Lifelong love of country, baseball

93-year-old vet cherishes memories of Tigers, days as Hens batboy

5/26/2013
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Ken Silverthorne, 93, holds a Mud Hens team photo from the 1930s, one of his prized possessions.
Ken Silverthorne, 93, holds a Mud Hens team photo from the 1930s, one of his prized possessions.

Ken Silverthorne hitchhiked about 10 miles to the ballpark just to stare through the holes and cracks in the outfield wall to watch some of the action. One day, when he was 12 years old, a team official grabbed him, led him into the stadium and put him to work.

That’s how Silverthorne became a batboy for the Toledo Mud Hens … at Swayne Field … in 1932.

Most often the tales published in this section are about athletes. Every now and then, though, we find a fan whose stories are just as good. And Silverthorne has 93 years worth of them. Well, almost.

“This is the honest truth as I remember it,” he said during a conversation Friday morning. “But, you know, I’m 93. My memory doesn’t always work so well. But I know what’s going on. When I lose that then I’ve lost everything.”

OK, we delivered his memory disclaimer. But you can trust us; all is not lost when it comes to Mr. Silverthorne.

He has had a lifelong love affair with baseball, particularly the Detroit Tigers, and of country. Ken says he served in the Army Air Forces for 3 ½ years during World War II and has “a couple battle scars” to prove it.

He served as a radio man on C-46 Commandos, the largest twin-engine aircraft in the world at the time, used to transport troops and cargo over high mountain terrain, in violent weather, to rutted and flooded airfields that barely qualified as such. Rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant, his crews flew in and out of India, Burma and China. He spent some time in Africa, as well.

It is Memorial Day weekend and, yes, we remember with reverence those who served and never returned. Silverthorne obviously did. But the C-46 had two prominent nicknames. It was called “The Whale” by some and “The Flying Coffin” by others. Ask Ken about that and he stares at a wall, his focus far away, and says nothing. He remembers… with reverence.

A 1932 team photo of the Mud Hens. Ken Silverthorne, front right, was the team's bat boy.
A 1932 team photo of the Mud Hens. Ken Silverthorne, front right, was the team's bat boy.

Silverthorne was born on May 6, 1920 at 3728 N. Erie Street in Toledo. He now resides in an assisted living/nursing facility in Sylvania Township and jokes that, “When I conk out, it’ll be about 10 miles from where I was born.”

He grew up in Erie, Mich., played ball as a kid – Ken said he was a shortstop, quick into the hole with an accurate arm – in the Temperance area, and attended high school for a couple years in Dundee until leaving school to help support his family.

Not yet a teen, he used to hitchhike from Erie to Swayne Field, catching rides in old Model T’s or “on a good day, a Model A.” There is a statue beyond the outfield at Fifth Third Field of little kids sneaking a peek through a “knothole,” as they were called, and that might well have been Silverthorne some eight decades ago.

“The ballpark was on the corner of Detroit and Monroe,” he said. “Those stands were so high, at least to a little kid. Man, I loved that place. They were all day games back then. So I could hitch into town, be at the game, then hitch back home before dark.”

His tour of duty with the Hens in 1932 was one year removed from Casey Stengel’s six-year regime, ending in ‘31, as manager. Silverthorne has a framed team picture of the Hens, but he has doubts it is from his year, and he’s probably correct. It identifies Fred Haney as manager, which means it is from 1935 at the earliest, and the batboy sitting on the ground at the end of the front row looks not like Ken but very much like a young Frank Gilhooley, later a legendary sports broadcaster in Toledo.

There is another framed picture of an older man in a Detroit Tigers uniform. That’s definitely Silverthorne, a lifelong fan, who can still name most of the starting lineup from the first Tigers game he ever saw, in 1934 at the age of 14, at old Navin Field (later Briggs Stadium, then Tiger Stadium) in Detroit.

“Greenberg, Gehringer, Rogell, Owen, Goslin, Cochrane, Walker … I’m missing a couple,” he said, remembering a team that won 101 games and an American League pennant before falling in seven games in the World Series against St. Louis.

Silverthorne, the son of a newspaper copy editor who once worked at the old Toledo Times, said his “biggest thrill” was winning a Blade contest that paid out $600 and six Tigers tickets. One of the perks was meeting announcers George Kell, Ernie Harwell and Al Kaline outside of the Tiger Stadium broadcast booth. He’s a bit fuzzy on the when, but it was likely in the 1980s.

His favorite Tiger of all time? “Kaline was No. 1,” he said. “Ty Cobb has the highest [career] average of all time, you know, .367, but I can’t say him because he was a little before my time.”

Yes, but just a little. The last of Cobb’s 22 seasons with Detroit, 1926, was the year Ken celebrated his sixth birthday.

Silverthorne, a warehouse manager for A&P Tea Company for 27 years and later a guard at the Toledo Art Museum, was married to Kate for 42 years before she died after suffering a heart attack.

Not long after, he stopped to help a lady change a flat tire in Michigan. Her name was Dorothy.

“We’d never met before,” he said. “We were married four months later. She was 70, I was 71.”

They were married for 20 years. When Dorothy became ill early in 2010, she moved into the care facility and Ken relocated with her “to support her, love her, and help with her care.” When she died in 2011, he decided to stay put to deal with some mobility issues of his own.

He said he has never seen a Mud Hens game at their new downtown stadium and several of his care-givers hope to take him to one in the next month or so.

“I’m looking forward to it, but I feel for them having to push me all around,” he said. “But they’ll be happy trying to make me happy. And, believe me, I will be.”

Eighty years later, nobody will send him chasing after any bats.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.