LENOIR, N.C. -- Leigh Ann Walker Young pictures herself in a canoe, floating down a river, but without oars. She's powerless to the current, accepting of wherever she might land. She's refreshed by the ability to let go and have fate orchestrate her way. She's confident that she'll end on the shore, safe and better for her journey.
She's getting philosophical again and getting ready to cry again, sitting in the living room of her mother's home, less than a mile from the grave of her father, Verlon "Rube" Walker, who died of leukemia when Leigh Ann was 3 years old.
Her dad's all-too-short life, a love affair with baseball and with Leigh Ann's mother, Ann, has been the focus of much of her physical and emotional attention for the past few years, and even though one quest has ended, a much greater one is still in progress.
Leigh Ann is tired, but she's never too tired to tell the story of a father's voice lost and found.
"I'm calling it a soul mission now," she says. "Because it's really been a mission of my soul to just be free of the sadness."* * *
Verlon, Albert and Leslie Walker grew up loving baseball in this small North Carolina city at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Verlon and Albert were fortunate enough to fashion careers out of the Grand Old Game. When you do that in a small town like Lenoir, you're a legend, and this family had two.
| "If you could only hear five things again in your life, how many of them would be the voices of your loved ones? To not have a clear memory, or a recording, of your father's voice is nothing short of tragic." |
|-- Keith Olbermann |
Albert became a Major League player nicknamed Rube, a valuable backup catcher and pinch-hitter for the Cubs and Dodgers. He might have called the pitch that Bobby Thomson hit for the pennant-winning "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951, but he also won a World Series ring with Brooklyn in 1955.
Verlon played and coached all over the Minor Leagues in outposts as varied as Omaha, Neb.; Paris, Ill.; Wenatchee, Wash.; Carlsbad, N.M.; and more. He, too, was nicknamed Rube and made it to the big leagues in 1961 as a member of the Cubs' infamous "College of Coaches."
Both brothers were loved around the game, luminaries among their peers. Both loved the game back. And Verlon loved his sweetheart in Lenoir, a Southern lady named Ann.
They met after a smitten-from-afar Verlon got her phone number from one of his cousins and asked her to a Lenoir High School football game. It was 1956. But Verlon didn't want to get too serious too fast.
"We did not get married until January 1966, because he kept saying he didn't think [baseball's grueling schedule] was an ideal life for marriage," Ann says now, sitting beside her daughter. "But I didn't agree with that."
Leigh Ann was born in 1968 to a pair of parents in their late 30s, and she was born into that baseball lifestyle. When she did see her dad, who by then was seven years into his last and best job, he'd parade her around Wrigley Field. He wouldn't let her out of his sight in the winters.
And in 1971, it was all over. He was gone.* * *
Leigh Ann Walker Young was moving along through life as a wife to Dennis and mom to sons Walker and Christopher. The onslaught of responsibility, the relentlessness that comes from being needed by so many, the rigors of reward -- it was all part of the daily routine.
She wasn't paying much attention to the fact that she'd get a bit angrier than she should have when things didn't go her way, that there was a general feeling of emptiness that she couldn't quite put a finger on.
Then she turned 42. She thought more about her father, who died at 42. She realized she knew all the stories of her parents' courtship and Verlon Walker's wry sense of humor and far-reaching baseball knowledge and sterling reputation within the game. She just didn't know him.
"I knew I had stored away that grief with deep pain, and I knew I had avoided it all those years, because I knew that to unleash it would probably cause me a lot of pain, so I decided that I was going in," Leigh Ann says. "I was going to figure it out, and I wanted to heal. I wanted to just get better. I didn't want to carry it around anymore.
"I wanted to know him."
She started a blog, BaseballLoveStory.com, dedicated to her parents and the game. She dug up every photograph she had. There was Verlon Walker in the Cubs' dugout, sitting next to Ernie Banks. There was Yogi Berra holding Leigh Ann at a Mets game. There was Verlon in a Cubs uniform with 2-year-old Leigh Ann in tow, carrying a precious red purse.
But the pictures, the box scores, the literature printed by Northwestern Hospital in Chicago announcing that it was naming a leukemia center after her father … it wasn't enough.
"He's always been just a bit of a ghost in my life, my father, just kind of dancing in and out, me trying to figure out who he was," Leigh Ann says. "And when I pulled all that together, it just hit me that I'd never heard the sound of his voice.
"And there's something really archetypal about it -- the fatherly wisdom, the fatherly voice. And so I just really thought I would call the Chicago Cubs and they would send me a tape."
The Cubs didn't have it, so Leigh Ann enlisted the help of Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes as well as longtime journalist and historian George Castle. Still, no dice.
Leigh Ann realized she had to find the voice now. She knew it was out there. It had to be.* * *
She pressed on. Hughes and Castle had helped her with phone numbers of old Cubs who adored her father, and her conversations with these men brought more of Verlon Walker's personality to life for the woman who was yearning to piece it together.
Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins gave him the ultimate compliment, calling him a Southern gentleman. Phil Regan remembered his own interactions with Rube. And another Hall of Famer, Billy Williams, remembered a moment in the hospital when he squeezed his stricken old friend's hand and told him to be strong.
"I would tell these men, I would say, 'Look, I don't know my dad. So if you know that he likes sunflower seeds, that's not insignificant to me. Tell me, so that I know that,'" said Leigh Ann.* * *
Back in New York in 2013, sports TV personality and baseball junkie Keith Olbermann was preparing for his ESPN show when a story came across his desk. The Charlotte Observer and Chicago Tribune had profiled Leigh Ann Walker Young, a local mom and daughter of a former Cubs coach, in her search for a recording of her father's voice.
Olbermann was captivated.
"It rings a personal bell for most people," Olbermann says. "If you could only hear five things again in your life, how many of them would be the voices of your loved ones? To not have a clear memory, or a recording, of your father's voice is nothing short of tragic."
Olbermann knew all about Verlon Walker and his brother, growing up obsessed with the names of ballplayers and even more the colorful nicknames of said ballplayers.
"The idea that the pitching coach of the Mets Rube Walker had a brother who was also a coach with the Cubs and also named Rube was almost magical to me" Olbermann says. "So I knew all about the Rubes Walker well before my 10h birthday."
Olbermann packaged Leigh Ann's story on his broadcast in a commentary about how in this day and age of viral video and people seemingly recording everybody and everything on smart phones, it was staggering and devastating that this woman somehow still could not find a single recording of her dad's voice.
Soon, Leigh Ann's blog and phone were blowing up with media requests and notes of encouragement from fatherless daughters and other people who were touched by her saga.
"Leigh Ann Walker was born alongside the banks of the eternal, beautiful river that is baseball -- she had no choice in the matter," Olbermann says. "She's of the game. The rest of us are here voluntarily, but we are all of the game.
"So a poignant story summons all of us to help in the way we wish neighbors helped in what we more broadly -- but not necessarily correctly -- consider 'real life.'"* * *
There were low moments.
Even after the Olbermann plug, in the midst of the overwhelming response to her plight, a recording did not materialize. Leigh Ann had already poured out every bit of her emotion into the blog. An open invitation into her heartache and loss and vulnerability was a click away for anyone to read and feel, with no password protection. And while Leigh Ann knew she was on a voyage of sorts, that she had to let fate, that fickle ripple of water in the river, take her downstream, the rapids got rough.
"As I moved through my own grief, I was shocked … it would fall out in chunks," she says. "I would be in the grocery store and all of a sudden something would strike me. I would see a little girl with her dad talking about cereal, breakfast cereal, and it would just unglue me. It would just make me sad of what I had missed.
"And I would have to leave the grocery store just crying."
But she didn't give up.* * *
It was a regular hot-as-heck North Carolina day this past July when Leigh Ann got a call from her mom, asking her to drive the hour-and-a-half to Lenoir. She had something she needed to give her. Something that belonged to Leigh Ann.
When she walked through the door of the modest yet immaculate brick rambler on Pennell Lane, her mother didn't say anything. She merely handed her a cassette and pointed to the tape deck in the living room. They hugged hard. Leigh Ann asked to be alone and her mother obliged.
Leigh Ann pressed play, and for the first time in her life that she could recall, she heard her father's voice.
It was a simple introduction speech for Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, who was making a special appearance at South Lenoir Methodist Church in 1966. A local pastor had recorded it and it was broadcast on the radio in Lenoir. Recently, Ann had seen the pastor, who reminded her that he had given her a cassette. She woke up in the middle of the night remembering she had it. She found it in a box in the garage the next morning.
Verlon "Rube" Walker in 1964. (AP)
"We're very fortunate to have with us this morning Bobby Richardson, a great second baseman for the New York Yankees for many years," Verlon Walker says, and it continues with him reading the prepared statement, maybe a bit nervously, for a total of one minute and 10 seconds.
Leigh Ann heard every word three times, four times. Then she broke down again.
"When I listened to it, initially I didn't feel like that's what his voice was supposed to sound like," Leigh Ann says. "I had imagined it lower and more gravely and more masculine, I guess. Now I've listened to it several times, and it's soft and it's gentle, and it seems to match the personality that I've grown to know of him. I mean, when I started this, he was a ghost, and I've kind of layered flesh on bone, so to speak, and the voice was kind of the last piece that I needed, and now it all kind of fits together for me.
"I always expected myself to be elated, but there was a little bit of sadness to it. Just because I'm never going to get what I really want, which is him. So it was beautiful, but it was almost still sad for me, because I never will get what I want."* * *
A month after she heard her father's voice, Leigh Ann Walker Young went to check on his legacy.
A trip to what is still at Northwestern Hospital but now known as the Rube Walker Blood Center -- and a game at Wrigley -- were things she'd planned in the past but never gotten around to doing. She and her husband decided the time was right.
"My goal in going to Chicago was to see where he died, see where he lived most of his life as far as his passion, and to look these people in the eyes that have helped me along the way, meet them and thank them," Leigh Ann says. "And I got to do all that in the span of about 48 hours."
She met hospital archivist Sue Sacharski, who showed her the Rube Walker-related pictures and literature in the vault. She talked to nurses and hospital staff, and she learned of the groundbreaking work that is being done to help people, all in her father's name. She found a few Cubs fans at the blood center who were there for hours-long sessions of chemotherapy. One woman raved about the care she was receiving.
Leigh Ann went to Wrigley and roamed the dugout and the press box. She got her picture taken on the field for a book she's writing about her quest. She watched the Cubs win alongside some of her newfound friends from Northwestern.
"Having my father's name attached to something as important as a blood center where healing takes place, amazing medical discoveries -- things I can't even talk about, things I don't know anything about, and he wouldn't either -- it's a powerful legacy," Leigh Ann says. "And to me it shows … the one thing I've learned from this journey is that the kindness you've shown to other people, that's really about the only thing that stays."* * *
Where does she go from here? Wherever the river takes her.
Back in Lenoir, she's playing catch with her 7-year-old son, Christopher. They're tossing the ball around in the outfield of Walker Stadium, where there's a plaque that honors her dad and his brother Albert. The Rubes Walker.
She's honoring the past while thinking of the future.
"If I could, ultimately I would like to help women who have been fractured by grief like I was in some way, shape or form," Leigh Ann says. "And I don't know how I'll execute that. That's my goal, my next goal, I guess.
"To take what I have learned and share it with someone else."
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.