When Dad died too young at 63, I had no choice but to take over his business. I had to collect money, pay bills, reassure customers of continued loyal service and special discounts, make deliveries, deal with worried salesmen who feared I’d stiff their suppliers and run down the inventory, maintain the stock and premises, and try and sell the kind of enterprise being squeezed out by major corporations in a town that had become a rundown dangerous ghetto.
At the time I was a carefree bartender in
Manhattan Beach, 12 miles down the road,
living the good life. Nobody expected me to succeed, except mother, but I
managed to hold the business together for 2 years while working full time at
the beach, then sell it and the building, turn the money over to mother, and
get the hell out of a situation I hated and go on with my life as a good time
Charlie and aspiring writer just beginning to place articles in the local
At Dad’s funeral, a young rabbi urged me not to attempt the eulogy, explaining that “these things tend to be very difficult when one is too close to the deceased.” His face was full of careful sympathy and understanding.
“You give the standard eulogy,” I told him. “But I’m giving mine. I know him in a way nobody else does, because we both played baseball.”
The Jewish chapel at the cemetery was packed, every seat taken, people standing in aisles and in the back. Only three old baseball players attended—Chuck Stevens, representing baseball, and his two closest friends in the game, Tom Morgan and Jack Paepke. Besides relatives, the throng was made up mostly of shoemakers in their Sunday best and salesmen in their elegant suits.
I wanted to tell the throng about Jack Fessel, a kid who played on dad’s championship American Legion team back in 1955, but realized it would take too long. Fessel was a dead-end kid, wrong side of the tracks, already in trouble at school and with the law, unruly, lost, spawn of lowdown white trash. Fessel, hearing Dad was coaching the team, showed up with his bulky body and ill-fitting uniform and wild blond spiky hair sprouting out from under his cap. He drove a dilapidated pick-up truck.
“Don’t let him on the team,” warned local coaches, and Dad’s assistant, who’d booted Fessel off his junior high team years back. Fessel was an unorthodox, awkward player, but he threw accurately from the outfield, had a left-handed woodchopper swing, and good judgment of fly balls. The team, composed mostly of reasonably straight-arrows considering this was Compton, and a few golden boys, and four kids who would go on to sign professional contracts, sighed and rolled their eyes when Fessel showed up.
Dad watched him hit in the cage. He made one adjustment—hold your bat lower on your shoulder and swing from there. Fessel hit ropes. He was stocky-strong. Dad encouraged him, smacked him on the ass after BP and then hit him every kind of fly ball and line drive in left field. Then he trotted out to left and talked to Fessel. He faced him, touched him occasionally on the shoulders. Showed him how to charge groundballs and get off his throws in one motion.
From this point on, Fessel was the first player to practice and the last to leave. He hustled like a madman. He was a smart base runner. He was always looking over at Dad, wanting to please, and Dad clapped his hands, nodding, calling him “Big Fess,” though he was only about 5’11.” Big Fess turned out to be our best clutch hitter. He hit a ton. He dove after fly balls, threw people out. He became part of the fabric of the team and the golden boys with nice cars and cheerleader girl friends accepted Fessel, and Fessel, morose, kicked around like a dog with his tail between his legs when he first showed up, was happy. He was Dad’s bobo.
Later, toward the end of our
Anaheim tournament triumph, I asked Dad why
he was so good to Fessel and so hard on everybody else.
“Dell,” he said. “Always treat the underdogs with care, the black sheep, and they’ll come back and pay dividends. You’ve got to give a kid like Fessel a lot of love, because a blind man can see he never got much at home, he was neglected, probably beaten. To see that kid blossom, it means more than winning. I don’t know what will become of Fessel, he’s a pretty scarred kid, but one thing he’ll always have to lean on is that Murray Franklin, a big leaguer, liked him, believed in him, and he’ll know he was a big part of winning a championship.” He looked me straight in the eye. “Sometimes in life, things get tough, you feel like the world’s got it in for you and you lose heart, and a kid like Fessel can look back at this summer, and, well, it might make a difference whether he sinks or swims.”
Dad fought a virulent form of cancer. His 17 inch neck became a saggy beanpole, his blacksmith forearms sticks. His voice reduced to a whisper. Before we ordered the doctor to withdraw life support systems, Dad asked me if he had any chance, and I told him he did not, and he nodded and whispered his thanks for my honesty and claimed he’d see me “down the line.” I spent hours with him at his bedside. Even when he was totally incapacitated, he knew I was there, always reassuring him I’d take care of the business and mother.
So at the funeral I was long past tears. And in the eulogy I told the sea of mourners that the manner in which my father played the game of baseball was a reflection of his strong character, a quality he carried through life as a family man, veteran of war, businessman. More important than the surety that every ball player who’d ever played with and against Murray Franklin respected him, was the surety that every one of these men sought his respect. My father was incapable of letting a friend or even some helpless soul down, just as he was, as mother said, incapable of an indecent act.
When I stepped off the stage, the rabbi’s eyes were strangely bright as he grabbed my arm and nodded solemnly. “You were right,” he said. “You did well.”
There was a sort of wake. Friends and relatives drank and nibbled appetizers at the house on the hill in San Pedro with the panoramic view of LA and the
Pacific Ocean, Dad’s dream
house, in which he loved to entertain, and of which he was so proud. My girl
friend at the time, an artist/atheist/animal rights zealot with several cats,
who felt close to Dad, repeatedly claimed to see a tiny light bobbing just over
my shoulder, and she assured me this was my father watching over me, a guiding
light. I believed her, and still do.
When all the guests were gone, mother, who had nursed, bathed, dressed and fed my father the last months of his life, and witnessed the day-to-day disintegration without once breaking down or losing her tenderness, or complaining, finally collapsed in grief. My sister Susie and my girl friend tended to her. I wandered into the living room to finally inspect the numerous cards of Dad in his
uniform that had been accumulating for weeks on the front table. They were from
cities and small towns throughout the country, sent by fanatical baseball card
collectors to be autographed. Enclosed in all the envelopes were five and ten
dollar bills, as payment. Dad always signed the cards and added his best wishes
to the names of all senders and returned them, via stamped and self-addressed
envelopes, with the money included.
“I’ll never take money from a kid for my autograph, Dell.”
“Well, everybody’s doing it, Dad. It’s become a racket, a business, even an investment. Grownups are in on it, too.
of the old players didn’t make much, so they’re making up for it now. Like
Feller, your old republican pal.”
“I don’t give a damn. It’s horseshit. Your father never took anything out of the game he didn’t deserve, and he’s not starting now. I make enough money. Sure, I used my name to help get the business started, but that’s different. I had associations with people. We were friends. I’ll never take money for autographs. It desecrates the game and stinks of freeloading, and I’ve always hated freeloaders.”
When Dad took his last breath in my arms, and the life went out of him, I removed from his finger the 1949 Hollywood Star championship ring he had been trying to give me without success for 20 years and placed it on my finger. I felt an immediate surge of strength, and hope. At the table I squeezed the ring and sat down and began answering the autograph seekers with small notes explaining my father was unable to sign their cards because he had died on March 16, 1978. I returned the cards and all cash, sealed the envelopes and walked down the street to mail them off.
I was a ball player’s son, Murray Franklin’s son, and this was the way we did things.