As a youngster, I had a singular way of thinking about my future: I was bent on becoming a professional baseball player.
Playing on the ballfields of the South Side in the 1940s, I knew I had talent. I consistently made teams above my grade level, from MacArthur Grade School all the way to Pulaski High School.
Like my father before me, I was a catcher – the most demanding position in the game. We suited up in the “tools of ignorance,” as big league catcher Herold “Muddy” Ruel had ironically dubbed our equipment, claiming that no ballplayer with any intelligence would play a position that required covering his entire body with heavy protective padding.
My skill in this trade was completely self-taught. I learned all the necessities by watching major leaguers or reading books from the library: the catching stance and how to alter it with runners on base, how to rotate the hip into throwing position when a runner is trying to steal, how to block a pitch in the ground, how to give and disguise signals to a pitcher.
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At age 12, I began playing in a string of city and county leagues, and that is where I caught the eye of professional scouts – first from the Milwaukee Braves, and occasionally from other teams.
Still, I was taken by complete surprise when I received a call from a St. Louis Cardinals scout four years later, in the summer of 1956. The Cardinals were in Milwaukee for a series against the Braves, and they wanted me to work out with the team before the game. What else was said during that call 67 years ago is completely lost.
On the morning of Aug. 8, my dad drove me to Milwaukee County Stadium, but he was too nervous to attend my workout. After sharing his love and doing his very best to encourage me, he drove off. Six years removed from the gravel playground at MacArthur Grade School, I walked alone, catcher’s glove in hand, toward a big league tryout.
A Cardinals representative met me at the visitors ticket gate and took me to the visiting team’s locker room. When he opened the door, I entered an exclusive world that so few fans of the game will ever see. An equipment manager with a welcoming voice took me to an empty locker, gave me a complete Cardinals uniform, and I found myself dressing with some of the most talented and famous players in baseball. Next to my locker was starting center fielder Bobby Del Greco, who saw through my fabricated confidence and tried to comfort me with reassuring advice that has been engraved in my memory for six decades: “Don’t worry kid, we need more Italians in the major leagues.”
My tryout was designed to test my skills in hitting, catching behind the plate, handling pitches and throwing out runners, all under the watch and evaluation of Cardinals coaches. But I was most aware of the gaze of Walker Cooper, an eight-time All-Star catcher who in the last year of his career was both manager and a part-time player. My future as a possible big leaguer was in his hands.
The last phase of my tryout was one of the most exacting and memorable moments in my life. Just before the start of the game, the Cardinals conducted a standard infield drill, hitting ground balls to the infielders and loosening up during the pre-game exercise with frequent throws to all three bases. This was no ordinary infield; by the end of their careers, those four Cardinals would amass 48 All-Star appearances and two Hall of Fame plaques: Ken Boyer at third, Alvin Dark at short, Red Schoendienst at second, and one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Stan Musial, at first. A lineup rounded out by a Pulaski High School sophomore at catcher!
The drill was smooth, flawless motion – the quickening rhythm of some of the finest throwing arms in the game. At one moment, I received a throw from Boyer at third, quickly pivoted and fired the ball to Musial, who, in turn, threw the ball back to me – to me! That feeling of awe would come later, though; in the moment, I was focused on the task at hand, a drill I’d performed so often that it was second nature. Because of that, I felt confident, satisfied with the strength and accuracy of my throws, especially the critical throw to second base. It was not a rocket shot, but I thought it good enough – certainly my best.
I may have been impressed, but Walker Cooper was not.
After the workout, he met with me and offered his assessment: I had some good skills that would improve over time, best realized with a strong college program or with a good semi-pro team. Cooper was trying to be encouraging, but the ramifications of his message were clear and final: the lofty skills required to catch in the major leagues were beyond my reach.
There is no way to disguise the truth in a major league tryout, and in less than an hour, my dream of someday playing in the Major Leagues had vanished.
I hitchhiked home from County Stadium and never again heard from the Cardinals or the team’s scout.
I was surprised that I didn’t feel more disappointed. But what settled into my memory of the tryout was less its outcome than the fact that it happened at all. Terry Malloy from On the Waterfront lamented he “coulda been a contender”; I really was one. And, of course, I’ll never forget the details: those bright white and red uniforms, that workout with one of the greatest infields in a generation.
But one twinge of regret is interwoven into my fixed memory. No family or friends were there to witness the moment, to wish me luck when I arrived, to extol my performance afterward, to take a snapshot of me in a Cardinals uniform with Stan Musial.
As a 24-year-old graduate student in 1964, a year into Musial’s retirement, our paths crossed again as he was signing autographs outside of County Stadium after a game between the Cardinals and the Braves. Memory opened the door, and my instincts led me to queue for his signature, ticket stub in hand. But as I waited, I recalled that indelible August morning, on the other side of the stadium walls. That was the only signature moment I needed to remember Stan the Man.
I left the waiting line and went on with my day, and with my life.
IT’S EASY TO IMAGINE someone who gets a major league tryout as a teenager peaking early, but Dennis Conta, now 83, left quite an impact off the diamond.
He worked for nearly 50 years on public policy, with a particular interest in education and equity, and collected three master’s degrees. He represented an East Side district in the State Assembly for over three terms, founded the trade-oriented Tenor High School and in 1980 handed then five-term Mayor Henry Maier his only election loss ever. (Conta narrowly won the primary but Maier won his sixth and final term in the general election rematch.) Conta says he’s most proud of his fight in the 1970s to integrate schools, leading to Chapter 220, a state program that bused tens of thousands of Black and lower-income students in Milwaukee to suburban schools.
How does a young ballplayer make such a dramatic life turn? After his tryout with the Cardinals, the game continued to be his “raison d’être,” including two years as Ripon College’s catcher. But he quit the team and school to (briefly) join a seminary before meeting his first wife and returning to secular life at Ripon. There, Conta met philosophy professor Bill Tyree, who became a mentor and fostered a passion for civic affairs. “I was transformed from a serious baseball player into someone who began to care about public policy, public issues, the Kennedys. I began to think about the possibility that I might someday be in public office,” Conta says. “Two different Dennis Contas – one entered Ripon as a junior, one left as a senior.” – Chris Drosner