The Southworths

There are a lot of stories about baseball during World War II, and the more they are told the more they almost succeed in making those years sound like a foolish time, when a man with one arm played outfield for the St. Louis Browns and a fifteen year-old pitched for the Reds.

There are a lot of stories about baseball during World War II, and the more they are told the more they almost succeed in making those years sound like a foolish time, when a man with one arm played outfield for the St. Louis Browns and a fifteen year-old pitched for the Reds. They played because most of the major leaguers had enlisted or been drafted, even the reluctant ones like Joe DiMaggio, who was said to be upset about the drop in pay. Only the old or very young or, in a baseball context, the infirm, remained, which perhaps explains why it was only in wartime that the Browns, who fielded a team of older players known to drink like fish, ever made it to the World Series.

These stories might suggest that the war touched the game deeply, but that really wasn’t the case. A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, the owners and the commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, met to consider canceling play for the duration. President Roosevelt, however, suggested the games continue so that an anxious nation might have something besides the war to think and talk about. Considering that in its early stages the war did not go well for the Allies and there was ample reason to believe they might even lose, this was a wise idea.

The war did intrude upon the game. There were scrap iron drives at the ballparks and signs reminding people to buy war bonds. Attendance was down, even though servicemen were admitted free of charge. The major leaguers, by and large, stuck around through the end of the 1942 season but were almost all gone by the spring of 1944. By then the teams had stopped traveling south for spring training in order to keep railroad cars free for the troops. Some major leaguers saw combat. Several were injured and were never the same again. Two little-known big leaguers died in battle. Many more spent the war playing exhibition games overseas.

Still, whatever the players were thinking and feeling about the war seldom made its way into clubhouse conversation. A rare exception was the case of Larry French, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and in the spring of 1942 reacted to the report that the Japanese had invaded his native California by telling Cliff Dapper, the backup catcher, that he was going home to fight. Dapper would have gone with him, had the story turned out to be true.

More common was the sentiment conveyed in a story I heard from Marty Marion, the tall and skinny St. Louis Cardinal shortstop. I asked Marion how often his teammates talked about the war, considering they were all of draft age and might even have had friends or relatives in the service. Marion, by then an elderly man, recalled the first summer of the war well: The Cardinals were chasing the Brooklyn Dodgers—they’d begun August ten games out of first place and then went on a tear of historic proportions. “The war?” Marion said. “What war? We were in a pennant race.”

Yet there was at least one man in that clubhouse thinking about the war, even if he was not disposed to speaking about it. To speak about the war would have meant revealing something of his feelings, which was just not done. Billy Southworth, the Cardinals’ manager, had a son, Billy, Jr., who was a captain in the Army Air Corps and who in the summer of 1942 was preparing to ship out.

The story of this father and son is the sort too seldom told when people talk about baseball in wartime. That is a shame, because more than most, their story captures the true and complex nature of life on the home front: people going about the business of their lives but pausing every hour to listen to the news; young men deemed unfit for service feeling too ashamed to come out of the house; mothers sitting and weeping on the always-made beds of their sons in uniform. Stories of the American home front tend to suggest that life consisted of little more than watering victory gardens, collecting scrap, suffering the occasional air raid drill, and reading about ration cheats in the paper. They too often leave out the terror. This was not the terror of an attack; that was over by 1943. Rather, it was the terror of the Western Union man bringing the worst news imaginable, the terror that came from walking past a neighbor’s house and seeing a gold star affixed in the window and wondering when your turn would come. There were two kinds of people on the home front: those who had men in the service and those who did not. They might have been friends before the war, but for the duration they really didn’t have much to talk about.

Billy Southworth had a son in the service. He also had a team in a pennant race. This left him to straddle the world of the war and a world where the war did not seem to exist. He spent the war doing what everyone with a son, husband, or brother in uniform did: he waited.

Billy Southworth, Jr., was a ballplayer. But unlike his father he did not make it to the major leagues. Instead, he had the distinction of being the first professional ballplayer to enlist. That he did so eleven months before Pearl Harbor made his act of bravery greater still. Billy, Jr., had been a well-regarded minor league prospect when, after spending the 1940 season with Toronto in the International League, he decided to sign up. His father had hoped Billy, Jr., might follow him to the big leagues, and tried to get him to change his mind. The story of their conversation was often told in the early days of the war, when America was finding itself hard-pressed for heroes.

Billy, Jr., the story went, came to his father to break the news.

His father asked him to reconsider.

The son replied that there were things more important than baseball.

The following morning the father came to his son and said, “This is a beautiful day to enlist.”

Maybe the conversation took place just this way, and maybe the sportswriters who told it were trying to get other young men to be like Billy Southworth, Jr., which was not necessarily a bad idea. Billy, Jr., was tall, wore a mustache, and looked like Clark Gable. He carried himself with the bearing of a young man who knew that other young men envied him because of the way young women looked at him. He was a heartbreaker. Some of the men with whom he served found him a little too full of himself, but then, once they got to know him, became his friends.

There were women who wanted to marry Billy, Jr. Though he did give the matter serious thought, he did not feel inclined, as others did, to rush to marry before he shipped out, so that he could leave knowing someone was waiting for him. He was not the sort of young man given to fretting and dark thoughts about the perilous future that awaited him. He seemed the least burdened of men and took to leadership as if it was a naturally occurring gift. He possessed a swagger and confidence that left his father, for one, a little bit in awe. He, for his part, thought his father was “a grand fellow.”

They were as close as a father and son could be. His mother had left them when Billy, Jr., was still young. His father, who had played thirteen major league seasons, was by then managing in the minors. They spent the winters together and, when school let out, Billy, Jr., would join his father on the back-roads circuit. He was the batboy.

The elder Southworth had had his struggles. He had been a solid, if unspectacular, outfielder whose career was built not upon size or muscle but on grit. He was also something of an innocent to city life—in New York and later St. Louis—and his attempts to keep up with his harder-drinking teammates ended badly. He managed the Cardinals briefly in 1929 but was fired when he tried too hard to emulate the harsh and exacting ways of his mentor, the great Giants manager John McGraw. Southworth slipped out of the game, found work as a salesman, remarried, and then had his career resurrected by Branch Rickey, the teetotaling general manager of the Cardinals, who sent him back to the minors to manage after Southworth swore off the bottle. He made it back to the big club in 1941, a changed man. Gone was the out-of-character brutishness; he was still demanding, but in a far less abrasive way. He seldom raised his voice. The Cardinals that year barely lost out to the Dodgers for the National League pennant, and Southworth’s comeback was all but complete.

In the meantime, his son had grown into a ballplayer of considerable promise. In 1939 he had been voted most valuable player in the Canadian-American League after batting .342 for the Rome Colonels, a minor league team in upstate New York. He played the outfield, ran well, and possessed a strong throwing arm. In 1940, he batted .280 for Toronto, a step below the majors. But by the early winter of 1941, he was at Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Illinois, learning to fly planes that barely held together. His father had driven him there from their farm in Sunbury, Ohio, on New Year’s Day. He had woken his son early that morning and helped him pack before they set off together on the long drive. They arrived at Parks at ten o’clock that night. “A quick handshake and I was off,” Billy, Jr., later wrote.

That memory appeared in a July entry in the diary Billy, Jr., had decided to keep. The diary would be for his father, and was dedicated to him, too. This way, in addition to the letters home, his father would have a record of the time they spent apart.

The diary of Billy Southworth, Jr., is remarkable not so much for its content but in the way it captures the particular way men—especially baseball men, who have seldom been given to introspection— talk to and about each other. On page after page, spread over weeks and months and years, Billy, Jr., logged the events of his days, beginning in the summer of 1942: flying barely airworthy B-17s over the Arizona desert, news of yet another training crash, tales of friends taking the marriage plunge, complaints about superior officers who in his view were anything but. But there is something more: baseball scores. All the while, Billy, Jr., chronicled his father’s pennant race: “Cards won 3-1 from Pirates, 7-1/2 games back. My day off, worked all day yet did not fly.” It is as if he were saying, I was thinking of Dad, all that time. He would write, “Must write to dad.”

It was as if he were speaking to his father through his diary, but in the oblique way in which men of a certain sort convey their feelings. There was, for instance, a story of a two-day pass to visit his father in Chicago, where the Cardinals were playing the Cubs: “It sure was great to see him again. We talked til three or four in the a.m.”

The Cardinals kept winning, and in his diary, Billy, Jr., grew ever more excited. “One more game in two to play will clinch the pennant . . .got a wonderful letter from dad today.”

By October, Billy, Jr., who’d become something of a celebrity, was invited to fly over Sportsman’s Park for the opening game of the 1942 World Series, which the Yankees were favored to win. But after dropping the first game, the Cardinals swept the next four and with them, the championship. “October 5—will be a memorable day in the history of Southworth,” Billy, Jr., wrote. “Dad proved that he was the best manager in baseball today. Wired him immediately after the game, congratulations.”

They saw each other one more time before Billy, Jr., left for England. His unit had been transferred to Bangor, Maine. His father visited for five days and Billy, Jr., introduced him around. The elder Southworth signed autographs and wrote his name on his son’s plane, The Bad Check (so dubbed because bad checks always come back).He also gave him the cap he had worn that season. Billy, Jr., had it rigged with extra wiring so he could wear it into combat. “He’s the grandest guy that I know,” he wrote. “Sure tired of this sitting around—I want to go to combat.”

He would not have long to wait.

Whatever thoughts and fears Billy Southworth had in all the many months his son flew combat missions over France and Germany he seemed to have kept to himself. But he followed the news of every mission. As a manager, Southworth was a stickler for lists; he kept running tabs on opponents as well as his players. As a father, he kept a running account of bombing runs, and with each letter from his son, crossed off all the missions that ended with his safe return.

His Cardinals won the National League pennant again in 1943, but lost the World Series to the Yankees. They won again in 1944, and this time defeated the Browns in the one and only all–St. Louis World Series. His son, meanwhile, kept his own account of the team’s fortunes.

He was by now stationed in Molesworth, England, and the life he describes seems a numbing routine of rain, mud, and fog interspersed with early morning takeoffs for bombing runs with frighteningly high casualty rates. Men died all around him, and in his telling of what took place in the skies over Europe, it seemed important that his father know his son’s resolve and nerve never flagged. Within three months of arriving in England, half his unit was gone: “We still lack nose guns. The enemy is stronger and keener than ever and we don’t miss a trip. Our effectiveness has been great. Our accuracy good. Courage and intestinal fortitude, as much as Napoleon or Washington might ask for.” The waist gunner on his plane goes AWOL. The navigator is hospitalized. There is a raid on a submarine base in St. Nazaire. He gets irritated describing commanders who are slow to pick up on his ideas. He goes to parties on leave in London. Missions are scrubbed at the last minute. Billy, Jr., kept a list of each of his missions, the position in which he flew, whether it was a win, and how significant the losses. He also wrote, “Little worried—Dad was sick at last writing and letter is overdue.”

From time to time his picture appeared in the newspapers— gathered with his crew, joking with Bob Hope. He flew twenty-six missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters. And then he came home.

“I never realized until he returned what tremendous pressure I was under,” his father told Arthur Daley of The New York Times. “But now he’s back home, safe at last.”

Billy Southworth, Jr., was not going to become a major league baseball player. The airlines wanted him as a pilot. The movies wanted him, too. The producer Hunt Stromberg gave him a screen test and then signed him to a contract. His father seemed quite excited about this. But the war was not yet over, and so Billy, Jr., remained in uniform. The army sent him on tours to sell war bonds. Crowds of people came to see him. Enlisted men who accompanied him were grateful for his willingness to sneak them into officers’ clubs. His future seemed one of endless possibilities. His father was regarded as one of the best managers in the game. And they were back together, at last. This is where the story should end.

But this is a wartime story, and such stories, even in a baseball context, too often end sadly. In February of 1945, Billy Southworth, Jr., who had managed to survive the hellishness of flak and German fighter planes over Europe, was killed on a routine training mission as he was about to land a B-29 at Mitchel Field, in New York. His father rushed to New York, and kept a vigil for weeks, waiting for his son’s body to be recovered. It was not found until August.

Billy Southworth returned to Ohio, and then to the Cardinals, but he was never the same man again. Several years later he made a winner of the Boston Braves, but he had begun drinking again, and in time the Braves let him go. Years later he quit for good and ended his career as a scout. He died in 1969. He never saw the diary his son had written for him.

As it happened Billy, Jr.’s friend and navigator, Jon Schueler, had borrowed the diary. Schueler had dreams of becoming a writer and had asked Billy, Jr., if he might borrow the book to draw ideas and inspiration from it. Schueler, a sensitive man, had had a difficult time in the war, and saw in Billy, Jr.’s ease and bravery qualities he believed he himself lacked.

Schueler was also disposed to self-absorption, and so it never occurred to him to part with a diary whose front page bore a dedication to a man whose name was, after all, often in the news. Years later, Schueler did write about the war, and briefly about Billy, Jr., but mostly about his own life of struggle in a book called The Sound of Sleat. He also became an artist of some acclaim. His paintings, many of the sky, suggest a man searching for something in the clouds that had eluded him in wartime. Perhaps he was searching, too, in the words that Billy, Jr., had intended for another man, a baseball man, who would have surely understood his meaning.

About the Author

Michael Shapiro

Michael Shapiro is the author of five nonfiction books, most recently The Last Good Season. His work appears in such publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and lives in New York City with his wife and children.

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