Old Vol Billy Joe O’Kain has died

Marvin WestObits

Billy Joe O’Kain, pitcher on the most successful Tennessee baseball team, has died at age 89.

O’Kain was a co-star for the 1951 Vols, second in the College World Series. The team had a 20-3 season, best winning percentage between 1897 and now.

Among those Vols were Sid Hatfield, Herky Payne, Billy Joe Bowman, John Huffstetler, B.B. Hopkins, Ace Adams, Bill Asbury and Bert Rechichar.

Baseball and life took a couple of strange turns for O’Kain. He was pitching against an all-star collection from Cuba when his shoulder went bad.

A little later, he was seeking a diagnosis for retina bleeding. He made the hospital rounds – Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt. Doctors couldn’t find the precise cause so they offered no specific cure.

“I drove part of the way home from Baltimore and realized I couldn’t see very well. We didn’t use the word ‘blind.’ It was a bad word. But by 1954, I was.”

A weak man would have crumbled. Even a fighter would have been discouraged. O’Kain never considered giving up. He did a five-month rehab in Little Rock at the Arkansas Enterprise for the Blind. He met Dick Freeling, a World War II warrior who had been shot in the face and had lost senses of taste and smell – and sight.

“Bill Freeling was a wonderful man with a positive outlook on life. He was a ham radio operator and an insurance agent.”

Bill O’Kain became a ham radio operator. He opened an insurance agency in the basement of his Oak Ridge home. Nothing to it, folks. He walked to work. Well, sometimes he tumbled down the steps but he got up and kept on keeping on as a businessman for 40 years.

Before he hired a secretary and then two, his wife, Ruby, did the insurance paperwork at night after getting home from her day job. She was his tour guide all the years they had season tickets to Tennessee football and basketball.

Do what? Go to games you can’t see? Billy said he could “feel them” and be part of the excitement. He liked going to Tennessee baseball games, knowing the Vols were playing on the field where he had played.

Because Ruby was a bowler, Bill bowled. He was a deacon at Robertsville Baptist Church. He talked with radio friends “all over the world.”

“I didn’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. The Lord has blessed me in many ways.”

In 2002, O’Kain wrote his autobiography, “Love Transcends All,” about his family, life, challenges and triumphs.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Ruby McGinnis O’Kain, and daughters Ginger O’Kain and Linda O’Kain Clark, both of Oak Ridge.

A private service is planned. Burial will be at Anderson Memorial Gardens. Memorial gifts may be made to Robertsville Baptist Church in Oak Ridge. Additional obituary info here.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].

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