By his own choice, the professional baseball career of Billy Southworth, Jr. was limited to five seasons that included tours of duty with nine different teams. Toiling in the outfield at obscure venues for the Ashville Tourists, Martinsville Manufacturers and Wilmington Blue Rocks (to name a few), Southworth showed boundless promise, winning the 1939 Canadian-American League MVP laurel as he hit .342 with 15 home runs and 85 RBI for the Rome Colonels. But a heartfelt decision shortly thereafter set the stage for an endeavor too selfless for any of us (especially in the current skewed social and political climates) to grasp.
Huggins & Scott Auctions proudly presents “Billy’s Cap;” an artifact that embodies virtue, patriotism and a heroic path which perhaps none of us could ever brave. Specifically, this is the St. Louis Cardinals cap worn by manager Billy Southworth, Sr. as the Redbirds stunned the New York Yankees in the 1942 World Series. Immediately following that Fall Classic, the elder Southworth gave the cap to his son, who wore it on 25 successful bombing missions in the European Theater of Operations.
Late in the 1940 season, 23-year-old Billy Southworth, Jr. was promoted to the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Logically headed for promotion to the big leagues, the young outfielder was aware and concerned over increasing global unrest, telling his father: “I think it’s my duty to enlist, because they’re going to need us.” While his father convinced him to wait until the end of baseball season and “think it over,” the younger Southworth didn’t think long and became the first professional baseball player to enlist in the armed forces prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II. He joined the Army Air Corps on December 12, 1940 (nearly a full year prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor).
While his travels in baseball may have seemed extensive, Southworth’s military preparation included training in: East St. Louis, IL; Randolph Field, TX; Brooks Field, TX; Orlando Army Air Base, FL; Pendleton Field, OR; Gowen Field, ID; and then at unspecified sites in California, New Mexico and Texas, all the while facing the daunting prospect of overseas combat. In October, 1942, shortly after his father guided the Cardinals to an improbable World Series title over the Yankees, Billy, Jr. got the inevitable call and was headed to Molesworth, England for active duty. The elder Southworth flew to Bangor, Maine to wish his son well and presented him with this Cardinals cap as a good-luck charm.
The blue wool accessory features a red bill, a red button atop the six-point crown suspension and “StL” sewn to the front center in red felt. The skipper’s number “30” is stitched on the leather interior sweatband in red numerals. Tried and true that October, this Gateway City relic was even more effective overseas. War time “adjustments” include five metallic clasps symmetrically sewn to the outer panels, as well as a 4”-long leather strap sewn to the back. These features facilitated the attachment of radio head sets and an oxygen mask as the fearless fighter pilot completed 25 successful bombing missions between 1942 and 1943. All the while, Southworth, Jr. endured anti-aircraft and cannon fire, but completed his circuit without a single injury to any crew member. For his efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal. Said the heroic soldier: “I was just another Joe, occupying a lucky seat with a fine crew. I tried to manage ‘em like dad manages his Cardinals.”
Southworth returned to the U.S. on January 28, 1944 and was stationed at Santa Monica Air Distribution Center, awaiting assignment. With the danger of combat behind him, Southworth attended a boxing match at Hollywood Legion Stadium, was introduced as a war hero and was recognized by movie producer Hunt Stromberg. A movie agreement was reached and production was set to begin after the war. But a little over a year later, Southworth was assigned to a New York-to-Florida training mission on the B-29 Superefortress, the same aircraft that would drop bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps straying from the routine practiced during dangerous bombing missions, Southworth forgot his lucky cap for this seemingly safe journey. Shortly after takeoff on February 15, 1945, Southworth’s plane faltered at went down in Flushing Bay along the Queens borough. While there were five survivors from the crash, Southworth and three others were missing. His body washed up on Silver Beach in the Bronx and was found on August 3, 1945.
Memories and thanks for heroes like Billy Southworth, Jr. should and will linger forever. This cap has endured playful skirmishes on the diamond and life-and-death battles in the sky. It is perhaps the lone tangible reminder of a true American hero whose efforts transcend any statistics conveyed in a box score or baseball encyclopedia. This was “Billy’s Cap.”
Billy's Cap: The Southworth Story - INTRO from FLEX-o-Lite Productions, LLC on Vimeo.
BILLY'S CAP: The Southworth Story TRAILER from FLEX-o-Lite Productions, LLC on Vimeo.