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Jack Buck's powerful post-Sept. 11 poem still resonates with many today
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Jack Buck's powerful post-Sept. 11 poem still resonates with many today

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“Since this nation was founded, under God, more than 200 years ago, we have been the bastion of freedom — the light that keeps the free world aglow.

“We do not covet the possessions of others. We are blessed with the bounty we share.

“We have rushed to help other nations — anything, anytime, anywhere.

“War is just not our nature. We won't start, but we will end the fight.

“If we are involved we shall be resolved — to protect what we know is right.

“We have been challenged by a cowardly foe who strikes and then hides from our view.

“With one voice we say, 'We have no choice today. There is only one thing to do.'

“Everyone is saying the same thing and praying — that we end these senseless moments we are living.

“As our fathers did before, we shall win this unwanted war. And our children will enjoy the future we'll be giving.”

The foregoing was a poem the late Jack Buck, revered voice of the Cardinals, delivered on Sept. 17, 2001, before the Cardinals’ game with the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium II. It was the only way Buck, a veteran of World War II and recipient of a Purple Heart after being wounded in the Battle of Remagen in Germany, felt he could respond to the dastardly terrorist attacks of six days earlier when everyone in the United States was horrified as one.

Cardinals Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck reads a moving speech and poem as the Cardinals honor the fallen from the 9/11 attacks.

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On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, the Cardinals were in Milwaukee and savoring an 8-0 victory as Darryl Kile pitched six scoreless innings, Mark McGwire hit his 24th homer and Placido Polanco, Mike Matheny and rookie Albert Pujols each had two hits. The Cardinals, in the midst of a charge that would net them a tie for the division title and a wild-card berth, won for the ninth time in 12 games, a streak they would continue from Sept. 17 with six more victories.

'The world will never be the same...'

But on the morning of Sept. 11, some of the traveling party had other plans before that night’s scheduled second game of the series. Broadcaster Mike Shannon had rented a car to drive to a nearby course for a round of golf. When word came that the Twin Towers in New York had been plowed into by hijacked aircraft, the round quickly ended.

Shannon remembered saying, “The world will never be the same again.” He also declined to turn in his rental car because there would be no flying for anyone for a while. He would drive that car back to St. Louis.

Matheny was fishing for trout in Lake Michigan as a guest of Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker and they already had a couple of fish in the box although Uecker recalls those fish as being salmon and not trout.

“It was just the two of us on his boat when the call came in,” said Matheny, now the manager in Kansas City. “They said, “If you’ve got your TV on the boat, you need to turn it on. Something’s happened in New York City.’”

Uecker remembers saying, “That can’t happen, not in downtown New York. They don’t let planes fly there. We called one of my friends on land and he told us what happened.”

Matheny said, “It was just after the second plane had hit and we’re standing there completely mesmerized, like everybody else in the world. You wonder what this is going to mean for our country and then you start to think about what it would mean for what we do.

“Sure enough, phones start ringing and we need to get together as a team. The world changed that day but I think everybody will remember pretty clearly where they were when that happened. Not just that day but at that minute. For me to be with one of my favorites ... he’s a legend. He’s maybe one of the funniest men I’ve ever been around but also he’s just a deep thinker and it was meaningful to hear his thoughts at the time of what was going on. We took it straight into the dock and started to figure out what our next move was.”

One of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa’s first moves was to call his team together for a meeting in the hotel ballroom that evening to talk about what had happened, listen to any and all concerns and plot the next move.

La Russa didn’t call a meeting for the next day but did call for a workout for Thursday at Miller Park and then the team would ride a couple of buses back to St. Louis where it would await word on the resumption of the schedule. The Cardinals were luckier than most.

“The White Sox were in New York and they had to bus all the way from New York to Chicago,” said La Russa.

'Very challenging'

La Russa said that dealing with this tragedy wasn’t quite the same as dealing with the deaths in the same week the next year of Buck and Kile, the second while the team was in Chicago playing the Cubs.

But, said La Russa, “it was very challenging. That 9-11 (event) was staggering.”

The path back to St. Louis took the Cardinals on I-55 and the boys began getting hungry about the time they got to Bloomington, Illinois. La Russa and traveling secretary C.J. Cherre determined that the buses would pull off onto the I-55 business route where there were several franchise restaurants and the players and staff had a half hour to get what they needed and then it was back on the bus.

“I’ll never forget McGwire and I walking through a drive-thru at McDonald’s — because he was such a healthy eater,” said Matheny, chuckling. “I remember those people looking at him, because he stood out like a sore thumb. They surely must have been wondering why Mark McGwire was walking through a drive-thru. Indoor dining was closed for whatever reason.”

Urban legend would have McGwire ordering a Big Mac. “I don’t think he did,” said Matheny. But Matheny isn’t so sure he didn’t have one himself.

“In honor of McGwire,” said Matheny.

All this is a prelude to the Jack Buck poem. “I was a young dad at the time and I was in my house with my girls,” said Buck's son, Joe, who was doing Cardinals telecasts then. “And he went dark on me for a little bit.

“I didn’t talk to him a lot until he emerged with that poem in his hand and read it to me, which I loved. Did he agonize over it? Yes, I think agonize is a good word. For a guy who was a Depression Era kid and earned a Purple Heart in World War II and who believed in this country, I think he, like most people, took that attack really personally.

“That struck a chord in him and that was at a time when he was really reflective. He passed away that next summer and he was looking back and writing a lot of things and using his ability to put words together to really document the way he looked at life.”

On the night of Sept. 17, Matheny was in the dugout, not playing because Bud Smith was pitching for the Cardinals in his first start after his no-hitter two weeks prior when Eli Marrero was catching and Marrero was catching again.

Uecker and Shannon were preparing to broadcast the game. Uecker said he and Jack Buck had often talked about the military and funnyman Uecker said he had been in the service and “Jack had asked me if I was on our side.”

'It was just magnetic'

Joe Buck was preparing to head up the television broadcast team for the game. La Russa was steely-faced as he prepared to manage. Shortly before the first pitch, Jack Buck went to a microphone set up on the field.

“The way he went through that was unbelievable,” said Uecker.

“It was just magnetic,” said La Russa. “I know it was viewed all over but at our ballpark the effect it had was just perfect. You needed to see it or hear it several times to realize just how brilliant it was.”

La Russa, Matheny and this reporter already had either seen copies of the speech and the reporter and La Russa had heard Buck practice it in different sessions before that Monday night.

The poem was written in longhand, not easy to do, certainly, because Buck was in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease.

“That night, driving down to the ballpark,” Joe Buck said, “I was feeling vulnerable — as silly as it sounds now — and knowing there were going to be 40,000 people (the crowd was 32,563) in one stadium. I don’t know ... it was a weird feeling. And when he got to the ball park, I saw him up in the press box and he said he was going to deliver to the crowd the poem that he had read to me as kind of a welcome back.

“I was worried about him getting through it. His hands were shaking.

“I said, ‘Dad, you’re going to cry.’ He had Parkinson’s and he wasn’t in the best of health. But he said, ‘I’m not going to cry.’ “I said, ‘You’re gonna cry,’ and he put his finger in my face and said, ‘I ... will ... not ... cry,’ in the most defiant tone I heard since I was little.’

“He said, ‘I’ll bet you $100 I don’t cry.’ I said, 'You’re on.’

"He went down to deliver the poem and I was getting ready to do the TV broadcast and the only one crying was me. He got through it and he made a beeline to the booth I was in and stuck his hand out, like, ‘Where’s my hundred?’

“I slapped his hand like I had given him five and went about my job and we always had a laugh about that. He died with me owing him 100 bucks. That money never changed hands. I stiffed him.”

'Just the right message'

The crowd was silent as Jack Buck began his speech.

“Once I did hear it later, it makes my hair stand on end,” said Matheny. “It was just the right message from the right voice at the right time.

“But looking back at it, I’ve used that a lot in talking about different adversity that a team goes through. I used it last year talking about the adversity and all the uncertainty of the COVID stuff and how important baseball was.

“I’d thought it before, but I’d never really said it — how important baseball was to the healing of our nation. Just to go along with the words that Mr. Buck wrote and said — bringing us back to the core of who we are and how baseball is part of that.

“I was actually thinking about that poem when I was following this Field of Dreams (game) and James Earl Jones’ dissertation on how, ‘They will come,’ and talking about how baseball’s always been a part — certainly of my life — but in the recent history of our country, baseball plays a bigger role than just entertainment.”

Matheny said from that day forward he doesn’t “take things for granted as much” and is just more careful, in general.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “because there’s this sense of the unknown and awareness of how our nation is viewed. All those things were in the distance and (9-11) made it much more in your face —and it was real.”

Joe Buck spoke to his father not long after Sept. 17 and told him that “everything he had done in his life had led to that moment and gave him the credibility to deliver it and have it be as impactful as it was. It led off SportsCenter. He got a hand-written letter from (commissioner) Bud Selig, thanking him for kind of condoning going back to baseball.

“For a guy who was in World War II and bled for his country and had brothers who did the same ... and his standing in the community and what people thought of him and really wanted to be around him and wanted to hear what he had to say ... that’s probably the most proud I’ve ever been of him. And that’s saying a lot.

“He was in a really weakened state but he gathered up all the strength he had that night and poured it into that delivery, which is not easy to do, I don’t care how old you are, to stand down there and do that.

“I got strength from it, too. I was the same guy driving down there feeling vulnerable and I said, ‘No, this is the time to go on about our lives.’’’

Now, it’s 20 years later. “And it’s a different world that we live in,” said Joe Buck. “I often wonder what he would think if he came back and took stock of where we are — the fighting and the divisions and everything else.

“He probably would be disappointed. That night was about bringing people together. That was what he was good at, whether it was that night or really his entire life, bringing people together for a good cause.”

Rick Hummel

@cmshhummel on Twitter

rhummel@post-dispatch.com

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