THE LAST GAME

THE LAST GAME

From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

The Last Game

Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.

Aristotle

It was the scare of my life. One minute my dad was conducting a sales meeting, the next he was on the way to a hospital after suffering what everyone believed to be a heart attack. A few days later my mom insisted I accompany him to the heart specialist to hear the results. She knew her husband well enough to know he would never tell us if the news was bad. My dad and I breathed a sigh of relief when the doctor told us Dad’s heart was fine and that sudden pain he had felt was nothing. “Go celebrate!” he smiled.

I was twenty-nine years old and knew very little about the life of the man who lovingly reared and molded me into the man I had become. For a reason I did not understand, Dad steadfastly refused to talk about his life before I was born. He especially shied away from anything to do with baseball. My father, Gene Moore, was a loving and supportive father in every respect, but he kept the door to his past locked. I didn’t know why.

Following the doctor’s advice, we drove together to George Diamonds Steak House in Chicago, our favorite restaurant. Dad was talkative, happy, and grinning from ear to ear. Now was the time. I swallowed hard and looked him straight in the eye. “Dad, you never came to any of my baseball games, and you would never play catch with me.” I paused and watched his smile dissipate. “I thought I lost you last week, and I don’t know anything about your life.” It was May 12, 1983. The story I was about to hear would change my life forever.

When he realized that brushing aside my question was not going to work, my dad—for the first time in his life—opened that closed door. Although it was difficult for him at first, the words came more easily as the seconds slid into minutes, and the minutes into hours. The man across the booth was finally unburdening himself of the cross he had borne for so many years.

My dad had been a baseball prodigy from the small town of Sesser, Illinois, where a scout from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization came to watch the young catcher work his magic. The scout signed Gene to play catcher with the Dodgers, but only after getting his parents’ permission. You see, my dad was only fifteen years old at the time.

His first season with a farm team was a resounding success, but shortly thereafter, in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like so many young men of his generation, fate had other plans for Gene Moore. The Dodgers advised him to avoid combat by enlisting in the Navy and joining the United States Navy Exhibition Baseball Team. Dad played ball for the soldiers in the Azores and across North Africa, honing his skills and dreaming of the day when he could play in Major League Baseball.

In 1944, while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, members of the United States Navy Exhibition Baseball Team were roused from their sleep and briefed on their new assignment. On June 4, 1944, a Navy Hunter-Killer task force operating off the coast of West Africa captured and boarded U-505, a German U-boat (submarine). So remarkable a feat, and so immensely valuable the intelligence, the news was hidden from the world until after the war ended. Even the German crew did not know their beloved U-505 had been captured intact. The submarine was towed to Bermuda. The captured crewmen ended up in Camp Ruston in northern Louisiana, where they were sequestered and kept hidden from their fellow POWs, the Red Cross, and even their own families. Gene and his fellow ballplayers dropped their gloves and picked up rifles. Their new job was to guard the fifty-plus crewmen.

Completely bored and unable to play the game he loved, my dad convinced the camp commander to let him and his teammates teach the enemy how to play baseball. As he explained it, his unauthorized chats with the Germans convinced him they had a lot in common and could overcome their differences by playing baseball.

And so it came to pass that American baseball players doing time in the Navy and German POWs doing time behind barbed wire learned how to coexist on a baseball diamond. Somewhere along the way, they became friends. The erstwhile enemies played their games outside the wire while other guards, prisoners, and even civilians from the local area gathered to watch and encourage the competitive, and occasionally fiery, competition. When the war ended, my dad planned a final Friendship Game. In a freak incident, Gene Moore suffered an injury that altered the course of his life forever.

In another unusual twist of fate, an offer arrived for my dad to report for spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. My dad took it, but not for the reasons one might expect. His brief return to the game had an altogether different purpose, one that demonstrated the deep selfless character of the man who would one day be my father. The ending of that storyline made me break out in tears.

My dad was asked to spring training in 1949 by the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate in Greenville, Mississippi, to help a former pitcher-teammate move up to the next level. The pitcher threw a forkball that was difficult to catch, and my dad was one of the few who could catch it. The Pirates made him an offer in order to support the struggling pitcher. My dad reported to Greenville, and when the pitcher moved up, my father was released and sent home.

My father carried with him to the grave the deep pain and aching disappointment of not making it to the majors. He was always grateful that the Pirates had given him a second opportunity to make it, but he also knew that his injury was too severe to overcome. He lived the rest of his life knowing that his time teaching German POWs to play baseball changed his life forever.

After our hours-long conversation concluded, we ended our night together. I could hardly wait until the next day so we could pick up where we left off. My head was spinning with questions begging for an answer. But God had other plans. The doctor was wrong. My dad died of a massive heart attack that next afternoon. He was fifty-seven years old.

I spent twenty years struggling with the untimely death of my dad and the story he had shared less than twenty-four hours before leaving us. To my surprise, my mom knew Dad’s story intimately. She was the only one he shared his story with. Other than my mom and those who had known him as a young man, no one knew the story of Gene Moore, the prodigy from Sesser who could hit the ball a country mile and throw grown men out at second base without even standing up.

As far as Dad was concerned, he had been born to play baseball, and the heartbreak he suffered with the loss of his career was nearly unbearable for him. Although he never came to grips with what God had planned for him, he went on to build a wonderful life as a husband, father, and successful businessman. Gene Moore was like so many other American vets who went to war, returned, then shoved that chapter of their lives behind a door they rarely opened. His was not the horrors of combat, but the loss of his identity—of all he believed he was. But to me, the son, the moral of my dad’s story was clear: it is not the destination of this great journey that is important, but who we become as we move toward our dream.

My mom never remarried. “I only ever loved one man and that was enough for me,” she said. One day, I mentioned in passing that I wanted to write Dad’s story to share with their grandkids. “But do I have the right to tell a story Dad did not share himself?” I asked her.

Mom smiled and replied, “Just because he did not talk about himself did not mean he did not love it when others did. Write his story, Gary.”

Life is indeed often stranger than fiction. My dad never made it to the major leagues, and he never experienced the stardom and notoriety that come with being a celebrity. But today, people all over the world are finally learning about the story of the teenage baseball legend from Sessser destined for stardom until a hand touched him on the shoulder and turned him in a different direction. If not for the first nonfatal heart attack and the faulty diagnosis, I would never have learned about my dad’s life before I was born.

Gene may have played his last game in 1949 and left us twenty-four years ago, but his story of character, destiny, and what a man does with a second chance has truly become a conversation between generations.

Gary W. Moore

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Those words catapulted me into action. As a result, I wrote the award-winning book Playing with the Enemy: A Baseball Prodigy, a World at War and a Field of Broken Dreams (Savas Beatie, 2006). Gene’s story profoundly and positively influenced lives across the country. Everyone has broken dreams and how we deal with them makes us who we are today. Playing with the Enemy inspired readers to write hundreds of letters, create moving poetry, and write songs about the boy from Sesser and his love of the game. People now drive hundreds of miles to visit the small town of Sesser, where my dad learned to play ball at “The Lumberyard,” and returned to seek solace when his world turned upside down.

This story took another amazing twist recently. Academy Award–winning producer Gerald Molen purchased the rights to my dad’s story, which will soon be a major motion picture. He selected a young Hollywood up-and-comer named Toby Moore to play the role of Gene. It is a combination unlike any in Hollywood history. I wrote a book about my father, and the handsome young man who will play the role of Gene is my son, Toby Moore.]

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