Tom McCarthy, Department of Corrections Historian and an Eagle Contributor

The History of Rikers Island Is Bound to a Baseball Family

By Tom McCarthy

Eagle Contributor

This is a tale of two city visits by Hall of Fame right fielder Billy Southworth — nearly 20 years apart — and the deadly waters off Rikers Island.

Southworth made other visits to NYC during those two decades. But for the purposes of retelling the father-and-son Southworth story, two particular visits stand out because they both took place during Major League Baseball seasons.

While the Billy Southworth name may not be familiar to you, it was once quite well known among fans of America’s pastime. His plaque is on display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.

The 1926 Visit

 In the Beginning of October, during the first of the two visits, Billy played right field for the Cardinals against the Yankees in the 1926 World Series. As his son Billy Jr., 10, watched with some 60,000 others at Yankee Stadium, Billy Sr. delivered the game-deciding three-run HR in the second game on Sunday, Oct. 3rd.

Acquired from the NY Giants three months earlier, Billy Sr. and his .317 batting average had helped the St. Louis team win its first National League Championship.

Now back at another New York stadium, this time in the Bronx, his play at the plate and in the outfield helped advance the Cards to their first World Championship. St. Louis prevailed, 4 games to 3, over the New York team that included the famed (or infamous, depending on whom you root for) Murderers Row of Gehrig, Ruth, Lazzeri and Meusel.

Southworth batted .345 in the seven games; his 10 hits made a difference.

Billy Southworth Jr. (left) and Billy Southworth Sr. // Photo courtesy of Tom McCarthy

There was no LaGuardia Airport then. Baseball teams traveled between league cities via trains, not planes. NYC had no real major airport. LaGuardia Airport was likely not yet even a gleam in Fiorello’s eye. Nor, in 1926, was he was in a position to make it happen, even if he did imagine it.

Eight years would pass before the progressive Republican, representing East Harlem in Congress, would become the city’s 99th mayor. His service as a bomber pilot leading U.S. military aviation activity in Italy during WWI had made him, the “Little Flower,” susceptible to the notion that, as mayor, he could bring about construction of an airport worthy of America’s most populous municipality.

But back in 1926 only a small part of the area currently occupied by LaGuardia Airport was put to aviation use. A private company, NY Air Terminals, provided land aircraft and boat planes with shore runways. They used the waters between Rikers Island, Bronx, and then North Beach, Queens for arrivals and departures.

Rikers Island Penitentiary construction had not yet begun. But construction of the island itself was going forward, full steam ahead. Literally. Steam shovels of various kinds lifted the fill from barges pushed or tugged by steam boats. Steam locomotives moved the container railcars into which the fill was deposited. Some landfill hills generated their own smoke plumes from compacted mixed combustibles spontaneously igniting.

The Rikers Island Farm Colony inmate crews, under supervision of their prison keepers, took time away from tending crops, chickens, and pigs and participated in what the Department of Correction (DOC) back then euphemistically called “land reclamation.”

For some of those inmates battling narcotics addiction, the work seriously figured as an element in the Rikers Island “cure.”

Two years after experiencing the high-point in his long baseball career, Southworth and his son went through trauma together in their personal lives.

In 1928, then player-manager of the Cards’ Rochester club in the Independent League, Billy Sr. interrupted spring training to rush home as his wife went into difficult labor with twins who died during the birthing process. A preacher’s daughter whom Billy had met singing in her dad’s church choir, Lida Brooks Southworth never fully regained her health.

In October that same year, Billy Sr. found himself again rushing home in response to a family emergency: Billy Jr., now 12, had been shot accidentally by another boy as they hunted small game together. A big button on young Billy’s coat took the brunt of bullet’s force. The lad’s wound was not critical. But his dad – aware a half-inch difference in any direction would have meant a different outcome for his son – was profoundly upset and remained so long afterwards.

The bond between Sr. and Jr., always strong, became even more so. They were father and son, yes; but also, as Senior put it, “best friends.” That bond stayed firm despite Lida and Billy Sr.’s divorce and her later death from a cerebral hemorrhage, both while Junior was a teen.

The bond between the two Billys enabled them to come together and give support to each other.

Jr.’s Passions: Baseball and Planes

Junior had two passions: baseball and aviation. His earliest memory as a child was that of being in a ball park during a game and sitting with the players, one of whom was his dad. Later, during Billy Sr.’s off-season,” he informally but regularly coached his son, a star player on school and college baseball teams.

During academic breaks, the younger Billy often accompanied his father to league cities and their ballparks.

A professional baseball field became as familiar an environment to Jr. as a classroom. When he regularly attended classes and dad was away managing teams, Jr. spent his non-baseball time making model airplanes and devouring aviation magazines.

Not surprisingly, as a young man he embarked upon a baseball career of his own, signing with the Cardinals organization. Senior at the time was manager of one of its farm clubs. Junior’s play in the outfield and at the plate during his handful of seasons (he was voted MVP twice) showed great promise. But with military conflict raging in Europe and war with Japan appearing on America’s horizon, Billy Jr. decided to enlist in U.S. Army Air Corps.

He did so about a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Dad had tried to talk him out of it. But once the enlistment papers were signed, Senior supported his son. Baseball historians note Southworth Jr. was the first U.S. professional baseball player to enlist prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In late 1942, with his training completed to pilot and command a bomber crew, Captain Southworth visited his father in Chicago where his team was playing the Cubs. The young officer then headed to Europe and actual warfare.

On July 17, 1943, the captain completed his tour of duty – 25 combat missions, mostly daylight bombing flights – over Germany and occupied France without a single injury to any crew member. The same could not be said of his planes.

For example, on one bombing run against a German U-boat, his B17 Flying Fortress took numerous hits from enemy fighter planes and ground defenses. Despite a starboard engine being disabled by the counterattack, Capt. Southworth managed to guide the damaged aircraft back over the English Channel and to a safe landing at the first available British airfield.

Four days later, Jan. 27, 1943, he and his team, flying a different B-17, were part of an airborne armada that attacked another German naval base, but not in France. It was the first all-American bombing run into Germany – U.S. bombs, U.S. planes and U.S. crews. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, with three oak leaf clusters, Southworth Jr. returned to the states in January 1944, was promoted to Major and was first assigned to training bomber crews but later named a deputy commanding officer in the new Army Air Force.

When asked if being away from baseball was hard for him, seeing how he had grown up surrounded by the game, Major Billy Southworth Jr. would point to a photo with his crew members next to a B-17 Bomber nicknamed “Winning Run.” Or he would take out his Cardinals cap, a gift from his dad that he wore on missions.

The airman never really left the game. It was part of him.

When someone who had praised his leadership as a commander in combat, Southworth responded with baseball-tinged humility.

“I was just another Joe, occupying a lucky seat with a fine crew,” he said. “I tried to manage ’em like Dad manages his Cardinals.”

When a reporter asked whether baseball should be suspended for the duration of the war, he said baseball helped inspire and entertain the troops.

“Baseball is the universal language of our troops overseas and should be continued in the face of all obstacles. Baseball is something they have in common,” he said. “They still follow their favorite team as fervently as ever. The national pastime is doing a tremendous job as a morale factor.”

Southworth’s stateside role sent him to various parts of the country and he made sure to visit his father whenever possible. Major Southward Jr. was Manager Southward Sr.’s  guest at the 1944 World Series, which the Cards won in six games over the Browns

The following month, Junior visited home in Sunbury, Ohio to be with his dad, step-mom and half sister. Sadly, it was their last time together as a family.

***

Approximately three months before the surrender of German forces in Europe, the roar of a B-29 Superfortress cut through the chilly late-afternoon air on Thursday, February 15, 1945, at Rikers Island. Penitentiary inmates and officers working outside — the prisoners tending the farm or leveling landfill and the custodial staffers supervising— looked up.

Convicts and custodians continued to eye the sky. None could recall ever seeing such a huge military aircraft, one with weapons protruding from every angle, so close to their mostly man-made island.

The penitentiary complex had opened about decade earlier. Across Rikers Island Channel and Bowery Bay, the NYC Municipal Airport-LaGuardia Field opened in late 1939. In the four years since U.S. entry into World War II, few if any military aircraft had used that airport. Indeed, the servicemen who trained at the airport as aircraft and aviation technicians constituted the only continuing military presence at the airport.

Soon the Rikers onlookers noticed that smoke trailed from the left wing’s outboard engine and that the propeller had stalled. The spectators watched the macabre scene as the plane crashed into Rikers Island Channel and split apart, leaking burning fuel into the water. Fire boat hose guns aim their streams to contain the flaming gasoline.

On the other side of the channel and bay, airport authorities, already instructed by Major Southworth to prepare for the emergency landing attempt, rushed the appropriate equipment into position, activated relevant personnel and provided the pilot and crew with necessary information to guide them to safety.

As Major Southworth grappled with the controls, the not fully-functioning plane failed to complete the touch-down on assigned Runway 9, forcing him to try to climb for another pass at landing. But the left wing dipped into the water and caused the Superfortress to flip over into waters off Rikers Island, split in two and explode into flames.

Bound for Florida, the giant aircraft had come just come from Mitchel Field in Hempstead, with then onboard. The five in the tail section, which floated, were rescued by police and airline boat crews. The five in the front section, including pilot Southworth, were trapped by flames and killed

“To mark the spot for the searching parties, four lighted red and green buoys were placed about the areas where the plane exploded and sank,” the New York Times reported in 1945. “The Army Transport Command said one section had sunk in the east end of the Rikers Island channel and the other had

Southworth Sr. arrived at LaGuardia Field and encountered several reports. In a voice that cracked with emotion, he asked them to point where the big plane had plunged into the water.

The reporters indicated the section of Rikers Island Channel marked off by the four green and red buoys. The father, overcome with grief,  did not speak for a long time. Instead, he stared silently at the ongoing search. Finally, he asked about the well-being of the rescued five and appeared relieved to hear they seemed to be recovering.

Southworth Sr. and his wife Mabel, Junior’s stepmother, stayed nearby for weeks, visiting Rikers Island Channel almost daily, often aboard the barges from which the divers entered the frigid waters. The wreckage had been located 30 feet below the surface, but tides, currents, and cold temperatures hindered the search for the five missing men’s bodies.

Southworth Senior praised the “heroic work” being performed by the search team. “Their loyalty to lost comrades is present in their every act,” he said.

The Southworths eventually returned home to Sunbury, Ohio to await word.

On August 4th, 1945, the Cards had just defeated the Pirates 6-to-5 in Pittsburgh, thanks to a two-run base-hit by rookie infielder Red Schoendienst. Soon after the game ended, Southworth Senior received a phone call.

A body, believed to be his son’s, had washed ashore at Silver Beach in the Bronx, not far from SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler and the Throgs Neck Bridge.

Dental records seemed to confirm it. Senior later identified his son’s body from scar on the torso, which his son sustained during an accidental shooting when Junior. was a boy.

Six months after the fatal airplane crash Senior returned to New York City to accompany his son’s body back home to Ohio for funeral and burial services. Major Southworth Jr. was laid to rest Aug, 7th, 1945, in Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio.

But for Manager Southworth Sr., there was no rest.

For the rest of his life, there would be a gaping emptiness once filled by his son, his buddy, his best friend. The fine essayist and sports writer Arthur Daley summed up the situation well when he noted every father yearns to be his son’s companion, confidant, and buddy, but very few ever attain that role.

“But one of those rare and beautiful relationships existed between Billy Southworth and Billy Jr.,” Daley said. “The father worshiped the son. The son idolized the father.”

Son’s Postscript for Dad That Senior Never Knew About

In the years that followed Junior’s death, Senior found it hard to carry on, especially in the off-season without the distraction of his team manager duties. He would often go outdoors by himself to chop wood for long hours, even though he had more than enough to heat the home.

One can imagine how he would have loved to hear his son’s voice again, if only through a letter like those that Junior had written to him during the war. Unbeknownst to the grieving father, Billy Jr. had, in effect, done just that by keeping a diary, from which he intended to share parts with his dad after the war so Senior would know what it had been like.

There is little doubt Southworth would have treasured his son’s diary. Just having it could have helped, even if reading it might have proved too painful at times. But he never got the chance because he never knew about it. Junior had loaned it to Jon Schueler, his European combat zone navigator, who asked to borrow it because he was planning to write a book about his own war experiences.

More avant-garde artist than writer, Schueler wanted to use the diary to make a timeline and other notes about the missions and between-mission matters. Once back in the U.S., their different assignments apparently never put them in contact again.

The painter and aspirational writer had the diary at the time of Major Southworth’s death in 1945.

In 1951, Southworth Senior retired from managing the Boston Braves, the team he took over in 1946. He remained in the Braves organization as a scout until he retired from professional baseball a half-dozen years later.

He pursued hunting and fishing, activities he had often enjoyed with his son. Senior, who had given up smoking in the late 1940s, battled emphysema at the end. He died Nov. 15, 1969. His remains were buried in Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus, where his son’s body was interred 24 years earlier.

Schueler, who gained a degree of fame as a painter, died in 1992 without publishing the book for which the Southworth diary was borrowed.

He never returned the diary to the Southworths. But the artist’s wife, Magda Salvesen, edited her husband’s memoir manuscript into a book published in 1999. Southworth Jr.’s sister, Carole, only a grade-schooler during the war, was an avid reader of all printed materials about the Eighth Air Force in which her big brother served.

Some years ago one of those texts alerted her to the existence of her brother’s diary and Carole tracked down Schueler’s widow. At last, the lone surviving Southworth had an opportunity to learn what Southworth Jr. had written for himself and for his best friend, his Dad.

In 2005, New York Times sports writer Michael Shapiro wrote about the Southworth diary. The article was titled: “Father-Son Bond Remains Alive in Wartime Diary.”

And I believe that this Father-Son bond persists, not only for today but for eternity. Well beyond and independent of the wartime diary.

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A version of this story appeared on CorrectionsHistory.org

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