Although 49 summers separate what happened to the boys, Randy Watson thinks their stories are heartbreakingly similar.
Both were precocious and bespectacled Kansas boys who charmed their hometowns, loved baseball, and who both died from a head injury received at a baseball game.
One was 9, the other 13.
Now they will be linked again, this time by an autographed baseball from the 1962 New York Yankees.
Last month, Kansas mourned when Kaiser Carlile, the 9-year-old bat boy of the Liberal Bee Jays, was accidentally struck in the head by a bat during a National Baseball Congress World Series game in Wichita. He died the next day.
In 1966, Rudy Watson, a 13-year-old from St. John born with osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as brittle bone disease, died of a head injury. He was Randy Watson’s brother and best friend.
When Kaiser died, Randy Watson’s heart ached.
“I seen the picture of Kaiser. That little boy’s picture rips my heart out,” Watson said.
“I can’t look at that picture without getting teary-eyed. The resemblance.
“When Kaiser died, what went through my mind is that Rudy is teaching him how to sing the ‘Wabash Cannonball.’ ”
Four years before Rudy Watson’s death, a baseball hero gave him a team ball. It was a 1962 Yankees autographed team ball given by Ralph Terry from Larned, the World Series’ Most Valuable Player that year.
“I felt like God wanted that ball donated to Kaiser’s family for his memorial or whatever,” Watson said.
Rudy growing up
In St. John, the county seat of Stafford County, Rudy Watson was a celebrity.
On June 22, 1953, he was born with 17 broken bones. Throughout his 13 years, his fragile bones would occasionally break at the slightest incident.
Rudy Watson never walked. He was pushed around the town’s brick-paved streets in a wheelchair by his brother, Randy, born on the same day two years later.
“It seems when you don’t have one ability, the good Lord enhances another of your abilities,” Randy Watson said.
Rudy Watson was born with the gift of gab. He could charm and flirt. At age 7, he learned the cadence and rhythm of an auctioneer and quickly endeared himself with small-town audiences.
“I didn’t learn to ride a bike until after Rudy died,” Randy Watson said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I pushed that wheelchair everywhere my first 11 years. He did all my talking for me. He was just all I had.”
Rudy Watson’s real love, though, was announcing at the local baseball games. He would charm crowds by singing the “Wabash Cannonball” like Hall of Fame pitcher and baseball announcer Dizzy Dean.
Word spread from one small town to the next, and soon surrounding counties knew about Rudy Watson. And as any longtime Kansan knows, it is often who you know in a small town that counts.
In the early 1960s, Terry was pitching for the New York Yankees. Each winter, he would return to Pawnee County to hunt ducks. A mutual friend of the Watsons’ and Terry’s was Royal Brody of Larned, according to Randy Watson.
“Royal had a pet skunk he named Petunia, and he let Rudy and I baby-sit the skunk when he went to the (Stafford County) courthouse,” Randy Watson recalled this week.
After the Yankees won the World Series in 1962, Terry gave Rudy Watson an autographed team ball. Names on the ball include Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford.
“It’s the real thing,” said Ralph Terry, now 79 and living in Larned, his wife’s hometown.
On the summer night in 1966 when Rudy Watson was injured, the box and speaker’s stand where he would normally sit and announce the games was locked. No one in the crowd had a key.
Rudy was sitting in the crowd, flirting with girls, when a foul ball struck a light pole, ricocheted and struck him in the head. For most people, it would have been a slight blow. For Rudy Watson, his fragile bones crumpled.
He was rushed to a Wichita hospital and was kept alive on a respirator until it became clear he would never recover. He died on June 30, 1966.
The outpouring of support for the Watson family after Rudy’s death was so great that within days, a child’s wading pool was built in his memory at the St. John swimming pool. Enough funds were left over to re-do the backstop and put up protective fencing at the St. John baseball field.
At his funeral, the school’s gymnasium was filled with mourners who had come from miles around.
Creating a memorial
Terry heard this week about plans for the 1962 Yankees team ball.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said.
In Liberal, Bill Hill is creating a “Bikes at Billy’s” event at Billy’s Ayr Lanes. It’s a fundraiser on Sept. 19 to benefit the Carlile family. A silent auction will be held for the ball and other items.
The ball is valued at between $2,000 and $2,500, said Joe Rocco of Rock’s Dugout, a collector of sports memorabilia in Wichita. One bid has already been placed at $10,000.
Hill said he has known the Carlile family for more than half a century. He also has known Randy Watson for more than a decade because of their shared interest in hot rods.
“When this deal happened with Kaiser, Randy said they’d like to donate this ball and picture because he felt those two little boys were connected in heaven,” Hill said.
Kaiser Carlile fundraiser
For more information on the Bikes at Billy’s fundraising event, contact Bill Hill at 620-629-7505.