Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fashion-setter Southworth was decorated hero

Billy Southworth, Jr., (right), shown here with Bob Hope,
is often cited as 
popularizing the trend of U.S. pilots
wearing major league baseball caps in WWII.

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms ofThe Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too. 

In my blog posting of Oct. 1, 2014, I detailed some instances of the popularity of major league baseball caps with American aviators in World War II. (I can wait here if you want to go back and read that.)

The column mentioned that the oft-cited trend setter for that fashion was Army bomber pilot Billy Southworth, Jr., former St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer and son of Cards' manager Billy Southworth, Sr.

The younger Southworth had played in the Cardinals' farm system as an outfielder for six different Redbird minor league teams. He had started in Class D ball in 1936, but by mid-1939 had gotten no higher than Class B ball, where he was named MVP of the Canadian-American League, batting .342 with 15 home runs. He was purchased by Toronto in the International League, the top rung of the Philadelphia Athletics' minor league ladder, for 1940, batting .280 for the season, but with little power.

With American involvement in World War II war looming on the horizon, Southworth enlisted in the U.S. Army as a flight cadet on Dec. 20, 1940. He was among the first pro ball players to enlist in the war.

Southworth's (center) first B-17 was named "Bad Check"
 because "it always came back."

You can find a great biography of Southworth's baseball and military career at:

Let me pick out a few items that I found of special interest. 

Southworth initially flew a B-17F Flying Fortress named Bad Check (because it always came back). His Cardinals cap must have proven lucky because in 25 bombing missions over Occupied France and Germany circa 1943, not a single member of his crews ever earned a Purple Heart. Despite the craft having been shot up by Nazi fighter planes and anti-aircraft shrapnel on several occasions, the Bad Check's crew never received a scratch.

Southworth also piloted "Winning Run," with its cardinal
 nose art. The ship "always came home" from bombing runs.

Southworth completed his combat tour in another B-17, named Winning Run (because it always came home). As a combat pilot he'd earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, all before the age of 27.

After returning to the U.S. in late 1944, he began flying the new B-29 Superfortress. He was promoted to Lt. Col. and deputy commander of a new task force of the 2nd Air Corps.

On Feb. 15, 1945, Southworth was piloting a B-29 out of New York when engine trouble developed and he overshot the runway at LaGuardia Field. He crashed into Flushing Bay and was killed; five of his crew survived.

You might think that having never played major league baseball, Southworth didn't have a baseball  card. But you'd be wrong. 

In the 1922 American Caramel Co. card set known as E-121, Billy appears in a miniature Boston Braves uniform on his father's card. He was four or five years old when the photo was taken.

Billy was often photographed with his father. The last time the two were together was on Nov. 25, 1944, when they attended the Michigan-Ohio State football game. Young Southworth had attended OSU.
Young Billy had dashing movie star good looks and, indeed,
had been promised a Hollywood screen test after the war.

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