And… WE’RE BACK!!!

May 25, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

It’s been almost three weeks since my last blog post. I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t forgetful, I wasn’t even on strike or instituting any kind of work stoppage. The work stoppage was forced by the website itself. It disappeared. Vanished. Crashed and burned. All of the above. We weren’t really sure, but whatever had befallen The Perfect Game Foundation website was bad. And what’s bad for TPGF is bad for the blog.

My brother Del is the diligent leader of this foundation. He’s done phenomenal charitable work with it, both in terms of the site and the actual outreach and assistance the foundation provides. I knew we were in trouble when he was stumped. Our former web guru, the magnificent and uber-talented Laura who got this thing created and online in the first place, had moved on to bigger and better things, so we were at a loss. A week went by with no improvement. And another week. And finally, thanks to a great deal of largesse and care, Laura gave us a hand. She wasn’t sure how bad it was, although she was sure it was some level of bad, and she couldn’t tell us how long it would take.

As you can see, she worked her magic. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude. As I am prone to say, “Technology is hard. Just like math and science, only harder.”

So we’re back as of yesterday afternoon. Laura and Del cautioned me to let it sit and operate for a bit, so that the site wouldn’t be “stressed” after recovering, and I waited for the “All Clear” before doing this. Hey, I get stressed too! I understand.

I just wanted to post this blog to finally include the story and some photos of the subject matter I had locked in place for what I thought would be the May 14 blog. I sat down then, tried to log in, and saw the same dire warning many of you have gotten when trying to visit here. So now I’m here, and we’re back, and I have the chance to tell this tale. It was pretty damn epic.

Holding a real piece of my father in my hands. (Click on any image to enlarge)

I’ll start with this photo, taken just a few minutes ago.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you likely know the story, but this blog will allow me to flesh it out quite a bit more because, well, it was a pretty great story! I’m holding my father’s St. Louis Cardinals jersey from 1946. He’d been in the armed forces for more than three years after having risen as far as the top of the minor leagues with the Cardinals, and once he was discharged after World War II he was called up to the big leagues. He and my mom, whom he met at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio where he was officially a Physical Education officer and she was Miss Air Force – San Antonio (although in my dad’s case he and Cardinal legend Enos Slaughter were there to lead and play for the Lackland baseball team and entertain the troops.) Technically, at the time, the base was known as San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center. After the war, they moved to St. Louis and bought a small but comfortable home on a quiet little street called Par Lane, in the suburb of Kirkwood. It was called Par Lane for a reason, since it was part of a large development of Cape Cod style brick homes built on the site of a former golf course. The Wilber family put down roots in Kirkwood. That’s why I was so fortunate to grow up there, although the family had outgrown the small house on Par Lane and, by the time I was born, they had purchased a cool mid-century modern split-level home just a few blocks away, on Woodleaf Court.

When Skip (as we all called him) arrived in the big leagues, the Cardinals issued him this custom made jersey as part of his uniform. His name is stitched on the bottom of the front, along with the number 46 to designate the year. I’ll just string a bunch of photos along the right here to illustrate it all. On the back was the number 23.

In the top photo, I’m holding the road version of the ’46 Cardinals’ uniform. All teams wore white at home and gray on the road.

The name of the player, and the year it was produced.

How did this happen to finally fall into my hands? Well, my nephew Del III (the author and accomplished journalist) somehow found a listing for an auction being held by one of the most respected sports memorabilia companies in the country, Heritage Auctions. (Side note: When my friend and longtime PR colleague from the NHRA days, Elon Werner, finally gave up the grind like I did and resigned from John Force Racing, he went to work doing PR for Heritage, so I already knew how big-time they are. He had a lot of stories to tell about the amazing stuff he saw come through there before he left the company.)

After discovering the auction, Del III contacted my brother (his dad) Del Jr., my nephew Ewan Smith, and me with a link to the listing. The item was “Game worn 1946 Del Wilber jersey” with photos. I had, up until then, never so much as touched a Major League jersey my father played in. I have a Twins jersey he managed in, and have seen a few others over the years, but when I was growing up there were no Cardinals, Red Sox, or Phillies uniforms in any of the duffel bags full of equipment he had saved. Why? Because, back then, the teams didn’t allow the players to keep them. My dad actually wore this jersey for parts of three seasons! Now, MLB teams change jerseys and styles often throughout any season, many times just using them for one game or one weekend. They are easily found and available, and the teams or players regularly auction them off for charity. Back in my dad’s day, you turned your uniform in after the last game. Then, after it had been used for a few years, it often got handed down to the minor league players working their way up through the organization. There’s really no telling how many guys wore this but the name on the bottom of the front tells us who it was made for.

Good old number 23

When I got the link from Del III, I was stunned. I took my laptop upstairs to Barb’s office to show the listing to her. I wasn’t even sure what to say and surely didn’t have a clue what she’d think about it. I also knew it would cost quite a bit to win this item. MLB jerseys from the 40s are rare and difficult to find. Sure, this one was for a journeyman catcher, not a star, but it’s still a 1946 Cardinals jersey and I knew it would be very sought-after by serious collectors. I just looked at Barbara with wide eyes, and she said, “You have to get this.”

I cautioned her on its potential price, and we briefly discussed how far we’d go with the bidding. But I knew in my heart I had to have it. I just had to. Barbara was very supportive. She knew I needed to win this, but we both realized we had to have some sort of limit. We agreed on one. I was honestly scared I would lose it, though.

Ewan, Del Jr., Del III, and I exchanged emails and took a vote. What we couldn’t afford was for any of us to drive up the price by bidding against each other (it’s a secret auction.) In the end, everyone agreed to let me give it a shot, although I knew Ewan was really interested in it. Ewan is my sister Mary’s son, and for some reason known only to grandfathers and grandsons, he was very close to Skip. They had a bond that was really hard to even fathom, and Ewan adored him. As Ewan was growing up, they’d spend hours together watching ballgames on TV and talking, and as Skip’s health began to fade and Ewan got older, the grandson took great care of his grandfather, and looked out for him all the time. I promised Ewan I’d make sure he got to share this precious relic with me, if I won the auction.

Number 23 in action!

Then Del III found another listing on the Heritage website. It was the 1946 Del Wilber home jersey! The white one. I’d already signed up, registered, and put in my initial bid on the road jersey, so Ewan then jumped in on the home version. It was still two weeks before the end of the auction. It was going to be a long wait…

So here’s how it works. You put in your max bid, but when you do that you really only raise the current high bid by a set amount. The rest of your max bid is held in secret by the auctioneer, and for anyone to outbid you they’d have to clear that number. If that happened to me, I would have no idea what their max bid was. In other words, it’s stressful.

I checked the updates every day, sometimes twice or three times. After about a week, I saw the bad news. I’d been outbid and the new highest offer was about $50 higher than my max. I told Barbara and she was very direct in her response. “Outbid them again. You have to win this.” So I cranked it up a little higher. I’m not going to divulge what these numbers were, but it was enough to make me sweat. I’ve bought more than a few sports items at various local auctions, and some of them were a little pricey. But this…  I’d never wagered this much for a single item, but I’d also never seen one so personal and so important. I had to have it.

Big Del, from the same era. This is the very reason why I grew up in St. Louis and why I’m the luckiest kid in the world

My new max was back in the lead, with about six days to go. I checked it daily. I was still on top on the final day. The bidding officially ended at 10:00 pm that night. Ewan was in the exact same position as me, in the lead with the same bid I had. My gosh it was a long day. Hour by hour I checked the updates. Nothing new. Both of us still on top.

I finally did some research into the entire Heritage auction these jerseys were part of, and that gave me some hope. There with more than 2,000 highly collectible sports pieces involved, and some of them were Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or Ty Cobb items. Maybe our two 1946 Del Wilber jerseys would sneak through under the radar. We could only hope, and we both had been outbid once so we knew we weren’t alone, but the wait was awful.

I texted Ewan and said, “You know somebody is going to wait until two minutes before the end and outbid us, so be ready for that disappointment.” (OK, I used some language that was a little more colorful and salty than that, but this is a family blog.) He agreed. We both sensed it, and that’s how auctions work. It’s like poker. You don’t show your hand. You bluff until the end.

When we got down to the last hour, we were both in knots, with Ewan in Virginia and me in Minnesota. And then the auction ended, with both of us still on top. Or so we thought. As total neophytes in the world of big-time auctions, we learned some lessons. After we initially thought it was over, the auction house instituted “Extending Bidding” for two or three hours. I didn’t even understand the rules of how that worked, but there was nothing we could do about it. As I said to Barbara and texted to Ewan, “Imagine the TV announcer saying ‘After four quarters of play, it’s 106-98 with the Celtics over the Lakers. But we’ve decided to go to overtime anyway.”

It was damn near midnight before all the unexpected games and extensions were over. Finally, we both won. Del Wilber’s son and his grandson had secured the two jerseys from his rookie season in the big leagues. We had done it. It was an amazing relief.

It took about a week for the package to arrive. I hadn’t really thought about how it would feel to open that box and pull it out. I’ve held a million baseball jerseys in my life (slight exaggeration, but you get my point) so I just figured it would be nice to touch it. Even pulling it out of the box wasn’t that big of a deal. And then I took it into Barbara’s office.

To see her reaction, to see how emotional she got, to watch her actually hug it to feel my dad in there, brought ALL the emotions out. Kinda surprised me, really. It was enormously emotional. This jersey was part of him. A young man just out of the war, going up to the big leagues at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Putting on this very jersey, with the iconic “birds on the bat” stitched onto the front. This was a huge piece of my dad, right back in my life. It was hard to fathom. It still is. He put this jersey on for the first time more than 10 years before I was born.

We marveled at the stitching and construction of this heavy wool jersey. The zipper works like new. Everything you see on the front of this jersey is individually stitched and embroidered by a real human. A very talented human. Each letter in the word “Cardinals” is individually placed and hand embroidered. The birds are amazing. The whole damn thing is amazing.

Matt gets to know his great-grandfather a little more personally

I posted some stuff on Facebook, of course, and a few days later Ewan did the same thing. His oldest son Matt is now 6-foot-3, which is impossible and unbelievable in itself but that’s another story. Skip was 6-foot-3 when he played Major League ball. So Ewan had Matt try it on. This is a photo of the great-grandson wearing a piece of his great-grandfather’s legacy. Amazing.

No, I have not worn the road jersey. It’s odd, but it means too much to me. I lived a great portion of my life aspiring to follow in my dad’s footsteps, hoping I could do him proud by making it to the top in the sport we both loved. I know he was proud of me for all I did accomplish in the game, even after my professional playing days were over, but I never earned the chance to wear one of these. I’m proud of myself and what I did. I still have quite a few jerseys from the college, professional, and semi-pro days. But I never played in the big leagues. I didn’t earn it. I don’t feel it’s right for me to put it on.

I’ll have it framed at some point. It will go in a place of honor in my office, not far from the Twins jersey that hangs above my desk. He worked, perspired, and managed or coached his butt off in that Twins jersey, and Rod Carew and Tony Oliva will never forget him because of that. This new jersey is just a little more special. He was young. He was a rookie making his Major League debut. He was a Cardinal. Guys like Stan Musial and Marty Marion took him under their wings and helped him adjust to the top level of baseball in the world. This is HIS jersey. I’m just the caretaker now.

So that’s the story. It’s all I have today, but it’s a lot. These two jerseys are home, where they belong.

I’ll do my best to get back at it again this Thursday, and hopefully the website won’t explode.

Please, if you liked this story it would be really great if you could click on the “Like” button at the top. That would mean a lot and help us spread the word.

And feel free to share this with others you know who might enjoy it too. It’s a homecoming of a sort. The story of a dutiful son who admired his father with all his heart. He’d be so happy to know these two jerseys are home.

Bob Wilber, at your service and back in the saddle. Thank you for reading!

 

 

 

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