Rain, Rain, Go Away!

 

Busch Stadium III, St. Louis, Summer of 2007.

 

My first road trip to Busch Stadium III in the summer of 2007 corresponded with my visit with friends and a journey to St. Louis for the annual convention of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. It was a wonderful time, one which also gave me a little first hand exposure to vintage base ball down on the banks of the Mississippi River beneath the imposing Memorial Arch that frames downtown St. Louis.

It was a trip too wonderful in so many ways. Next to my Houston home town, I am more at home in the baseball-crazy city of St. Louis than anywhere else. Maybe that has its roots in the fact that all my friends there are deep red Cardinal or dark earth-toned and orange-hearted Brown fans from ancient days, but so what? When you like the company of the people you meet anywhere, you generally like the place too.

The part of the trip that stands out in my mind this morning is what I found missing in the newest St. Louis ballpark. Unlike our Minute Maid Park, the place has no roof to keep away the threat of rain. That lead picture is for real. Before the first game I watched there even got underway, those clouds rolled in and dumped enough rain to put the playing of the game briefly in doubt, adding about forty minute delay to the first pitch.

I’m not going to argue aesthetics here. There’s no question in mind that ballpark panorama is far more impressive without the presence of a high bulky retractable roof in either closed or open position, but, hey, I’m a Houstonian. I’m spoiled. Thirty-five years of the Astrodome spoiled most of us into expecting that a game scheduled shall always survive as a game played.

No rain checks here. Who needs rain checks in Houston?

 

Allen Russell, Houston Buffs President, 1946-53.

 

Well, there was a time we needed them in Houston too. In fact, some of my earliest experience as a nine-year old first time Buffs fan in 1947 centers on watching Houston Buffs President Allen Russell (the guy I first remembered as “the man in the white shirt”) going out there and pouring gasoline all over the soaked-with-water infield from a similar-to-St.-Louis pre-game rain and then lighting a match and blowing up the whole thing for the sake of recovering the dryness we needed for a game of baseball.

KA-BOOM!!! And the rainwater went away in a quick-rising puff of billowing black smoke.

No such remedial tactics were deployed sixty years later during that still recent summer in St. Louis. Such an approach in recent times would be written off as both inappropriate and too dangerous to fans and employees alike. Although I must add in Allen Russell’s behalf, he never allowed his grounds crew to take the risk of actually starting these ballpark fires. They would help do the ground-soaking with gasoline. Then Russell himself would go out to actually light, throw, and run from the match of ignition. That sight itself was worth the price of admission because he never got far in his escape from the explosion that ensued behind him and the blast itself too always seemed to first shake then stir him to an even quicker pace.

 

 

Houston Papers Loved Russell's War on Rain Checks.

 

As a kid, I thought Allen Russell fought rain-outs because he loved baseball so much that it broke his heart, as it did mine, to hear that a game had been cancelled due to rain. I was too young to understand the role that lost income dollars played in Russell’s war on the weather and just about anything else that hurt the gate.

Years ago, my good friend Jerry Witte, the late slugger of Houston’s 1951 Texas League champions, told me this supportive story of how fine-tuned Allen Russell’s pulse was to factors effecting game attendance. This is not my point, but we already know that Russell installed the first air-conditioned ladies room in baseball because he recognized that “comfort” was big as a factor in attracting more women to Buffs games. No need to cool the men’s room. The guys will come to the ballpark, regardless. Always have. “But we have to make it nicer for the ladies,” Russell boasted.

At any rate, it was early August of 1951 and the Buffs were starting to pull away from the rest of the pack in the Texas League. “We were out there starting our pre-game warm-ups on the field at Buff Stadium when Allen Russell then did something he never did prior to games. He came out on the field as though he wanted to tell us something. Finally, a few of us got tired of just watching him pace and went over to ask what he wanted.”

Russell must have been slightly taken aback by the players’ solicitous turn in his direction, but he chose his words carefully. As Jerry Witte remembers it, Russell answered in these terms: “You guys know how proud I am of your team success, so please take what I’m about to say in the right away. I will never ask you to give anything less than your best, but try to remember too: If the fans start taking it for granted that the Buffs are going to win, some of them may stop coming to see us play. – OK, that being said, – go get ’em.”

Enough said. Nothing stopped the Buffs in 1951 until they reached the Dixie Series. Then they lost to the Birmingham Barons in six games.

 

 

 

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One Response to “Rain, Rain, Go Away!”

  1. Darrell Pittman Says:

    I can just picture Drayton out there at MMP lighting up the infield, then running for cover!

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