With the Cubs opening the season in St. Louis and Milwaukee, I couldn’t help but think about old Busch Stadium and Milwaukee County Stadium.
I say that because there’s just something about the older cathedrals. That’s why all the work being done on Wrigley Field is magnificent; there’s something grand about modernizing the structure while keeping its charm alive.
Now in the case of old Busch Stadium, charm isn’t the first word I’d use to describe it. In reality, the ballpark had more than its share of great moments. While it wasn’t a St. Louis original – in fact, it was one of the multipurpose late 1960s cookie cutters – it still created a lot of memories for me. Unfortunately, most of them were bad.
When I think of old Busch Stadium, I think of a lot of last at-bat losses … and a lot of Cardinals little ball with bunts and repeated successful hit-and-run at-bats where they would nickel-and-dime you to death … and Mark McGwire hitting home run No. 62 in 1998 to surpass Roger Maris’ single-season record .
But I also think of playing in a ballpark smack dab in the middle of downtown … and staying in a hotel directly across the street from the ballpark … and seeing my brother, who went to St. Louis for med school and never left … and the Missouri Bar and Grille, a famous baseball hangout just blocks away from that area.
Thanks to the hotel-to-ballpark proximity, it was at the Marriott that the following humorous event took place.
Harry Caray – and this was probably the only time I ever saw him going to the ballpark early on the road – stopped me before I left for the stadium and said that his driver knew a shortcut. He told me to hop in the car with them. Remember, you could see the ballpark from the hotel’s side entrance; it was directly across the street. I knew this ride could be interesting.
I repeat this again – the hotel was directly across the street. Imagine the corner of Clark and Addison, looking across at the Cubby Bear. It was that close.
I got in the car with Harry on the hotel’s curb side. The driver looked around, backed up around 100 feet, then pulled forward to the other side of the road and let us out. That was the shortcut. We were in the car less than a minute.
Anyway … old Busch Stadium was where I had one of my great fandom days.
September 23, 1984. I was in my sophomore year at Missouri, and the Cubs were closing in on the National League East Division title – their first foray into the postseason since 1945. A group of us made the 125-mile pilgrimage from Columbia to St. Louis for a Sunday afternoon Cubs/Cardinals doubleheader. I don’t have to go into great detail, but it was one of those days that had special meaning. In Game 1, Steve Trout went the distance in an 8-1 win. In Game 2, Dennis Eckersley pitched the Cubs to a 4-2 victory. The Cubs left St. Louis with a magic number of 1 – and Rick Sutcliffe memorably closed it out the next night in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Stadium was where I had my first beer at a baseball game. So of course it’s one of my favorite baseball venues.
It was the summer of 1983. It was only a few weeks after I graduated high school. Using basic math, that meant I was 17.
Three of us drove up to Milwaukee for the weekend – as my friend wanted to show off Marquette University, where he would be going to school.
We took in a ballgame at County Stadium, and on my pregame trip to the concession stand, I placed a food order. The guy taking my order then asked, “Do you want a Miller with that?”
I thought he was joking. I played along and said yes. And then he filled up a large cup for me.
Needless to say, warm night/cold beer was a nice combination. I’m still waiting to be ID’d.
For the most part, the Cubs played well during my work trips to County Stadium – notwithstanding the famous Ron Santo “Oh nooooooo!” when Brant Brown misplayed a fly ball in 1998. It wasn’t the torture chamber that old Busch Stadium seemed to be.
County Stadium had an old-time feel to it, even though it was built in the 1950s. There was something about pulling up and seeing all the tailgaters … and the smell of the brats on the grill … and the Secret Sauce – so secret that the ingredients are listed on the bottle … and the first iteration of Chicago Cubs North fans in the crowd. Even back in the day, it was like being home away from home.
The new Busch Stadium is a really nice facility. Miller Park really grew on me. Both locations are just steps away from the old facilities. But in the memory bank, it’s hard to replace the parks that guys like Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith called home.