Dreams of playing big league ball come alive in former teacher's books

News-DemocratDecember 9, 2013 

Art Voellinger still dreams about playing major league baseball.

At age 72, he probably won't be the next Cardinals rookie sensation. But his words are keeping him in the game.

He wrote the novel "One Home Run" in 2011 and "Double Play" was released last month.

"'Double Play' is not just about baseball," Voellinger said. "It's about me. It's about you. It's about everyone who ever dreamed about playing big league ball."

The Belleville native knows a thing or two about baseball. In addition to playing the game in high school and college, he has 60 years of experience as a sportswriter, editor and sports columnist and 32 years as a high school English teacher and coach.

Most of all, Voellinger is a storyteller.

"A friend told me, 'Art, you have so many stories, you ought to write a book. So I did. Twice."

His books are filled with references to metro-east towns and business and local and national baseball legends. As you turn the pages, you find yourself in familiar territory such as Freeburg and Valmeyer, inside Stag Brewery, at a home in Chenot Place and in the stands at Belleville's old Stag Field.

"I wanted to write something better -- and cleaner -- than what you see on TV," Voellinger said. "Oh, there's even a little sex and romance in my books because that's part of life. But it's innocent. Something anyone can read.

"One Home Run" is set in 1953. "Double Play" in 1958.

"I chose those years for a reason. I want people to enjoy those years again," Voellinger said. "It was such a great time in our counry. The war was over. The economy was doing well. The country's spirit was high. It was Ozzie and Harriet time -- a wonderful society."

Frank Slade is the main character in "Double Play." The 37-year-old and his high school sweetheart wife have three kids. He works at the Stag Brewery in his hometown of Ashville, Ill. Slade was the best baseball player ever to come out of Ashville High, and is the longtime star of the town's men's team, the Ashville Champs. But the big fish in the little pond still held onto his dream of playing major league baseball.

At ths point in Slade's life, that would take a major league miracle. And that's what Voellinger's tale is all about.

"Frank Slade represents everyone who wants to be a major league baseball player but never made it," Voellinger said. "Everybody needs a dream."

Voellinger's first book, "One Home Run," was set in 1953 in Nashville, Ill.

"It's a book about baseball and life stories. Ninety percent of it is true, about people and places I've known. But the names have been changed for obvious reasons."

The central character, promising centerfielder Randy Wilson, is spotted by a scout, who offers him a summer job and a spot on a men's baseball team in Southern Illinois. That's familiar turf for Voellinger, who has been involved in American Legion Baseball and the Mon-Clair League for many years, as a young player, coach and supporter.

Voellinger even wrote a song, called "One Home Run" for the first book.

One home run,

How I'd like to hit just one home run,

Circle the bases, have some fun

With One Home Run

One Four-bagger,

How I'd like to show my swagger,

Dance and run, under the sun

With One Home Run

For "Double Play," he wrote another song, "National Pastime."

"I think it's a pretty good song," Voellinger said. "It could be a hit with the right singer."

He also wrote about a baseball game being played in prison. "That's because, when I was playing ball, we went to a prison to play a game. It really opened my eyes. Can you imagine a young guy going into a prison?"

Voellinger sprinkles his books with his vast knowledge of baseball history.

You'll learn interesting tidbits about 1950s major leaguers such as lefthanded pitcher Joe Nuxhall, who got to the major leagues at age 15, and Satchel Paige, who once pitched at Stag Field (Ashville Athletic Field here). And Belleville's own major leaguer, Les Mueller, who plays for the Mueller Furniture team.

"Those are the guys I grew up idolizing. You'll learn a thing or two about them in my books.

"One Home Run" and "Double Play" are published by iUniverse. They are available in hard cover, soft cover and as ebooks at iuniverse.com and at amazon.com They are also available at the Belleville Public Library.

Both books are in the libraries at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. and the Society for American Baseball Research in Phoenix, Ariz. Some of the proceeds from the books are donated to American Legion Baseball and Hospice of Southern Illinois.

Meet the author

Name: Art Voellinger

Age: 72

Residence: Belleville

Family: Wife Karen Fitzgerald is a first-grade teacher at Ellis Elementary School in Belleville. They have two sons and three daughters.

Teaching career: 32 years as a high school English teacher and coach, including O'Fallon Township High School from 1965 to 1969 and 1972 to 2002.

Journalism career: Began writing in 1956 as a high school correspondent and later became spots editor of the Belleville News-Democrat , associate editor of The Sporting News and copy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He was a columnist for the Southwestern Illinois Journal Publications and Lee Enterprises/Post Dispatch. He also served as a stringer for the Associated Press and United Press International at St. Louis Cardinals baseball games.

An excerpt from "Double Play"

"If beer could be pasteurized to eliminate bacteria," he thought, "what could improve a 37-year-old batter's swing?"

During the '53 season, he learned about techniques used by Joe Schmidt, a renowned Ashville native who hit .441 in 1939 for the St. Louis Cardinals' Class D team in Duluth, Minn.

According to Champs' manager Red Morrison, Schmidt would take a new Louisville Slugger and shave the bat handle with the broken neck of a Coca-Cola bottle to make the bat easier to grip. Morrison also told Slade of how Schmidt tempered the bat.

"Joe said it was not unusual for some of his teammates to build a fire with wood chips outside their home park dugout, put resin on their bats, and then rotate them in the fire," Morrison had said. "That would bring the grains on the bat closer together and make it more compact."

The recipient of a silver-plated bat for his efforts in '39, Schmidt played 14 seasons in the minor leagues. Despite a career batting average of .324, he never reached the major leagues.

For Slade, hitting .300 or higher was something he experienced from the first time he starred at Ashville High School. But after '53, his average and power declined.

Was it due to age or having put on weight? Or was it the result of his right knee and an occasional popping sound when he walked? Originally jarred when he jumped into a foxhole in Germany, the knee received little attention from Slade until he twisted it one night while turning in a chair at the brewery. Aspirin had been a remedy in '53, but the drug's effect on inflammation could not guarantee a high batting average.

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