For four years, Charlotte mother and blogger Leigh Ann Walker Young searched for a recording of her father’s voice.
Verlon “Rube” Walker, the longtime Chicago Cubs baseball coach from Lenoir, died of leukemia a week before Leigh Ann’s third birthday.
That was in 1971. He was 42. His daughter has no direct memories of her father at all.
If only she could hear the voice behind the pictures, Walker Young thought, she would have a better understanding of him. His voice, she thought, would begin to fill a vacuum.
“Even if you’ve lost your father, you can probably close your eyes and hear him tell you something in your head,” she told me for a story I wrote a year ago about her search. “Maybe a piece of wisdom. Maybe something funny he always said. I don’t have any of that.”
Since 2011, she’s made dozens of phone calls and email inquiries. She started a blog about her quest. And although her father was interviewed many times by radio and TV reporters, she had yet to find a recording.
Well, Walker Young found it.
Actually, her mother found it – put away and forgotten inside a box that had gone unopened for 30 years. The tape contained part of a church service in Lenoir from 1968 that had been broadcast on a local radio station and was recorded by the church’s pastor. Walker’s part is only 70 seconds long and is now posted on YouTube, headlined “Baseball Love Story.”
It’s Rube Walker, all right. He was 39 years old, in front of a microphone, at the Methodist church he had attended as a youth in Lenoir. He sounds nervous.
Help from strangers
Now 47, Walker Young says she wasn’t obsessed by the search. But she chipped away at it during the spare time she had, despite feeling uncomfortable before every cold call she made.
“I’m not the type of person that likes to call strangers,” she said. “I have to psych myself up, take a deep breath. ... But over and over, I was embraced.”
She juggled her family (her husband and their two boys) and two part-time jobs (blogger and bookkeeper) while trying to carve out time to call people all over the country who had known her father. Old baseball players, old broadcasters, old friends – she talked to everyone she could.
She began writing a blog about the search called BaseballLoveStory.com. She phoned the Cubs and radio and TV stations in Chicago. She got a little publicity, which led to an article in a sports collector magazine, which led to national broadcaster Keith Olbermann doing a piece on his TV show about her quest.
Although her father had been interviewed many times by reporters who covered baseball during his 1961-71 tenure as an assistant coach for the Chicago Cubs, no one could locate an original recording.
The people she talked to would tell her stories about her father, though, and that was invaluable. She started finding connections. She has always been a peacemaker in her family. It turns out that was a role he played on every baseball team he coached.
He was born in 1929 and raised in Lenoir, the second of three baseball-playing brothers in a poor, Depression-era family. Both of his parents worked at a local cotton mill.
For his entire life, Verlon Walker would sometimes be confused with his older brother, Albert. Both were nicknamed “Rube.” The oldest brother was the best baseball player of the three Walker brothers and the only one to make it to the majors as a player, staying for 11 years.
Verlon, like his older brother Albert, was a catcher. Verlon left Lenoir High before graduating because he was drafted by the Cubs in 1948. He stuck around in the minors for about a decade, but he wasn’t a strong enough hitter to make it to the majors. The Cubs’ bosses liked him, though, and he stayed on as a coach.
“You knew the Walker family by reputation by then,” said Bobby Richardson, who is from Sumter, S.C., and was a star for the New York Yankees during the same era. “They were a baseball family.”
‘She was just a baby’
Walker and his future wife, Ann, met at a football game in Lenoir after high school and dated off and on for eight years. They were both 36 when they got married in 1966. Verlon Walker had already developed leukemia by then, but with treatment it had gone into remission. Leigh Ann, who would be their only child, was born in April 1968.
Later that year, at the Walker family’s invitation, Richardson drove 175 miles from his home in Sumter to give his Christian testimony.
“They were nice people, and I was glad to do it,” Richardson, now 79, says. “I remember that day and I remember Leigh Ann being there, but she was just a baby.”
The Walkers attended a Methodist church in Lenoir, and many of the services were broadcast on a local radio station. Walker introduced Richardson before the sermon. For most of those 70 seconds, Walker simply praised Richardson.
“In my lifetime, I guess, Bobby was the most respected player in baseball,” Walker drawled at one point.
Joe Parker, the church’s pastor at the time, was an organized man. He usually recorded those services on a cassette recorder and filed them away.
Less than three years after that Sunday morning in church, Verlon Walker’s cancer returned. He died on March 24, 1971. Leigh Ann went to her father’s funeral one week and to her third birthday party the next.
Lost in the garage
Ann Walker, now 85, says that Leigh Ann first expressed a general interest in hearing a recording of her father in the 1980s, while she was still in college. Walker talked to Parker. “Reverend Parker said, ‘I believe I can help you with that,’” Walker recalls.
He gave Ann Walker the cassette, but her daughter wasn’t home from college at the time. Ann Walker put it aside in a box, got busy doing something else and forgot all about it. The box moved with her at least twice without being opened (Walker lives alone in Lenoir, having outlived two husbands).
She was supportive of her daughter’s search and had given her all the old boxes of memorabilia she could remember – but not that one.
So why didn’t the tape surface before now? Think about your garage or attic. All those boxes, buried deep or stacked high. Do you remember everything inside them?
“Yes, it was lost in the garage in a box,” Ann Walker said. “And I’m so sorry about that.”
She woke up one night and suddenly remembered where that recording of her late husband was.
“I kept thinking and wondering all this time if I had something,” Ann Walker said. “So one night maybe a month ago, I just woke up in the middle of the night and realized I did have that somewhere.”
She found it. And after she wrestled with her own guilt for not having thought of it earlier, she had it transferred to a CD.
When her daughter next came to Lenoir to visit, on July 11, they sat in the kitchen. I found something, the mother said.
And she gave her daughter the CD.
‘A great amount of healing’
Leigh Ann Walker Young couldn’t believe it. She took the CD into another room, inserted it into her mom’s computer and listened.
“Of course, I cried,” she said. “It didn’t sound like I imagined it would sound. I thought it would be lower. Gravelly. When you look at someone’s face for so long, I guess you just imagine things.
“I guess I’m thinking he’s a baseball man, a hunter, full of machismo, it’s going to be a deep voice. Instead it was a little bit higher, a little bit softer than I anticipated. It sounded gentle. Calming.”
During the past three weeks, she estimates she has listened to it 100 times.
There is one word she loves most. Her father says on the tape that Richardson should feel at home because Lenoir is “Yankees’ territory,” and he stretches out the word – “Terr-ihhh-tor-ahh” – until it has more bends than the Catawba River.
“I just latched onto that word and that whole mountain accent he had,” she said. “It just grounded me into his roots.”
Walker first told her daughter that she had obtained the recording only a few weeks earlier from Parker, who does still live in Lenoir. A few days later, the mother confessed to the real timeline.
“She was afraid I’d be mad,” her daughter said. “But I’m not. All this unfolded just like it was supposed to.”
Walker Young wrote about the tape on her blog and posted the recording. She has also started writing a book about her search.
“This has all brought me a great amount of healing,” she said. “ ... I feel like I have a lot to give now, because a lot has been given to me.
“I’ve enjoyed the journey, and I think in hindsight it was more important than the destination,” Walker Young continues. “The journey, for me, has been kind of like getting in a current in a river. I put my canoe in, and I just started floating.
“I didn’t know what I was going to find, and I didn’t know exactly where it was going to take me, I just kind of let the journey happen. And I think the ending is really beautiful. Don’t you?”