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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sikeston resident has 'field of dreams'

Saturday, June 9, 2007

(Photo)
Sikeston's Gary Howard has played or taken batting practice at all three of St. Louis' stadiums.
SIKESTON -- It may be said that Gary Howard has three "fields of dreams."

Howard, a Sikeston resident, has played or taken batting practice at all three of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball fields -- Sportsman's Park, Busch Memorial Stadium and the current Busch Stadium.

Dating back to 1962 when the St. Louis native was a Khoury League All-Star to 2007 when he completed the trifecta at a Bank of America fantasy camp, Howard, now an automobile salesman at Autry-Morlan, recalls a lifetime of memories as a player, scout and fan of America's pastime.

"The most rewarding thing was getting to meet people that I otherwise would never have had an opportunity to meet," said Howard, who lists Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon among those he has met at games.

He says Stan "The Man" Musial and Lou Brock were the most gracious of all the Cardinals.

"They were probably the best as far as signing autographs and interacting with the fans," said Howard, who estimates he has more than 75 autographs of Hall of Famers in addition to most '60's vintage-and-beyond Cardinals.

Surrounding his desk at Autry-Morlan are photographs of Howard with former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, Hall of Famer Lou Brock, former major league catcher Mickey Owens and others.

Howard began his playing days in 1958 with University City's Heman Park team in St. Louis' Khoury League. An assistant coach on that squad was the great Negro League star and future Hall of Famer James "Cool Papa" Bell.

In 1962, Howard was chosen to the North St. Louis Khoury League All-Star team which played a game against the South St. Louis All-Stars at Sportsman's Park, the original home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns.

In that game, Howard faced Jerry Reuss, a future major league pitcher who turned in a solid 22 year-career with the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, California Angels, Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers.

Howard's first appearance in Busch Memorial Stadium, completed in 1966, was in 1967 when he was invited to a Cardinals' pre-draft tryout. He batted against Cardinals pitching coach Bob Milliken.

Undrafted, however, Howard signed with the Cards as a free agent but Uncle Sam called before the big league team.

After a stint in the U.S. Army, he came back to the Cardinals' Little Rock farm club, was released then picked up by the Houston Astros. He played eight games with the Astros before a combat injury suffered in Vietnam, which greatly hampered his ability to run, ended his pro career.

Howard began scouting for the Cardinals in 1977 and continued through 1997, covering Missouri, parts of Arkansas and Kentucky.

"I was lucky enough to be working with the Cardinals when Whitey Herzog had the team and I went to the '82 and '87 World Series," said Howard. "My fondest memory (of those years) was being able to take my son Gary Lee with me."

His most noteworthy signees were former third baseman Ken Oberkfell and Southeast Missouri State outfielder Kerry Robinson.

Another Howard signee, Bradley University pitcher John Young, indirectly brought to the Cardinals organization former player and current third-base coach Jose Oquendo in a trade.

While standing behind the Cardinals batting cage with longtime coach George Kissell in 1978, Howard talked himself into another chance to hit in Busch Memorial Stadium.

Cardinals pitcher John Urrea was throwing and I told Kissell I thought I could hit him. Kissell told Howard to grab a bat and step in and he stroked a hit off Urrea.

Howard's final shot at hitting live pitching in Busch Memorial came in 1982, but was not so successful. Again he chided Kissell into letting him swing against then-Cardinals relief ace and future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, master of the split-finger fastball.

"You can't hit Bruce Sutter, I'm telling you," said a chuckling Howard. "You're ready to pounce on that ball and it drops about a foot right in front of you."

So, with two of the Cardinals stadiums under his belt, Howard's most recent appearance germinated through an off-the-cuff conversation with Cardinals and network broadcaster Joe Buck.

"If I bat in this stadium, I will have batted in all three of them," Howard told Buck during the 2006 season.

He was invited to participate in the off-season Bank of America fantasy camp.

With former major league pitchers Scott Terry and Ken Dayley on the mound, Howard got a hit off Dayley, then went 3-for-3 against Terry.

"After my hit off Dayley, he said I wasn't going to get anymore and he started throwing at me," said Howard.

Since arriving in Sikeston in 1971, Howard has also put his stamp on baseball in Southeast Missouri as the driving force behind the Southeast Missouri Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.