Bob Wilber is the youngest of Del and Taffy Wilber's five children. After spending seven years in professional baseball, as a player, coach, and scout, he began a sports marketing and management career that now spans more than 25 years.
A little more than a week ago, I sat here in my home office (successfully putting off the “real work” I must do as the Team Manager for a professional drag racing organization) and my goal was to cover all four summers from my high school years. That was the goal, but after writing about the first two summers in Denver it became clear there was just far too much material to cover in one blog, so the Spokane summers (1973 and 1974) would have to wait for their own dedicated installment. And, I do believe, they deserve such recognition.
The last two Bob On Baseball blogs have focused on specific eras in my life, starting with the childhood years playing made-up games of something akin to baseball up at Fred’s Field, followed by one incredible summer spent roaming the outfield at RFK Stadium, when our dad was the bullpen coach for the Washington Senators. The Fred’s Field years were formative, and they now hold that place in my memory where times were simpler, stress was non-existent, and the most important part of every year was the period that began on the afternoon of the last day of school, and then sadly ended three months later when the big yellow bus pulled to the curb and we headed back to prison (otherwise known as grade school). As stated in the previous blog, the year in Washington was a revelation, and something totally new and different for me, and it was also the first time I really understood just how lucky I was to be born a Wilber.
My previous “Bob On Baseball” installment took us through those incredibly developmental childhood years, where my friends and I did something many kids today have no concept of, nor the social skills and experience to possibly make happen. We simply went outside and played. All day. Those summers at Fred’s Field were idyllic in many ways, and they almost seem surreal as part of a Norman Rockwell alternate reality now, but they also represented a “slow growth” period for me as a kid and a baseball player. When you’re making up the rules, playing with three other guys, using “imaginary men on base” and throwing lob balls because there wasn’t a catcher, you don’t exactly race through physical or performance changes. Throughout the Fred’s Field era, I entered as a kid and left as one, still small and scrawny but finally able to hit a tossed baseball far enough to end our time there.
And then 1970 rolled around. I was about to embark on five of the most remarkable summers any kid could experience.
Dad (or Big Del, or Skip, or whatever appellation we’d use at the time) had spent the previous 10 years scouting for the Minnesota Twins, but he also managed their Florida Instructional League team in the fall so I did get a few days on the field each year. Still, I was the same kid who ran around Fred’s Field at the time, so those days were much more about being a batboy and soaking up some Florida sunshine than anything else. In 1970, as I “graduated” from grade school, things were different and I was growing up fast.
To quote the great Bill Cosby, “I started out as a child.” For me, as a baseball player, there were seminal moments during that childhood (and right up into my teens) that had a far greater impact on defining the sort of player I was at the time, and the player I would one day be, than I could have imagined then. Only with the perfectly sharp 20/20 vision of hindsight was I later able to appreciate those places, the moments and impressions that happened there, and the stages that had to be experienced to add up to the eventual whole.
The mission of the next three installments of the “Bob On Baseball” blog will revolve around three of those moments or places in time, beginning with the formative years of baseball in the neighborhood, followed by consecutive incredible summers spent roaming the outfield grass at RFK Stadium and then Mile High Stadium, living every kid’s dream of having nothing better to do with my afternoons than to hang around a bunch of pro ballplayers, shagging fly balls and building up arm strength.
Let’s begin with Step One, which covered a slew of my younger years, right up until one fateful and unavoidable moment closed the book on this phase.
I not only started out as a child, but my baseball life started out at Fred’s Field. In my youth, organized baseball in the St. Louis suburbs was dominated by school ball in the spring, and having been the product of a parochial school I played my first organized ball (if you could call it that) playing for Mary Queen of Peace grade school, in the CYC league. Those seasons seemed to last forever, at the time, but they couldn’t have featured much more than a dozen games a year, so kids like me had to find other ways to quench our thirst for the game, and we did it by improvising.
Hanging on the wall, here in my home office, are two baseball bats. One is somewhat famous, the other nearly anonymous. As you can see, they straddle a framed copy of Baseball Magazine, from 1953, and the catcher in the cover photo is my father.
His bat hangs to the left, but it’s not just any Louisville Slugger and it’s not just any Del Wilber autographed model. This very bat is the one he used on August 27, 1951 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, while playing against the Cincinnati Reds. On that very night, Big Del achieved something so outstanding we have named this charity in reference to his accomplishment. He came to bat three times, took three swings, and hit three solo home runs, accounting for all of the scoring in the Phillies’ 3-0 win over the Reds. It’s a special bat.
Big Del had his Louisville Slugger designed to fit his needs, and since the bat was specifically cut and weighted to his exact preference, Hillerich & Bradsby designated it as the W15 model.
The bat on the right is one of mine, and one of only two Bob Wilber autographed bats left on the planet. It’s a U1 model, originally designed for some other player, but at some point in my young career I picked one up and liked the feel of it. I therefore, for better or for worse, stuck with the U1 until my fleeting minor league career was over. I blame the U1.
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