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July 16, 2018

My Grandparents, My Cardinals and My Ballpark Quest

by Johnny Markham

I grew up in Columbia, Tennessee. My paternal grandparents lived in St. Louis, Missouri. Each summer, my parents, my brother and I would load into the family car and make the trek northward for a much anticipated visit. Upon arrival, our time at Mama and Papa’s house always included surprise gifts hidden for the kids under the twin beds, fun times with the cousins, eating the delicious ‘bubble bread’ made by my grandmother, a trip to the zoo, the S.S. Admiral and Six Flags. But nothing excited me more than getting to see a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium. (Conversely, those times when the Cardinals weren’t in town brought great disappointment.)

The day of the game was filled with anticipation. I could hardly wait. Without a doubt, I pestered my folks all day long, “Is it time to go, yet? We can’t be late!” From the western suburbs of the city, our journey downtown in my grandad’s Pontiac Bonneville was filled with eagerness which only increased as the majestic Gateway Arch would come into sight.

Parking the car in one of those multi-story parking garages in which you drive in and out by way of those spiral ramps was exhilarating for this rural, small-town kid.  But nothing compared to walking down the concourse, through the tunnel and into the stadium where the beauty of the playing field exploded onto my very eyes and into my heart.  The green grass, the brown dirt, the white uniforms, the red hats, the sights, the sounds, the smells. It all resonated with me.

1974. Johnny as an 11 year old second baseman for Fisher Carpet of the National Little League in Columbia, TN. Note that wood bats were still in use!

I had always loved ball. From my earliest days as a toddler, I gravitated toward a ball, any ball – baseball, basketball, football. I was drawn toward the simple acts of throwing balls, catching balls, hitting balls. Sundays after lunch, my dad and Papa Smith would throw with me in Mama and Papa’s front yard. Countless hours were spent throwing a ball with a Johnny Bench Pitchback. I built a pitcher’s mound in the lot beside our house. My dad erected a backstop made of a few posts, chicken wire and a thick roll of black rubber.

When time came to play baseball on a Little League team, there was nothing more thrilling to me. Except maybe, getting to see the Cardinals play.

At a very young age, sitting in the red stadium seats of Busch Stadium, I remember being beside my grandad. He would ask me, as the home team came to bat in the bottom of the first inning, if I thought Lou Brock, the great lead-off hitter and left fielder for the Cardinals would swing at the first pitch. I felt great pressure to answer correctly, but I really had no clue (It seems like Brock did often swing at the first pitch). Those moments taught me that there was a lot more to the game than throwing, catching and hitting.

I gained an appreciation for the game, but also for the stunning park in which the game was played. To me, the experience was surreal, majestic, larger than life. It was beautiful. I wanted to experience it every chance I got. But not living in or even near a major league city meant that my opportunities were limited.   

As I grew into adulthood and my travels took me to a few other major league cities, I had the opportunity to see games played at other stadiums in Atlanta, Cincinnati and Chicago. The more stadiums I saw, the more I experienced the same thrill I had as a kid visiting St. Louis. The thought occurred to me, “What if I could see a game at every major league ballpark?”  The seed had been planted.  The dream was born. And my quest began!  

Labor Day 1998. The Markham family in St. Louis at Busch Stadium on the day that Mark McGwire hit homerun #61 to tie Roger Maris’ record for homeruns in a single season.

I planned trips with friends who shared my passion. Some of the ballpark trips were included into family vacations with my wife and three kids as we would combine more tourist-type things to go along with the games. A few trips were made with just my wife. I sometimes took the teenagers from our church.

I’ve been fortunate to not only check off all 30 ballparks (and then some!), but I’ve had some memorable moments with my Cardinals as well. Getting to see Mark McGwire hit home run number 61 against the Cubs on Labor Day 1998 was a blast. Getting to be at Opening Day 2006 in St. Louis for the first game ever played in the new Busch Stadium was a real thrill. Being at Cardinals playoff games and World Series games has simply been amazing.

The largest number of ballparks I’ve seen in a one year span is five. Most years, it was two or three. The planning was a lot of fun. Some places were easier to plan for than others. Cities like Seattle, Denver and Phoenix were more difficult to get to for me, but I found a way.

Combining destinations like Baltimore/Washington/Philadelphia and San Francisco/Oakland  into one trip made sense. Scheduling the cities with two teams, (New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) was a surprising challenge! Teams in the same city are not often in town at the same time.  

In order to keep my list “current,” I‘ve had to re-visit fourteen cities who built new stadiums. Fortunately, Atlanta, the one team that has played in three stadiums since 1996, is only four hours away from where I now live.

People often ask, “Which stadium do you like best?” I honestly like them all! While I have to allow for St. Louis being my sentimental favorite, San Francisco is easily the best. Pittsburgh is a surprising second. The two remaining historic ballparks, Fenway and Wrigley, are in a category by themselves.

1998. Johnny and their kids visiting with his grandmother Betty Markham at her home in St. Louis. Growing up, visits to his grandparents often included a trip to a Cardinals game.

Often the stadiums mirror the personality of their city.  It is always fun to feel and learn the uniqueness and the history of each city and its ballpark. I’ve loved learning and experiencing it all.  Not just for the baseball but for people with whom I’ve been able to share the memories; my wife and kids, my best friends, the teens from our church.  There’s a special story and memory from each and every city.

I have a ticket stub, game program, souvenir plastic cup, photo and baseball from each stadium. It’s the memories in my heart, though, that are priceless.

My quest is complete!  Complete, that is, until the new stadiums in Texas and Oakland open up! Wanna go?

July 16, 2018

One Comment on “My Grandparents, My Cardinals and My Ballpark Quest

Jack Malone
July 17, 2018 at 1:25 pm

Love those Redbirds. Congrats. Envy you on that quest.

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