The perfect birthday gift in the perfect summer of 1968

First published as a column in the Jacksonville Daily News in August of 1997.


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He was just about to turn nine. This, in and of itself, was no epic event. There would be bigger birthdays. And there were more important events going on in the world. But in the days before his birthday — August 12, or roughly the time of year when summer was about to give way to a new school year, all that was on the boy’s mind was baseball.

There simply wasn’t anything else, at least not in that perfect summer.

For one, the time had come for other kinds in town to let him join their all-day baseball games — triple-headers played on a lopsided patch of grass and weeds where a tree stripped naked of its leaves marked the pitcher’s mound and the bases were actually wooden pop crates. In the background, tobacco farmers stopped to watch the boys play in the sun and offered a little advice on hitting and pitching.

When he wasn’t on the field swapping pitches with kids nearly old enough to be in high school, he was focused on the St. Louis Cardinals. He called them “his Cardinals” — the best team there was in the summer of 1968 when Bob Gibson was nearly flawless on the mound and nobody could run the bases like Lou Brock or roam the outfield like Curt Flood. His Cardinals.

The boy’s parents understood his obsession.Still both were worried.They wondered more than once how a head so tiny could support such a large pair of eyeglasses, monstrosities packed with lenses thick enough to provide bullet-proof protection for the president. They wondered how safe their son was out there trying to catch a hard ball.

So they tried to indulge his harmless interest in the Cardinals. In the summer of 1968 the family went to Atlanta to see one game. Perched a few rows behind the Cardinals dugout, the boy watched Gibson, his hero, beat the Braves 1-0 in game so short it almost seemed as it didn’t really happen at all. Hours after it was over the boy couldn’t believe he hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.

He was back home almost before he knew it — just in time for his birthday. When his father returned from the post office, he had a tiny box wrapped in brown paper among the letters, bills and magazines.

“This belongs to you,” his dad said. “Your mama sent this out to St. Louis a few weeks ago.”

Inside he found a baseball and a whole lot more.Gibson’s name was on it. So was Flood’s. He looked for Brock and found it, almost inside the Spaulding logo, where he had marked through one failed autograph attempt and signed another. The names were nearly all there — his Cardinals. His mama mailed the ball to St. Louis, the players and manager signed it and the team mailed it back.

That perfect summer came to an end, as all summers do. The daylong games went away with the school year. In the lightly chilled fall air, those same Cardinals broke the boy’s heart. They lost the World Series to the Detroit Tigers.

He would love the Cardinals again but never in quite the same way. Athletes changed, too — at least in the business of autographs. And the joy of the daily contests against the older kids faded when the boy tried to play Little League the next year and realized the older kids had protected him all along. In his first and only practice he could barely see a single ball hit in the field.

As the boy grew older he realized there would probably never be another perfect summer like the one in 1968. But he would always have that autographed ball.

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