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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

This Veteran Sportswriter Has a Pure Baseball Heart

August 13, 2000|DAVE KINDRED | THE SPORTING NEWS

A very old sportswriter is 82 going on 15. Bob Broeg is one such boy. The man born before the end of World War I sits at dinner, his signature bow-tie askew, and before dessert he has spoken of Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey and Grover Cleveland Alexander, Eddie Gaedel, Frankie Frisch, Casey Stengel and "the three Cardinals with the most impact ever--Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby and Mark McGwire."

To hear Broeg talk about Memorial Day, 1928, is to believe the sun set on that glorious day an hour ago. Listen . . .

"The impact of the Golden Age heightens my memory of that day. Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic, Babe Ruth hit 60, St. Louis had the second-worst tornado in its history, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney had fought their 'long count fight.'

"It was Memorial Day, and with my uncle I rushed up the steps of the right field pavilion at Sportsman's Park. I'd just turned 10 and qualified to get in free as a member of the Knothole Gang. I'm not a poet, but I believe I've never seen a bluer sky than the sky that day, nor greener grass, nor anything more beautiful than the creamy whites of the home uniforms.

"Knotholers often began chants, 'We want a homer . . . We want a homer,' directed at Jim Bottomley and Chick Hafey. That day, just to be silly, we chanted, 'We want Alex.' "

Though they knew the ancient warrior, Grover Cleveland Alexander, rarely pitched in relief, "still we chanted, 'We want Alex.' I looked it up years later, and he relieved only three times that season. But all of a sudden, in a lower wing of the grandstand, there with that small glove and the white ball shining, looking so big, he loosened up, throwing maybe five balls. Then he walked to the mound. We were so thrilled."

Beats there a heart more pure than that of a baseball fan thrilled? No. The beauty of Bob Broeg is, that pure heart beats still.

He first wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1936; from 1945 on, he worked for that newspaper as a baseball writer, sports editor and columnist. Even now, after heart surgery and a small stroke or two, 15 years into retirement, Broeg writes a Sunday column, wise and encyclopedic.

Robert William Patrick Broeg, the son of a St. Louis bread truck driver, was born on his family's kitchen table. The difficult birth was all but botched by a doctor who wielded "her forceps like ice tongs, grabbing me fore and aft, rather than left and right," Broeg wrote in his autobiography. "The doctor said if I lived, I'd be crazy. Now, that's a helluva sendoff, isn't it?"

The forceps scarred Broeg's left eye, rendering him damaged goods when it came time to play baseball. So he lived the game . . .

The Knotholer saw Ruth for 15 innings against the Browns in '28. As a journalist, he came to admire Rickey's organizational genius even as he distrusted the Mahatma's word. After Eddie Gaedel walked on four pitches in '51, the Browns' midget came to the press box where Broeg told him, "You're what we've all dreamed of being, an ex-major leaguer." In July of '46, each time Stan Musial came to bat, Dodger fans chanted, "Here comes the man," so Broeg's Post-Dispatch stories created the game's grandest nickname, Stan The Man.

And a Casey Stengel story . . .

"I was making $32.50 a week for The Associated Press in Boston in 1943 when Casey managed the Braves. Casey being Casey, he pronounced my name 'Brogue,' not 'Braig.' One night at dinner, he was feeling so low, I told him, 'Casey, someday you'll prove you're more than a clown. Someday your ship will come in.'

"Fast-forward to 1949, and I'm covering the Cardinals in the pennant race while the Yankees with Casey are in their own race. The Cardinals blew the pennant, and the Yankees won on the last day. I made the death trip home with the Cardinals on the train before returning to New York for the World Series.

"Now we're at Yankee Stadium and Jim Dawson, the big, domineering New York Times writer, pushes me to the front of the pack in Casey's office. Dawson says, 'Casey, this is Bob Broeg of St. Louis.' Casey looks up and says, 'No, it isn't, it's Bob Brogue of Boston, and my ship has come in.' "

Oddly, it's a surprise to Broeg--and no surprise--to hear St. Louis called a great baseball town.

"There was a time when the Cardinals were so successful that the fans, like Atlanta's today, became surfeited with victory. In the 21 seasons from '26 to '46, the Cardinals won nine pennants and six world championships. And during that time, the owner, Sam Breadon, once told me, 'I sure would like to move my ballclub to Detroit.'

"What has happened in St. Louis since, I'm in awe. The very thing that caused everyone to be spoiled in the '30s now works for the Cardinals--that tradition of excellence created by Branch Rickey and sustained by Sam Breadon. Tradition is a great link between the past and today."

Tradition needs storytellers. St. Louis has Bob Broeg. Lucky St. Louis.

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