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The Pride of the North Side

By: William Saulsbery

I’m a child of the 80’s. What a decade to be born into St. Louis. Three pennants, a World Series title, an MVP award winner and three Rookie of the Year awards, not to mention quite a few Gold Gloves. It was the fourth and last decade of the twentieth century to see the Cardinals win at least three pennants, and the first of my life.
My father was a 1st Air Calvary Vietnam vet working as a mover in South City. My mother was the daughter of a fifteen year veteran of the St. Louis Fire Department and she had just started her first in a series of bindery jobs that she would keep until my mid twenties. I was the youngest of three children and the only boy. My parents split a couple of months after Dinkenger cost the Cards their tenth world series title and I moved to a speck on the map fittingly called Lonedell, MO. Being the only baseball fan in a house of all women that had no cable, I lost touch with my beloved Redbirds. I guess I didn’t miss much. After all, most of the 90’s were a wash for Cardinals baseball. I mean, who is Mike Jorgensen?
I was back in the city by the summer of 1997. We traded for McGwire, Lankford was in his prime and Larussa was in his second season at the helm. I fell in love with the Redbirds all over again. It was around this time that I first started hearing stories about how great the old ball park was. How much it was truly the home of the Cardinals, not that cookie cutter they called Busch Stadium. It was this mythical place where names like Musial, Dean, Hornsby, Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mays, Jackie Robinson and countless other greats had swung their bats and dug in their cleats. Could such a place really exist in my home town? It seemed almost impossible. How could such giants, such larger than life legends have performed for pennies in the city that gave birth to me?
I decided to find out for myself. I set out to find this haloed ground.What I found on my journey wasn’t so much glory, and history, but a sad section of my city that seems to have been long forgotten by most all St. Louisians that reside south of St. Louis University.
I visited the site of old Sportsman’s Park on Grand and Dodier in North St. Louis. In the 20’s and 30’s the stretch of Grand from St. Louis University to Sportsman’s Park was the epicenter of social life in St. Louis. The area surrounding the Fabulous Fox Theatre was known as Gaslight Square. Any St. Louisian could catch the afternoon game and then head just a few blocks south for dinner, a drink and a show. Now, that same stretch is littered with boarded up buildings, overgrown sidewalks and a sense of lifelessness that permeates through most of the north side. The neighborhood directly surrounding the city block that was Sportsman’s park and now is the home of Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club is unrecognizable from old pictures of Sportsman's Park. Its sidewalks are overgrown, its buildings rundown, and it doesn’t hold the beauty it did in those storied summers of St. Louis' past.
“It was really bad in the 80’s and 90’s for a minute. You really had to watch what you were wearing and where you went,” said Henry Sims III, a lifelong resident of North City. We spoke for a few minutes about North City and the condition of the neighborhood surrounding old Sportsman’s Park. “I hope people take the vacant buildings and make something out of them. I mean, you see these really nice buildings that people have renovated and they look real nice, then next door you see this vaco that other people just let go. You wish they would at least tear them down so we could have a nicer looking neighborhood.”
After driving just a few blocks through the neighborhood surrounding the grounds of the old ballpark and you can see Sims’ words ring true. The architecture is stunning. Single family homes, two and four family flats alike were designed and built with pride. Some of the homes are simply massive. They remind me of the houses I grew up wanting to live in as a little boy on streets in South City like Utah, Flora, and Longfellow. Some, as Sims stated, have been beautifully renovated and brought back to their original glory, but so many have been left to decay.
To gain a clearer understanding of the progression, or regression of the North Side, I spoke with Howard Haskins, a resident of neighborhood from 1963-1980.
HH: I lived on Sullivan and Glasgow, one block east of old Sportsman’s Park.
WS: What was the make-up of the neighborhood back then?
HH: It was a middle class German neighborhood.
WS: What was the racial make-up, was it predominately white or black?
HH: It was about 50-50 black and white.
WS: What kinds of things were going on in the neighborhood back then?
HH: There were two bakeries, butcher shops, a drive-in and the old Carburetor Company. Its sits right across Dodier from the Boys and Girls club now. It had a lot of jobs, but it went out of business in the 80’s or 90’s.
WS: What happened to the neighborhood after the Cards left?
HH: Well, after the Cardinals moved down town and the Carburetor Plant closed it went from a middle class neighborhood to a poor predominately black neighborhood. Then the crime wave started to come.
WS: Has anything been done to help out?
HH: The Boys and Girls Club was the best thing that happened to the neighborhood. Not so much in the way of jobs but for the youth.
WS: How so?
HH: The Boys and Girls Club was a safe haven for kids that wanted to do right. They had sports like, baseball, basketball, football, boxing, you name it. But not just sports, arts and crafts, band, stuff like that. I met a lot of celebrities there.
WS: Like who?
HH: Oh, I met Neil Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Henry Armstrong. You remember Henry Armstrong?
WS: No, who was he?
HH: He was the first boxer to hold a belt in three different weight classes, Hammering Hank Armstrong.
WS: When did you leave North City?
HH: My mom found a different place to live out in U City around 1980. The rest of the family moved there, but I joined the Army.

(Howard Haskins served in the United States Army for 10 years. He was active duty from 1980-1983 and was in the reserves until the close of the 1980’s. He is now a resident of University City.)

When driving through North City you can see for yourself what Sims and Haskins spoke about. The architecture is breathtaking at times. Blocks and blocks of beautifully designed and carefully built homes that have fallen victim to the ravages of time and neglect. With the exit of the Redbirds to downtown in 1966, the economic struggles of the inner city in the 70’s and 80’s, and the Carter Carburetor Company closing in the early 90’s, a lot of pride and tax revenue has left north city. The loss of the inner city manufacturing center on North Broadway and the river front undoubtedly had a huge part in the disintegration of the North Side as well, but I would be hard pressed not to believe that the major catalyst of the downward slide was the loss of the Cardinals and the destruction of Sportsman’s Park. One would also almost be forced to believe that if the square block starting at Grand and Dodier, heading down to Sullivan and back to Spring was still the home of the St. Louis Cardinals that the economic condition of the North Side would be decades ahead of where it is today.
The story of North City is not all doom and gloom. Just take a quick trip down St. Louis Avenue to Crown Candy and the development of the plaza that is currently under way. A retail and social center is being brought to North City again. No, it won’t have the pull or historical relevance that a major league baseball franchise would, but it will bring attention, visitors and most importantly, tax revenue to a struggling neighborhood.
The Busch family and the Cardinals have brought a lot to the city of St. Louis. They’ve provided us with seventeen pennants, ten World Series titles, and countless other grand summer memories, but they have also taken away one of baseball’s greatest ballparks and the biggest reason to come, visit, and live in North City.
What’s my wildest dream? To rebuild Sportsman’s Park brick by brick, steel pole by steel pole and put home plate back exactly where it was so a new generation of families can to walk to the neighborhood ballpark that’s right around the corner. They could park in their own driveway and not have to spend ten extra dollars to leave their car somewhere. A father can look at his son and say with pride, “Stan Musial beat Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the World Series here.” “Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played the Cardinals and the greatest right handed hitter of all time, Rogers Hornsby, in the 1926 World Series and lost right here in this ball park.” But, it’s all just a fantasy. After all, we’d need a team to play here to fill the ball park….huh…I wonder…are the Blue Jays for sale?
-Will Saulsbery
Will Saulsbery is a native St. Louisian and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia.
*References- Wikipedia.com

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