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Family, community remember baseball player Gary Geiger
Boston Red Sox centerfielder Gary Geiger at the batting cage just prior to a game against the Minnesota Twins on July 15, 1962. (AP FILE PHOTO)

Long before Kevin Costner was told 'build it and they will come' there was another field of dreams right here in Southern Illinois.

This field was located in tiny Sand Ridge near a now-closed school and close to a railroad track, and yes, just like in the movie there was a cornfield just beyond the outfield grass. While the field of dreams in Sand Ridge didn't provide the unusual happenings that took place in the movie, it did prove to be the training ground for perhaps the greatest baseball player that ever emerged from Southern Illinois.

Long before the baseball exploits of Ray Fosse, of Marion, and Gary Gaetti, of Centralia, made area residents proud and during an era before cable television and expansion teams, Gary Geiger made the gigantic leap from Southern Illinois to Major League Baseball.

According to Map Quest, the distance between Sand Ridge and Boston, Mass., is 1,230 miles. However, for the children of Russell and Mary Geiger, a group of rag-tag kids who grew up poor in that tiny Jackson County community in the 1940s, the distance could just as easily been a million miles.

The Geigers had five children, but the middle three - William, Gary and Linda - were all two years apart and formed a close-knit trio that spent countless hours playing baseball on a makeshift diamond in Sand Ridge.

William, who lives in Murphysboro, said the equipment and gloves were worn and tattered but baseball was an everyday event.

"All there was to do was play baseball or go down to the swimming hole," William said. "But mostly it was baseball; we played all day long during the summer,

every day. When we didn't have enough players we'd play half the field where every hit right of second base was an out and when Gary batted, he batted left handed, every hit left of second base was an out. We always found a way to play even if there was only a few of us."

Linda (Zeigler) lives in Murphysboro and still recalls those days hot summer days in Sand Ridge when she pitched for her Gary and William.

"That's the thing I remember most, they made me pitch to them because one of them would bat and the other would field. I really didn't want to do it because they hit line drives back at me and that part wasn't much fun," Linda said. "I wasn't a real good pitcher but I could get the ball up there where they could hit it and that's all they cared about."

From that baseball field in Sand Ridge where paper sacks were used for bases and the baseball was held together with black electrical tape, Gary took his baseball skills to Gorham High School where his exploits are still talked about by townspeople today. He once hit a home run that cleared the high school and the street in front of the school, a blast estimated in excess of 400 feet.

After high school, Gary was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954 and then in 1958 was traded to Cleveland where he burst onto the major league scene. After a one-year stint with Cleveland Geiger was traded to the Boston Red Sox and the pencil-thin lad from Sand Ridge found himself as the starting centerfielder on opening day at legendary Fenway Park.

From his vantage point in center, Geiger could look to his left and see rightfielder Jackie Jensen, the American League MVP in 1958 and then he could look the opposite direction and see Ted Williams, a future Hall of Fame player in left field. Geiger certainly had traveled a long way since those Sand Ridge days from only a few years earlier.

Geiger spent seven years with the Red Sox where he shared the outfield with a second future Hall of Fame player. After Williams retired in 1960 a highly-touted youngster from New York named Carl Yastremski joined Geiger in the outfield.

In 1966 Geiger was traded to Atlanta, spending two years with the Braves and then finished his 12-year professional career playing for Houston in 1969 and 1970. Geiger holds the distinction of getting the first double at recently demolished Busch Stadium during the inaugural game on May 12, 1966.

While the story of Gary Geiger is a real life 'small-town boy makes good' story it could also be labeled as an American tragedy. Geiger died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1996 at the age of 59. Just as he lived the last 20 years of his life he died battling alcoholism.

Linda was his caregiver during his illness and prior to his death and said there was a tragic irony in Gary's drinking problem that stemmed directly back to his days as a major league baseball player.

"He was terrified to fly and being a professional baseball player that was part of his job," said Linda. "The only way he would get on a plane was to have a few drinks. Once he got in that routine alcohol got a hold of him and he just couldn't stop. In the end, alcohol killed him."

Jack Shepard, 79, is a lifelong resident of Sand Ridge and remembers fondly watching Geiger grow up and blossom as a baseball player. Shepard said it was no surprise to him that Geiger played professional baseball.

"This kid had all kind of talent, he was quick, he was one heck of a basketball player, just phenomenal," said Shepard. "He was right around 6-feet, he never was big. In fact, he was skinny, scrawny looking. But, man, he had power in the wrists and he had a beautiful swing."

Shepard also recalled the inner drive that helped Geiger excel on the baseball diamond.

"In high school he pitched and he was a left-handed batter," said Shepard. "He was so competitive, he just hated to lose. Oh, man, if you wanted to get rough, he could get rough with you. Not dirty, just hard-nosed. Boy, he hated to lose. I loved to watch the guy play ball."

Shepard shared an amusing story, but also a story that might be an indication how Geiger developed his keen hitting eye.

"He was just a great athlete," said Shepard who can sit in front yard and point to the house where Geiger was raised. "There used to be an Illinois Central RR track that went right past his dad's store here. And, he'd take a broom stick; he'd cut the stick off, and go out on that track and hit rocks. Throw 'em up and hit 'em for hours at a time. His mother couldn't keep a broom in the house.

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Shepard said after Geiger retired from baseball and returned to Southern Illinois he would make a weekly visit to his parents' home in Sand Ridge and mow the grass.

"He'd always come over and we'd talk for hours about baseball," said Shepard. "Gary never forgot where he came from and the people he grew up around."

Shepard echoed Linda's thoughts about Geiger's absolute fear of flying.

"He was scared to death to fly so he got drunk every time he flew," Shepard said. "He couldn't stand it and I'm convinced that it lead to his alcoholism and his early death."

Shepard said he didn't see Geiger in his final years after the alcoholism had taken its toll. Instead, he said he wanted to remember those sun-drenched days when baseball was the only thing to do in tiny Sand Ridge.

"I didn't see him at the end," said Shepard. "I wanted to remember Gary as a young man, as that wonderful ball player, that great kid who grew into a great ball player. I felt sorry for him that he just couldn't stop drinking."

Linda said she never saw a change in Gary after he achieved success as a professional baseball player.

"It didn't matter to Gary if it was Sand Ridge or Boston, baseball was just baseball to him," said Linda. "And he loved to play baseball."

Linda said it is with a great sense of pride that the Geiger family and friends remember the accomplishments of a small town boy who made it to the national spotlight. But, she said when she thinks of Gary these days she doesn't think of professional baseball, Fenway Park or his days roaming the outfield with Ted Williams.

"It's absolutely amazing what he accomplished, especially coming from Sand Ridge," said Linda. "I can still see him standing in the yard with a broom handle in his hand, hitting little pieces of rock toward the railroad tracks. Over and over again … just hitting those little pieces of rock."

(618 )625-2006

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