He is a child of Memphis and was in Spring Training with the Cardinals the first week of April in 1968, and a bunch of the Cardinals, who had won the World Series the year before, were on their way out to dinner that night. And it was Roger Maris who delivered the news to all of them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death in Memphis.
"Roger was the one who delivered the bombshell," Tim McCarver was saying Monday morning, almost 50 years later, on another Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America.
McCarver said Monday that he had been with his best friend Bob Gibson just the night before, in St. Louis, for the annual baseball writers' dinner there. There have been a lot of baseball friendships to know about over time. But this one, between the white Catholic catcher from the south and the great African-American pitcher out of Omaha, is one that has proudly stood the test of time. McCarver and Gibson were like brothers as players and are brothers today, and it all began in as good a laboratory for race relations as we have ever had in this country, which means baseball clubhouses.
I asked McCarver on Monday if, when he heard that the Rev. King had been shot at the Lorraine Motel, he knew where the place was.
"I didn't know the motel specifically," McCarver said. "Had an idea where it was. But it didn't matter where it was in town. It was Memphis. It was my hometown, which is why the whole thing hit so close to home. And hit me so hard."
McCarver, 26 years old in '68, had already won two World Series with the Cardinals by then, the first in seven games in 1964 against the Yankees, the second the previous October, also in seven games against the Red Sox. He had caught Gibson in six of those games. The baseball relationship between the young Memphis catcher and the fiercest big-game pitcher of his time, and one of the fiercest of all time, was becoming the stuff of legend, just because of all the times already when Gibson had glared McCarver away from a possible trip out to the mound.
"Where do you think you're going?" Gibson would say from the pitcher's mound, and McCarver would grin and go back and take his place behind the plate. The old joke between them, of course, was that what McCarver mostly knew about pitching was that it was real hard to him, especially when the pitching was being done by Bob Gibson.
"I think about our friendship now," McCarver was saying on Monday, "and how race never built a wall between us, in the time when we were first becoming friends, in all the turbulence of the 1960s. It wasn't just the Rev. King being shot. It was John Kennedy, too. Then it was Bobby Kennedy just a few months after the Rev. King. There was so much trying to drive people apart. But it never happened with Bob and me. The bond that was created in those times has now lasted a lifetime."
The regular season didn't start until April 10 in 1968, which means nearly a full week after James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King Jr. dead at the Lorraine Motel. So the Cardinals still had some time left in St. Petersburg, where they trained at old Al Lang Stadium with the Mets in those days.
And a couple of days later, still in the shadow of King's death, McCarver said that he and Gibson sat down, just the two of them, and tried to make some sense out of it all.
"I wanted Bob to know how much I wanted to understand how this had affected him," McCarver says. "Not just because I came from Memphis. Just as an American. I told him that I had grown up Catholic in Memphis, where I believe only 6 percent of people were Catholic in those days, or something like that, my math might be off. And Bob looked at me and said, 'But you were white.' Just that: 'But you were white.' And I've never forgotten that. He appreciated the parallel that I was fumbling around with and trying to find. But I was white and he was black."
Gibson came out of Omaha Technical High School and Creighton University, where he had been a sociology major, appropriately enough. He even played basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters (and roomed with Meadowlark Lemon) before he got to the big leagues with the Cardinals. And McCarver came out of Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. He had a brother who was a Christian Brother. Then McCarver was with the Cardinals, too. And making history with Gibson, the best of it in the 1960s.
They won those two World Series, the Cardinals did, in '64 and '67. Then they lost the '68 Series to the Tigers, despite being ahead three games to one. I once innocently asked McCarver how long it took him to get over the '68 World Series. He was getting ready to do a Mets telecast at the time, and we were sitting together in the old press room at Shea Stadium. McCarver put down the cigar he was smoking and looked at me over his reading glasses and said in a quiet voice, "You never get over it."
Through that '68 World Series, he caught nine World Series games that the great Bob Gibson out of Omaha Technical pitched. Nine. Gibson won seven of them. Three times McCarver caught Gibson in Game 7. Gibson won in '64. Won in '67. Finally lost one to Mickey Lolich in '68. At a time when so much turbulent history was being made, good and bad and tragic in America, on the streets at home and across the world in Vietnam, Gibson and McCarver sure did make baseball history. Did they ever.
The friendship between them has lasted. The bond between them, the black former Globetrotter out of Omaha, the white baseball and football player from Memphis, is as strong as it has ever been. There have been other baseball friendships like this. The former Commissioner, Bud Selig, has had one of his own with the great Henry Aaron. But there has never been one more worth knowing about in baseball than the one between Gibson and McCarver.
The child of Memphis, almost a half-century from when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, talked about that friendship on Monday morning.
"Race could have been a barrier between us," McCarver said. "It just never was." He paused and said, "Maybe because we've always given each other the right to disagree."
On this day as much as any other, on this holiday, it's as good a definition of America as any.