Hold the phone, Tony! The St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers head back to St. Louis for the final games of the 2011 World Series. If you didn’t know it, they should hang a huge sign that says, “American’s Best Baseball City” from the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis. People in Chicago, New York or Boston may differ, but really, there’s no contest. The city of St. Louis and its surrounding areas have the deepest, most passionate, committed and adoring baseball fans in the country. There are of course other sports and cultural diversions, but baseball remains the number one draw. “In this market, baseball is a staple of life,” said former player, restaurateur and beloved longtime Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon.
Evolved from rounders, cricket and other ball games, baseball came west with the young nation’s settlers and soldiers in the mid Nineteenth Century. (It was even rumored that Abraham Lincoln played some sort of baseball on the White House lawn) For many, many years, St. Louis, Missouri represented both the southernmost and westernmost outpost for Major League Baseball. The American pastime; the number one sport from the late 1800’s until overtaken by the NFL in the 1980’s, went as far out as St. Louis – and stopped. Throughout the years there were some independent, minor league and Negro League teams, notably the Stars that made their homes in St. Louis, but for a majority of American baseball fans, St. Louis and the Cardinals meant the west.
Historically, the Cardinals were able to connect listeners in the Midwest/Southwest and Mountain West through the powerful KMOX radio station. The Cardinals were in the lifeblood of millions; and to this day many folks in Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and beyond are life long Cardinal fans. (Even the next-door Illinois legislature invited the Cardinals to display their 2006 World Series Trophy in Springfield, IL – much to the consternation of unsympathetic Chicago Cubs politicians)
Founded in 1764 and named after French King Louis the 9th (the Crusader King), St. Louis’ prominence took off when adventurers Lewis & Clark set forth from the city in 1804 on their momentous quest into the unknown. Sent by Thomas Jefferson to explore the recently purchased Louisiana Territory, and search for an inland route to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis & Clark’s exploits greatly enhanced what lay beyond the Mississippi River. In fact, St. Louis’ most famous site, the Gateway Arch is technically named the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, to honor Jefferson’s vision. Yet even a half century after Lewis & Clark, St. Louis was still the embarkation point where the ideas of “civilization” ended and the “western frontier began.” Located beneath the mighty arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion provides a glimpse of America moving westward.
The Cardinals baseball franchise has a pretty rich history too. Established in 1882 and named the St. Louis Brown Stockings, the name was changed to the St. Louis Browns, (not to be confused with the other St. Louis Browns who became the present day Baltimore Orioles) then to the Perfectos and finally in 1900 – the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s funny, the name is not about the bird, but according to legend, derived from a lady spectator commenting on the Perfectos uniforms which she claimed were “A lovely shade of cardinal.” The name stuck.
To see an example of the “real” St. Louis complete with bonafide baseball roots, visit an area called The Hill. An old working class Italian neighborhood with restaurants, bocce courts and scores of low brick attached houses, Cardinals signs and pennants flutter all over. Residents are proud that baseball great Yogi Berra grew up on Elizabeth Street, (renamed Hall of Fame Way) since the small street is where not only Berra, but player/sportscaster Joe Garagiola and legendary Cardinals sportscaster Jack Buck all were raised. (Berra’s house has a little angel holding a baseball bat figurine on the front lawn.) This neighborhood (not far from bucolic Missouri Botanical Gardens) gives a sense as the urban core of Cardinal fans. While in The Hill check out Lorenzo’s Trattoria and Volpi Saluminaria, two authentic old fashioned Italian eateries.
One charming element in St. Louis is how comfy and easy going the city is, even to its hometown heroes. For instance, Cardinal’s third baseman David Freese is occasionally spotted at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, an old fashioned ice cream parlor on Route 66. And at Pujols Grill, owned by slugger Albert Pujols and his wife, Dede, customers can come up to the gracious couple and chat without a problem. You can catch other Cardinal players and coaches dining at other local sports haunts like Mike Shannon’s or snazzy, elegant Tony’s. Big city – small town St. Louis may indeed be baseball heaven, and win or lose, baseball fans will definitely be having fun.
c. Bob Ecker 2011