Cecil Cooper was a thief. He stole Rod Carew’s batting stance and so did I for a little while anyway, but I eventually found my own style or it found me. It didn’t help. I never hit .388 in the major leagues. I also stole from the Old Testament.
Gonzaga Hall was situated inside the St. Aloysius Church at 92nd and Greenfield on Milwaukee’s West Side. The cramped room hosted baseball card shows every six or eight weeks. There were dealers from all over the Midwest and no room to walk. That’s where I learned about body odor and booze. Middle aged men with wild, greasy hair sipping brandy from coffee cups at 10 in the morning. They quickly became my heroes. How sweet it would be to say screw the bus every school day and continue sorting through stacks of baseball cards.
I never had any dreams; never wanted to be a baseball player, fireman, or writer. I never scribbled in a journal or lifted weights. I still don’t. The only difference now is that I have to work from 8-4, Monday to Friday, but nothing else has really changed. It’s baseball, work, eating, and tv.
My maiden voyage as a thief involved 1972 Topps cards. I was browsing through a stack subdivided inside a giant wood filing case. It was one of hundreds of Gonzaga Hall dealers and their cases. They were busy answering questions, talking about the auction scheduled later in the day, sipping from their booze fused coffee when I sort of slipped a few cards into my pocket.
I had never attended Al Capone summer camp, but apparently had some DNA thief gene lingering in my cells; maybe some Bugsy Siegel. We all probably have a little. And so I did an intelligent thing. I loitered at the scene of the crime-the best place to be and no one suspected anything. In reality, no one gave a rat’s ass about me, but I was a self-absorbed little 10-year old prick who believed he was the center of the universe.
I had never read Huck Finn either. I hated reading, had no attention span and preferred watching baseball and tv sitcoms, but apparently had some DNA trickery gene lingering in my cell as well; faking my own death and what not. I asked the dealer about the 1972 set, threw in a few impressive comments about the In Action cards and earned a business card with the dealer’s address and a dear little boy smile from the baseball card dealer.
I walked tall to the bus stop, took whatever number East towards Lake Michigan. We passed County Stadium. I walked along 35th avenue, stopped in a thrift store and the lady encouraged me to buy a kid’s book about Harry Houdini so I did for 50 cents. I walked East some more along National Avenue into the Mexican neighborhood and up to the base of the Allen Bradley Clock.
The clock is what did me in. It was big and had The four freaking sides. I think it’s the biggest in the world. The hands scared me and guilt crawled all over me real sudden too. It was a Sunday afternoon. The 8th commandment-Thou shalt not steal was following me around.
There were no friends to play with and forget about it. There was school tomorrow. I was screwed. So I did what I had to do. I wrote the guy a letter explaining what I had done in careful language…”forgot to pay for some cards last Sunday at Gonzaga Hall.” I sent money and the cards and felt a great deal lighter like I was walking around in a new pair of basketball shoes.
A few weeks later I got a manilla envelope in the mail. The guy was grateful over my honesty and included a Milwaukee Brewer’s Police Set and Chicago Cub’s set with some other sponsor. He also threw in a few 1972 Topps card. I think one of them was Ken Holtzman.
I learned nothing from this, except that I would never be a good thief. I had other chances, but always turned them down. The memory always lingered or the guilt did. Other kids followed the 11th commandment instead. Thou shalt not get caught. They were good at what they did and that was that.
The 8th commandment made more and more sense to me as kids started stealing other people’s identities; copying their clothing styles, musical interests, ways of speech…digging in other people’s wells.
I had my own life to live; own death to die and that was enough.