song The Promise:

When the promise is broken you go on living

But it steals something from down in your soul

Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference

Something in your heart goes cold

When you consider the following quote from Albert from a 2009 interview, it is an example of promises being broken and turning your heart cold. “Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course. People from other teams want to play in St. Louis, and they’re jealous that we’re in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 million or $4 more million a year? It’s not about the money. I already got my money. It’s about winning, and that’s it.” In the end, that is exactly what he left St. Louis for, a few more million dollars a year.

It’s about the winning? What other organization in MLB has had the success the Cardinals have had since 2000? 3 trips to the World Series including 2 victories. Postseason trips 8 of those 12 years including 4 losses in the championship series.

After signing with the Angels, Pujols was quoted as saying that it was about the commitment of the Angels and not about the money. Apparently, Albert didn’t care for the “rough” treatment he received from Cardinal management including Bill Dewitt who was somewhat hesitant to offer a 10 year deal to a 32-year-old player which would have hamstrung the organization for years. I am going to go out on a limb and say it was probably about the money.

I have heard countless fans and pundits and “experts” weigh in and say that modern sports is just a business and Pujols made a business decision. They say this is just the way it is now. But it doesn’t have to be to that way. Just ask Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Barry Larkin, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera or Chipper Jones. They all played for a single team their entire careers in the modern era. They all made conscious decisions to remain with the same team and the same fan base their entire careers. Sometimes, the call of home, the sound of peace and silence, is louder than the frantic din of the all mighty dollar.

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their signature song, Mrs. Robinson. The song, originally titled Mrs. Roosevelt as an ode to Eleanor Roosevelt, shot to #1 on the record charts and later won them a Grammy. An earlier version was released the prior year as part of the classic movie, The Graduate. In the song, Paul Simon wrote the lyrics:

Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away, hey hey hey

Apparently, Joe Dimaggio, who never suffered from a great sense of humor or irony, did not care for the lyrics or the song. Dimaggio told many friends, “Damn it, I didn’t go anywhere, I’m right here.” Paul Simon meant the lyrics as a tribute to the baseball legend and what he represented to so many. Simon later explained to Dimaggio himself at a restaurant that “the line was meant as a sincere tribute to his unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes.”

When Dimaggio passed away in 1999, Simon wrote the following in an obituary in the New York Times: “In the 50’s and 60’s, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life. It was said that he still grieved for his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, and sent fresh flowers to her grave every week. Yet as a man who married one of America’s most famous and famously neurotic women, he never spoke of her in public or in print. He understood the power of silence. ”


As a longtime St.Louis Cardinal fan, left bereft at the leaving of slugger Albert Pujols, I would like to revise Simon’s lyrics to fit the situation by writing, Where have you gone Albert Pujols/Our Cardinal nation turns its lonely eyes to you/What’s that you say Mr. Dewitt/King Albert has left and gone to LA? Hey hey hey…..

In August of 1977, after the passing of Elvis Presley, noted rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a great essay for the Village Voice in which he lamented the solitude that the singer lived in as well as the solitude of all music listeners who no longer could, or would, en masse follow any one singer or group. Where once millions of fans had followed Elvis’ music, Bangs imagines a world where everyone listens to their own favorite artists with little or no connection to other fans or other music styles. In one of the greatest, most prescient lines of popular, social criticism ever written, Bangs wrote, “But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So, I won’t bother saying goodbye to Elvis. I will say goodbye to you.”

The passion, the memories and the thrills started with my grandparents and were handled down to my parents and down to me and my two bothers, and now in turn, they are being passed down to our kids. What has been handed down from generation to generation is an appreciation for excellence and a high standard of character. So, as a life long, multi generational fan of the second most successful MLB organization, I can say that we Cardinal fans have stuck through the good times and bad times over the course of the club’s long and storied past. I can say that we appreciate Albert for what he did while he played here and for being a part of 2 World Series Champion teams and several other pennant contenders. But we also appreciate the efforts of all the players that helped win those games and championships. We appreciate players like the inimitable Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, and Willie McGee and countless others who come back time after time for opening day ceremonies, post season pre game festivities, and appearances in the broadcast booths. And they are treated as baseball royalty and as St. Louis royalty.

St.Louis royalty- Lou Brock, Red Schoendist, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter and Bob Gibson

They are treated as such not simply because they played and won games from our youth and our adulthood, but because they represent a link to the past, the collective past of them and us. A link to where we came from, where we are today and where we are going and all the miles in between. Through good times and bad, we’ve been here. Season in and season out, we have risen and fallen with the Cardinals. Just as the players carry a burning desire to win and play the game right, our hopes and desires are carried deep within and hold a special place in our heart. And we continue to stand ready, waiting for the next Lou or Ozzie or Stan or Yadi to come to the plate and bring home another championship.

We follow the fortunes and failures of the collective team, not of a single player. And so Albert, instead of saying goodbye to our former selves, the promises we made, and all the memories and hopes and desires we each carry every day. Instead of saying goodbye to all that is right and true about this town and this incredible baseball organization, we will say thanks for the memories, wish you well and say goodbye to you.

We are alive. We will be here and waiting for the start of a new season. We may grow older with each passing season and our hearts may run a little cold from time to time as our heroes let us down and as tragedies fall upon us and those we love. But, with each passing season, we will hold onto another of Springsteen’s lyrics from a different song, No Surrender:

Now young faces grow sad and old and hearts of fire grow cold

We swore blood brothers against the wind

Now I’m ready to grow young again.

And so with the dawning of a new season, we will watch and listen to the games. We will once again go to Busch Stadium and share the experience with our family and friends. We will pass on the legacy and the memories to our kids just like those before have done. We will root on for our beloved Cardinals just as we secretly root on for the kids within ourselves that we used to be. And we will be ready to grow young again, even for a brief time.

There’s a new day coming. Tomorrow there will be sunshine and all this darkness past

Ryan, Kevin and Graham Hilligoss. St.Louis, Mo 2008


Editor’s notes:

– In September 1960, long time Red Sox great Ted “The Splendid Splinter” Williams retired from baseball with a .334 batting average and the last to hit the baseball immortal .400. Shortly thereafter, author and critic John Updike, a life long Red Sox fan, wrote one of the greatest baseball essays ever in Hub Fans Bid The Kid Adieu. You can read his words here by clicking on the link below.


– I will leave the last word with one of Albert’s former teammates. Within weeks of Albert signing with the Angels, Skip Schumaker, who has always gladly done what has been asked of him including making the switch from outfield to second base, resigned with the Cardinals. In what I can only imagine as somewhat of a veiled rebuff against Albert, he was quoted by the St.Louis Dispatch as saying, “There’s always interest in the back of your mind about what else may be out there, but my agent knew where I wanted to be. This is where I’m comfortable. It’s pretty much a slam dunk for me. This is all I know. It was an easy call. Here, I know what I’m getting into. If you go to a new team, you don’t know. The majority of a really good team is coming back. These are good guys to play with. They’re good people. That’s something that’s very important within a long season.”)