Warren Barty sat in the corner of McKendree University’s Harry M. Statham Sports Center with a baseball in his right hand Wednesday night.
Barty, who entered the school’s athletic Hall of Fame for his exploits on the baseball diamond in the early 1960s, was at home. He moved his right hand up and down, playing with the ball that has given him so much joy during his 75 years. He was at a place that is dear to his heart. The small, private liberal arts college just north of U.S. 50 in northeastern St. Clair County might just be Barty’s favorite place in the world.
Diagnosed with a terminal illness and put in hospice care in early October, Barty told his caretakers at MarKa Nursing Home in Mascoutah that he had one dying wish: to take in one more basketball game at his alma mater. On Wednesday night, thanks in part to the efforts of Hospice of Southern Illinois, Barty was able to see the Bearcats play.
Prior to tipoff against Salem International, the Bearcats feted Barty with a signed team basketball and honored him during a short ceremony. McKendree coach Harry Statham took time out before the game to chat with Barty, a long-time friend. Barty was overwhelmed by the scene.
“This is tremendous,” Barty told the media prior to tipoff. “It means a lot.”
McKendree Director of Athletics Chuck Brueggemann said Barty has meant a lot to the school throughout the years.
“Warren has been an incredible part of our history in the athletic department,” Brueggemann said. “As a student here in 1983, I knew Warren because he was a member of our booster club. He’s been very supportive and active with the men’s basketball program in particular. To see one of our own come back, a hall of famer, it’s moving to be able to do something special for him.”
Barty’s world revolves around McKendree and its athletic teams. Every morning, nurses update him on the team’s latest triumphs. It was no surprise what his Christmas wish was for this year.
“This night means everything for him,” said Liz Pollman, who is Barty’s hospice nurse. “This is his night. When I asked him what he wanted from Santa this year, he said he wanted one more game. I’m just so excited that he’s here.”
Pollman said most of Barty’s topics of conversation revolve around his days at McKendree and playing baseball. Barty has plenty to talk about, too.
He enrolled at McKendree as a sophomore. During the 1960-61 season, Barty hit .312 and was among the team leaders in runs scored, stolen bases and runs batted in for a team that finished 19-4. The following summer, he signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. He played minor league baseball for the Cardinals and San Francisco Giants organizations. An injury cut his professional baseball career short, and he went to Professional Baseball Umpire’s School in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1968. He wound up umpiring two season in the Class A Florida State League.
His alma mater welcomed him back with both arms open on Wednesday night.
“As a very proud alum, it doesn’t surprise me with Warren,” Brueggemann said. “With Warren and somebody like myself, it’s something you’d want to do, come back and see one last game. I know when he heard William Tell, (the school song), he smiled and looked over at me. He’s been listening to William Tell and supporting Coach Statham for 50 years. McKendree has played a special part in his life.”
The Bearcats gave Barty another reason to smile, beating Salem International 119-92 in a high-scoring affair.
Barty left campus Wednesday night with some more stories to tell.