It saddened me when the great city of St. Louis changed the name of a main traffic artery from Mark Twain to Mark McGuire. I was working there at the time and remember how my heart sank when I heard the news, and how bad I felt — doubly bad. I felt bad for Mark Twain of course, but even worse for the citizens of St. Louis — in misplacing their values so.
It happened in September of 1999, the year after McGuire passed Roger Maris with 70 home-runs in a season. I was staying at the Hyatt I think it was and could see home plate and all three bases of Busch Stadium from my room. Also visible from my window was a bronze statue of Stan the Man Musial with his reliable bat at the ready. It was clear as day to me that St. Louis was a baseball town, but to forsake a favorite son like Mark Twain for Mark McGuire? Well, it just seemed impossible to conceive at the time.
The walk from my hotel to the lecture hall that evening proved to be a most exhilarating experience, as dressed in a white suit as the Ghost of Twain I was hailed by everybody from cops to cocktail waitresses. One poor homeless person asked me for a dollar. I gave him the dollar and he chuckled with a toothless grin, “You're Tom Sawyer, ain't you?!” I took him for a Rhodes Scholar and gave him another dollar.
It struck me that just as St. Louis was a baseball town, St. Louis was still a Mark Twain town, and so the enigma of Mark McGuire replacing Mark Twain on Interstate 70 was mitigated in my mind and I pretty well forgot about it — until last week.
When Mark McGuire admitted that he was using steroids while chasing the home-run record, well, for me he went from home-run hero to hornswoggler, from the penthouse to the outhouse, from big cheese to nothing burger.
Interestingly, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch conducted a survey, and the last time I checked, their readers were voting in favor of keeping Mark McGuire's name on Interstate 70 by a 37-34 percent margin over returning it to Mark Twain. The Post-Dispatch asked for comments, so while withholding my feelings about McGuire, I chose to post this singular observation by Stephen Leacock: “I have always looked on Mark Twain as the greatest literary figure that America has seen, and the most truly American. More than that, I think that Mark Twain, by the spirit that animates all his books, his hatred of tyranny and injustice, his sympathy with the oppressed individual, did more than any other writer toward making the idea of liberty a part of the American heritage.”
My vote is in, my emotions are on my sleeve, and I can now only take solace in knowing that what Mark Twain told us so many years ago still holds true today, “If you send a damn fool to St. Louis, and don't tell them he's a damn fool, they''ll never find it out.”
—McAvoy Layne is an Incline Village resident who visits area schools as the ghost of Mark Twain.