To fully appreciate the events of Thursday evening, May 12, 1966, one should look back to May 11, 1954. The St. Louis Cardinals had started their 34th season in Sportsman’s Park, rookie Henry Aaron had hit his first two career home runs with the Braves (still in Milwaukee), and Gary Geiger pitched the final game of his high-school career for the Gorham (Illinois) Mustangs, an 8-1 victory over the Carbondale Terriers, striking out 11 and allowing just one unearned run.1
In the next three weeks, Geiger graduated from high school, signed with the Cardinals, and reported to their Class D club in Hannibal, Missouri.2 Just two months past his 17th birthday, Geiger had a $5,000 contract and the possibility of playing for the team he had rooted for his entire life.3
Two years later, however, Geiger was struggling. His pitching was fine — he had gone 20-7 with a 1.98 ERA at Triple-A Rochester in 1955 — but he was having a hard time adjusting to inactivity between starts.4 Geiger was used to playing every day in high school and still wanted to, so he suggested to Rochester coach Cot Deal that he be converted into an everyday outfielder.5 Having hit .327 in just 52 at-bats with Rochester in 1956, Geiger’s request was fulfilled and the Cardinals sent him to Triple-A Omaha for 1957 for further outfield seasoning.6
Geiger progressed and was recognized as a top prospect for a second time, now as an outfielder like his idol Stan Musial, but his dream of playing for the Cardinals ended in December 1957. St. Louis general manager Frank Lane chose not to protect Geiger from the Rule 5 draft, then Lane himself drafted Geiger days later once Lane had been hired as the new general manager in Cleveland.7
Geiger debuted with Cleveland in 1958, hitting .231 in 91 games. After the season he was sent to the Red Sox as part of the trade for Jimmy Piersall that stunned Boston.8 Soon thereafter, Geiger, one of the fastest men in baseball, became one of the greatest what-ifs in baseball.9 He batted .302 in an injury-shortened 1960 season, hit 18 home runs in 1961, ranked third in the American League for combined power and speed in 1962, had the league’s second best outfield range in 1963, then lost nearly all of the next two seasons to injuries.10 In all, Geiger averaged just 88 games a year in his seven seasons with the Red Sox, his tenure ending on June 7, 1965, when he broke his glove hand diving for a ball. Boston removed Geiger from its 40-man roster and sold his contract to Triple-A Toronto.11
Before their first Atlanta season in 1966, the Braves looked to bolster their outfield depth.12 Impressed by his power potential, they took a chance on Geiger and drafted him as a minor-league free agent.13 With Opening Day nearing, the Braves had eight outfielders to sort through. In the closing days of spring training, center fielder Mack Jones was lost to a shoulder injury, Felipe Alou was shifted into center, Rico Carty became the starting left fielder, and Geiger made the team as the fourth outfielder.14
Five games into the season, the Braves had won just once and manager Bobby Bragan knew the team had to tighten up. The sometimes defensively-challenged Carty had had a rough series against the Mets in New York, misjudging more than one of the flies hit toward him in left, so Bragan gave Carty the night off and Geiger got his first start on April 19.15 He went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored as the Braves won that game as well as their next five.16 Through May 11, Geiger got into 17 games — nine of them as the starting center fielder — and was hitting .278 by the time the Braves arrived in St. Louis to open the new Civic Center Busch Memorial Stadium on May 12.17
Knowing Geiger had several friends and family members making the 90-mile drive up from around Geiger’s hometown of Sand Ridge, Illinois, Carty volunteered to sit out and let Geiger have the start.18 Bragan did not object and Geiger made his 10th start of the season, playing center field and batting second between Alou and Aaron.
Geiger’s friends and family were among the 46,048 fans who attended the Thursday night opener, and at 8:05 P.M. they saw Cardinals pitcher Ray Washburn deliver the first pitch low and outside to Alou.19 The ball was then delivered to National League President Warren Giles in the stands to commemorate the fourth new stadium to open during his time in office.20 Three pitches later, Alou grounded out to Julian Javier and Geiger came to the plate.
Still emaciated by two stomach surgeries that cost him all but five games of the 1964 season, Geiger, six feet tall, had gotten his weight up to a still-gaunt 155 pounds.21 Having waited his entire life to play in St. Louis, even if it was now for an opposing team, and also realizing how often he had been injured in his career, Geiger made the most of it. He swung at Washburn’s first pitch and bounced the ball between Javier and Cardinals first baseman Orlando Cepeda for the first-ever hit in Busch Memorial Stadium. Aaron flied out to deep center field and Joe Torre grounded back to Washburn, leaving Geiger stranded at first.
As the bottom of the third began, Cardinals broadcaster Harry Caray expressed that “everything is absolutely beautiful, but we need some runs.”22 Seconds later, Cardinals shortstop Jerry Buchek served a Wade Blasingame curveball into center field. Blasingame struck out Washburn and Javier popped out, but Mike Shannon laced a triple into the right-field corner and Buchek scored the game’s — and stadium’s — first run. Curt Flood followed with an RBI-single into left and the Cardinals led, 2-0.
Through the first five innings, Geiger had not only the stadium’s first hit, but also all of Atlanta’s hits. He had added a leadoff double in the fourth, dropping a shallow fly in front of Shannon in right and speeding into second base without a play. Three batters later, first baseman Lee Thomas drove Geiger in with a fly to Flood in deep center, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to 2-1.
Leading off the sixth, Alou hit the stadium’s first home run, tying the game, 2-2. Geiger followed by ripping a double into the right-field corner for his third hit, but the heart of Atlanta’s lineup again left him stranded.
Alou, celebrating his 31st birthday, hit another home run to open the eighth inning and give the Braves a 3-2 lead. The Braves maintained that lead and Billy O’Dell went back to the mound in the bottom of the ninth to close out the game in his second inning of work. O’Dell struck out Charley Smith but Alex Johnson singled to left, where Marty Keough bobbled the ball allowing Johnson to take second. “And now we got a shot,” relayed Caray as the crowd came to life.23 Tim McCarver grounded out and Johnson went to third with two outs. Buchek, down to his last strike, blooped a single into right field and Caray exclaimed his trademark “Holy cow!” as Johnson scored the tying run.24 Pitcher Bob Gibson came in as a pinch-hitter and singled, sending the potential winning run to third. Javier grounded deep to third but Eddie Mathews threw him out to send the game into extra innings.
The Braves went down in order in the 10th and the Cardinals got two men on in the bottom of the inning but failed to score on Chi-Chi Olivo who came on in relief of O’Dell. The 11th inning went very much the same for both teams, Atlanta sent just three men to the plate and the Cardinals put two on against Phil Niekro but could not score.
The Braves threatened in the top of the 12th, getting two walks from Hal Woodeshick, but Don Dennis got Alou to fly out to Shannon. Flood led off the bottom of the 12th for the Cardinals and took a Niekro knuckleball off his helmet. Manager Red Schoendienst called for Cepeda to bunt, something he could not remember having done since his rookie season nine years before.25 Coach Joe Schultz had to call time and walk down the third-base line to give Cepeda the instructions verbally. Cepeda’s bunt fell just in front of the plate, but when Torre rushed a throw to second to try to get Flood, the ball bounced into center field and the runners ended up at second and third. Smith was walked intentionally and the infield was drawn in for a force play at home. Lou Brock, who went in to play left field in the 11th, made his first plate appearance of the game and hit the 1-and-2 pitch up the middle to drive in the winning run. Niekro took responsibility for the decisive hit, saying afterward “that was a perfect example of a pitcher not fielding his position well” when his follow-through carried him too far to the left to field Brock’s ground ball.26
Geiger finished with a single, two doubles, a walk, and a run scored. It was his most productive game in nearly three years, and the performance lifted his average to .314, the high-water mark of his season. Geiger would play through 1970 and finish his career with 633 hits, none more meaningful than the seeing-eye single he hit against the team that signed him out of high school — his favorite team — on the night they opened their new stadium and in front of the friends and family who had always supported him.
I am thankful to have met Gary (or Merle as we in the family knew him) a handful of times before he passed away the day after my 14th birthday in 1996. I was always close to my great-grandmother — who was Merle’s aunt — and I remember very well the day she took me to meet Merle when I was nine. With me also being a left-handed center fielder, Merle and I would have had a lot to talk about in the time he had left, but unfortunately, I was a very shy kid, and missed the opportunity to pick his brain. Merle was always kind and spoke to me when I saw him, and I will forever treasure the 1961 Topps card he autographed for me the day we met.
Along with the sources cited in the Notes, other sources used regularly for game action, player statistics, box scores, and team information include Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.com, and the original game audio posted to YouTube by Classic Baseball on the Radio.
1 Scott Ferkovich, “Sportsman’s Park (St. Louis),” Society for American Baseball Research Biography Project Ballparks (website), accessed February 21, 2021, https://sabr.org/bioproj/park/sportsmans-park-st-louis; “Milwaukee Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Box Score, April 25, 1954,” Baseball Reference (website), accessed February 21, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN195404250.shtml; “Vienna, Gorham, Marissa, Red Bud, Anna All Advance,” Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale), May 12, 1954: 9.
2 “Gorham High to Graduate 22,” Southern Illinoisan, May 19, 1954: 3; Merle Jones, “Egypt Sport Talk,” Southern Illinoisan, May 24, 1954: 9; Merle Jones, “Egypt Sport Talk,” Southern Illinoisan, June 7, 1954: 9.
3 Jones, “Egypt Sport Talk,” June 7, 1954.
4 “Gary Geiger,” Baseball Reference (website), accessed February 23, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=geiger001gar.
5 Bill Ballew, “Gary Geiger: Ex-Pitcher Became a Fenway Outfield Fixture,” Sports Collectors Digest, August 13, 1993: 146; Jones, “Egypt Sport Talk,” June 7, 1954; Bill Beck, “He’s Trying the Musial Switch…,” Sunday Magazine, March 17, 1957: 3.
6 “Gary Geiger,” Baseball Reference; George Beahon, “Red Wings Add Lovenguth to Club On Option in Deal with Cards,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 2, 1957: 28.
7 Jack Herman, “Lane Snatches Cardinal Farmhand in Draft,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, December 3, 1957: 17.
8 Hy Hurwitz, “Piersall Traded,” Boston Globe, December 3, 1958:1.
9 “Piersall Traded.”
10 Geiger appeared ready to breakout in 1960 until he was hit by an Early Wynn pitch on July 26 leading to a collapsed lung that ended his season after just 77 games. It was the first of many significant injuries Geiger suffered in his career, including a concussion when he crashed into the outfield wall at Fenway Park on June 9, 1962, a bleeding ulcer that required six blood transfusions in the fall of 1962, surgery to address the ulcer in February 1964, a second surgery a month later to remove a bowel blockage, a broken hand suffered when he dove for a ball on June 7, 1965, and a broken finger when the lid of a steamer trunk slammed down on his hand at a New York hotel on September 9, 1966. All the while Geiger battled a paralyzing fear of flying. “Gary Geiger,” Baseball Reference (website); “Geiger Out for Year with Collapsed Lung,” Boston Globe, July 29, 1960: 15; Bob Holbrook, “Schilling Hurt; Out 4 Weeks,” Boston Globe, June 10, 1962: 77; Roger Birtwell, “Geiger Reveals Ulcer, Had Six Transfusions,” Boston Globe, February 26, 1963: 25; “Geiger Rejoins Sox Next Week,” Boston Globe, July 12, 1964: 65; “Horton Recalled, Replaces Geiger,” Boston Globe, June 8, 1965: 51; Murray Chass, “Geiger Healthy — but for How Long?,” Southern Illinoisan, March 23, 1967: 13; Bob Holbrook, “Geiger Aim: Full Year,” Boston Globe, March 1, 1965: 15.
11 “Horton Recalled, Replaces Geiger”; Hy Hurwitz, “Red Sox Give Up on Geiger, Guindon, 3 Pitchers,” Boston Globe, October 22, 1965: 26.
12 Five years after leading the National League in attendance with 2.2 million fans in 1957, the Milwaukee Braves were drawing just a third of that total by 1962. In July 1964, team president John J. McHale confessed to looking for a new home for the Braves, eventually settling on Atlanta with its new 50,000-seat stadium and a television network that reached seven states. “1957 Milwaukee Braves Statistics,” Baseball Reference (website), accessed February 24, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/MLN/1957.shtml; “Atlanta Braves Attendance Data,” Baseball Almanac (website), accessed February 24, 2021, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/bravatte.shtml; Joseph Durso, “Braves Ready to Transfer Franchise From Milwaukee to Atlanta Next Year,” New York Times, July 3, 1964: 15.
13 “Geiger, Upshaw Signed by Braves,” Fort Myers (Florida) News-Press, February 4, 1966: 4C; Charlie Roberts, “The Stove Pipe Warms Up As Baseball Talk Bristles,” Atlanta Constitution, December 9, 1965: 67.
14 “Richmond Gets Catcher; Braves Drop Two More,” Palm Beach Post, April 6, 1966: 17; Wayne Minshew, “Decision Due Today on the Ailing Jones,” Atlanta Constitution, April 8, 1966: 49.
15 Wayne Minshew, “Bragan Shakes ’Em Up, Holds Morning Drill,” Atlanta Constitution, April 20, 1966: 42; Jesse Outlar, “Fresh Start in Philly,” Atlanta Constitution, April 19, 1966: 39.
16 Wayne Minshew, “Braves Smash Past Phillies, Check 2-Game Losing Streak,” Atlanta Constitution, April 20, 1966: 39; “1966 Atlanta Braves Schedule,” Baseball Reference (website), accessed February 26, 2021, https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/ATL/1966-schedule-scores.shtml.
17 Two proposals for a riverfront stadium in St. Louis failed to gain much momentum in the 1930s. After the Second World War, St. Louis, like many American cities, faced advancing decrepitude; structures and infrastructure alike were aged and not designed to handle a transitioning economy and an influx of automobiles. As a result, firms and families left the downtown, elements seen as unsavory moved in, and St. Louis became a textbook example of white flight. Businesspeople operating inside an 18-block tract took exception when the area was deemed blighted, but their protests were steamrolled and their businesses bulldozed as a bold $89 million redevelopment plan for the downtown began. Several historic landmarks came down, including the entirety of the city’s Chinatown, an important part of St. Louis’ economy and culture since 1857, before construction began on Civic Center Busch Memorial Stadium in May 1964. It was expected to be completed by the start of the 1966 season, but a looming strike in the steel industry and a warehouse fire next door delayed the finishing touches, and Busch Memorial Stadium finally opened on May 12, 1966. Carl R. Baldwin, “Public Apathy, Other Barriers Surmounted by Dedicated Men,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 8, 1966: 1G; Huping Ling, Chinese St. Louis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 1; “Steel Delivered for Stadium’s Movable Stands,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 9, 1965: 9D; “Fire to Hamper Stadium Work,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 4, 1965: 1A.
18 Nathan Geiger, telephone conversation with author, January 31, 2021.
19 Frank Leeming Jr., “46,048 Attend First Game In New Stadium,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 13, 1966: 1A; Classic Baseball on the Radio, “1966 05 12 Cardinals vs Braves First Game at Busch Stadium,” February 11, 2018, YouTube video, 2:39:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJt2gVZKMOY&t=551s.
20 The new stadiums of the 1960s were enormous, closed-off fortresses encircling those inside and protecting them from all that was in flux outside. They were also almost all identical, as Richie Hebner famously commented, “When I’m at bat, I can’t tell whether I’m in Cincinnati, Philly, or St. Louis,” or Pittsburgh or Atlanta for that matter; they were all cookie-cutter coliseums seemingly stamped from the same steel and concrete dough. “The 1960s-1980s: The Cookie Cutter Monsters,” This Great Game (website), accessed February 27, 2021, https://thisgreatgame.com/ballparks-eras-1960s-1980s; and Curt Smith, Storied Stadium: Baseball’s History Through Its Ballparks (New York: Carrol & Graf, 2001), 301.
21 Bob Broeg, “Bounce-Back Champion,” Baseball Digest 25, no. 7 (August 1966): 59; Arthur Siegel, “Don’t Write Geiger Off!,” Boston Globe, May 14, 1964: 37.
22 Classic Baseball on the Radio, “1966 05 12 Cardinals vs Braves First Game at Busch Stadium.”
23 Classic Baseball on the Radio, “1966 05 12 Cardinals vs Braves First Game at Busch Stadium.”
24 Classic Baseball on the Radio, “1966 05 12 Cardinals vs Braves First Game at Busch Stadium.”
25 Neal Russo, “Cards Give a Bit Extra for Debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 13, 1966: 1E.