14: A Baseball for Dad

14: A Baseball for Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

A Baseball for Dad

Many hot summers ago, when I was in elementary school in California, I fell in love with an idea, a game, a dream. I fell madly in love with baseball.

I soaked in baseball. I threw, hit, ran, read, felt baseball. I would throw without a ball, hit home runs in my head, be a hero, be a bum. I loved it all.

For a while, baseball was bigger than even my dad. I saw that he had a hero. How could my hero have a hero?

My dad’s hero was Stan the Man. Stan Musial from Donora, Pennsylvania, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, St. Louis was the closest major-league team to Los Angeles. All major-league players were heroes in my eyes, but Dad told me that Stan was the greatest of his time.

There were others who could hit the ball harder, run faster, field better or even put on a better show than Stan the Man. But Dad said that Stan was special.

God had given Stan the tools and he used them well. But that was only a small portion of what made him great. He was all the things that my father valued. He was the embodiment of all that life stood for.

I wanted to be like Dad and I felt that Dad wanted to be like Stan Musial. I knew I couldn’t go wrong trying to fit into those shoes.

This particular summer was special because my dad and I were going to the place where my father grew up—St. Louis. Just the two of us. It was hot and humid in what seemed like a foreign land where the people were pale and talked slightly off English.

In California, everything was new. In St. Louis, everything was old. Only the people were young.

Our mission was to meet Stan the Man. I almost didn’t believe it. There was a part of me that didn’t really think that these idols were real people. To me, they only came to life as legend, like Paul Bunyan or Robin Hood. But the closer I came to the meeting, the more obvious it was that Mr. Musial was a real man. Newspapers said so, all my relatives said so, and most important, Dad reassured me.

Through some good fortune, I got a ball autographed by Musial. An injured rookie was at the hospital where my grandmother worked. She told him my story and he got Stan’s autograph on the ball. The ball was living proof that Stan was for real.

That night, the Cardinals were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and we went. I held onto my ball so tightly that I elicited an inquiry from the guy next to me.

“New ball?” he asked.

“Yep, with an autograph,” I teased him.

“Who?” he prodded.

“The Man,” I bragged.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Here,” I handed him the ball.

“Wow! I’ll give you $20 for it right now!” Twenty dollars to a ten-year-old boy in 1955 was a pot of gold.

“Nope, let me have it back,” I demanded.

“You’ve got a dream in the form of a baseball,” he said. “Take good care of it!”

I shoved it deep into my pocket and resolved that the ball was the most important thing in my life.

The next day was the big day. We would be meeting the Man. As Dad and I walked up the walk to the door, I was in a state of shock. “He’ll be here,” Dad said, knocking.

Sure enough, the door swung open, and there stood Stan the Man in his robe and slippers. My dad introduced himself then me to Stan, and explained that the ball he had signed earlier was for me.

He was just as I had imagined him: sincere, kind, strong. He looked at me in a way that only a few adults look at kids, and we knew that we had a common bond—baseball.

He inquired about my baseball playing. I bragged. Next to Stan, I felt that it was necessary. I thought that I was some great baseball player. He understood.

Getting back to Los Angeles couldn’t happen fast enough. When I told everyone about my experience in St. Louis with Stan Musial, nobody believed me. Such a reality didn’t exist, my friends insisted. I knew that it had happened, though, and that the ball, the meeting, the feeling would always be mine. The older I became, the less I revealed my treasure.

The seasons paraded by. Teams won, players got traded. There were retirements, rookies, home runs, other kids and other idols. My father died. As in life, he wished to carry on in death. His last request was that in his casket there be a deck of cards, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and, most important, a baseball. He knew that, wherever he was going, he ought not be ill equipped.

On the day he was buried, the whiskey and the cards were ready. The last item was a baseball. I decided it should be my twenty-year-old autographed treasure.

Since my father had been responsible for me meeting Stan Musial, I felt it most appropriate that it should be with my dad. I would miss it, but it belonged with him. Some people thought that it was a sacrifice. I did my best to assure them that it was not. The ball was where it belonged.

Spring trainings, long hot Julys and thousands of extra innings later, my sister, Kathie, asked me to stand in for Dad at her wedding. I was flattered. I was honored to give my sister away, to stand in the shoes of my dad.

On the eve of my sister’s big day, we went to an elegant French restaurant for the rehearsal dinner. As the evening went on, the impact of the occasion seemed to build to an emotional crescendo. The speeches were many. I became aware that something special was happening.

My sister is an airline stewardess and had flown with the Los Angeles Dodgers for part of the 1984 season. After dinner, she thanked my younger brother for his participation in her wedding by giving him a baseball autographed by all of the Dodgers and dedicated to him by Tommy Lasorda.

I was next for a gift.

She told all of us about flying with Lasorda, about how, on the way to spring training, she had told him the story of my Stan Musial baseball.

She said she’d had a difficult time completing the story, stopping again and again to recapture her composure. She said she had been amazed to learn that Tommy Lasorda knew exactly what she meant.

“I’ll get that baseball back for you,” he told her.

Later during the flight, Lasorda told my sister that he, too, had had a magical relationship with his father, and that when his father had been laid to rest, a baseball accompanied him.

Lasorda told my sister that his life in baseball, his success in baseball and his love of baseball, had all come from his father.

Being a friend of Stan Musial, Lasorda called and told him the story of the baseball. Musial responded with a new autographed baseball and sent it to Lasorda. The ball was then mailed to my sister.

I looked up to see her holding the ball. “I got you another one,” she said, throwing it to me.

I was a child again, coming home. I heard the distant crack of bat on ball and the roar of a crowd. I heard that man sitting next to me in St. Louis in 1955. “New ball?” he asked.

“Yep, with an autograph,” I teased him.

“Who?” he prodded.

“The Man,” I bragged.

“No.”

“Yes.”

And then: “You’ve got a dream in the form of a baseball,” he said. “Take good care of it!”

And so I will.

~Patrick Thomson
Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul

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