Dad had only been out of baseball 2 years, but he told me, “Dell, if I take this job we'll be uprooted. Baseball is an unpredictable, insecure profession, and your dad is no organization man. I trust Hank to the bone. We're fellow Jews. But what if things don't work out and Hank moves on, and another regime comes in and fires me? What do I do then—become a scout, a first base coach? A baseball hanger-on at the mercy of these bottom-line pricks? We've settled here, my business is doing well, I'm my own boss, so I'm gonna have to say no to my old friend.” He saw the look of disappointment on my face. “So, you wanna go live in Visalia, and then an armpit like Cleveland, and leave all your friends?”
“Then it's settled. Your old man's staying home.”
That same early summer members of the Compton American Legion hall pleaded with my dad to coach the American legion team, which was stocked full of good players and several big league prospects, but couldn't win any games. Dad didn't want to do it. He was working 70 hours a week in his leather and shoe findings business, trying to get over the hump. But, because he loved the game, and Compton was a hotbed of sports competition, where Duke Snider still held records at Compton high, and every fan in town urged him to take the job, he gave in.
He assembled the team at the municipal park and I was with him as he hit grounders and flies and conducted batting practice and infield. He moved the thirdbaseman, an all leaguer named Bob Forbes, to second, and had the secondbaseman, Bob Kelly, on third, angering Kelly. I asked dad why he did this when Forbes was all league.
“Forbes is our leader,” he said. “I saw it right off. Second's a better leadership position.”
Our centerfielder, Bob Henrich, was a future bonus baby and golden boy, a gifted athlete and fine team mate. Our shortstop and two of our pitchers would sign pro contracts. These kids all had short buzz cuts, were cllean-cut and drove decent cars, with one exception, Jack Fessel. An assistant coach and another coach at the high school warned dad about Fessel--”He's a dead-end kid. Always in trouble. Kicked out of school. Hangs out with a bad lot. No damn good,”
Nobody hung with Fessel. He didn't look like a ball player. He showed up in a pathetic old pickup. He had a broad face, with large, intense eyes, gapped front teeth, spiky blond hair jutting from beneath his cap. He was stocky, awkward when he ran, like he was listing to the side. Dad stood at the batting cage and watched him hit, a lefty. He halted it and walked into the cage and changed Fessel's hands and elbow, then showed him how to swing—Dad's swing, level.
Fessel immediately began to hammer line drives all over the field. Dad clapped his hands and called him “Big Fess. Way t' swing that bat, Big Fess! Thatta boy. You're better than you think you are, kid. You're a natural.”
When Fessel left the cage, there was a different light in his eyes as dad smacked him on the ass. Then he told him to go out into left field, and he hit him flies, line drives, and grounders. He was awkward, but managed to corral most most the balls. Dad trotted out to left field and began talking to Fessel. As he talked to him, he touched his shoulders occasionally to make a point, and Fessel nodded. When practice was over, Dad gave him a uniform and told him he was our left fielder.
From this point on, Fessel was the first one to practice, the last to leave, the hardest worker.
That summer the Compton American Legion team steam-rolled everybody. Dad taught all of our pitchers the change-up. He was demanding and tough. He worked with every player in practice and they all improved. But the biggest surprise, or shock, was Fessel. Ungainly, he dove for balls in the outfield and made miraculous catches. He threw runners out at home plate. He hit rockets all over the field. He drove in a winning run and the team crowded around him, calling him Big Fess. He had big clutch hits all season. I was bat boy, but when Fessel wasn't hitting, he sat beside me in the dugout and told me that the only reason he came out for the team was because of my dad, because dad was a former big leaguer and played for the Hollywood Stars and Angels in the Pacific Coast league, and that I was the luckiest kid in the world to have a dad like Murray Franklin.
Well, I didn't tell him that Dad and I were constantly at loggerheads over just about everything, just nodded. Fessel became my sidekick. All the other players on the team had parents, relatives, pals or girl friends at games, but Fessel had nobody. One afternoon he told me, “You and your dad, you're my two best friends.”
That summer we went to the state finals and lost to a great pitcher, Mike McCormick, but then went on to win the most prestigious tournament in the country, winning seven games in a row and a week, expenses paid, in Catalina. The team was delirious with joy.
Later, I asked dad, “Why were you so hard on the really good players, Dad, and so good to Fessel? You never once got on his ass.”
“Dell,” he said. “Always be kind to the underdogs of this world, the people who've been kicked around, the ones everybody gives up on, and it'll come back in spades. That kid, I sensed right off everybody was down on him, he was a sad sack. My guess is he's been neglected, hell, he's probably been beaten. But right now he's a happy kid, and he deserves to be. I don't know what will become of him. It's a tough world out there for a kid like Fessel. But I know one thing, for the rest of his life, no matter how bad things get for him, he'll know that Murray Franklin gave him a lot of love, and he was as important a part of this team as anybody, maybe more so, and that his team mates were behind him, and he's a champion. They can never take that away from him.”
I asked dad, “You glad you took this job, for nothing, instead of the Cleveland job?”
He grinned at me, roughed my head. “Bet your ass.”
Kirby Farrell took the job Dad turned down. He managed Cleveland one year, 1957, was fired, and Greenberg moved on. We never heard anything about Fessel.