Four months after reaching the pinnacle of his managerial career with the Cardinals, Billy Southworth was dealt a devastating setback by the tragic death of his son.
The death of Billy Jr., 27, occurred four months after his father had managed the Cardinals to their third consecutive National League pennant and second World Series championship in three years.
Baseball to bombers
Like his father, who was an outfielder for five big-league teams, including the Cardinals, Billy Jr. played professional baseball. He was a minor-league outfielder for five seasons, including three in the Cardinals’ system.
In September 1940, while with the Phillies’ Toronto affiliate, Billy Jr., 23, enlisted as a flying cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He went overseas in October 1942. His first B-17 was nicknamed “Bad Check” because, he told the Sporting News, it always bounced back.
Billy Jr. piloted his B-17 on raids of U-boats and other enemy targets over occupied France and Germany. During his 25 combat missions, he wore a Cardinals cap given to him as a gift by his father.
Billy Sr. recalled his son completed those missions in Europe “without ever getting a scratch,” International News Service reported.
“I was just another Joe, occupying a lucky seat with a fine crew,” Billy Jr. said. “I tried to manage ’em like Dad manages his Cardinals.”
Billy Sr. managed the Cardinals to 105 wins or more each season from 1942-44. The Cardinals won the 1942 World Series title versus the Yankees and the 1944 World Series title versus the Browns.
After serving his full quota of missions in Europe and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, Billy Jr. returned to the United States and was assigned to training. He met a Hollywood movie producer, Hunt Stromberg, who signed the major to a contract and urged him to pursue a film career after his military service was completed.
In November 1944, Billy Jr. visited his father and stepmother, Mabel, at their home in Sunbury, Ohio.
It would be the last time they’d see their son.
Three months later, Billy Jr., with eight crew members and one civilian onboard, took off from Mitchel Field in Long Island on a routine training flight of a B-29 to Miami.
The warplane was near La Guardia Field in New York when Major W.L. Anken, an observer aboard the B-29, noticed heavy smoke from one of the engines. He informed Billy Jr. over the intercom. The pilot replied, “Keep an eye on it.”
Billy Jr. radioed to the La Guardia Field control tower that he would try an emergency landing.
“Witnesses said the bomber’s left outboard motor had stopped when the landing was attempted,” the Associated Press reported. “The pilot nosed the Superfortress up to circle the field.”
The runway was short for such a huge aircraft.
“He was unable to bank on one side because of the disabled engine and the location of the airport tower prevented him from turning the other way,” wrote The Sporting News.
The plane overshot the runway and headed straight toward the icy waters of Flushing Bay.
“The left wing clipped and struck the water,” wrote the Associated Press. “The plane somersaulted and crashed” into the bay, then exploded.
The front section of the plane broke off and sunk into 30 feet of water. Billy Jr. and four crew members were killed. Their bodies could not be found.
There were five survivors: four crew members (including Major Anken) and the civilian, a technical expert for the Bendix Corporation of South Bend, Ind. All were seated in the back of the plane and saved by rescuers who fought through fire to reach them.
On the scene
At his home, Billy Sr., 51, received news of the tragedy. He and Mabel immediately prepared to head to New York.
In the book “Billy Southworth: A Biography of the Hall of Fame Manager,” author John C. Skipper wrote, “When they arrived at Flushing Bay, Billy, speaking in a cracked voice, asked someone to point out where the plane had gone down. He gazed at the site, said nothing, and became overcome with emotion.”
Billy Sr. and his wife joined daily search parties on barges in Flushing Bay. Billy Sr. still was in New York when the Cardinals opened spring training. He eventually joined the defending champions in training camp and was managing the club when the 1945 season began.
On Aug. 4, 1945, after the Cardinals defeated the Pirates in Pittsburgh, Billy Sr. got a call to come to New York. The body of his son had been recovered off Silver Beach in the Bronx on Aug. 3 by a New York Police Department launch.
“As grim as the situation is, my days, weeks and months of waiting have not been in vain,” Billy Sr. told The Sporting News.
From New York, Billy Sr. accompanied his son’s body to Ohio. Billy Jr. was buried with military honors at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus on Aug. 7, 1945. Among those attending the service was Casey Stengel, a friend and former teammate of Billy Sr., and then the manager of the minor-league Kansas City Blues.
Billy Sr. rejoined the Cardinals in New York on Aug. 9. He managed the Cardinals to 95 wins and a second-place finish. After the season, he accepted a more lucrative offer to manage the Braves.
Wrote Skipper: “For Billy Sr. there was a gaping wound to his soul that would never completely heal. He had lost his son, his pal, his best friend on earth. He would struggle with those thoughts for most of the rest of his life.”