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Remembering an area sportswriter: 50 years after his Cubs-Cards ‘cusp’

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Ralph Ray

Jean Wheat of Dunlap recently passed on, a sad reminder of conversations in which she recalled the bittersweet time 50 years ago when her brother, sportswriter Ralph Ray, grappled with being a Cubs fan in St. Louis, then a baseball fan who came to love the Redbirds.

Wheat had reminisced about her brother Ralph, who went from rural west-central Illinois to the top of sports journalism at The Sporting News.

Jean recalled growing up in Fulton County, where baseball fans were about evenly divided between the Cubs and Redbirds, and remembered childhood trips to Wrigley Field.

“Sports was always a familiar topic in our family,” she said, “especially anything concerning baseball and the Chicago Cubs.”

Jean was proud of Ralph, in a humble way that only a former nurse and church organist could be.

“He was very special to me,” she said, “and I was so proud of how well he had done in his chosen field.”

Born and raised on a farm outside Fairview, Ill., Ralph went to Knox College, where he graduated in 1942, then served in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant with the Adjutant General’s office in the 2nd Infantry Division.

“It probably saved his life,” Jean said.

After World War II, Ralph worked on the sports desk of the Decatur Herald through the 1940s, got a job with the Chicago Tribune as a reporter, and was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He returned to the Trib, married Mary Jane Ross, and in 1953, they moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he worked at the Evening News.

In 1958, his dream job opened up in St. Louis, Jean said, and Mary Jane agreed.

“He got a chance to work for The Sporting News and it is something he always wanted to do,” recalled Mary Jane, who died last summer. “And he got to work with baseball.

“Baseball was his life,” Mary Jane said. “Baseball was it, let me tell you.”

At The Sporting News, based in St. Louis for more than a century and known as “the Bible of Baseball,” Ralph edited others’ stories and wrote some of his own, and in 1965 he was promoted to associate editor and started composing some of the best editorials TSN had ever seen.

“Well-conceived and handsomely couched essays on the entire spectrum of sports,” TSN said in its 1986 centennial anniversary book, “his prose evoked widespread commendation.

“Particularly fluent on baseball topics, he marshaled facts and figures with consummate skill,” the publication recalled.

It was less that skill than his passion for the Cubs that saw Ray grapple with conflicting loyalties – apart from the professional detachment and fairness required of a respected sportswriter. And they came to a head 50 years ago this season, Jean said.

“We followed the Cubs as kids,” she said. “And he couldn’t show that as a Sporting News man. Plus, working in St. Louis, he grew to really appreciate the Cardinals.”

Five decades ago this month, Ralph’s Cubs were struggling to eventually finish with an 82-80 record, in seventh place, with a few stars who’d lead the team to contention in a few years: Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Lou Brock (a year before his legendary trade to St. Louis).

In St. Louis, meanwhile, the Cardinals were on the cusp of greatness, although perennial all-star Stan Musial was playing his last season. Redbird position players included Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, Dick Groat, Julian Javier, Tim McCarver and Bill White; pitchers included Bob Gibson, Curt Simmons and Ernie Broglio (who’d go to the Cubs in the Brock transaction). The Cardinals were one year away from defeating the New York Yankees to become World Champions, and in 1963 finished in second, with a 93-69 record.

“Ralph couldn’t help getting swept up,” Jean said. “He especially liked Musial.”

After decades years as a writer and editor at The Sporting News, Ralph Ray retired in 1986, but kept active in St. Louis and socialized with Musial as president of St. Louis’ notable 1-2-3 Club, a group of area sports figures such as ex-ballplayers Frank Torre and Joe Cunningham and sportswriters including Bob Burnes (of the Globe-Democrat and KMOX) and Sam Muchnick (of the old St. Louis Times).

Ray’s wife Mary Jane said, “Those guys would all sit around and think of a question to ask everybody about sports. They would ask each other who had a sore finger in 1943, and, somehow, someone would know the answer. Baseball was in your bones.”

Jean agreed, saying, “Ralph couldn’t have wished for a better job. And he even came to root for the Cardinals. It was great baseball, after all.”

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.