I was standing in the park under that tree. I can tell you the park—it was Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, home of the Cardinals. And that tree was not a real tree—it was a billboard for the Missouri Federal Savings and Loan. The billboard was in the shape of a tree—they called it the Money Tree— and it hung just out of the outfielder’s reach over the center field wall. If a batted ball hit the Money Tree during a major league game, Missouri Federal gave the batter 5,000 dollars. And the batter got a home run, too, of course. Back then, 5,000 dollars was a lot of money. Home runs were nothing to sneeze at, either.
So I’m playing center field for the Phillies and we’re in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis and I’m standing under a big sign shaped like a tree when the great Stan Musial comes to bat. I hated Musial back then. Still do, not that I have any current grievances against him. Of course, Musial is one of the myriad of people who never come to see me here at the Clearwater Golden Age Rest Home of Clearwater, Florida, and that is grievance enough in my book. Musial is still alive, isn’t he? Hey Chalkie, is Musial alive or dead? Chalkie says he’s dead. But Chalkie is a habitual liar and mischief-maker so I don’t want to say one way or the other.
No one, but no one, had ever hit the Missouri Federal Savings and Loan’s Money Tree that hung over the center field fence of Sportsman’s Park and which would earn him 5,000 dollars. But we were pitching southpaw Wally Ruquist that afternoon, and it was well known that the great Stan Musial owned soft-throwing southpaws like Ruquist the way a farmer owned chickens. In other words, he let him flap in the breeze for a while, then he butchered them mercilessly.
I am hiding from Nurse Swensen, who wants me to take more pills. The nurses here are always on me to take pills. A green one at breakfast, three yellow ones at lunch, another green one that puts me to sleep at 2:00, then a pink one and two red ones at dinner. Now it’s 7:00 in the P.M. and the sun is setting magnificently over a block of high rises that blocks our view of what they tell me is the Gulf of Mexico, and this means I am supposed to take the dreaded large white pill that slides down my esophagus like a Volkswagen and sits for twenty minutes in my stomach and then gives me gas.
So I’m hiding out here on the patio that no one besides me and Chalkie and ever visits because it is infested with mosquitoes and mayflies and no-see-’ems that annoy the hell out of everybody else but don’t bother me because I’m too tough and ornery. As for Chalkie, he is a black ex-policeman on disability and in a wheelchair. Chalkie’s eyes are pretty shot, too—he can barely see two feet in front of his twisted nose and extended stomach—plus he goes to the toilet through a tube sticking out his abdomen. The man’s one remaining charge out of life is to get my goat whenever possible. Chalkie will follow me anywhere if he thinks he can get my goat.
“Mr. Saltzer, are you out there?”
It is Nurse Swensen, who is poking her pasty Scandinavian face and starched Peter Pan nurse’s collar out the glass door that separates the Rest Home from the Rest of the World.
“Oh, he’s here,” cackles Chalkie, his flabby belly heaving up and down in accompaniment. “He’ll go anywhere to avoid that pill.”
Nurse Swensen steps outside and instantly is bombarded by mosquitoes and June bugs and killer flying sea slugs and other creatures not native to the Scandinavian part of the cosmos from which I assume Nurse Swensen hails.
“You know, hiding only delays the inevitable,” Nurse Swensen tells me as she shoes away the assorted airborne vermin that are dive-bombing her neck and ankles. Quickly she places the horrid white compact automobile on my tongue and gives me a stale water chaser and after she finishes she turns her trim Scandinavian tail and beelines it back inside.
“Heh, heh, heh,” laughs Chalkie from his wheelchair. “I ain’t roamin’ too close to your butt tonight.”
So I’m standing in Sportsman’s Park in center field underneath a sign called the Money Tree that will win Stan Musial 5,000 dollars if he hits it, which from the cuts he was taking I knew was exactly what he wanted to do. I hated Stan Musial in those days—just as I hate him now—for reasons that some would claim are arbitrary and absurd.
I was a 24-year old having the season of my life in the uniform of the Cardinals Double-A team, which was based in Jacksonville, Florida. The organization was all set to call me up to the big team in St. Louis to be their full-time outfielder—the chance of a lifetime, a dream come true—when at the last minute some yahoo in the front office decided to give this kid named Musial a shot. As you may have heard, Musial’s shot in St. Louis turned out to span two decades, in which he racked up 475 home runs and 3 Most Valuable Player awards and the undying affection of every fan in the Central Daylight Time Zone before the team finally tired of him and he relocated to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. As for me, I was shipped to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I lasted for two months before slipping on a bar of soap in the training room and spraining my knee and being lost for the rest of that season and most of the next and never being quite the same player ever after.
Eventually the Cardinals released me. Not one to give up, I quickly found myself bouncing from city to city, from club to club, from the minor leagues to (occasionally) the major leagues to (increasingly more common as time progressed) the extraordinarily low level minor leagues. I remember once I was playing in the Northern League for the Fargo Aces of Fargo, North Dakota, when….
But I digress. It so happened that I was playing one of my then-rare games for a major league team, the Philadelphia Phillies, who that day had plunked me in center field of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis against Stan Musial and the Cardinals underneath a big sign called the Money Tree. And by the 8th inning Musial was feeling pretty good because his Cards were up 6 to zip and he’d driven in 3 of those runs and the Phillie pitcher was still Wally Ruquist, the southpaw whom Musial owned the way schoolkids own bologna. In other words, Musial ate Ruquist for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And when he came to the plate, even from the outfield I could tell that Musial was shooting for that Missouri Federal Savings and Loan sign that was shaped like a tree and that could win him 5,000 dollars. I could tell this because he was taking these whiffs as wide as that stupid arch they were building by the river.
“Moron!” screams Chalkie from his wheelchair.
“What’s eating you?” I say to him.
“You never played against Musial,” Chalkie replies. “Hell, you never made it to the major leagues.”
I’m pretty sure I know what Musial has in store for me, so I get ready to get my feet moving. Sure enough, he launches an 0–2 Ruquist fastball toward the deepest part of center field, I mean it’s heading way back there, and I turn my back to the infielders and get on my horse and chase after it. And sure enough, the ball’s heading straight for the Missouri Federal Savings and Loan’s Money Tree—a tree that had never been hit before, five thousand clams that had never before been claimed—and I could imagine Musial imagining the headlines and imagining what he’d do with all the money and smiling that all-encompassing, savior-of-the-world, future Hall-of-Famer smile that nevertheless slightly scowled at all the has-beens and never-weres and almost-could-have-beens that his stellar career had eclipsed so wantonly.
“Give it up, man,” says Chalkie. “You’re a retired accountant named Mort Saltzer and you lived your whole life in New Jersey until you somehow got your ass thrown into this old folks home in Florida.” Chalkie waggles his cane at me in delight.
And when I reached the wall I leapt. Or climbed. Or levitated myself upward. I’m not sure. All I know is that I felt a fierce backward rush on my left hand, heard the familiar thwack of horsehide on leather, and when I came down there was the ball in my glove, white as bone, hard as a peach pit, round as the sun, and as wonderful as the kiss at your wedding. When I got back to the dugout, all the guys said it was the greatest catch they’d ever seen, and that Musial was muttering something fierce on his way back to the dugout.
Two weeks later the Phillies released me in favor of the latest young phenomenon. And Musial went on to hit .355, which was the best in the league.
“I don’t know why I waste my breath on a senile old man,” says Chalkie, and he wheels himself away from me, back into the Home.
You could look it up. Check the record books, if you don’t believe me. Mort Saltzer, outfielder for the Cardinals, Senators, Phillies, Braves, and numerous minor league teams. Career major league batting average of .213 over 9 seasons. Total of 2 homers, 11 runs batted in, and 8 errors in the field. A record of true mediocrity. But a record all the same.
And even if that’s not what the books say, that’s how I remember it. That’s the way it was, so help me God. Can I deny it?