My day with Jack Rothrock
There are people who affect your life, and they always seems to come when you least expect it.
He was born John Huston Rothrock, but everyone knew him as Jack.
It was that man that I met is a dusty San Bernardino trailer park one afternoon in the Fall of 1976. And how I came to be his friend is an odd tale.
I was a ‘seasoned’ ball player of four years by that summer, having just completed my last season in the Ridgecrest Little League’s AAA division. My team had won the league championship at 17-1, lost to Dave Wooten’s China Lake squad in one of the best ball games I ever played in for the city title and had sputtered with the all-star team in our opening tournament in Bishop.
And as the prospect of another summer hanging out at the house loomed large on the horizon, I was busy doing whatever I could to pass the time.
Part of that was, well, watching, eating and sleeping baseball.
One day my mother brought home our groceries and I noticed there was a contest on the side of the Jersey Maid milk cartons. There were a variety of one-paneled baseball trivia questions, nine if I remember correctly, that had to be answered correctly in order to be entered into a drawing for some world series tickets. So my mom and I started the arduous task of researching the information. This of course in a time when the word ‘Internet’ hadn’t yet been invented (by Al Gore, or anyone else for that matter). So off to the library we went.
We checked out whatever the limit was on books and headed home. I remember getting my first glance at a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia then, and man was that sucker heavy!
When we got home we spread out in the living room, determined to hunt down every last answer. I was scouring statistics (I guess you guys know where I got started now with my fascination for them) and my mom dove into some book on a team called the “Gas House Gang”. I really wasn’t paying attention to her as I searched for records pages and info that might lead me to an answer. But when I finally did poke my head out long enough to look at her, she was crying.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked.
She sniffed a few times, collected herself and said, “I know him”
“Who? A guy in that book?”
I started reading over the pages around Jack’s picture, ending in complete disbelief.
“Mom! You don’t know anybody with a World Series ring,” I exclaimed! “C’mon! It must be a different guy! Are you kidding me?!”
She told me the story of how she had run away from home for a few weeks and had lived with Jack and his wife, Ardith. When things settled down and she went home, they had stayed in some touch, but not a lot.
We finally got back to the task of searching for my baseball trivia, finding all of the answers but with my never winning any tickets.
But that instance set off a personal manhunt for my mother that came to fruition a few months later.
Of all the places this guy could have been living, he and Ardith were in a trailer park just two hours from our home in Ridgecrest. I heard my mom talk with Ardith and Jack on the phone and make plans for us to drive down to see them.
All three of us had great interest in making this journey. My mom to reacquaint herself with dear friends, myself to meet a Major League Baseball player and my dad to meet a man who played for his childhood heroes. He had been born and raised in St. Louis in the 20s and 30s, and the loss of his father at age eight had seen him turn to baseball as a way to fill the void.
When we arrived there were many hugs and handshakes exchanged, including Jack giving me a brief grip and grin. My parents and the Rothrocks went and sat at the kitchen table to play catch up while I sat in front of the television, likely watching some cartoon or baseball game.
After about an hour or so Jack limped out from the kitchen, favoring the hip he had had replaced. He looked down at me and smiled.
“Your mom says you like baseball,” he said as he smiled. “That true?”
“Yeah,” was all I could muster.
He flipped his head over his right shoulder, motioning toward the hall, and said, “Follow me.”
We took a few steps down the hall of his trailer to the first bedroom on the right, where he stopped and opened the door. Before he could turn on the light the smell of dirt, infield dirt, burst from the room. It was stale air to be sure, but there was no mistake that it smelled like age, like history, like baseball.
Jack flicked on the lights and stepped inside to stacks of old boxes and mementos. I could see all kinds of pictures and books and the occasional glove. But it wasn’t until he pointed at the team photo of the 1934 World Champion Cardinals did I notice it – Jack’s World Series ring on his right hand. It wasn’t very shiny, but it was the one thing that a select club of Major League Baseball players had, and here was one of them.
In that moment Jack could have told me the moon was made of cheese and I would have believed him, no questions asked. That one small ring legitimized everything he’d say over the next hour or so as we talked baseball and looked at the images that covered his career. And everything he ever told me was true, down to the last detail.
We left that day and made several trips back to visit with he and Ardith over the next few years. Until one day in February 1980 when Ardith called to give us the news that Jack had passed away. I felt my heart sink a little that day as I felt like I lost a personal mentor.
Jack and I never really talked about the skills or strategy of baseball. No, what we shared was much more than that.
He rekindled my love for the game.
And even though I am a little more detached from the day-to-day stats and personalities of the game, I still love it. I love the drama, the history and the personalities that arise from it. I love the memories of a simpler time when I all I really wanted was to just feel the bat strike the ball and watch it sail into the outfield.
During one of our final visits to Jack he said he was going to change his last will and testament to give me his ring. Unfortunately, he passed before that could happen. When he died his kids came, took all his stuff and sold it off. Somewhere out there Jack’s ring sits, hopefully a beloved piece of someone’s collection.
The only remnant of Jack that I have is a picture that Ardith autographed for me posthumously. It’s a nice reminder of the man who taught me a genuine love for the game that has been part of my life since I was eight.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is great joy for Allen, for Jack he did seek out!