“You see that pitcher that just came in the game? He won’t be in long, just this inning to get that guy out.” And so went the strategy instruction from a father to his daughter right behind me at a recent Texas Rangers’ home game. It made me smile. Without fail I think of my late father any time I attend a ball game. Baseball was a constant all of his life–and it helps connect my heart with his.
I’m convinced there has to be such a thing as a baseball gene. I’m not sure what it looks like, but if OUR family DNA was diagrammed, my father Harold Worthington’s strand would look something like this:
And, more specifically, if broken down into the most finite of gene shapes, it would appear thusly:
Now let me tell you why.
Daddy was born January 11, 1915, just twelve years after the Boston Red Sox won the first World Series. His home was 150 miles downriver from St. Louis in the Mississippi Delta “Dog Tooth Bend” area in far southwestern Illinois–a short distance from the Alexander County seat of Cairo, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Harold was the middle sibling of seven, the son of a farmer/grist mill operator. His family was poorer than some but better off than others. As a country boy he learned to hunt, fish, and play baseball during the sport’s Golden Age. His professional heroes were, naturally, the upriver St. Louis Cardinals.
Around the time Daddy was first learning to bat, the famous Cardinals’ General Manager Branch Rickey spoke at a Cairo church luncheon. Legend has it that the team’s iconic emblem was birthed and designed as a direct result of that very meeting (inspired by a table centerpiece).
I’m sure Daddy grew up with this story, instilling an even deeper affection for the Redbirds. A 1920’s powerhouse, the Cards won their first World Series when Daddy was almost 12 years old, led to victory in 1926 by legends such as Mr. Rickey (responsible for MLB farm teams and racial integration) and the great player/manager Roger Hornsby. Radio was in its infancy, so Daddy probably listened to adults talk or read the newspapers on his own, studying the games’ box scores for tidbits of information.
St. Louis was the National League champ in Daddy’s high school freshman and sophomore years. Certainly inspired by the Cardinals’ winning ways, Daddy played for the blue and gold Branchers of Olive Branch High School. His position was second base, and with a .264 batting average, he helped Olive Branch win a local championship. Here’s Daddy as a senior in his baseball team photo:
A quick perusal through his senior year book (class of 1932) revealed a deep passion for baseball, and Daddy’s fervency was duly noted by several of his classmates. One praised him for his part in the winning spring season:
Another wrote a baseball-themed limerick, and another expressed “I am expecting to hear that you have signed up with the Yankees any time.”
The idea of playing in the same infield as Lou Gehrig or batting next to Babe Ruth in Yankee Stadium was any young ball player’s dream. But the Great Depression was my father’s stark reality. I’m sure he had some solace his senior year, however, knowing his beloved Cardinals were yet again World Series Champs. And while he admired the Yankees, he probably patterned his play after the 1931 World Series MVP Cardinal second baseman Frankie Frisch who led them to victory over the Yanks.
Work was scarce in Daddy’s depressed farming community. Within a few months after graduation, he joined FDR’s newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)– right about the time Leo Durocher joined the Cardinals in 1933. Daddy served for six months with Company 1655 in then baseball-less Southern California near Tujunga, fighting fires in the mountains while living at the Tuna Canyon Camp. No doubt he thought of his days at the camp when the news broke of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ move west to Los Angeles two decades later.
After his stint in the CCC, he returned home to Southern Illinois in April, 1934, and joined local amateur baseball teams just for fun. That fall the Cards won yet ANOTHER World Series (under then MANAGER Frankie Frisch), this time against Detroit. I don’t know if during his remaining bachelor years he ever headed to St. Louis to take in games at Sportsman Park, but I’m sure he did if money allowed.
At age 23 he settled down with my mother, Dortha Davis, and hired on with the Cairo Water Company while continuing to play with area ball teams. Shortly after they married in 1938, Momma (an Olive Branch High alumnus herself) was motivated to pen these words in Daddy’s 1932 year book–“…I’m very proud of you for being one of the star members of the baseball team…I hope that if we ever have a son he shall have your love of clean sport and my love of education in general and can follow in your foot steps as a baseball player.”
Over the next few years, Daddy kept playing ball, and so did the Cardinals. My parents moved from the country into the city of Cairo. By the end of the 1941 season, Daddy had also fathered three daughters —but no sons.
Then came December 7, 1941.
The World War II era was a difficult time for all Americans, and my parents sacrificed along with everyone else. Daddy’s CCC Tuna Canyon Camp became a war-time internment location for “enemy aliens,” i.e. Japanese Americans. Exempted due to his critical civilian water company job, Daddy watched with guilt as his younger brothers, brothers-in-law, friends, and even his baseball heroes, went off to fight in the European and Pacific theaters.
“America’s Pastime” continued to serve as a temporary distraction from the more serious news of the day, just as it had during the Depression. Even FDR himself publically said “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” By this time, games were being broadcast over the radio, and my father definitely tuned in.
The 1942 Cardinal World Series winning team was considered one of the all-time greatest, and it was also the rookie season for Daddy’s favorite player—record-breaking Stan “The Man” Musial.
A war-time silver lining emerged for Daddy when the Cardinal owners decided to hold training camp in Cairo due to fuel and travel restrictions (not only that, but the St. Louis Browns practiced in nearby Cape Girardeau, Missouri). For two glorious spring training seasons (1943-44) there’s no doubt my father was one of many who watched the Cardinals practice right there in town. Fans like my dad must have burst at the seams with pride when they won the Series AGAIN in 1944. The Cardinals might have had “St. Louis” in their name, but they were definitely Cairo’s team, too.
When Cairo’s Cotter Field flooded at the beginning of spring training in 1945 due to the rising river levels, the Cards abbreviated their time and headed back to St. Louis in early March. Working for the city water company, I wonder if Daddy might have been involved trying to pump the water from the field? Maybe it’s just coincidence, but without spring training to watch in town and the war winding down, time had to be spent elsewhere. Strange that my sister Jan would be born in December, 1945. You do the math.
That made Daughters = 4, Sons = 0 for Daddy, if you’re keeping score.
Prosperity returned after the war in many ways. To celebrate their return to pro baseball, Cardinal hitters like Musial and his teammate Enos Slaughter picked up where they left off and barreled their way to another World Series win in 1946.
Daddy continued playing infield for various local baseball and softball teams, from Coca Cola Bottling to church leagues. My older sisters have many memories of how closely Daddy followed the Cardinals over the radio beginning in the mid to late ‘40s. It was serious business to him, especially without the aid of TV instant replay.
Phyllis and Carol remember the improvised plastic board he rigged up to tally up the box scores and detailed stats—sort of a precursor to a white board that could be erased after each game. Carol specifically remembers the triangular straight edge he used to draw perfect lines for the box scores—and Phyllis remembers wondering why in the world Daddy would care about all those stats when the game was over.
And then during the radio broadcasts there was the unmistakable voice of Harry Carey thundering out “It might be- it could be- it ISSSSSS! A HOMERUN!” Loud cheers would then commence by my sisters– followed by Daddy quieting them down so he could hear the next play.
Donna remembers that Daddy purchased his very first transistor radio in the 1950’s to carry in his truck (and Jan remembers it was red) to listen to the games. She can also remember accidentally breaking the plastic piece that held the batteries in place! Daddy grumbled, but was still able to fix it the way he fixed just about anything.
Donna and Phyllis also recall how summer trips to visit our mom’s relatives in the St. Louis area almost always included a Cardinals’ game. Phyllis remembers as a ten year-old being excited to go to a game (first at Sportsman’s Field and then later at Busch Stadium) but then getting bored and spending more time begging our Uncle Ray for money to buy concessions. At other times, Daddy would just make special trips to the games with his friends as time and money would allow.
Going to Daddy’s ball games was a family affair for years—my sisters would walk with Momma to the ball field at Cairo’s St. Mary’s Park, pushing the youngest in a stroller. Disinterest in the game usually set in quickly, so my sisters would play nearby with friends or catch fireflies at dusk. It was a true “Leave it to Beaver” era in 1950’s Cairo.
Daddy moved to centerfield as he got older, and baseball turned more and more to softball. Jan recalls how Daddy acquired the game nickname “Hog.” He could, and frequently would, catch anything hit to any part of the outfield. As age crept up, Jan also recalls the strong smell of Ben Gay ointment Daddy used to ease his sore muscles after each game.
The late 40’s and early 50’s began a drought of sorts for the Cards. I’m sure for an avid fan like Daddy, it was quite discouraging. Baseball changes began. A new owner took over in 1952 (hence the new Busch stadium name), and the American League St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1953 to become the Orioles. While Stan the Man continued to rack up tremendous baseball feats, the Cardinals continued to slump as a team. During this mid-50’s Cardinal downturn, Daddy had two more children—two more GIRLS—exactly a year apart. Six girls, no sons….and seemingly no one to “follow in” Daddy’s “footsteps as a baseball player” as Momma had hoped.
As I was number 5 of 6, my father was in his early 40’s when I was born. I have only one dim memory of watching him play outfield at an evening softball game in St. Mary’s Park. But, like my older sisters, I would have rather caught fireflies! Perhaps due to his increased work, church, and community responsibilities, he had choices to make. Although Daddy exchanged his cleats for league bowling shoes, he remained a huge fan.
I, too, remember baseball games on the radio, but especially the TV broadcasts. During meals, Daddy could watch the Cards on the black and white TV in the living room by strategically sitting at the end of the kitchen table. Daddy also found TV ballgames quite relaxing, as he could be frequently discovered napping in his recliner on weekends with a game droning in the background.
In the early 60’s, about the time St. Louis called up a young Bob Gibson from the minors and Stan the Man was retiring, my sister Jan met a young man named Jim at, of course, a ball game in a nearby town. Jim was his high school team’s star hitter, and even had several major league scouts interested in his abilities. But, love won out, and Jim pursued Jan instead of pursuing professional baseball—and Daddy caught a baseball-playing fishing buddy. Courtesy of sister Carol and hubby Kyle, the first grandchildren began making their appearances. In fact, when the Cardinals ended their 18 year drought and won another World Series in 1964 (behind the pitching of the aforementioned Bob Gibson), Daddy and Momma had been blessed with four grandkids—THREE of which were boys—keeping Daddy’s hope alive that his footsteps would still be followed onto the baseball diamond!
The late 60’s brought turbulent times. Racial tensions trickled down and divided Cairo—a southern town in a northern state. Gunfire due to racial factions could be heard downtown nearly every night the summer of 1967. As a church and community leader, my dad had many grave concerns on his shoulders. Both my mom and dad were firmly convinced our town did not have a white or black problem, but rather a heart attitude problem.
Fortunately, the Cards were on a roll again, and my dad was excited as they took another World Series that fall behind the fantastic play of two African- Americans–pitcher, Bob Gibson, and left-fielder Lou Brock. Baseball had to have been a wonderful escape, if even for just a little while, for the serious issues my dad faced daily. I can vaguely recall laying on the living floor and staring at the black and white images on the screen, finally beginning to understand what my dad saw (and didn’t see) in baseball. He saw no color but Cardinal red. They played for HIS team, HIS Cardinals, and that’s all that mattered. Looking back, I wonder if his childhood admiration of Branch Rickey, a man of faith who courageously introduced integration to the Majors in 1947 via Jackie Robinson, helped formulate Daddy’s belief system?
The assassinations of Martin Luther King (downriver in Memphis) and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 caused our little community to be more divided than ever. When I started junior high, Daddy had just been elected to the public school board where tensions were even deeper. But I learned that my father and mother both stood firm in their belief in our schools and in God’s equality for all, no matter the skin color. And even though Bob Gibson became the Cards’ first Cy Young winner by posting a 22-9 pitching record, it isn’t enough. The Detroit Tigers beat the Cards in the last St. Louis World Series my father would ever see.
Fast forward to the fall of 1969, just after Woodstock and the first moon walk. All hell broke loose in my eighth grade world. A local parochial school was formed, and due to “white flight” our public school system took a severe financial blow. But as a school board member, my father (and mother) continue to stand strong. My sister Lisa and I remained in public school, gained new friends, and discovered deeper truths about injustice and equality through the example of our parents.
As a stress reliever, my history teacher decided to let us watch the baseball playoffs and World Series day games being played during his class that September. Somewhere along the line I remember for the first time personally embracing the unique power of baseball to bring glorious distraction– if even for just a few moments– from life’s trials. The Series was between the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles and the Miracle Mets of 1969. As a National League town, most of us rooted for the upstart Mets. By the time the Series was over and won against Brooks Robinson and the Orioles, I was totally smitten with Tom Seaver and the phrase “BELIEVE!” I had become an official baseball fan, totally on my own two blue and orange Mets’ feet!
For family summer vacation in 1970, we headed out to visit sister Phyllis who lived in the New York City area. Even as a Cardinal fan, Daddy, as Phyllis recalled, had always held the Yankees in great esteem and longed to see a Yankee game. So, we as a family headed off to the Bronx, and entered the hallowed ground of the old Yankee Stadium. This was the very first time I ever attended a professional game, and I was with Daddy. We had seats somewhere along the first base line if I recall. I remember watching with amazement as Daddy opened his purchased program to the center, taking the sharpened yellow pencil provided, and proceeded to record every statistic about the game. He knew all the abbreviations, and he recorded every stat about every player on both sides. I do not remember who the Yankees played, but I remember my dad recording it all, and I remember asking questions. It must have been a bucket list moment for him (for many years I kept that Yankees baseball program—and I know I still have it somewhere. I long to look at it again, and to see my Daddy’s neat handwriting in the box scores, knowing now I can read it for myself)!
A couple of days later, he wanted to go again. This time only three of us went, and we ended up sitting in the bleachers. Wow—a 13 year old kid sitting in the Bronx Bombers Bleachers—now that was an educational experience! Again, I don’t remember anything about the opposing team—but I remember just being there, watching the game, and being with my dad.
Daddy and Momma left Lisa and I with Phyllis for a few weeks while they traveled and worked around the house. We had a wonderful summer of new experiences and adventures that included attending several Mets games at the old Shea Stadium in Queens– much to my baseball delight. Yes, the baseball torch had been firmly passed down to me by Daddy, even though it was not as a Cardinals’ fan.
Little did any of us know that year would be his last to watch the Boys of Summer. Daddy’s heart gave out and he died very suddenly at the age of 55 only five months after seeing the Yankees play in 1970. He was a well-loved pillar in our little community of 6000. The church he helped build and where he served as a deacon, First Southern Baptist, was packed to the gills for the funeral. What a legacy of integrity and faithfulness my father left us all.
Regional loyalties now dominate our family’s favorite teams. Jan and Carol have kept the Cardinal faith in Kentucky and northern Illinois, although there are Cubs, White Sox, and Braves fans scattered among their children. While Phyllis is a Yankees’ fan, Donna would say she is now a Texas Ranger’s fan—although her years in the Tampa Bay area as a Rays’ fan (and childhood affinity for the Cardinals) occasionally come into play. I laid down my NY Mets baseball “puppy love” and picked up a full blown passion for the Texas Rangers, as did our late sister Lisa, since we moved to Texas as teenagers.
But frankly, we three Ranger fans wondered if Daddy was giving the Cardinals a little heavenly help during their 2011 World Series win– especially when Jan declared “Rangers 3, Daddy 4!”
The baseball movie “Field of Dreams” touches something deep inside me, and I cry at the end every time. Yes, it’s a fantasy, but there’s something about the idea of “going back” to recapture lost opportunity that appeals to my heart. Since I was only 14 when he passed, there are so many important and insignificant things about my Daddy I didn’t know. Like, for instance, how did he like his coffee? Why did he organize our family photos the way he did? It what ways am I like him? Would he and Momma really have retired to their land in Arkansas? How DID he catch all those fish? What were his parents—my paternal grandparents—like? What would it be like to have an adult conversation with him about life in general? These are questions beyond my control that I must release to God.
Maybe it’s those corn fields that remind me of my Illinois childhood, but I can’t help but think Daddy would be one of those who would ask, standing on that freshly mowed ball field, “Is this heaven?”
So while there is much I don’t know about him, there is something I do know without a doubt. My father, Harold Worthington, had plenty of baseball DNA….and he successfully passed it down to his six daughters. We have in turn passed it down to our children and grandchildren. Except now our family baseball DNA strand looks more like this:
Daddy, perhaps you didn’t have any sons, but you now have dozens of grand and great-grand sons (and daughters) who have donned uniforms and picked up gloves and bats to play the game you adored. As Momma hoped over 75 years ago, they have indeed “followed in your footsteps as a baseball player” and “your love of clean sport.” They may be unaware that their love of the game is due in part from YOUR love of the game, but that’s our job to tell them. And we also need to let them know that if their Grandpa Worthington were here, your photo albums would be proudly brimming over with their game pics from Illinois to Kentucky to Texas.
This legacy you left us, Daddy, this love of baseball, may not cure the world’s ills. But it can give us a break from the madness. It reminds us that life is still better when played by the rules and there is an Ultimate Authority, and that life is a marathon and not a sprint. It proves that details matter, that sacrifice counts, that patience is indeed a virtue, and that we should never give up hope even with two strikes against us. It reminds us that everyone has the right to an equal chance in this life no matter the “color of their uniform.” Most importantly, it teaches us that even in loss there is a new day and new chances.
So, thank you, Daddy, for teaching us how to play baseball and, by doing so, how to live our lives. I’m sure you would agree that’s a grand slam on anybody’s score card!