Happy camper: An 87-year-old Cardinals fan helped remind Hall of Famers 'why we love this game'

In Cooperstown, Cardinals fan John Anagnost stepped out of the past and onto a field where he first watched a game 76 years ago. Richard Messina for ESPN

The sign above the portal to the stadium says "Doubleday Field," but on this gray, pre-church bell Sunday morning in Cooperstown, New York, in late June, it might as well say, "Once upon a time ..."

For one thing, the old ballpark looks pretty much the same as it did when the field was first used following the induction of the inaugural Hall of Fame class in June 1939. For another, the two teams playing for the championship of the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals Cooperstown Fantasy Camp are being managed by Dave LaPoint and John Stuper, who were rookie pitchers and roommates on the 1982 world champion Cardinals. As for the gnomish man sitting in the home dugout? That's Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, who literally saved that series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

But what really gives the scene a fairy-tale feel is the Cardinal wearing gray No. 21 and taking his cuts on one knee in the on-deck circle. Once upon a time -- on Monday, Aug. 3, 1942, to be precise -- that man, John Anagnost, was an 11-year-old boy from Sherburne, New York, who sat in the bleachers with his younger brother, Nick, and Costas, their Greek immigrant father, as they watched the Cardinals play the Philadelphia Athletics following the induction of Rogers Hornsby.

In fact, that game is the reason why Anagnost, now 87, has been wearing the birds on the bat for the past three days. As he tells it, "My dad owned a candy store in Sherburne, The Sweet Shoppe. He was from the old country, but he knew enough to expose his kids to American sports. Early in the game -- first inning, as I recall -- one of the Cardinal players hit the ball to the wall and started running around the bases trying for an inside-the-park home run. Well, he skidded coming around third base, then dove back into third. This was an exhibition game, mind you. Some guy in the stands asked, 'Who was that guy?' and somebody else answered, 'That was Enos Slaughter.' Well, that was enough for me. From then on, I was a Cardinals fan.

"That was the Alpha. I guess you could say this is the Omega. Except I'm not quite done yet," he says.

Down the block from Doubleday Field, in one of the folders in the Hall of Fame Library, there's an old account in The Sporting News that confirms Anagnost's recollection: "In the first inning, Country Slaughter pummeled a fastball to the center field fence for a triple. Slaughter would have tallied ahead of the relay, but fell rounding third. [Dick] Fowler then made Musial bound out, Pete Suder to Dick Siebert." That's right, Stan Musial, then barely a man at 21 and not yet The Man, ended the inning. Later in the game, Musial hit an inside-the-park homer to help the Cardinals win 5-2.

Other details further dated Anagnost's first game: 79-year-old A's manager Connie Mack gave a speech beforehand; ticket prices ranged from 50 cents (bleachers) to $1.50 (along the baselines); and the crowd of 6,720 might have been even larger had the wartime gas and tire rationing not been in effect.

"Sherburne was only about an hour away from Cooperstown," Anagnost says. "But that day opened up a whole new world to me. I was hooked for life."

And a remarkable life it has been. Anagnost returned to Doubleday Field four years later, for the state high school championships.

"I was a sophomore, played right field and catcher," he says. "Sherburne lost the championship game to Binghamton Central 5-4 in the ninth inning. I remember that one of our guys, Bill Quinn, looked at the second-place certificate they gave us, then ripped it up right there."

After high school, Anagnost went to Cornell, graduating in 1952 with a degree in economics. During the Korean War, he became a first lieutenant in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, specializing in automatic weapons.

"Didn't see action, though," he says. "By the time we shipped out from Fort Bliss to Korea, the armistice had been signed."

After the Army, he settled in Norwich, New York, a thriving town of 8,000 just south of Sherburne, to work at the Bank of Norwich. While having lunch in the park one day, a telephone operator named Marylou Curley caught his eye, and he caught hers.

"Our first date was at Sylvan Beach on Oneida Lake," he says. "And I guess it took."

They married in 1957 and raised three children together. Marylou became an engineer for the Chenango and Unadilla Telephone Company.

In 1966, Anagnost returned to Cooperstown, this time with his 9-year-old son, Steve, in tow. Their beloved Cardinals were playing the Minnesota Twins, and the Anagnosts rejoiced when St. Louis won 7-5 behind a complete game from a minor leaguer who had been called up for the occasion. A fellow named Steve Carlton. Afterward, they lined up to get autographs from the players. Steve Anagnost, who had brought his autograph book, idolized center fielder Curt Flood, No. 21. But when they beseeched Flood to sign the book, he declined, even after John pointed out that his son positioned himself in center field just the way the All-Star did.

"I asked him, 'Why not?' And Curt said, 'If I sign, every kid in the ballpark is gonna want my autograph,'" Anagnost says. "Well, I told him, there's going to be one very disappointed boy. He just sort of shrugged and got on the bus. Steve was crestfallen, but then, all of a sudden, he feels a tap on his shoulder. He looks back and sees a Cardinals player, Pat Corrales, the backup catcher. Corrales asks for the book, takes it on the bus, then returns a few minutes later with the book open to the page on which Curt Flood signed his name."

Anagnost is telling this story as he sits in one of the rocking chairs on the porch of the magnificent Otesaga Hotel, where the fantasy campers are staying. It's arrival day, Thursday, and John and Nick Anagnost, now 83, have just driven down from Manlius, New York, near Syracuse. John has been practicing for three months now with two of his grandsons, and he's hoping to get in the game as a catcher.

"I'm not frail, you know. I play ice hockey twice a week," he says. "Here, let me show you." With that, he walks over to a secluded corner of the porch and drops his pants -- something not normally encouraged at the Otesaga -- to reveal a purple bruise on his hip that's the shape of Florida and the size of a porterhouse.

Most major league teams hold fantasy camps, but the Cardinals have made an art form of theirs. They also have camps in St. Louis and Jupiter, Florida, and they are the only team to have one in Cooperstown. Under the supervision of Joe Pfeiffer, the director of alumni relations, the Cardinals brought in legends Ozzie Smith, Tim McCarver and Sutter to mingle with die-hards willing to pay $5,675 to put on the uniform and play on one of four teams sprinkled with ex-major leaguers like Rick Ankiel, Ray Lankford, Jason Marquis, Brian Jordan and Woody Williams.

Anagnost is particularly excited about the presence of McCarver.

"He was on that 1966 team," he says. "For all these years, I have been wondering about that Curt Flood autograph. Did Pat Corrales see what had happened and take it upon himself to get Flood's autograph for Steve? Or did Flood himself feel bad and dispatch Corrales to bring him the book. Maybe Tim will know."

To bring home the purpose of his mission, John asked for No. 21, Flood's old number.

Full disclosure. Once upon a time, 1972-73 to be inexact, this writer and John worked in the same town, Norwich, New York. I was a sportswriter fresh out of college, and he was a local banker. In fact, I found out about John's quixotic desire to catch for the Cardinals from a mutual acquaintance who remembered that I had worked in Norwich. He thought I might be interested in a story on an 87-year-old man getting a chance to play for his favorite team.

There are 20 years between John and me, and 45 years between then and now, but as we trade the names of people we knew way back when, coincidences dawn on us.

"I might've covered the golf tournaments you played at the Canasawacta Country Club," I say.

"And I must have umpired your softball games," he says. "I loved putting on the mask. Banker by day, umpire by night."

He and Marylou watched their three children -- Steve, Teresa and Elizabeth -- become adults. Then, after John retired from the bank after 40 years, they moved to Manlius and doted on their six grandchildren -- when they weren't traveling to Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and his father's native Greece.

"Actually, the original family name is Anagnostopoulos," he says. "Kind of hard to fit on the back of a uniform, though."

Marylou died in February 2017, seven months after she and John celebrated their 60th anniversary.

"They had such a long life together, and in her last few months, he took wonderful care of her," says Steve, a former rugby player at Syracuse and an engineer for a waste management company. "Dad took it pretty hard -- he felt kind of lost. But then he got wind of the Cardinals' camp in Cooperstown, and it gave him something to look forward to."

The first official function for the fantasy camp was an introductory dinner on Thursday night, followed by the announcement of draft selections, made beforehand by the four managers: LaPoint, Stuper, former Cardinal catcher Tom Pagnozzi and one-time ace John Tudor, who threw a still-incredible 10 shutouts for the '85 Redbirds.

LaPoint is such a popular fixture at the Cardinals' camps that the very mention of his name prompts a resounding, synchronized cheer ("Yaaaaaay").

"I've done about 20 camps the last 15 years," he says. "I try to make sure everyone has a good time and a real baseball experience."

To that end, LaPoint is not afraid to josh with his players. That's why, in the middle of the draft announcements, he went over to Anagnost and, pretending that he was hard of hearing, shouted, "THEY'RE ABOUT TO ANNOUNCE YOUR NAME!" Anagnost loved it.

He also loved to hear that he had actually been the subject of trade talks.

"To watch John make consistent contact and run hard down the first-base line ... Well, he was an inspiration. He was beautiful. He was an 87-year-old man who reminded us of why we love this game." Tim McCarver

"John Tudor tried to get me for his team because he loves hockey and found out I still played," Anagnost says.

Having been given their teams, the players were told the schedule for Friday by "commissioner" Scott Terry, another former Cardinals pitcher. Team LaPoint had back-to-back games against Team Tudor and Team Stuper, with the first game starting at 9 a.m. That game would also be a battle of octogenarians -- Anagnost vs. Bill "Jersey" Curzie, an 83-year-old from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

"You know those geezers in the balcony of The Muppet Show?" asked LaPoint. "Well, tomorrow we have Statler playing Waldorf."

The next morning John and Nick had breakfast ... with Tim McCarver.

"I think I finally got my answer," Anagnost said just before helping a hobbled Sutter get into the front passenger seat of his car for the short ride from the Otesaga to the ballpark. "Tim didn't remember the scene, but he said Curt had a good heart, and that he must have had second thoughts."

After dropping Sutter off at Doubleday Field, Anagnost decided to get in a little batting practice at the Doubleday Batting Range next door. He chose the curveball machine, and after missing the first few pitches, he moved up in the batter's box and started making consistent contact. Not bad for an 87-year-old, someone told him.

"Not bad for an 87-year-old who has trouble seeing out of one eye," he said with a wink.

LaPoint had Anagnost batting eighth as a designated hitter. They had mutually decided that catching was not a good idea, but they held out the possibility that he could play second.

"What I really want to do is leave my glove on the field after an inning, just like they did in the old days," Anagnost said.

When the two teams stood along the foul lines for the singing of the national anthem, everyone took his cap off -- everyone but Anagnost. It was not a senior moment. He kept his cap on so that he could salute the flag with two fingers, as he would in the Army. He also paid homage to another Korean War veteran by taking his cuts in the on-deck circle on one knee -- just like Ted Williams did.

"My father is a big believer in honor," said Steve, who was at the Friday games, along with Nick, another brother, Basil (79), and John's daughter Elizabeth, who came with her husband, Matt, and their two boys, Jack and Daniel.

John may not have had the skills of his team's third-place hitter, Ray Lankford, but he came with his own crowd.

Before the top of the third, with the score tied 0-0 and Anagnost due up third, LaPoint shouted to him, "CAN YOU RUN TO FIRST?" To which, Anagnost hollered back, "YES!" With two outs and nobody on, Anagnost drew a walk ... then ran to second base on a single, arriving ahead of the throw. His next two times up, he struck out swinging, but the second time, in the eighth, LaPoint shouted sincere encouragement: "Way to swing, John." A few batters later, Lankford hit a two-run double, and Team LaPoint went on to win 6-2.

The next game, against Team Stuper, didn't go nearly as well. But in the top of the seventh, with Team LaPoint trailing 7-1, the bases loaded and family members yelling, "Papou," John drew a walk for an RBI and sauntered proudly to first as everyone in the park smiled. Though the final score was 7-3, John was happy.

"I made it a little closer," he says. "Not many men my age get to play a doubleheader with major leaguers before lunch."

That night, the Cardinals held a reception in the Hall of Fame Gallery, amid the plaques of Sutter and Smith, Slaughter and Musial, Carlton and the manager who called him up to play in Cooperstown in '66, Red Schoendienst.

At one point, Anagnost went over to Ozzie Smith and told him, "You're my hero."

Smith corrected him: "No, you are my hero."

The next day, Saturday, Anagnost celebrated what would have been his 62nd wedding anniversary by helping his teammates roll the tarp off Doubleday Field at 8 a.m. There was rain in the afternoon forecast, so Scott Terry wanted to get the games in as quickly as possibly.

Team LaPoint helped him out by turning a triple play on Team Pagnozzi in the top of the first. Then, in the bottom of the inning, Joe Pfeiffer -- a very good player for a front-office guy -- doubled to the left-center field wall to spark a five-run rally. John's daughter, Teresa, and her husband Francois, had come all the way from Wethersfield, Connecticut, with their two children, Zach and Allie, and they watched John hit a ball back to the pitcher in the bottom of the second. His second time up, in the fourth, he laced a hard grounder to second for a force out. Team LaPoint wound up winning 7-3 to qualify for the championship game the next day against Team Stuper.

Given the relationship between LaPoint and Stuper, that matchup was meant to be. They're still spiritual roommates carrying on a conversation that began in 1982, on a Whitey Herzog-managed team whose players weren't afraid of ribbing each other. Stuper, who had a complete-game victory in Game 6 of the '82 World Series and went on to coach the Yale baseball team for 26 years, told this story to the campers during a morning meeting between games on Saturday:

"In one of my starts in '83, I went out and walked the first three batters," he says. "They brought in John Martin, and pretty soon we're down 6-0. So now I'm sitting on the bench, thinking of my pitching line, when Bob Forsch and Bruce Sutter come over to console me -- I think. Bruce says to me, 'I can't believe Whitey took you out when you had a no-hitter going.'"

John Anagnost spent Saturday afternoon taking the family through the Hall of Fame to show them his favorite touchstones.

"This weekend has been so much more than I could have ever imagined," he says. "To come back to Cooperstown to play again, to become friends with players I've always admired, to have the kids see me in a Cardinal uniform. I like to think Marylou is watching."

And so, on Sunday morning, 72 years after his last championship game at Doubleday Field, 76 years after his first visit, John Anagnost stepped to the plate in the top of the third with a man on, one out, trailing 2-0 because Ankiel had hit a two-run bomb into the trees beyond the right-field fence. Before the game, LaPoint had said, "I've been to enough of these fantasy camps to know that the fantasy happens. I have a feeling something good will happen to John."

If this were an actual fairy tale, Anagnost would have gotten a big hit, or kept the rally going. But in reality, he tried to hold up with two strikes, and the first-base umpire motioned that he went around. Anagnost, a longtime umpire himself, did not like the call one bit and let the plate umpire, Pete Demnitz, know that it was wrong. (It was.) Demnitz, to his credit, did not run the 87-year-old, or any of the other players riding him.

"That's what I loved about John," LaPoint would say later. "I've played and managed a lot of competitive people, but he's right up there. And it wasn't just about him. I wanted to put him out there in the field in the championship game, but he did not want to hurt the team's chances in any way." In other words, Anagnost was trying as hard in his exhibition game in Cooperstown as Slaughter had in his exhibition game in Cooperstown.

Three innings later, something nice did happen. Still trailing 2-0, with one out and nobody on, Anagnost hit a solid ground ball to second and ran it out as the crowd gave him a nice hand. On his way back to the dugout, he stopped to apologize to the plate umpire. Then he gave him a little hug.

Team LaPoint put together a three-run rally to take a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth, but Team Stuper came right back in the bottom of the inning to go up 6-3. And that's how the game ended, with Anagnost once again losing a championship game at Doubleday Field.

But instead of a second-place certificate, he was given special recognition by Scott Terry in the form of a canvas Cardinals insignia signed by the Hall of Famers, managers and major leaguers who were at the camp.

"The honor was all ours," McCarver says. "To watch John make consistent contact and run hard down the first-base line ... Well, he was an inspiration. He was beautiful. He was an 87-year-old man who reminded us of why we love this game."

By the way, the Cardinals will be having another fantasy camp in Cooperstown in 2020. "I'm still hoping for a hit," Anagnost says.