Author’s note to readers: Though it may not seem like it at first, this story really is about cars, not baseball.
Unlike so many young boys of my generation, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a big-league baseball player. I wanted to be a big-league umpire.
Baseball truly was the American pastime in those days, the “Happy Days” of the late 1950s.
Yes, I would have loved to have played in Wrigley Field, home of my beloved Chicago Cubs, or even Crossly Field, home of my father’s favorites, the Cincinnati Reds. But after being born with my dislocated hips, and after spending a couple years in grade school on crutches, it was obvious that I’d have to make my living doing something other than fielding grounders or hitting curves.
But I discovered a way I could still be out on the diamond without needing to be agile with a bat or glove. I could be an umpire, an arbitrator assuring the game was played fair and square.
Sure, “kill the ump!” was a familiar cry at games, but I’d grown up with good feelings about the men in the blue suits: My father worked in a Cincinnati pharmacy while in college and veteran umpire Bill Klem would come into the store, and sometimes would give my dad a ticket to a Reds game.
Then, when I was in second grade, we moved from the city to the country, from Richmond Street in Joliet, Illinois, to a rural road west of Lockport; in fact, to the same house in which my mother had lived when she was a child.
Lockport was the hometown of the Haller brothers. Tom would play quarterback for the University of Illinois before a long career as a catcher for the San Francisco Giants. He also would marry one of my friend’s older sisters. It was through Tom Haller that I heard about his brother, Bill, who spent 20 years as an American League umpire.
If I couldn’t play baseball like Tom, maybe I could umpire baseball like Bill. I had a new career goal, and I pursued it seriously. I read and re-read the official baseball rulebook, and when I went to high school, I signed up to umpire for the local Little League. The league needed eight umpires. I was the ninth to volunteer.
Who inspired your interest, perhaps even your career, in cars? Who first handed you a wrench and watched as you loosened a valve cover? Who took you to your first cruise-in or car show?”
The league manager, who also was the high school athletic director, asked me if I knew how to keep a baseball scorebook. I did. Would I be interested in being official scorekeeper. To make the job more enticing, as if $1 a game with one game each weekday after school and doubleheaders on Saturday wasn’t enticing enough, he told me I could umpire when one of the scheduled umps couldn’t make it.
The scorekeeper’s duties included submitting scores to the local weekly newspaper. One day, an editor asked if I be interested in trying to write a story about the week’s games. As every writer or reporter will attest, the three most beautiful words in the world are not “I love you.” For me, they were “By Larry Edsall.”
I was hooked. I had a new career goal: I wanted to be a sportswriter. By my junior year I was reporting sports for the daily newspaper. Midway through my senior year, I was accepted by the best journalism college in the country, and since Northwestern University was just north of Chicago, I could go to school during the week and come home and work every weekend and all summer.
I had a wonderful career as a sportswriter and newspaper sports editor before I was recruited to write for and help edit a national automotive magazine. And now, thousands of bylines and nearly 20 books later, here I am, still writing. And now — finally — saying thanks to Bill Haller.
Through my childhood friend, I was able to call Bill Haller at his home in California and thank him in person for what he had meant to my life.
So now, the day before Collector Car Appreciation Day 2017, I’m suggesting that it’s your turn. Who inspired your interest, perhaps even your career, in cars? Who first handed you a wrench and watched as you loosened a valve cover? Who took you to your first cruise-in or car show?
If they’re still alive, find them and thank them. If they’re no longer alive, find their next of kin; they’ll love hearing how someone who was important in their life also was important in yours.
And while you’re at it, if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to start inspiring the next generation. Take that niece or nephew or neighbor kid to the local cruise or car show, or simply show them how to check the tire pressures on their parent’s car. Figuratively – and even literally – you might be saving their lives.