The wheelchair stopped abruptly when I pushed it into a rut at the side of the road, and my friend went flying into the crosswalk. At that instant, I could see myself horribly branded for life: The Man Who Killed Phil Womble. I scooped him out of the path of an approaching car, settled him back in the chair, and came to my senses. The toughest man I’ve ever known would not be undone by a few scrapes.
He had survived a worse accident, when a semi-truck plowed into the Gauchomobile, the powered scooter he drove between Santa Barbara and Goleta. Recounting that incident in his autobiography, Phil wrote: “Even though I have physical challenges, I see myself as an average guy. The problems in my life are no bigger than anyone else’s; they are like rocks in the road — you get over them and move on.”
After he’d moved on from our little mishap, I picked up Phil to take him to a basketball game. When I slammed the car door, he shrieked loudly. Oh, no; his hand, I thought, until I saw that the bogus howl of pain had dissolved into laughter.
To know Phil Womble was to love him for his humor, for his optimism, for his intelligence, for his resiliency.
He was born a blue baby in 1936, and, unable to sit up near the end of his first year, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It did not portend a long and active life.
Yet there he was last September 4 on his 80th birthday, a big smile planted on his face as he was surrounded by dozens of people who had shared in his journey as a citizen of Santa Barbara since 1962, when he came to reside at Hillside House and later managed to pursue independent living.
There were generations of UCSB coaches and athletes who had been inspired by him and buoyed by his “Go Gauchos” attitude. “It’s meaningful for them to see how incredibly blessed they are to be able to do what they do,” former baseball coach Bob Brontsema said.
There were the Nightingales, a family that virtually adopted him. There was close friend Jack Fox, who took him skiing among other adventures. There were Donn Bernstein, the publicist who helped get him involved as a UCSB sports historian in 1969, and Bill Mahoney, who kept the relationship going. There was Dave Pintard, who in 1999 escorted him on a trip to Washington, D.C., where Rep. Lois Capps hosted him on a panel to discuss cerebral palsy issues; to the Naval Academy in Annapolis; and to Arlington National Cemetery, where he visited the gravesite of his father, John Philip Womble Jr., a rear admiral in the United States Navy.
Phil (full name John Philip Womble III) idolized his father. One of the great experiences of his early life was a voyage across the Pacific when his dad undertook a postwar assignment in Japan. Lung disease prematurely ended the elder Womble’s life in 1956. Phil’s mother, with whom he had a loving but fraught relationship, did not let him attend the funeral. Phil always remembered it occurred on the day Don Larsen threw a perfect game in the World Series.
Phil outlived many others he missed on his 80th birthday, especially Dave Gorrie, the Gaucho baseball coach who had become a lifelong friend, and Beth DeNoble, his sweetheart of 40 years. Beth also had cerebral palsy and was unable to speak. She communicated by pointing to letters on the tray of her wheelchair, and Phil would finish her words like the texting program in a smartphone. They would have been legally married were it not for adverse consequences in their financial support. Beth died in 2012.
Never ever did Phil feel sorry for himself. He pointed out that Roy Campanella, the All-Star catcher who was crippled by an automobile accident, had something taken away from him. But he was born with cerebral palsy and knew no other personal condition. He insisted he was physically normal and spoke out against inferences that made him feel stigmatized or pitied. He did need the help of caretakers, but so does everybody else at various stages of their lives.
Phil’s body began to shut down a month after his birthday. In mid-October, he was given the last rites. A procession of acquaintances came to his apartment at Pilgrim Terrace, where the flag was hanging over the porch, to say their good-byes. But he had titled his book Never Give Up!, and he clung to life while his caregivers, prominently Rafaela Hall, strived to make him comfortable. He was able to sit up and watch the Army-Navy football game in December. He finally breathed his last on January 23.
Phil’s earthly remains will be interred at the gravesite beside his father and mother at Arlington National Cemetery.
Contemplating his afterlife, I think of the joke about two old guys who agree that whoever dies first will try to send a message to the other, revealing whether there is baseball in heaven. After one friend passes away, the other hears a voice: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. … The good news is that there’s baseball in heaven.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“You’re pitching on Tuesday.”
If I could send Phil Womble off with a similar message, it would totally be good news:
“There is baseball in heaven.
“You’re pitching and batting clean-up tomorrow.
“Dave Gorrie is your manager, Roy Campanella is catching, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are in the outfield, and your dad is in the stands with your wife, Beth.
“Play ball, Phil, and feel what it’s like to throw a strike, to swing the bat, to knock the ball over the clouds, and to romp around the bases.
“There’s champagne in the clubhouse, because every game ends with a celebration.”
There will be a memorial service for Phil Womble on Saturday, February 25, at 2 p.m. at Christ the King Episcopal Church, 5073 Hollister Avenue. UCSB will pay tribute to him on Sunday, February 26, 11 a.m., at the Phil Womble Hall of Champions in the Intercollegiate Athletics Building, preceding a scheduled baseball game between UCSB and Tulane.