Of Parents, On A Cold Winter Day

Jan 9, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Very early on in my autobiography “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” I brought up the musty old adage about the fact you “can’t pick your parents.” That truism is a key part of the entire book, as is the line I used more than once that stated I am “the luckiest kid in the world” to have been born to Del and Taffy Wilber. I didn’t pick them. It just happened. It’s science, it’s random, and DNA is involved. I’ve heard people also claim that “you can’t pick your neighbors” but I don’t think that’s 100% true. If you’re super-wealthy enough, you can buy up all the property around you and not have any pesky neighbors, but of course we’re talking about Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates super-wealthy. Hence my claim that the neighbors adage is not 100% true. It’s also good fortune that we’ve had so many great neighbors over the years. We didn’t pick them. They already lived there!

Today is my late mother’s birthday. She would’ve been 95 today. All things considered, especially in terms of the dastardly Alzheimer’s that claimed her, it’s probably a good thing she is resting in peace and has been for nearly a decade. She was an amazing woman who blazed trails well before other women were busting many of the same barriers. She was an incredible lady, who somehow balanced her career with the need to responsibly raise five kids while she put us through the best schools, and kept us safe. Plus, her husband was a baseball man, often gone for as many as nine months in a year. I still can’t believe how lucky I was.

This obituary ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch very soon after her death. It’s worth reading, just to get a better idea about the woman who not only raised me, but also instilled so many of her best traits in me. I wouldn’t be writing my second book, nor would I be writing this blog, had I not been born with her innate communications skills hard-wired into my brain. I miss her every day.

https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/obituaries/taffy-wilber-dies-wife-of-cardinals-player-ran-public-relatons/article_64b2d8b6-7b86-5b2f-b950-9d77a074d12a.html

Over the last few months, I’ve been on a roll collecting some stuff that I knew would end up on this blog at some point. I just didn’t know when. I guess I figured it would be some rainy day when I needed material. Since we don’t have too many rainy days during the Minnesota winter, today’s overcast sky and cold January air just somehow seemed right. It’s kind of a sad day out there. And then I realized it’s her birthday. Weird how that works.

They look like kids. San Antonio? (Click on any image to enlarge)

This first photo is a favorite but it’s one I have rarely ever posted. My parents are so young here, so I’m guessing it’s the mid-1940s. Not long after they met at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio during WWII, where she was Miss Air Force -San Antonio and Big Del was a the stud catcher on the baseball team, providing entertainment for the troops.

I’ve repeated the stories I’ve heard many times, because I obviously wasn’t born yet and all I’ve ever had to go on was what Mom and Dad told us. One of the stories had to do with when they were dating. My mom loved to dance. My dad, not so much. So, when other men asked her out to go dancing, my dad would hang around with my mom’s parents, ingratiating himself with her dad. Taffy’s dad was a brilliant man, who walked into a high school for the first time as the principal of the place, and he had the charming full name of Posey Archibald Bennett. Somehow, the baseball player impressed the academic man enough to get him on his side in the chase for Edna Mae, who at the time was still more commonly known as Eddie, rather than Taffy. Big Del won the sweepstakes. My four siblings and I won the entire jackpot, because of that good fortune.

Mom was a Texas girl, through and through. Born in Del Rio, her folks moved when she was young and called San Antonio home for as long as I ever knew them. Taffy attended the University of Texas in Austin for a while. I was lucky enough to take her there when she and my sister Cindy game to Austin to spend some time with Barbara and me, when we lived there. Alzheimer’s was still a long way off, because Taffy directed me right to the house she lived in. It was still there, and she knew right where to go.

After the war, Dad’s baseball career was restarted and he was called up to the big leagues with the Cardinals. Imagine that, in terms of the culture shock for my mom. Off to Missouri, off to a crazy life in baseball where your husband only “went to work” (like most husbands) during home stands, although the hours were long. The rest of the time, he got on a train with his teammates and left for weeks. Between 1945 and 1956, all five of us were born. First Del Jr., then Rick, followed by Cindy and Mary, and then little old sickly me. I needed a lot of attention when I was very young, and despite the fact Taffy was blazing her trail in radio, baseball, and public relations she never missed a beat nursing me back to health every time my asthma and/or allergies flattened me. She doted on me. She took me to more doctors and specialists than I care to recall. And whenever I was feeling better, she took me to Steak ‘n Shake. Those steak burgers still have a very special place in my heart and on my tastebuds. They were the indicator that I was going to be OK. Once again, she had gotten me through it and I was going to be OK.

She had her own show on KMOX radio in St. Louis. That’s no small feat. KMOX was then and remains now a powerful 50,000 watt AM beacon across most of the country. She later went to work for the Cardinals in their front office, creating new promotions for women and children as one of a handful of females who held any job other than secretary. And I got to sit in the 9th row behind home plate every night the team was home. What a childhood, to not just root for Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Mike Shannon, Dal Maxvill, Tim McCarver, and all the other Cardinals including my personal fave Orlando Cepeda, but to know them as well. And of course, there were all of my dad’s former teammates from his time as a player. Stan Musial attended multiple Wilber weddings. Marty Marion and his wonderful family welcomed us to their home regularly. That’s where I saw color TV for the first time. Jack Buck? Sure. Red Schoendienst? Absolutely. Ted Williams? My dad’s best friend from his time with Boston. These were our family friends, but so much of it happened when my dad was away. Being a baseball manager or scout is like that. You don’t work Monday through Friday and you sure as heck don’t work 9-to-5. Mom was the glue that held us together.

The new manager and his lovely wife.

Later, when Dad was coaching in the Major Leagues or managing in the minors, I’d get to spend much of each summer with him. The word “magical” doesn’t come close to describing those endless summer days, roaming the outfield during batting practice or plying my trade as an official batboy each night. This photo is a new one I recently discovered online. My dad had just been named the manager of the Denver Bears, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Senators. He and Taffy were in Denver for a banquet. I love this photo because it’s a rare one in which they are both getting older (we’re talking 1971 here) but both are still so elegant and stylish. Look at that outfit my mom is wearing!

I don’t think the lifestyle was easy for either one of them. The travel for my dad was backbreaking, whether it was the trains in 40s, 50s, and early 60s or the planes that followed. He was so rarely home when he was scouting, just a day here or there to do laundry before he’d head back out, and during his managing years he’d be leaving in late February and wouldn’t be home again until mid-September at the earliest. Somehow, they pulled it off. You can’t do that without a super-strong woman at the helm.

And so damn smart. I had no idea what a great writer she was until I was in high school, when she showed me some of the manuscripts she’d written over the years. I was blown away. She went on to produce local TV shows, and work with senior citizens. Her PR agency, Taffy Wilber and Associates, was groundbreaking. And yet she still managed to keep us all fed and alive, helping us with our homework and getting us to school.

And about my dad… He was the strongest man I ever knew, and don’t mean just in terms of being a 6-foot-3 former catcher. He could focus on anything and stay strong through the toughest times. He was a bear of a man in terms of stature, but he was a pussycat in terms of personality. My ratio of hugs to spankings was about 1,000 to 1. He loved to laugh, he loved to tell the same old jokes time after time, and by all accounts he was always a team favorite on whatever club he was playing for. He was, as they like to say in the clubhouse, “a great teammate” and that’s as fine a compliment as any ballplayer can receive. He wasn’t popular because he was the best player. He spent his nine years in the Majors as a career backup catcher. He was popular because he was a great teammate.

He bounced around a lot. That had to be hard on both of them. As kids, we were fortunate to be spared much of that. They bought a house in suburban Kirkwood after the Cardinals brought him up and our family stayed rooted there until we moved them to assisted living and sold the home I grew up in. Always in Kirkwood. I still love the place and go there every time I’m back in St. Louis. I’d live there again tomorrow, if I could.

Back in the minors in ’46

Dad’s career was always one bad day away from ending. He hung on as that great teammate and did whatever he could do to help the team. In ’46, the Cardinals brought him up after the he was discharged from the military but he only stuck with the big club for a few at-bats. They sent him back to Triple-A in Columbus, Ohio. These ups and downs were always foggy for me. I didn’t live through any of it and he never talked about it much. Mostly all we knew as his kids was the fact he spent nearly a decade in the bigs, with the Cardinals, Phillies, and Red Sox. I just found this photo online in the past few days. That’s him, third from the right in the back row, with Columbus.

I never saw him play. And, as a true matter of pure fact, I never knew what he was doing in the game when I was born (1956) until I figured it out in high school. For the record, in ’55 and ’56 he was the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox. I just never asked and always wondered why we had photos of him in a ChiSox uniform. His playing career had shot around three big league clubs and other trips back to the minors. The Cardinals even sent him to Houston one summer, to be player/manager of a lousy minor league club. It was a very long and very winding road.

He never made big money. Few players did back then. I think the most he ever made for one season was $9,600, or at least that’s what he told me. I believe it. That sounds about right, for the era. He worked winter jobs nearly every year when I was growing up. Most of his teammates did, as well. We weren’t rich. We weren’t even well off. We were squarely middle class, but our parents took pride in sending us to the best private schools, always making that tuition a priority when it came time to pay the bills. We bought our appliances at “scratch and dent” stores. Dad finished much of the basement himself, laying tile and putting up pegboard walls. Our biggest extravagances were dinners on The Hill in south St. Louis or long “road trip” vacations in the car, when Dad could double up by taking us along to Spring Training or on scouting excursions.

It was magical. I’m still the luckiest kid in the world.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Thank you for every single day, for all the times I was sick and you helped me through it, and for long nights at the dining room table when you walked me through algebra or whatever other studies were stumping me. And thank you for the genetics you handed down to your youngest. Your skills are apparent in every word I write. I hope I make you proud.

And as for you Big Guy, your birthday is coming up on February 24. I won’t forget. And I hope I make you proud, as well.

Thanks for reading, everyone. If you enjoyed it and even possibly liked these words, please don’t be afraid to click on the “Like” button at the top.

Bob Wilber, at your service and still incredibly lucky.

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