My 51-year career at the Post-Dispatch almost ended before it even began.
In April 1971, I was invited in for a two-day tryout, consisting of desk work in the P-D sports department. That was a time when the Post-Dispatch still was an afternoon newspaper, so shifts for copy editors began at 2 a.m., 4 a.m., and 5 a.m. I was assigned a 5 a.m. starting time for my first day and made sure that I got plenty of rest the night before.
I had flown in from Colorado Springs, where I still was in the Army and moonlighting at the morning newspaper there. I was billeted at the downtown Sheraton-Jefferson Hotel, which still was something of a showplace and was said to be about three or four blocks from the P-D building, which was on 12th Street at Franklin (the intersection later became Tucker Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive).
I determined that I could walk those four blocks to work, even though it would be just after 4 a.m. You could do that in downtown St. Louis then and I even had it programmed so that I would arrive 15 or so minutes early, as a tryout candidate would aspire to do.
But, after walking six to eight blocks, I didn’t see the Post-Dispatch. All I saw were government buildings, including City Hall and the police station and even the Army induction center, where I had enlisted nearly three years before that.
Clearly, I had gone the wrong way and now it was nigh on 5 a.m., and I was nowhere near the P-D building. Then, of all things, a taxi cab appeared. Like that would happen now at 5 a.m.
I hailed the cab, asked the driver to go to the Post-Dispatch and didn’t tell him that I got lost. When I got to the P-D newsroom at 5:05, I didn’t tell anybody else either.
After the two-day tryout, I was offered a job by the legendary Bob Broeg, the sports editor, and Bob McCoy, one of the assistant sports editors. I would return some three months later when my 1,095-day hitch in the Army was complete (not that I was counting) and never left, until now — although I will be appearing in the paper once a week or so during the next baseball season.
Not all baseball
Besides my half century covering Cardinals games and major league baseball, I covered many other sports at the Post-Dispatch. That included the late, somewhat unlamented Spirits of St. Louis pro basketball team, which afforded me a chance to talk privately for an hour with future Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving of the New York Nets while he sat in the whirlpool. Also, professional boxing, which created an opportunity to sit with famed heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali once I ran him down amidst his large entourage as everyone marched through a hotel casino in Las Vegas.
I was there to cover St. Louisan Leon Spinks, who was fighting a bout in which the winner would get a shot at Ali and the title. I wanted to ask Ali a few questions about Spinks, and Ali, once everybody else had exited an elevator — we were the only two left — invited me into his suite. He told his wife and the bodyguard that they could leave for a while and answered my questions without hesitation. After the interview, he asked that I critique a commencement address he was about to give at Harvard, after already having given a similar one at Oxford.
How could I refuse? It was fascinating and not once during the speech did he gush, “I Am the Greatest of All Time.”
My favorite interview in baseball had to be with Cardinals great Bob Gibson, a couple of months before he was to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
We spent all day and much of a night together in his native Omaha, Neb. When Gibson and his wife, Wendy, left his downtown restaurant-bar at about 10 o’clock, the often crusty right-hander said loudly enough for a reporter to hear, “Wendy! Wendy! Wendy! Can you believe I’ve been talking to a sportswriter for nine hours?”
I never had considered sports writing a particularly dangerous occupation. But twice I was convinced otherwise.
Early in my career here when I lived in Belleville, I was stopped at a red light in East St. Louis on my way to one of those lovely 4 a.m. shifts. Before I knew it, the window on the drivers’ side glass was smashed in and a man had a gun pointed at my head and demanded I pull over. Instead, I gunned the engine and drove off and, luckily, another car came up, startled the mugger and I headed for the bridge to take me to St. Louis.
Then, there was the Teleram-scam of 1980. My plan was to cover the first two games of the Houston-Philadelphia National League Championship Series and then drive to New York to pick up the Yankees and Kansas City in the American League Championship Series.
My mistake was in leaving my briefcase and computer — a huge blue, fairly useless item called a Teleram — in the trunk of my rental car in a Holiday Inn parking garage in Philadelphia, because I was going to drive to New York to change to the other series in the morning.
About 4 a.m. I was awakened by a voice on the telephone that said, “Mr. Hummel, I’ve found some of your stuff.” I ascertained that some of that “stuff” was my work computer and told the man to call me back in an hour.
In that time, I went to the garage, discovered that the back window of my car, a hatchback, had been smashed and my computer and briefcase were gone. I also discovered that there was a security guard on hand but that he apparently had fallen asleep.
My caller got in touch with me again about 5 a.m. and we ended up discussing the terms of which I would get the computer back. The briefcase never was found.
We agreed on a ransom fee of $300 — pretty much all that I had — and the man would deliver the computer to the hotel and come up to the room.
I thought at this point I would enlist the West Philadelphia police department, which immediately sent out two officers to stand guard with me in the room. There was a knock on the door. Both policeman scurried into the bathroom, which was next to the front door, and pulled out their weapons. All very exciting, except it turned out to be the maid.
The police — one who looked like skinny Stanley Laurel and the other like beefy Oliver Hardy — stayed an hour or so longer and then tired of the chase, one witnessing a car stripped on the street some 24 floors below and wondering why they weren’t down there instead of wasting time with me.
They left. I went down to the lobby and when I got back, I got a call from my contact that he had been up to the room looking for me. We finally agreed that I would meet him in Central Philadelphia near a park at about 1:30 p.m. Why I agreed to this, I do not know, to this day, but this infernal computer was the only machine I could lay my hands on at the moment.
I had told the man I would be wearing a beige trench coat. I called the police department again and Laurel returned, without Hardy, but with another partner. The police wanted marked bills to be used in this transaction and so they marked up my money and told me to hold a newspaper under my arm, which I would drop to the ground when I had completed the transaction.
Because my car had been compromised, I hailed a cab to take me to the drop point. The police would follow me and then wait across the street, one at a gas station and the other at a convenience store. When I arrived, the first man I saw, a swarthy fellow, asked me if I was Mr. Hummel. I said that I was and he asked me to follow him down two flights of steps to a dense area of bushes across the street and my machine would be there.
I told him I wasn’t going to go down there but I would go halfway and he could hold up the machine and then I would pay him the money.
Very reluctantly, he agreed to do so. He held up the machine and the transaction was complete. I allowed the Philadelphia Daily News paper to fall to the ground. I looked across the street and neither policeman had seen what had just had happened. But the cab driver, who was really into this drama, had stayed, had noticed and was waving madly. Finally, the police reacted and moved quickly to apprehend the suspect, who was walking away, and took him back to the station with the suspect muttering, “I knew this would happen.”
As the police car drove away, I hastened to ask the officers for my money back and they told me I had to come to the station to get it.
A trial date was set for the next time I would be in Philadelphia with the Cardinals. I showed up in court three different times at 8 a.m. during the 1981 and 1982 seasons but the suspect, said to be a low-level drug trafficker, did not appear at any of the scheduled hearings.
Finally, the police asked me to sign a few forms and the matter ostensibly went away. As unreliable as the big blue computer turned out to be, I almost wish I hadn’t even tried to get it back, let alone paid to do so.
The next 40-plus years of my career would see immense changes in technology and computers, and I was dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming. When I broke in here, the newsroom was typewriters, pneumatic tubes and editors yelling, “Copy!”
That was long ago.
I wouldn’t have made it without the help of my more technologically advanced colleagues such as Derrick Goold, now our talented lead baseball writer who bailed me out of many online issues, night editors such as Don Reed, Mike Reilly and Dan Caesar as well as the P-D tech staff, including Dana Levy, with whom I had constant contact.
The 51-year ride, except for a couple of broken windows, has been a smooth one. I got to cover countless Cardinals playoffs, including three World Series champions, 35 World Series and the past 42 All-Star games, starting and ending in Dodger Stadium. There was the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998 and “Whiteyball” in the mid-1980s when Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals played a different game than any other club in baseball.
Most of my time covering Cardinals baseball, nearly 40 years of it, came during the managerial tenures of Red Schoendienst, Herzog, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa — Hall of Famers all. If you couldn’t learn about baseball and how to deal with people from these men, you weren’t paying attention.
In 2007, I was honored with an award by the Baseball Hall of Fame and forever will be a part of the display in the writers’ wing.
It is possible, perhaps probable, that I had more bylined articles in the Post-Dispatch — certainly in the sports section — than anyone else who ever has worked there. And, of that, I’m proud.
That wouldn’t have been accomplished, though, without the bosses, notably sports editor Roger Hensley, keeping me employed well beyond the normal retirement age of 65. I’m now 76.
Most of all, it wouldn’t have been achieved without you, the fans of the Post-Dispatch and baseball. To steal a signoff phrase from longtime friend and former P-D columnist Bernie Miklasz …
“Thanks for reading.”
Rick Hummel’s last official day at the Post-Dispatch is this Wednesday, Nov. 30, though you will continue to see contributions from him in the newspaper and at STLtoday.com.
@cmshhummel on Twitter