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May 20, 2014

RONN MOTT: Redbirds

I became a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan in 1946. The Redbirds had won the National League Pennant and would play the Boston Red Sox for the World Series Championship. Boston had the “Splendid Splinter,” Ted Williams (he hated that nickname), and a slugging first baseman by the name of Rudy York. The big money was on the team from Bean Town. I listened with my father to KMOX in St. Louis, enjoying that time with my dad and becoming a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals won the World Series that year. They had won their first one 20 years earlier in 1926.

So, during my growing-up years, I was a Cardinals fan. I still am today. St. Louis became the first Midwestern team to have 3 million fans in a year’s time. They have won more championships than any other team except the New York Yankees. And they had a reputation for being a scrappy, do what needs to be done baseball team that won more than they lost. My dad was a real fan of the “Gashouse Gang” which won some championships before I was born.

The list of Cardinals heroes is long and varied … Stan the Man, Marty Slats Marion, Bob Gibson, Enos “Country” Slaughter, and the list goes on and on.

This year’s Cardinals team is one of the youngest that has taken the field wearing the birds on the bat. There is some really great talent. And you have to think they have good leadership. So, the question is, why is last year’s National League champs in second place in the Central and not in first place? I think I know the answer.

The teams of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s, were baseball players who used their skills to escape the hard times of life and those skills would carry them to better times.

Until free agency came along and paychecks bigger than numbers you could spell, baseball teams were barely able to support a player for a year. And to make more money, they had to win pennants and, for even more money, win the World Series. Since they couldn’t break their contracts they made their extra money by winning. They would do almost anything to win.

With the big money contracts, you’re not liable to be hell-bent to make that slide, to put yourself in front of the baseball, to deliberately get hit to get yourself on first base, etc., etc. Times have changed and so has baseball. Instead of a wad of tobacco in someone’s jaw, it is now a wad of bubblegum. Nobody smokes, nobody cusses out the umpire and, in fact, profanity is frowned upon and can get a player thrown out of a game. Grandpa’s sport was tougher.

I’m not blaming today’s baseball players for being who they are. I’m just saying the fight in the dog is not nearly what it once was. It could be a better sport because of it, but I’m not sure. I see my favorite baseball team without the same fight the Gashouse Gang had, and pitchers are getting their elbows twisted and torn because they try to have four or five different pitches when some of the very greats — Walter Johnson, Cy Young and others — would have merely two, a fast ball and some kind of a curve.

That spirit, that fight, isn’t what it once was. There isn’t much I can do about that, so I’ll try to remember Branch Rickey put the birds on the bat across the shirts of the Cardinal uniforms and hope some of that old Gashouse Gang enthusiasm is still there.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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