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Deeply buried like a needle amid three haystacks is Leigh Ann Young’s answer to her yearning, the final cover for the lifelong hole in her heart.
A spool of tape, via old-school technologies like reel to reel or cassette, could be sitting in the bottom of a drawer, the back of a file cabinet, or under a pile in a musty attic or basement. Maybe, just maybe, the tape could be hiding in the moldie-oldie section of the archives of a New York TV station. On that tape will be Young’s late father’s voice, a part of him she doesn’t remember and can’t re-create exactly through the memories of others.
Charlotte, N.C. resident Young has gained some notoriety for her year-long quest for the verbal form of father Verlon “Rube” Walker, a baseball lifer who became a respected Chicago Cubs coach from 1961 to 1970.
A good ol’ boy proud of his roots in rural Lenoir, N.C., at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Walker survived the crazy “College of Coaches” setup in 1961-62, then somehow gained the favor of amoral manager Leo Durocher, to have a decade-long coaching run. He was a nice little side angle to the baseball flow of news at the time. Brother Al Walker, also nicknamed “Rube,” was a Mets coach during the same era.
But in 1970, Walker was afflicted by chronic myeloid leukemia. He died at 42 the next year. Rube Walker was born three decades too soon. By 2000, chronic myeloid leukemia could be treated. That was no comfort to Young, who was just 3 when her father passed. A daughter without a father, particularly a loving, doting one like Walker, goes through life unfulfilled emotionally and has to rally from behind to achieve even-keel status.
A writer and blogger, Young fortunately is at that level with a husband and two sons. But like any seeker of truth, this time with a sharp emotional edge, she is taking a unique journey through 21st century life to snare that missing mid-20th century connection with her father. Young has recorded her steps via her www.baseballlovestory.com blog.
“Anyone can close their eyes and recall his father’s voice,” Young said. “Somehow, his voice was never recorded by the family. It’s just a huge part of life. His story was he had leukemia, he went into remission, he thought he’d be fine. He died when he was 42 – he was super young. You just don’t think about preserving that kind of stuff. From my mother, I’ve got incredible newspaper clippings and photographs. Also a pair of glasses and a ring (along with other Walker baseball memorabilia).”
“That’s the missing piece for me – his voice.”
Young might as well be trying to snare a UFO. The desired piece of tape is still a ghost.
Never the most prominent coach on the Cubs, working in the bullpen and usually not on the baselines, Rube Walker likely made a few appearances on pre-game or post-game WGN-TV and WGN-Radio shows.
Unfortunately, any such TV appearances were long since erased and re-used in an era of expensive (for the time) $600 reels of two-inch videotape. WGN-TV saved only selected game highlights from the 1960s and 1970s. The only saved clip of a pre-game show was that of WGN announcer Vince Lloyd interviewing President John F. Kennedy at old Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1961 and Willie Mays and Ernie Banks appearing together at Wrigley Field in 1965.
Overall, videotapes or kinescopes (films made of the live telecast) of baseball broadcasts from that era are relatively rare. Major League Baseball, which employs an archivist, actually paid for the kinescope of Game 7 – the Bill Mazeroski Game — of the 1960 World Series. Bing Crosby, then part-owner of the Pirates, had the telecast recorded by his production company so he could watch afterward. Crosby was too nervous to watch the live game, so he flew to Paris to be out of range of the broadcast. The kinescope was found five decades later in the files of Bing Crosby Productions.
Other historic clips literally left their originating stations. The WPIX-TV color videotape of Mickey Mantle’s 500th homer at Yankee Stadium in 1967 was found decades later in the closet of a station engineer.
The pre-game “Leadoff Man” radio interview offered Young a little bit of hope. Although WGN-Radio did not typically save those broadcasts, some avid fans were armed with home audio recorders, who are solely responsible for preserving a lot of baseball broadcast history – barely – by recording off their radio and TV sets.
The only known tape of Jackie Robinson working as the first African-American network baseball announcer was made by broadcaster-fan John Ring at his Galesburg, Ill. home on Labor Day, 1965. Robinson was paired with Durocher and Chris Schenkel at a Dodgers-Giants game in Los Angeles on ABC-TV. Three days later, Ring made the only tape of the post-game radio interview Dodgers announcer Jerry Doggett conducted with Sandy Koufax moments after his perfect game against the Cubs.
The issue is if fans had enough tape to record a Rube Walker interview – taping time was restricted by the technology available. Other than the scattershot historic interview like Doggett-Koufax, home recorders typically saved the game itself, stopping and starting at commercial breaks.
The only Chicago pre-game interview from the era that has surfaced via a home recording was the radio recording of Cubs GM John Holland waxing positively over 19-year-old Oscar Gamble before the season opener in 1969. Chicago-area tape collector Gary Parker and his brother recorded Holland, then the entire broadcast of the 11-inning Cubs-Phillies game, probably the most famous opener in Wrigley Field history. But Parker, who collected thousands of tapes, has nothing with Rube Walker.
Sometimes a seemingly impossible quest by Young takes an unexpected, and positive turn. No, she still does not have a recording. But she now has a colorful portrait of Rube Walker painted by his baseball contemporaries.
The Chicago Baseball Museum could not help Young even after surveying its hundreds of hours of vintage baseball broadcasts and interviews. However, the museum has a pretty good rolodex. Young was given the numbers and e-mails of several dozen Cubs players and coaches of Rube Walker’s era.
Taking a deep breath, she contacted the old baseball men, and came up with repeated earfuls. From Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins to backup catcher Chris Krug (whose error resulted in the only run in Koufax’s ’65 perfecto, 23 years before Krug’s baseball field-building firm carved out the “Field of Dreams” diamond in Iowa), the mental picture of good-guy Walker was completed. Everybody liked the guy with his easy sense of humor, frequent mentions of hometown Lenoir and re-assuring advice to nervous players.
Particularly eloquent was Ken Holtzman, the only Cub to pitch two no-hitters (1969 and 1971):
“I do indeed have fond memories of your father. He was a coach in the Cubs system when I came up and was very helpful to young players like me. He was ordinarily a quiet, reserved person but was also super competitive and we used to enjoy the back and forth banter with his brother on the Mets. I know you were very young when he passed, but I’m glad you’re seeking out the memories of his life. My grandkids do the same to me and it is a way of connecting families through the generations. I hope you reach many players and that they enrich your father’s memory. P.S. He always used to brag about Lenoir!”
Cold calling, Young contacted the San Francisco Giants media relations department in an attempt to reach special advisor Joey Amalfitano, a Cubs coaching colleague of Walker’s from 1967 to 1970. Jim Moorehead and his people came through in the clutch. Within days, Amalfitano called Young.
“He was thrilled saying, ‘Young lady, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you,'” Young said. “He and my dad were good friends. He told me how much my dad loved me — how his face would light up when he talked about me. Interestingly, he mentioned that Leo Durocher really liked my dad. We vowed to keep in touch.”
The stories from the old Cubs make up for much of what Young has not obtained with the still-lost tape of her father.
“Speaking with all of these men has changed me,” she said. “I haven’t seen any of them in person so their voices are what carry me to the past. Most of them I have caught off-guard. They answer the phone and there I am. They all love talking about their baseball days. Inevitably each wants to know who else I have spoken to. They freely share what they can remember and for that I am so grateful. The words they use, the stories they tell —I get to travel with them back to that moment.”
Young got even more back from those moved by her quest. After doing the publicity rounds – Keith Olbermann gave her some airplay on ESPN – she got a message out of the blue from Jack Manning of Sugar Grove, Ill., 50 miles west of Chicago. Manning read her story in the Chicago Tribune. As a 10-year-old in 1963, he collected Verlon Walker’s autograph on a scorecard after a Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley Field. Manning sent her the scorecard.
Again, quintessential Southern girl Young was overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.
She’ll continue her quest for the missing tape(s). Next focus might be those archives of New York’s WWOR-TV, the Mets’ flagship station in Rube Walker’s era. The odds are the late Ralph Kiner had Verlon and AL Walker as the brother-angle guests on his “Kiner’s Corner” pre-game TV show when they were coaches at each end of the hot Cubs-Mets rivalry in the late 1960s or 1970.
After not getting a good response in her initial contacts with Big Apple broadcasters, Young should get some help from Al Yellon, editor of the popular BleedCubbieBlue.com blog. Yellon knows the video language after working for more than three decades as a staff director at Chicago’s ABC-owned-and-operated TV station. He’s offered to contact WWOR on her behalf.
Young calls her quest “a completely spiritual journey.” But she doesn’t need a heaven-sent miracle. Just some avid baseball fan who fiddled around with a tape machine and never threw away his old tapes.
So if you think you have Rube Walker’s voice, contact a grateful daughter at LeighAnn@BaseballLovestory.com.