Gainesville resident Mike McWhorter is a diehard baseball fan and collects memorabilia whenever he gets the chance. Nearly 20 years ago, a friend of his sister, who worked at the Astrodome in Houston, came across a vintage Astros jersey while the dome was undergoing renovations.
McWhorter was given the jersey as a gift, and it stayed stored away at his home until earlier this year, when he rediscovered it.
“My wife was out of town, so I decided to clean up a little,” McWhorter said. “I was going through a closet and I found the jersey. I always wondered whose it was when I got it, because there’s only a number on the back of it. But (the Internet) wasn’t available then and (who it belonged to) wasn’t easy to find.”
McWhorter, with the help of friend and former major leaguer Adrian Devine — a pitcher for the Braves and Rangers in the ‘70s — scoured the Internet and learned the jersey belonged to John Buzhardt, who pitched for five teams from ‘58-’68, including the Astros the final two seasons of his career.
McWhorter also learned that Buzhardt passed away in 2008 in his birthplace of Prosperity, S.C. Moved by the passing of his mother just a few years earlier, McWhorter sought to get in touch with the Buzhardt family.
Eventually, he was able to track down Buzhardt’s wife, Jane, in Prosperity.
“I was looking for someone in the family and I came across her contact information on the Internet,” McWhorter said. “I thought, ‘How many Buzhardts could there be in Prosperity?,’ and figured she probably knew (John). Jane said she was his wife, and I told her ‘I think I have something that belongs to you.’”
The two began talking, and McWhorter explained he had a baseball jersey from John’s playing days. He said he wanted to give the jersey to Jane, free of charge.
Some of Jane’s family members were weary of a potential scam.
“My son told me it was trouble,” Jane said. “Nobody gives those things away. I’ve seen a shirt of the White Sox (from the same era as McWhorter’s) going for about $500.”
To ease Jane’s mind of any skepticism, McWhorter sent her a picture of the jersey. Jane was “shaken to the bone,” McWhorter said.
“She didn’t realize I was talking about John’s actual game jersey,” McWhorter said. “She thought I meant a sweatshirt.”
Jane decided to accept McWhorter’s offer and he sent her the jersey in early November.
“I called my 15-year-old grandson,” Jane said. “He plays baseball and I let him wear it one day. I asked him to put it on — he’s 6-foot-3 — and, aside from his broad shoulders, it almost fit him perfectly. His eyes lit up. Everyone in the family was excited.”
John played for the Cubs, Phillies, White Sox, Orioles and the Astros. He was a pitcher, and posted a respectable career ERA of 3.66, logging in 1,490 2/3 innings. His best season was with the White Sox in 1965, when he posted a 13-8 record, 108 strikeouts, a 3.01 ERA and pitched 188 2/3 innings in 32 starts. The win and strikeout totals, and games started were all career highs.
However, he’s probably best known for being the pitcher of record in the wins before and after the Phillies’ MLB-record 23-game losing streak in 1961.
After John’s career ended, he worked for Eastman Kodak and spent a lot of his free time hunting. In January of 2002, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and relegated to a wheel chair.
He passed away on Father’s Day, 2008.
Part of what made the jersey such a special gift to Jane is it was the last baseball item of John’s she ever expected to see. During John’s era in the game, players were supposed to turn in their jerseys at the end of the season. Though some players kept theirs anyway, John turned his in.
“My husband wouldn’t take one,” Jane said. “He wouldn’t do it because he considered it stealing. (The jerseys) were meant to go to the minor leagues.”
Jane said a jersey would have come in handy for John, because he would play in old-timers games and be the only one without his jersey.
Nonetheless, Jane was so thrilled to have the jersey, she insisted on paying McWhorter.
“My intent was never to take money,” McWhorter said. “My mom didn’t raise me like that. I was taught not to take advantage of people. I got more joy out of giving it back to the person it belonged to than making a dollar. (Giving Jane the jersey) went a long way with her, and with me too.”
The jersey now rests, along with a picture of John, in a shadow box in Jane’s den.
“Everyone goes to the den and when they see it, it gets oohs and ahhs,” Jane said.
“I’m so proud.”
Though McWhorter never asked for or expected anything in return, Jane sent him a baseball autographed by the 1962 White Sox team John played on. McWhorter was elated to have the historic item as part of his collection — it features signatures from Hall of Famers Lou Aparicio, Nellie Fox and manager Al Lopez.
McWhorter said he found an autographed ball on the Internet of the ‘62 White Sox team selling for $600. That ball has 29 signatures — the ball Jane gave McWhorter has 32.
“I would never sell it,” McWhorter said.
Beyond the exchange of baseball memorabilia, McWhorter and Jane have struck a unique friendship both cherish.
“Friendships are hard to have these days and it’s nice to be one with her,” said McWhorter, who plans on one day visiting Jane in Prosperity. “I got to meet someone I never would have otherwise, and we have a trusting bond.
“I’ll talk to her the rest of my life, and we’ll be able to trust each other because of a simple shirt.”