I didn’t collect baseball cards as a kid as much as I consumed them, absorbing every little bit of information they offered. From the fronts of these magical pieces of cardboard, I imitated batting stances in the backyard and mimicked facial expressions in the mirrors. From the backs, I memorized statistics — especially the ones in bold and italics — and pored over scraps of personal information the cards made available.
I wanted to feel connected to these players I watched on television, read about in the newspaper and found in the packs of cards, which meant the fun facts on the back of the 1987 Topps cards — my baseball card peak coincided with the Junk Wax explosion of the late 1980s/early 1990s — were gold. But, growing up in suburban St. Louis, I also made it a point to check the birthdays and hometowns on the backs of every single card I opened.
See, here’s the thing: I might not have possessed the talent to make All-Star teams and win Gold Gloves in the big leagues. But everyone has a birthday. Everyone has a hometown. And I felt connected to the players who shared those bits of personal trivia with me.
There weren’t many of them, but finding one of those guys — Andy Van Slyke, Joaquin Andujar (RIP) and Tom Henke all shared my birthday, and Mike Henneman shared my hometown — always brought a smile to my face. Shoutout to Jeff Treadway, too, whose last name was the same as my childhood street.
Young Ryan imagined that his birthday mates shared the frustration of having a birthday on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year and so close to Christmas that it was eternally overshadowed, despite the best efforts of my parents. And I wondered whether Henneman — the only player I could find back then who was born in St. Charles, Mo. (there have been several since) — had a childhood anything like mine, whether he played baseball at the McNair Park fields, too, or whether he explored the same creeks looking for crawdads and snakes.
I’d always wondered, and one day last month I realized I could just ask them. So I did.
“My mother forgot my birthday once,” Van Slyke told me on the phone, laughing to mask the pain. “I was about 13 or 14. We had four kids in the house — and I raised four boys myself, so I know it was crazy — and I didn’t say anything. Obviously, being a narcissistic young boy at the time, I was crushed, but didn’t say anything.”
I feel seen, people.
Me and Andy — a guy who played 13 MLB seasons mostly with the Cardinals and Pirates, with four Gold Gloves, three All-Star nods and a pair of fourth-place MVP finishes — really were two peas in a pod.
“Then Christmas morning, I got a 10-speed bike. A Schwinn 10-speed. On the card it said, ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday’ and my dad just started laughing,” he said. “It was for both. I mean, a 10-speed back then for us was a big deal. My dad was a principal at the time.”
Ah, the ol’ double-gift. That refrain, I know it well. And I didn’t hate it, either. One bigger gift instead of a couple of smaller ones could be beneficial.
“Then,” my birthday buddy continued, “also my wife forgot. Completely forgot about my birthday.”
At this point, I hung up on Andy Van Slyke. Sh— got too real.
OK, I didn’t really hang up on Andy Van Slyke. If I had, I wouldn’t have found out three other bits of interesting information. First, he was born at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1960, in Utica, N.Y., which means even one more contraction from Mrs. Van Slyke and we wouldn’t have been having this phone conversation. Second: Cake was out. An apple pie, with apples from the famous Twin Orchards Farm outside Utica, was a must for young Andy’s birthday.
And, third: Van Slyke had/has a better attitude about his short — it’s the Winter Solstice, which meant fewer than 9 1/2 hours of daylight, as opposed to nearly 15 hours on the Summer Solstice — and overshadowed birthday than I did/do.
“I used to brag that I had the shortest birthday of anybody,” he said. “That’s how I would try and turn it into a positive.”
By the time I talked with Mike Henneman on the phone last week, I knew that we hadn’t gone to the same high school, at least. Baseball-Reference, which obviously didn’t exist when I was a kid, told me Henneman went to high school in Festus, Mo., a town on the Mississippi River, about 45 minutes south of St. Charles. So how’d he wind up there?
“It’s real simple. I was adopted from St. Charles,” Henneman said. “My mom and dad lived in Festus, so I was raised there. Went to St. Pius High School.”
So much for asking him about Noah’s Ark and McNair Park. Oh well.
Festus sits side by side with Crystal City next to the river, and everyone of a certain age in St. Louis knows Crystal City as the hometown of Bill Bradley, a star basketball player — for Princeton, the 1964 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and then the New York Knicks (he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame!) — who would then embark on a career as a U.S. senator from New Jersey (1979-1997) and was a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.
“I went by his house almost every day,” said Henneman, who spent nine of his 10 MLB seasons as Mr. Reliable in Detroit’s bullpen, racking up 193 career saves before retiring after a 31-save season for Texas. “I’d go down to the Mississippi to throw rocks and shoot BB guns. There’s a red brick road through the city, and he was on the right-hand side. He had a hoop, a court out there in the back.”
Henneman went to Jefferson College — Jeffco to pretty much everyone — to play basketball, and he talked his way onto the baseball team after he convinced the longtime Jeffco coach, Dave Oster, to watch him pitch a legion game during which he fanned 16 players.
Fun fact: Another very successful MLB pitcher played for Oster and Jeffco, too. That guy? Mark Buehrle, who is also from St. Charles.
Tom Henke isn’t from St. Charles like the rest of us cool kids, but he’s a Missouri guy, too. Henke grew up in Taos, a small town just outside of Jefferson City, the state’s capital. Henke, who recorded 311 saves in his 14-year career, spent primarily with the Blue Jays and Rangers, retired back to his hometown, and had just finished a morning fishing session on the Osage River when we spoke. They caught a couple of nice crappie and a few bass, but the hot temperatures slowed down the bite. Quite a weather contrast with the day I was calling to talk with him about.
“Shortest day of the year,” Henke said, “and the first day of winter.”
I asked whether he, too, sometimes felt his birthday was overshadowed by Christmas. He laughed.
“I never thought about it that much. I had 10 brothers and sisters, so we never got a lot for our birthdays,” he said. “I don’t think I ever had a birthday party that I can remember. I’d get a birthday card from my godmother and godfather, and mom would make a cake.”
He paused, then told me the best part. I could feel him smiling.
“On our birthdays, mom would always make us our favorite meal. I always liked roast beef and mashed potatoes, with all the fixins. Mom would make that for me.”
Tom was the third-oldest in the Henke clan, behind one brother and one sister. Eight of the Henke kids are still alive, and so is his 93-year-old mother. His dad died a few years ago, at age 88. Henke and his wife, Kathy, have four kids. Family’s the biggest thing in his life, and a big reason why he walked away from the game despite still being at the top of his profession.
In his Age 37 season, his lone one with the Cardinals, Henke made the 1995 NL All-Star team and was 36-for-38 in save opportunities with a 1.82 ERA. Then, he retired.
“One of the highlights of my career was getting to play with Nolan Ryan in 1993,” Henke told me. “He said one of his regrets — him and I got to be pretty good friends — was that he was playing so long, 27 years or something, that he didn’t get to see his kids grow up. So I thought, ‘You know what? That’s not going to happen to me.’ About the time my kids were starting high school, I retired.”
As we talked about the reason for my call — kids like me wanting to feel some type of personal connection to baseball players — Henke told me a story.
“I met a kid from North Dakota, when I was playing against the Twins in Minneapolis. I’ll never forget it,” Henke said. “This kid comes down, and he’s yelling to me, ‘I’m Tom Henke!’ He was probably about 10 years old, and his parents were standing right behind him, so I walked over and started talking to him. He said, again, ‘My name’s Tom Henke, too!’ And we talked for a while.”
That was July 17, 1987, a red-letter day in the childhood of Tom Henke, the 11-year-old who lived on a farm outside of Hannover, N.D. He’d made the nearly eight-hour drive with his parents, his aunt and uncle and their two kids in the hopes of meeting his name twin, the 6-5 baseball player. He’d written Henke earlier that year, and Henke wrote back a personal letter that’s still a prized possession. But to meet? That was the dream.
“That was the whole sole purpose of us going,” the North Dakotan said. “It was a highlight going to a major league game, sitting down the first-base line, but the whole point, for me as a kid, was to maybe at least get an autograph or something. But to physically meet him and get a picture taken?”
So that’s how it happened that Tom Henke posed with Tom Henke, in a tunnel underneath the Metrodome, a moment that neither of them would ever forget. They all talked long enough after the game that the baseball player missed his bus and had to walk back to the team hotel.
“I was just enthralled to have met the man, got my picture taken with him and hung out with him,” said Henke, who now is a physical therapist in in Dickinson, N.D. “That was the cool part. That photo of us hung on my wall a long time, probably until I was 30 years old.”
I was curious whether I was the only kid who was mildly obsessed with the birthday/hometown thing, so a couple of weeks ago I put this question out on Twitter.
I didn’t mention the baseball card aspect because I wanted to see how many people, if any, associated that question with baseball cards, like I would have. A plethora of responses told me I wasn’t alone in looking for that connection on the backs of the pieces of cardboard.
One of those was from Cody Asche, the third baseman/left fielder who was a fourth-round pick by the Phillies in 2011 and played five years and 390 games in the majors for the Phillies and White Sox, from 2013 to 2017. He didn’t follow me and I didn’t follow him on Twitter, but somehow the tweet popped up on his timeline and he answered.
Bingo. I had to know more.
Asche’s dad worked next to an auction house, and he’d sometimes come home with boxes and boxes of older cards for young Cody. One day, Cody’s mom asked him to clean up his room, but instead of doing that, he decided to look through his cards to try to find someone with his birthday. And that’s when he found Mark Grudzielanek in his Expos uniform, with the date June 30 practically glowing off the back of the card.
“I remember the day clearly,” he said. “I can still paint the picture in my head, me being in my room looking through cards and finding that and being super jacked. Like, ‘Holy sh—! This guy’s got my birthday.’ It was so sweet.”
And, because baseball is sometimes the smallest of worlds, Asche wound up with the White Sox’s Triple-A club in Charlotte for most of the 2017 season — a club managed by Grudzielanek.
“He was working with us on base running one day, and I was like, ‘I’ve got a funny story for you,” Asche said. “You were low-key one of my favorite players growing up.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah? Why? Because I played for the Cardinals?’ He knew I was from St. Louis. And I said, ‘No, because we have the same birthday. He was like, ‘No sh—?’ So I told him the story about how I was looking through the cards and whatnot.”
They were together on their birthday, on the baseball field. Charlotte won 6-2, and Asche went 1 for 3 with a double, another good day in a season during which Asche hit .292 with 14 homers and an .887 OPS in 87 games. Asche didn’t specifically remember that game, though.
“If you have a summer birthday and you play baseball, they all run together because you do the same thing every time,” he said. “You’re always playing baseball.”
I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of birthdays spent on the baseball field, when mine were always spend bundled up, begging the sun to stay out just a little bit longer.
But oh well. I’ll throw out one more nugget to bring this back full circle.
Cody Asche’s hometown, as listed on the back of his baseball card: St. Charles, Mo.
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