My plan was simple, too. Rather than bother with major league baseball and all the egos and press credentials that would involve, I decided to write about baseball in its blue-collar form--softball. Better yet, "senior softball," a fast-growing, slow-pitch sport in which nearly 2 million baby boomers now take part. The largest nationwide league is Senior Softball USA, based in Sacramento. I phoned league officials to ask if there might be one standout team or player on whom I could hang a story, and Terry Hennessy, the league CEO, told me about a St. Louis squad whose best slugger had been homeless when they "drafted" him.
I made a few more calls, and soon I was talking to Len Suess, manager of U.S. Pallet--an outfit that, like countless American softball teams, bears the ungainly name of its corporate sponsor. Suess swore it was true. Meeden, a.k.a. Homeless John, had been living in a broken-down van and roaming St. Louis in rags when he began playing for U.S. Pallet 12 years ago.
Suess, a 64-year-old financial advisor, was fuzzy on some details, but he recalled that U.S. Pallet was short a man at the start of that season, and several players suggested Meeden, who had been spotted subbing now and then for another team on a nearby field. No one knew why Meeden was homeless, or why he bothered to play softball when his life was on the skids. And Suess didn't care. He approached Meeden about playing full time for U.S. Pallet, and Meeden agreed, and thus was launched an improbably superb softball career.
I asked Suess if Meeden was as good as all that.
"Buddy," Suess said, "he can play."
Despite his frail frame, notwithstanding his training diet of leftovers scrounged from dumpsters, Meeden hit for power, showed wild speed on the bases and played a gorgeous shortstop, Suess promised. People were still talking, he said, about the tournament three years ago when, over the course of several days, opponents simply could not get Meeden out at the plate--and in the field Meeden was even better, catching every ball in sight. He also caught the eye of another team. Chicago Classics manager Joe Yacono "recruited" Meeden on the spot, inviting him to divide his playing time between the Classics and U.S. Pallet. (This meant, essentially, that Meeden would travel with the Classics to bigger national tournaments in which U.S. Pallet didn't participate.) Soon, Meeden led the Classics to their first-ever title at the Senior Softball World Series in Iowa. Later the same year he helped them win the Senior Softball World Championship in Mobile, Ala.
"He's one of the most fantastic softball players in the nation," said Pat Herod, U.S. Pallet's 61-year-old right fielder. "Anybody who has seen him play, they know about him. Some guys have it, some guys don't. He has it."
Suess and the other players with whom I spoke didn't know where Meeden learned to play ball. It wasn't that they lacked curiosity--like good Midwesterners, they merely didn't want to pry. So Meeden's skills were as inexplicable as they were remarkable. But the real story, Suess said, was what Meeden had done off the field.
While making both his teams better, Meeden had also quietly bettered himself. Through softball he'd managed to restore his health, reclaim his dignity and make a fresh start. He'd found an apartment. He'd begun eating right. He might even have filed for assistance--though some teammates believe he's been collecting some form of government assistance for longer than he's been playing softball. Again, no one was quite sure. Only one thing was clear: "All of a sudden John started getting his act together," Suess said.
"Softball has given him a different feeling about himself," said Jim Welch, a retired 64-year-old salesman who plays second base for U.S. Pallet. "He's got a sparkle in his eyes. And that smile! He seems to be more at ease in the community and when we travel."
Just recently Meeden received an old jalopy as a gift from a teammate, but for years he had no transportation, so Welch would drive him to games. Welch didn't mind. It was a little out of his way, he said, but he was happy to do what he could for Meeden, as were most men on U.S. Pallet and the Classics.
Whenever Meeden goes on the road, for instance, his teammates gladly shell out for his airfare, lodging, food and tournament entrance fees. In fact, Yacono found a Chicago company willing to sponsor just Meeden. In addition, Meeden's teammates give him advice about nutrition, buy him shoes and warm clothes in the winter and sometimes help him with the complex government forms he must fill out. They help because Meeden's their teammate, and they like him, but also, it seems, Meeden's air of mystery has lent an aura to their games.