Early on New Year's Day 1941, Billy Southworth, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, woke his son, helped him pack and drove him the 10 hours from their Ohio home to Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Ill. The younger Southworth, a minor league standout, had quit baseball and become the first professional ballplayer to enlist in the military. This made him something of a celebrity, especially after Pearl Harbor.Associated Press
In October 1942, Billy Southworth, then manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, met his son in Bangor, Me. Billy Jr. was the first professional baseball player to enlist in the military.From the Diary of Billy Southworth Jr. (June 19, 2005)
"A firm handshake and I was off," Billy Southworth Jr. wrote in the diary he kept primarily so that his father might have a record of the time they would spend apart.
It is not literature. Rather, the diary is one side of a particular sort of conversation between baseball people of a certain era and ethos. Its power lies in the restraint fathers and sons can sometimes exhibit when trying to explain how they feel about each other.
Billy Southworth did not want his son to enlist. He was not alone in believing that his son might well become, like him, a major leaguer, especially in 1939 after he hit .342 for the Rome Colonels and was voted the most valuable player in the Canadian-American League. The Southworths had spent their summers together on the minor league circuit in the years after Southworth's wife left them; the father managed and the son pulled bats and shagged fly balls.
In 1929, the elder Southworth, who batted .297 over 13 seasons with five major league teams, became manager of the Cardinals, only to be fired for attempting to play the hard guy, a role for which he was woefully unsuited. He eventually found work as a salesman, remarried and had a daughter. He assumed his baseball career was over until Branch Rickey returned him to the minors, where he learned to manage in a way that befit his quiet if relentless personality. In 1940, he was again made manager of the Cardinals.
That fall the elder Southworth tried to persuade his son to wait to enlist in the Army Air Corps at least until he had made it to the big leagues. But Billy Jr., who was 24, was eager to go and told him that it was baseball that could wait. He had grown into the sort of man his father regarded as a better version of himself: taller, better-looking and filled with a confidence that some regarded as youthful conceit. His father adored him.
Billy Southworth Jr. dedicated his diary to his father, who would have surely understood and appreciated what his son was trying to tell him. Its early pages describe in great detail training missions over the Arizona desert, the poor state of repair of the planes he had learned to fly - "the prop regulators were cleaned and oil drained" - and impressions of his fellow fliers. The tone is relentlessly confident - "Got a letter from Col. Sutherland for outstanding performance" - though at times he is irritable, particularly on the subject of commanding officers of whom he thinks little. Men are dying around him, even before they ship out. Yet there is no sense of fear or regret.
Billy Southworth Jr. wanted his father to know what it was like piloting 26 bombing runs over France and Germany as the sky filled with German fighters, flak and the burning debris of B-17's flown by men he liked. He wanted him to know about parties with nurses, trips to London and meeting Bob Hope and Clark Gable. He wanted him to know how seriously he took his work - that he had devised new formations and was not shy about pressing reluctant commanders about ideas on such matters as gunnery.
As it happened, his father had revived his managerial career by becoming a stickler for detail and planning. "He taught me the things that have made possible my existence in this war," Billy Jr. wrote of, and to, his father.
He also wanted his father to know that although he had abandoned his game, baseball and his father's place in it still mattered: time and again he included the results of Cardinal games, even as he went on to describe the rising death toll around him. In fact, it is often through baseball that he made his affection known - never more movingly than in the fall of 1942 when the Cardinals, who had trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 10 games in August, won the pennant and then the World Series. "A memorable day in the history of Southworth," he wrote in his neat handwriting. "Dad today proved that he was the best manager in baseball ... such a grand fellow."
His father came to see him in Bangor, Me., just before he shipped out. Billy Jr. introduced his father around. "The boys were anxious to meet him, too," he wrote. "We're all crazy about him."
The elder Southworth, meanwhile, beseeched his son to bail out if an air battle was lost. Billy Jr. wrote, "I asked, 'Have you ever known that you were beaten no matter what the score?' With a grin he said, 'You're right. ... Here's a cap that might be lucky.' "
It was the cap he had worn that championship season. Billy Jr. wore it into combat and the following May even wrote about it.
It was a rare entry, reflective and imaginative. The cap, he wrote, has "heard the roar of thousands of voices," but also "the bark of 13 high-powered .50-cal machine guns. ... Lucky for those who have worn it - it has ridden with a winner, always a champion."
It is as close as he comes to writing the word love, and its meaning is unmistakable. His father, however, would never read any of it. Maj. Billy Southworth Jr. came home a hero in 1944 and caught the eye of Hunt Stromberg, a movie producer, who arranged a screen test and signed him to a contract, convinced that he had found the next Clark Gable.
Southworth's navigator, Jon Schueler, was also home and hoped to become a writer. Eager for material and inspiration, he prevailed upon Southworth to lend him the diary. Schueler had it in February 1945 when Southworth, on a training mission in a B-29, crashed into Flushing Bay. His father raced to the scene from Ohio, but it was six months before the body was recovered.
Schueler kept the diary. He went to become an artist of considerable reputation. But he always hoped, his widow, Magda Salvesen, later explained, to write about his own difficult war by drawing, in part, on the experiences of his seemingly fearless comrade. He kept the diary, she explained, not out of malice or spite, but as an artist, for whom the needs of people often played a secondary role.
Schueler died in 1992. Several years ago, Salvesen took a call from Southworth's sister, Carole Watson. She had read a book about her brother's unit and learned that he had kept a diary. Her father had died in 1969, and she wondered if, at long last, she might be able to read what her brother had written for him.