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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Gateway to the West is also a window to baseball history

After completing a book tour, I was flying out on the 4:15, St. Louis to L.A. I purposely arrived in town at 7 a.m. I had hoped I could cram all the treasures the city had to offer before checking in at Lambert Field. Crossing the Mississippi from Illinois, I traveled the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. Informally know as Stan Span and named after the great Stan Musial, a lifetime .331 hitter from the St. Louis Cardinals, the bridge dumped me adjacent to the Gateway Arch.

The morning light from the east had barely surfaced but its rays reflected off the 630-foot stainless steel arch. Since I didn’t want to miss the pageantry of light and steel, I parked and then walked beneath the shadow of the arch and sat on the grassy river bank on the Mississippi. In 1965, some buddies and I jumped into the Mississippi from that very spot.

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The arch is a tribute to westward expansion that makes St. Louis the “Gateway to the West.” In the visitors center a life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson greets you as you enter a museum that displays memorabilia from Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.

Since I had visited the museum umpteen times, I drove to Camp Dubois, a Lewis and Clark camp on the farthest extremity of territorial United States. Sitting at the river’s edge, I imagined what it must have been like when on May 14, 1804, the captains pushed north then hung a left on the Missouri River.

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St. Louis is a baseball town and I hoped to return to La Cañada with some remarkable history to share with my buddy Joe Radabaugh, a member of our local school board. Joe is also president of the La Cañada Baseball and Softball Assn. We belong to group that shares vintage baseball photos and trivia.

Few cities resonate with as much baseball tradition as St. Louis. Bush Stadium, a beautifully designed structure located on the riverfront in the heart of downtown, houses the town’s beloved Cardinals. However, the game echoes in other parts of the city, particularly in a neighborhood called the Hill.

The Hill is an Italian enclave known for its traditional Italian cuisine and baseball heroes. I arrived too early for lunch. Regardless, I envisioned a large meatball sandwich from Gioia’s delicatessen.

A few blocks from Gioia’s, on a vacant lot on Elizabeth Avenue, two sons of Italian immigrants honed their baseball skills. One day, they would become baseball legends. One of them was Lawrence Berra, who later became known nationwide as Yogi, and the other was Joe Garagiola. They were still babies when the Cardinals won their first World Series in 1926. Both gone now, their names endure.

Berra and Garagiola grew up worshiping the Cardinals, but only Garagiola was signed by the team. He went on to play six seasons with the Cardinals and was a catcher on the 1946 team that beat the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. Although Berra was overlooked by the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns, he signed with the Yankees in 1943, won 10 World Series and three Most Valuable Player awards, played 19 seasons in all and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

The boys lived in modest, well-kept houses on opposite sides of Elizabeth Avenue. I stood in the middle of the street and imagined them playing ball. Eight decades ago, it was where Garagiola and Berra played from morning to night. All those decades later, it remains the same.

I returned to Gioia’s and had that meatball sandwich, but it didn’t hold a candle to Puglia’s circa 1960s Bronx.

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