The fizz of championship champagne and the film of sweat-laden hands fresh out of leather mitts during celebratory high-fives was one out away. Wide-eyed fans are on their feet, waving signs and spilling beer on those below them, anticipating another Cardinals world championship.
Jorge Orta of the Royals steps to the plate, hits, and barrels towards first. Just then, first base umpire Don Denkinger throws out his arms and steps into baseball history with a safe call that stopped Redbird nation’s pulse. Deemed as one of the worst calls in baseball history, the Royals, who started the ninth inning trailing 1-0 in Game 6 and behind three games to two in the World Series, went on to win the game and snatch the title.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Too bad of a memory,” says longtime season-ticket holder Marty Prather, who flashed a sign in the stands that read: “the fat lady is singing.”
Although the game left a sour aftertaste, Prather’s sign began to attract the media’s attention when it was broadcasted across the country. Even his father in Florida called to say he saw him on TV though miles away.
During Game 7 the next evening many other fans jumped on the bandwagon by hoisting homemade placards.
“A lot of fans had spots to it like ‘the fat lady has laryngitis’ or ‘the fat lady is choking’ or one little old lady had a sign that said ‘I’m the fat lady, and I am here to sing,’” Prather said, who lives downstate in Springfield. “So I am thinking if one sign gets this much reaction, imagine what multiple signs would do.”
As a native of Dayton, Ohio, the Cards were always second favorite to the Reds, but when Prather opened a Domino’s Pizza store in North County, St. Louis his loyalty quickly reversed. His obsessive Cardinal-centric lifestyle places him on a spectrum between psychotic nutcase and modern-day Confucius. During most seasons, he would warm his familiar seat in Busch Stadium for about 40 games. And his three-foot-long chunks of board never left his side.
“The big thrill used to be getting on TV,” Prather said. “My mom was in Ohio, and my dad was in Florida. Then it was making print.”
Prather’s cunning catchphrases have draped pages in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, The New York Times, USA TODAY and more. But his dream of landing Sports Illustrated was literally cut short during the 1987 World Series when he was cropped off at the hands when their layout printed.
“I wrote them a letter and said I had two goals,” Prather recalled. “One was for the Cardinals to win and the other one was for me to make your fine publication. I said unfortunately the Cardinals came up a bit short and thanks to your crop, man, so did I.”
Luckily Sports Illustrated spotted his usual gestures in the crowd this past “red” October and printed a photo of him and his daughter, Rachel, in the table of contents.
“It is only like an inch and a half by and inch and a half, but we still made it,” Prather smiled.
And while the high he feels from spending a day at the ballpark and making TV appearances never grows stale, nothing beats a player tipping their hat to him.
“That’s pretty cool when Lance Berkman autographs the sign or David Extine or David Freese and Tony [La Russa] knows your name—even the Tom Lawlesses,” Prather said. “All from holding up plastic signs. Some of them know me by name, but most know me as sign man.”
Prather admits that he prefers teasing the visiting team, including the time he engaged in a playful conversation with star Barry Bonds about the size of his head.
“I carry like 40 signs with me, unless it’s a Cubs game then it is about 50,” Prather said. “Because it is more fun to make fun of the Cubs than it is to cheer for the Cardinals.”
The teetering Coroplast boards balance on the button of his cap as he sails through the entrance on a typical day. The acquainted event staff greets him but ignores his signs because they are legally considered a fire hazard. Any belongings must fit under the seat.
“I got a compressed disk in my neck,” Prather said. “I think it’s from putting 45 pounds of plastic on my head for 30 years.”
All that plastic, tediously stenciled and painted, is the work of Prather’s friend John Short who reaps little recognition for his art.
“His ideas and my paintings are nationwide,” Short, a Missouri State University graduate of 1969, flaunts. “He is so clever that his stuff really does make you think. It brings a certain aspect to the game, and you see a lot of other people who bring signs that aren’t as well made so the message isn’t as well perceived.”
After Short’s business Village Signs closed he began working from his basement, where the stench of lacquer fumes and enamel drippings form his refuge. Fortunately, he managed to keep most of his clients including the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Andy’s Frozen Custard and, his most devoted customer, Marty Prather.
“He is the sixth man in basketball and the twelfth man in football,” Short said, who estimated to have made over 3,000 signs for Prather in 30 years. “He has been told to produce certain things and has flown in private planes to games to keep morale up.”
Captain of the Redbird cheerleading squad, although taking exception to pleated skirts to a pair of shoddy blue jeans, is Prather’s informal second job. Even in Springfield, the General Manager of the AA Cardinals has told flamboyant Prather that he is “a part of Cardinal baseball” and encourages him to bring signs.
“That’s what’s cool about having a AA team here because you get to meet the Colby Rasmuses, the David Freeses, the Shelby Millers before they get to the big time,” Prather said.
Renown in the Cardinal community, his fanatical antics stem from his sensitive boyhood past. Only on Sundays did Prather bond with his construction-working father, either hitting grounders and flies in the backyard or basking in the summer sun at the stadium.
“That was my big time with my dad,” Prather said, recoiling any forming tears. “Nothing beats a day at the ballpark.”
Fast-forwarding to his life now as an owner of a dozen Domino’s Pizza franchises in southwest Missouri and as a father to a 15-year-old daughter, Prather, although having the financial freedom to indulge in his hobby, finds balance between work and play.
“The perfect world it is God, family, work,” Prather confesses, “Unfortunately work is going to move up from time to time just because you have to provide.”
A few weeks before last Christmas, surging torrents of Midwestern winter snow were too much for Springfieldians as they resourced to Domino’s delivery service for dinner. The Kearney store was slammed, and Prather dropped family decorating to rescue it.
“You have to because if you don’t then your business suffers and if your business suffers then your family suffers,” Prather said. “They kept one tree undecorated for me: my sports tree.”
Every shiny piece of memorabilia that layers his basement walls costs $5. At least that is what he tells his wife Karin. Evening his priceless souvenirs, he says that for her he has learned the four C’s: cut, color, clarity and carat of diamond jewelry.
“She drives the convertible Camaro on sunny days, I drive it on rainy days,” Prather agrees. “Nice little trade-offs.”
Loving and supportive of her husband of 25 years, Karin Prather accommodates his collections and spontaneous trips to Busch Stadium.
“It doesn’t really affect our family life because he makes his family more of a priority now that Rachel is older and involved in her own things,” Karin Prather said.
Although the chance to play collegiate or professional baseball was always a fantasy, conveying the strategy of the game as a business owner relieves much of his once sought after aspirations.
“You have to have aces in their places,” Prather, who was business college dropout at Wright State University, said. “You’ve got to realize that so-and-so may like to answer phones or roll dough, but if he is the best dough roller he better be there. Same as baseball. You have to sacrifice somebody over to second to get him in. It may hurt your stats, but in the ultimate goal it gets a run in.”
The peanuts shells stomped into the bleachers, the crack of a clutch base hit and the paradox between cursing the umpire and chattering with a buddy beside him, Prather’s attachment to all things baseball runs deep. His love language of signage spreads his Cardinals allegiance from the Ozarks in Springfield to the Gateway City and beyond. And there is one thing he will never forget from that dark day in 1985 where his fame all began: the game ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.