She’s the little blond girl in the pictures, cradled in the strong arms of her father at Wrigley Field.
She’s not much bigger in another picture, holding a doll in one hand and looking shyly at the camera. Behind her is her father’s tombstone, decorated by a bouquet of fresh flowers she and her mother had just placed there.
Leigh Ann Young was only 3 when Verlon “Rube” Walker died, his life cut short by leukemia at the age of 42. Her only memories of him come from what her mother told her and the things he left behind.
Sometimes she’ll hold his Texas League championship ring and slide it on and off her finger. Other times she might take out his engraved silver lighter and open and close it while thinking what might have been.
“I just feel like it’s something he’s touched,” Young says. “I’ll pull them out when I want to be near him.”
But the father she can’t remember didn’t leave her the one thing she desperately wants.
To know what he sounded like.
To hear his voice.
• • •
The stats show that Verlon Walker wasn’t much of a baseball player. He spent 12 seasons in the lower minor leagues, bouncing around to places like Lumberton, N.C. and Wenatchee and never getting a sniff from the majors.
Casual fans may remember his older brother, who shares the “Rube” nickname. Albert Walker spent much of the 1950s backing up Roy Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he’s perhaps best known for being behind the plate in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the home run that won the pennant for the New York Giants.
The Walker brothers were country boys who grew up poor in the Depression era in the Blue Ridge foothills of Lenoir, N.C. Both were catchers, and both had dreams of making baseball their career.
Verlon Walker’s ticket to the major leagues came only after his playing career ended. A player-manager in the last part of his minor league career, he was brought up in 1961 by the Chicago Cubs as a base coach.
“He was so proud to be in the Cubs’ organization and be able to play a game for a living,” Young said. “I don’t think he ever took that for granted for one minute.”
Walker’s major league coaching career spanned a decade during a transitional period in baseball. Leo Durocher was manager of the Cubs the last half of the decade, and among the pictures Young has is one of her father – newly promoted to the majors – standing with Cincinnati outfielder Frank Robinson in 1961.
Shortly after getting married in 1966, though, Walker was diagnosed with leukemia. Treatment sent it into remission, and Leigh Ann was born in 1968. But two years later – just after Walker had been promoted to pitching coach for the 1971 season – the leukemia returned.
Within a few short months, Walker was dead. He was laid to rest in his hometown, and players lined up for a moment of silence on opening day at Wrigley to honor his memory.
The Cubs and White Sox played their annual charity game that summer for their late coach. Players passed the hat among themselves to donate in Walker’s memory.
Ernie Banks would swap his uniform for a coat and tie and go with Walker’s widow, Ann, to present a check for $35,000 to establish the Verlon Walker Leukemia Center at Chicago Wesley Memorial Hospital.
• • •
The idea came to Young as she watched her husband play with their two sons at home in Charlotte, N.C.
She had the pictures, and she had some of his things. She even had some old silent home movies with her father in them.
But she yearned to hear the voice she can’t remember ever hearing. She wanted a physical connection with a father she never really had.
“I wasn’t really missing someone, but there was just this big hole, this lack of something I never had,” she said. “There’s something that fathers give to little girls that can’t come from anywhere else.”
Surely, Young thought, someone had a recording somewhere with his voice on it. Almost everything in baseball is recorded in some way, and there had to be a tape with Verlon Walker speaking out there.
Durocher was known to have been kicked out of a game or two. Maybe her father took over the team for one of those games, and maybe he was interviewed for the broadcast afterward. Maybe some die-hard Cubs fan at home recorded the games on a reel-to-reel tape machine.
Maybe somebody just happened to have a tape recorder rolling when he talked.
The Cubs were helpful, but they had nothing. Neither did WGN radio, the team’s broadcaster, though play-by-play voice Pat Hughes tried his best to find Walker’s voice.
Young has been searching for two years now, making phone calls that always begin with “You don’t know me but…” The quest has put her in touch with broadcasters, historians and players from the teams he dad helped coach.
So far she’s struck out at every turn. But along the way she’s discovered things about her father, and about herself.
“Every person I’ve talked to has healed my soul one way or another,” she said. “And I didn’t plan for any of that.”
Former Cubs pitcher Dick Ellsworth told her about her father’s quiet sense of humor. Longtime Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger told her that her father was one of the nicest guys he ever knew. From Joey Amalfitano came word that Durocher really liked her dad.
Everyone wants to help, searching their memories to try and find something big to tell Young about her father. What she really wants to know, though, are the little things.
Did he like sunflower seeds? Did he ever get thrown out of a game? Was he a good baseball man? Did he yell at players?
“It’s the tiny things about people that make them real,” she said. “I want to know the whole story, flaws and all. I want a full-rounded man.”
What she’s gotten has helped her further build a portrait of a father she doesn’t remember. At the same time it’s exposed a gaping hole in her life.
“I didn’t realize how wounded I was until I started this journey,” Young said. “I never would have thought how important talking to all these people has been to me.”
• • •
Leigh Ann and her mother, how 84, still go to the gravesite in Lenoir on special occasions. They’ll bring flowers, just like they did when she was little.
She’s not sure she will ever hear the voice she so desperately wants to hear, but she’s not about to give up the chase. It’s been a giant treasure hunt, even if the prizes are different than what she imagined.
“I thought I’d call a couple of people, someone would send me a tape and I’d cry some tears and it would be over,” she said. “But it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Young writes a blog about her quest (baseballlovestory.com) and she’s surprised by the people who contact her on it. They’re drawn in by different things, but they’ve found a common connection.
“I have people sharing their own grief with me, and I have women who are also fatherless daughters who understand what it means,” she said. “Then I have baseball people who want to go back and remember the purity and times of baseball in the ’60s when it was really America’s game and was accessible. Some men follow just because they like to hear stories about old-time baseball.”
She’s learned so much about her father, opened so many doors to her past. The journey toward finding her father’s voice has led down many paths, and helped her understand more a man she never really knew.
Hearing his voice would fit the last piece of the puzzle together. But at the same time, she’s scared of what she may hear.
“I know it sounds absurd having launched this quest but the prospect of finding it and hearing it sometimes brings more fear than not,” she said. “The thought of finding the actual thing I’m looking for brings a level of emotion that is overwhelming.”
It’s something she’s willing to risk because the reward is so great.
The little blond girl in the pictures is all grown up now. And she believes her father would be proud.
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