The question posed to Ray Mileur earlier this week hit him like a thunderbolt.
The Herrin, IL resident (right) has been through the trenches personally and professionally, including serving his country as a member of the United States Marines and receiving the Meritorious Service Medal for his achievements. He supports his community as an Auxiliary Deputy Sheriff and private investigator to this day.
In his spare time, Mileur is publisher of The Birdhouse, part of the Scout.com network. Founded by him ten years ago, the site has grown to become the online leader for coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals system, both present and past.
Yet none of his intense training and life experiences prepared him for the call he received earlier this week from Carol Watson.
Watson, the daughter of former Cardinals manager and new Baseball Hall-of-Famer Billy Southworth, approached Mileur with a special request on behalf of the late-skipper's family. They would be unable to attend the induction ceremony on July 27 in Cooperstown, New York.
Would Mileur be willing to pinch-hit?
Almost never short of words, this time the 52-year-old was stunned.
"Why me?" he asked.
Actually, Mileur already knew the answer. Almost since his first column about his beloved St. Louis Cardinals appeared in print back in 1998, the baseball historian often shared with fans the soft spot in his heart for Southworth and over the years refined his case as to why the late manager deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.
Mileur never abandoned his quest despite the fact that Southworth seemed to have been forgotten forever by most contemporary baseball fans. Though born after Billy's managerial career ended, Mileur recognized Southworth's rightful place in Cardinals and Major League Baseball history and just wouldn't let it rest.
There is another very relevant factor. William Harrison Southworth was good!
Born in Nebraska in 1893, the outfielder had a nice 13-year playing career with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston Braves, New York Giants and the Cardinals. "Billy the Kid" had been a member of the 1926 World Champion Cards and placed in the top 20 of the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting that season.
Southworth first received the call at the age of 36 to become a major league skipper as a player-manager for the Cardinals of 1929. He crashed almost as quickly as the stock market that year.
Not yet ready for the weighty task of managing the club the first time around, Southworth was returned to the minor leagues in July, 1929. He would not ascend to the managerial chair in the majors again until 1940. Having been in and out of the organization in the 11 years since, Billy returned to St. Louis a much wiser man.
The 1940 Cardinals had a .341 winning percentage when Southworth took over and played .633 ball the rest of the way. That set the stage for his teams to win a total of 620 games through 1945, including three straight National League pennants and World Championships in both 1942 and 1944.
Those two clubs recently ranked as the top and second-best Cardinals teams of all time in our voting here at Scout.com. The 1943 edition came in ninth.
Mileur has never supported the argument from some that World War II-era championships were watered down, rendered less meaningful due to draft and enlistment-based talent dilution.
"Look at the numbers – the ERAs, the batting averages. They still had to go out there and win. They won, even though they were not predicted to do it. Regardless of the circumstances, you still have to put together a winning team. Southworth did that, though he never got full credit for it," Mileur explained passionately.
In a time when clubs played a 154-game schedule, Southworth's 1942-44 Redbirds won 105 or more games each season and his .642 career Cardinals winning percentage is the best of any St. Louis manager in the modern (post-1900) era - even better than icons Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa.
Moving to Boston in 1946, Southworth would lead the Braves five-and-a-half more seasons, including another NL pennant in 1948. His .597 career win mark is fifth-best all-time in the major leagues.
Yet, for 56 years, recognition in baseball's ultimate shrine had somehow eluded the man sportswriter Frederick Lieb at the time simply summarized as "considerate, courteous and capable."
Finally in 2007, the seeds of change took root with the National Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. The results of their voting were announced on December 3, 2007 at the Baseball Winter Meetings in Nashville.
After so long, Southworth had been granted baseball's ultimate honor, elected by exceeding 75% of the votes cast (13-of-16 or 81%).
Though Southworth passed away in 1969, his family was well-aware his legacy had not been forgotten by everyone in the public eye. They knew of Mileur's long-standing and vocal support of their patriarch and realized he was the right man for the Cooperstown job, one for which few tasks could be higher in profile.
Mileur will be making the acceptance speech on behalf of Southworth in front of the entire baseball world this summer during the Hall of Fame weekend.
Following the induction ceremony, Mileur plans to travel to Ohio to join Carol Watson, her son and other Southworth family members in local events. In addition, new team president Bill DeWitt III and the Cardinals are expected to recognize Southworth at Busch Stadium this summer.
Mileur will be there protecting the Hall of Fame plaque, as proud as if he was family.
"I can't even put into words how honored I am to have been given this responsibility," Mileur beamed.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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