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Searching baseball for her father's voice

Wednesday - 11/27/2013, 6:33pm  ET

FILE - This is a March 4, 1964, file photo showing Chicago Cubs coach Verlon Walker. Leigh Ann Young was only 3 when her father, Verlon "Rube" Walker died, a Major League Baseball player whose life cut short by leukemia at the age of 42. (AP Photo/File)

EDITH M. LEDERER
Associated Press

She's the little blonde girl in the pictures, cradled in the strong arms of her father at Wrigley Field.

She's not much bigger in another picture, holding a doll in one hand and looking shyly at the camera. Behind her is her father's tombstone, decorated by a bouquet of fresh flowers she and her mother had just placed there.

Leigh Ann Young was only 3 when Verlon "Rube" Walker died, his life cut short by leukemia at the age of 42. Her only memories of him come from what her mother told her and the things he left behind.

Sometimes she'll hold his Texas League championship ring and slide it on and off her finger. Other times she might take out his engraved silver lighter and open and close it while thinking what might have been.

"I just feel like it's something he's touched," Young says. "I'll pull them out when I want to be near him."

But the father she can't remember didn't leave her the one thing she desperately wants.

To know what he sounded like.

To hear his voice.

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The stats show that Verlon Walker wasn't much of a baseball player. He spent 12 seasons in the lower minor leagues, bouncing around to places like Lumberton, N.C. and Wenatchee, Wash., and never getting a sniff from the majors.

Casual fans may remember his older brother, who shares the "Rube" nickname. Albert Walker spent much of the 1950s backing up Roy Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he's perhaps best known for being behind the plate in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the home run that won the pennant for the New York Giants.

The Walker brothers were country boys who grew up poor in the Depression era in the Blue Ridge foothills of Lenoir, N.C. Both were catchers, and both had dreams of making baseball their career.

Verlon Walker's ticket to the major leagues came only after his playing career ended. A player-manager in the last part of his minor league, he was brought up in 1961 by the Chicago Cubs as a base coach.

"He was so proud to be in the Cubs' organization and be able to play a game for a living," Young said. "I don't think he ever took that for granted for one minute."

Walker's major league coaching career spanned a decade during a transitional period in baseball. Leo Durocher was manager of the Cubs the last half of the decade, and among the pictures Young has is one of her father -- newly promoted to the majors -- standing with Cincinnati outfielder Frank Robinson in 1961.

Shortly after getting married in 1966, though, Walker was diagnosed with leukemia. Treatment sent it into remission, and Leigh Ann was born in 1968. But two years later -- just after Walker had been promoted to pitching coach for the 1971 season --the leukemia returned.

Within a few short months, Walker was dead. He was laid to rest in his home town, and players lined up for a moment of silence on opening day at Wrigley to honor his memory.

The Cubs and White Sox played their annual charity game that summer for their late coach. Players passed the hat among themselves to donate in Walker's memory.

Ernie Banks would swap his uniform for a coat and tie and go with Walker's widow, Ann, to present a check for $35,000 to establish the Verlon Walker Leukemia Center at Chicago Wesley Memorial Hospital.

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The idea came to Young as she watched her husband play with their two sons at home in Charlotte.

She had the pictures, and she had some of his things. She even had some old silent home movies with her father in them.

But she yearned to hear the voice she can't remember ever hearing. She wanted a physical connection with a father she never really had.

"I wasn't really missing someone, but there was just this big hole, this lack of something I never had," she said. "There's something that fathers give to little girls that can't come from anywhere else."

Surely, Young thought, someone had a recording somewhere with his voice on it. Almost everything in baseball is recorded in some way, and there had to be a tape with Verlon Walker speaking out there.

Durocher was known to have been kicked out of a game or two. Maybe her father took over the team for one of those games, and maybe he was interviewed for the broadcast afterward. Maybe some die-hard Cubs fan at home recorded the games on a reel-to-reel tape machine.

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