- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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A great love story ends today.
For 73 years, Elden and Mildred Auker were married, inseparable. Their romance was the stuff of paperback novels and Meg Ryan movies. When he won a World Series game or struck out Babe Ruth, she cheered. When she got sick late in life, he rubbed her feet. As they grew old, they'd part with, "You know I've always loved you," just in case.
On Wednesday afternoon, in Vero Beach, Fla., their final goodbye arrives. Mildred is burying the man she met in 1932, the night before college graduation. Seven decades later, he could still describe it in perfect detail. It was the night two empty lives became full.
They were seniors at Kansas State then, the depression ravaging their region. The star athlete, a three-sport All-American, he'd been voted Joe College. A campus beauty -- you should see a picture of Mildred Purcell from back then -- she was voted Betty Coed. For their final dance, she took a date. Elden went stag.
At the dance, Auker eased up smooth and invited her to an after party. Mildred, who lived with her parents in Manhattan, Kan., trotted them out as an excuse. Her mom, she explained, wouldn't think it proper if one boy picked her up and a different one dropped her off.
Auker wouldn't be denied, as he detailed in his autobiography. He found a phone and dialed up Mildred's mom. Of course, Mrs. Purcell knew the name Elden Auker. Every man, woman and child in the state of Kansas knew that name. Plus, he and Mildred's brother were in the same fraternity. She knew him well enough to trust him. He figured he had a shot.
"Sorry to wake you " he began.
He asked if, you know, maybe he could bring Mildred home after they went to grill some burgers and weenies. Mildred's mother said yes.
So Elden proudly walked back to Mildred, and told her the news.
"You what?!" she exclaimed. "Did you wake her up?"
Elden said yes.
The next year, they married, his daddy buying the ring. They spent three nights in Kansas City on their honeymoon. Afterward, he chased his baseball dreams. Later, he'd become somewhat famous as the last living man to strike out Babe Ruth. He and the Babe were golfing buddies. But to think he was merely a Trivial Pursuit answer is to cheapen his career. He retired with a 130-101 record. He threw 126 complete games. Men were tougher then.
He knew the giants. Ted Williams was a dear friend. In 1939, he playfully grabbed Lou Gehrig, and the slugger collapsed in his arms. No one knew he was sick then. Two years later, Gehrig was gone. One by one, all his friends died. Auker was the last living member of the 1935 Detroit Tigers World Series champions.
After baseball, he became CEO of a company. He met captains of industry, became friends with President Ford. In the eyes of his family, though, the greatest act of his life was the final one.
"She took care of him when he was in baseball," grandson Saarin Auker says, "and when he retired and she started to get feeble, he completely changed. He pretty much focused on the care and well-being of his wife."
Two years ago, they lost almost everything in Hurricane Ivan. It tore apart the house they'd loved on Sailfish Road in Vero Beach, Fla. It waterlogged much of his baseball memorabilia. His reaction told a story: Weeks after the storm, he hadn't even bothered to go through his stuff. He was too busy making sure Mildred was doing OK, making sure she was comfortable in the new place he'd found for them. He seemed in great health. The staff at their apartment complex marveled at this amazing man, and at the Aukers' amazing love.
He rubbed her head. Every night, she fell asleep in his lap. He'd talk to her, tell her to be brave.
"Grandma is a real tough lady," Saarin says. "She could pull the prickers off a rose bush. She was an old Kansas girl. She was a strong woman. She used to say, 'Gimme a pill and I'd take it now,' and granddad would say, 'You stop talking like that.' They really lived for each other."
Auker became a source of wisdom, to his family and beyond. He could be counted on for a lucid opinion on everything from baseball's current steroid scandal to marriage.
"Never go to bed without telling your wife you love her," 38-year-old Saarin remembers. "'Never go to bed angry.' He'd tell me, 'A man has never been shot while doing the dishes, so always do the dishes.' He had all these little sayings he'd always tell me. It's a selfish reason, but I wish he'd have stayed longer. I could have learned so much from him."
About two weeks ago, Auker took a bad turn. They checked him into the hospital. His heart was failing. He was shuttled between several facilities as they searched for answers. Even as the doctors planned and plotted, Auker seemed to understand that his time was short. He told his grandson, "I don't see myself leaving this place."
Still, he seemed to be getting better. Last Wednesday night, he watched a Tigers game. He rarely missed them. The Tigers won; he was so happy. Two days later, early on Friday morning, the family got the call. They'd better get there quick.
Elden Auker was dying.
Saarin stood by his bedside. His father, Jim, went to get Mildred. When they got back, Elden had passed. He was 95.
Jim and Mildred came down the hall. Saarin met them.
"She didn't know that he had passed," he says. "We didn't know if we wanted her to see him in that condition, on the final day, on the final morning. She saw him and was overwhelmed with grief and she used a few expletives and wanted to leave. She was like, 'I want to go home.'"
Now, almost eight decades after he asked her out at a dance, Betty Coed is burying her Joe College. Mildred Auker still has that ring his daddy bought, but she doesn't have Elden any more. She's burying him today, and then she'll go home.
"She sits in the spot that grandpa used to sit in," Saarin says. "It's gonna take some time."
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wright Thompson bid a sad farewell as they laid Elden Auker -- the last living man to strike out Babe Ruth -- to rest on Wednesday.