The Observer's home was typical of the office complexes built along the highways that lined New Jersey's Halifax and Utterson Counties. Within 50 miles, hundreds of similar complexes stood, and one wondered if the same architect had built them all. Located conveniently where Route 590 and Village Road intersect in the sleepy bedroom community of Foggy Hollow, the brick building, Number 4, was shaded to the south and east by a wall of regal oak and maple trees, and flanked to the north and west by a large parking lot. It also served as the professional home to an engineering group, a law firm, and a dentist, podiatrist, and chiropractor. Its landscaping was neurotically perfect with marigolds, begonias, and geraniums punctuating the paths leading to the three adjacent professional buildings that comprised Masonville Station.
It was January 1994, and a desk in the Observer's editorial department lured me to this complex. I needed a full-time job for two reasons: mom wanted me to make “good use” of my college degree, and a full-time job would distract me from my baseball card collection, which had recently become an extravagant and lucrative obsession. However, as ESPN's baseball pundits continued harping on the sport's mounting labor problems, my interest in cards was dimming. I didn't collect baseball cards for salaries, arbitrators, or collective-bargaining agreements. A full-time job would be the final blow to this cardboard obsession, at least for a while.
As a 23-year-old recent graduate of Rutgers University with a bachelor's degree in English, I was delighted to have been hired as a staff writer by this weekly newspaper. I had no journalism coursework under my belt, and notwithstanding a few assignments as a stringer for local dailies, no experience either. But the interview with Managing Editor Bob Tambolini proved I could write.
“You want the job?” he asked during a phone conversation a week after the interview.
“Absolutely. When can I start?”
“Next Monday works for me.” Chronologically, he was only five years older than me, but in terms of maturity and experience, the difference seemed like decades.
“What'd you think of my writing sample?” I asked.
“It needs a lot of work from a journalism standpoint. No lead, some rough organizational issues. But you can obviously write.” Tambolini was a good editor because his feedback was consistently balanced: he criticized and complimented, cut and pasted. He was the perfect manager for this team of journalists, and this team was an eclectic one that needed a fair, firm leader.
The Observer was unlike other weeklies. With more than a century of history, the newspaper's voice was heard loudly in the community, and with a weekly output of more than 100 pages covering a suburban region that included several large townships, it regularly competed with The Neptune Park Press, the major daily.
“Here's your desk,” Tambolini said. “It's not much, but none of us have much. It's enough to do the job, and that's what you're here for, right?” he said. A mountain of newspapers, directories, maps, phone books, notebooks, and documents covered the desktop, which was located in the office's far corner, next to Jim Norris, the sportswriter.
A Cleveland Indians coffee mug also sat on the desk. “Whose is that?” I asked.
“Fleischer’s,” he answered and pointed to the desk where the old reporter worked. Nobody was there. “He is a huge Bob Feller fan.” Oh, I thought, naively.
Pens and pencils, a phone, and an Apple computer with a 12-inch screen marked the mountain's base. Chaos never looked so inviting.
“Let me introduce you to the crew.”
Norris was jovial, intelligent, and helpful, full of information about all aspects of journalism. In his late 30s, single, and always tan, even in January, Norris was interested in virtually everything, especially history. A 1,000+-page book about Thomas Jefferson sat on his desk. He also, of course, knew his sports and thrived as an avid Orioles, Raiders, Canadiens, and Celtics fan. A great conversationalist, he defied the stereotype that sportswriters were one-dimensional.
“This is Angela Marciano,” Tambolini said. “I prefer Angie,” she quickly noted with a forced smile.
Angie, the Observer's features writer, could rub you the wrong way, immediately. But I enjoyed her, and since our desks faced each other, I had to. In her early 40s, her red-hair and tall, muscular figure did nothing to disguise her fiery, vivacious personality. She was glamorous and down-to-earth, a high-maintenance woman who knew the risks of being high-maintenance. Outspoken about everything, she was a Jewish mother who always worried about her teenaged son, Blake. She loved to laugh and served as our comedian, frequently narrating jokes to everyone as we pecked our keyboards.
Fay Berry, another beat reporter, with his silver hair and rosy face, was a professorial man, solemn, curious, and engaging. In his late 40s and married with two children, Berry lived in a trailer park and served as local pastor at a Presbyterian Church. He seemed suited for any profession and was a stark contrast to Angie, who sat next to him. He walked right out of a medieval fairy tale and could have easily served as an apprentice to Sherlock Holmes.
And then there was Fleischer. Nobody compared to Fleischer, who I eventually met later that first morning in the break room. I swear he walked right off the set of a screwball comedy or film noir. If you searched the definition of “old-school journalist” in the dictionary, you'd find Fleischer’s face. In his mid-60s, Fleischer was the staff veteran who earned a lifetime of journalism experience including stints with The New York Times and various tabloids. He was a punch drunk old man with a crusty face, who rarely showered and wore the same clothes to work daily, including his trademark brown corduroy suit. His stench was at times unbearable, especially in July and August, and when colleagues talked to him, they did so from a distance. He liked Jim, Bob, and Fay, but hated Angie.
Fleischer couldn't drive due to a severe limp, so he arrived at the office by bus. Watching him limp down the sidewalk Quasimoto-like was truly a sight. He also suffered from a deformed hand, which forced him to type with one finger, like a hen pecking seeds. He lived alone at a local hotel in Uttersonville, which, due to his transportation problems, was the only beat he could cover, but Uttersonville was the county seat, which meant it was also its political, cultural, and economic hub. For the Observer, that worked perfectly.
According to rumor, his girlfriend sometimes beat him up. Whenever Fleischer came to work with a black eye or bruised arm, we didn't worry; we suspected their source.
Fleischer was a quiet man who spoke in highs and lows. The surname Fleischer means “butcher” in German, and while he could be that, he could also be a saint. He started conversations sheepishly with an innocent smile and tepid questions, but if the conversation revealed a weakness in his logic, he could easily turn pit bull. But among those flaws, I found myself gravitating to him frequently each week. My learning curve was steep, and he was an encyclopedia of knowledge. Since I lived with my grandparents, I understood the value of talking to seniors. I learned my journalism from him, and we quickly developed a cordial relationship.
Fleischer and I talked about local politics and the vagaries of interviewing local politicians; about journalism and college life; about Philadelphia, where he was raised, and Central Jersey, where I was. I distinctly remember our discussions about his work as a sports reporter; he spoke cavalierly about his “relationships” with sports heroes like the immutable Eagle, Chuck Bendarik, and the legendary Wilt Chamberlain; later, he worked for The National Enquirer in a Montreal field office: “We used to make up stories all the time about Jackie Kennedy, Nixon, and Elizabeth Taylor. It was quite fun.”
But Fleischer’s stories always returned to one topic: Bob Feller. No matter how our conversations started, they always ended with anecdotes or debates about “Rapid Robert”. I obviously never saw Bob Feller play or knew much about him; heck, my mother was only a child when he was tossin' heat with the Cleveland Indians in the '40s. But in 1994, I felt like I not only knew Bob Feller, I even watched him play, and at times, I even thought I may have vicariously met him, all because of Fleischer and the way he reported Feller's feats.
July 19, 1994
After reading another article in The New York Times about the looming baseball strike, I completed an article about a new state-of-the-art baseball field Howell Township officials were designing. I noticed Fleischer staring at me.
“Just finished another one, huh?”
“Yep,” I said proudly and sent the article electronically to our new Managing Editor, Fred Bosman.
“You're doing a really nice job, Chris. You've come a long way in only a few months,” Fleischer said in a paternal tone, his thick-rimmed eyeglasses perched on top of his forehead. Like that, he reminded me of a scuba diver, only Fleischer submersed himself in information. “I read your copy every week and it reads well. Those are tough beats.”
“Well, thanks. I definitely appreciate that. I enjoy the work,” I said, glowing from his compliments. I noticed a book on his lap. “What are you reading?”
“One of the best books I've ever read: Bob Feller's Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom. Ever read it?”
“No,” I said, shamefully. “I've never even heard of it.”
“Well now that's pathetic,” he barked but then retreated. “Do you know what today is?”
I was stumped, literally. I looked at the calendar, but July 19 didn't exactly ring any bells. “I have no idea.”
“It's the 58th anniversary of Bob Feller's major league debut. One of the most amazing debuts in baseball, hell, sports history. It was back in '36. He struck out 15 St. Louis Browns. Can you believe that? Later that same year, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics.”
“Wow, that IS impressive,” I said.
A few minutes passed. Fleischer carefully reported more facts about Feller: his childhood in Iowa and the great relationship Feller had with his dad, who erected outdoor lights so Bob could practice pitching at night; how his dad taught him to throw fastballs against their barn; how he was the first American Legion player ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame; how he was the first player to win 20 games before the age of 20; and how his first few years in the majors were arguably the best ever -- he earned 109 wins before he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 22.
“That debut…talk about a helluva start to a career…kind of reminds me of you a little bit,” Fleischer said.
August 12, 1994
Today, those fools we call professional baseball players did it. They actually went on strike.
“Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable,” Jim said strolling into the office late that afternoon, his typical brown lunch bag and copies of The New York Times and The Neptune Press in tow. “I never thought it would come to this.”
The August heat was oppressive like the day's news. Angie, Fay, Fleischer, and I were already at work, each slowly wrapping up the day. In fact, Fleischer was sleeping in his corner. He woke to Jim's laments, startled.
“For God's sake, how much do they wanna make?” Angie asked. “They're crazy. Nobody, especially no athlete, is worth that much cash.”
“It's not just that,” Fay chimed in. “Think of how much money they're gonna lose. This thing looks serious. They're talking weeks, even possibly months. A lot of people are gonna be hurt.”
“True, but if somebody wanted to pay you $5 million a year, wouldn't you take it?” Jim asked. “To a degree, I can see the players' point. A free market does have merit.”
“Oh please,” Angie said, and the two tangoed for the next 10 minutes.
I was listening intently to Jim, Angie, and Fay debate the strike's pros and cons. I was tempted to invite them out for drinks after work to continue this discussion; the money I earned the previous night from selling my Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield rookie cards burned in my pocket.
Once again, I noticed Fleischer staring at me. As a seasoned journalist, he was an expert observer.
Shaking his head defiantly NO, he said, “Did you know that Feller actually signed with the Indians for a $1 and an autographed baseball?” Fleischer was holding that wild card for a day like today.
“Huh, that's wild. These guys today make thousands of dollars an at bat,” I replied.
“There's no comparison,” Fleischer said. “Feller was signed by Cleveland as a 16-year-old. He never left. You just don't see that these days.”
I shook my head in an obedient YES.
“These guys today will play anywhere if the price is right. But what amazes me about the old timers, especially guys like Feller, is that they 'got it'. They understood life, and they lived it. Many of them were so damned smart they didn't need baseball. They could have earned a living doing anything. Players today, I'm not sure they could work at a McDonalds.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, sticking up for my generation of ball players. I was losing faith in many of them, but I still had to represent.
“Aaahhhh, come on,” he replied. “How many players today, if something like Pearl Harbor happened again, would enlist in the U.S. Navy two days after the attack,” he asked, “in the prime of their career?”
He probably practiced that statement, but he did have a point. “That's a hypothetical I can't answer.”
He smiled, something he rarely did. “Perhaps. Feller served 44 months. Earned five ribbons and eight battle stars. He did a helluva lot more than just enlist. He was a fucking hero!” Angie and Jim shot glances at him.
At first, I was taken aback by his anger. Then I realized it was passion for Feller, not anger for today's players, which fueled him. Deep inside, he only wanted more people like me to know who Feller was. Fleischer took it personally when people my age didn't know Bob Feller the man or Bob Feller the player. He still had a place in his heart for baseball heroes; certainly, if he could find such a place, I could find a similar place for mine.
“Can you imagine his career if he didn't join the military?” Fleischer asked. “He was robbed of at least three full seasons in his prime. That's at least 60-70 wins more and another 600 strikeouts. Pretty impressive numbers if you ask me.”
“He wasn't robbed of anything,” I said. “Think of what he gained.”
Fleischer smiled again and didn't reply.
September 14, 1994
Fay tuned the office radio to a local sports talk show.
“Well, it's official folks. Major League Baseball's Acting Commissioner, Bud Selig, has officially canceled the remainder of the 1994 baseball season…and yes, that means there will be no World Series for the first time since 1904.”
Jim, Fay, and I sat in silence.
“Rest in Peace,” Fleischer said. His concision was painful.
We then decided to mourn our loss each with an editorial for the next edition. Bosman approved the idea. Jim addressed what could have been for the 1994 season: Gwynn hitting .400, the Expos winning the World Series, and Matt Williams threatening Roger Maris's single-season home run record; Fay addressed the effects the strike would have on the average, middle-class workers associated with the sport like the beer and hot dog vendors; I wrote about how the approaching football, basketball, and hockey seasons never looked more appealing; and Fleischer wrote about Bob Feller.
We fell into a writing silence marked only by the atonal rhythms of keyboard jazz.
Again, Fleischer was staring at me, cantankerous as ever. He must have finished his Feller piece. “I bet you have lots of Clemens and Ryan cards.”
I smiled respectfully. “I do. Of course I do. They were the players to get when I actually collected cards as a kid.”
“But you're a 'collector' now, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you consider yourself a student of the game, someone who knows his baseball and has a collection to prove it. I've met those kinds before.” The spittle flew from his lips.
“Sort of…I mean,” he cut me off.
“Having cards doesn't mean you know shit about baseball,” he snarled. “I bet ya you don't have any Fellers…or Gibsons for that matter.”
“No, I don't. Well, actually I do have a '73 Gibson, but it's not in good condition.”
“That's weak. You need at least one Feller for your collection,” he demanded. “Without Feller, there'd be no Gibson, or Ryan, or Clemens. 'Bullet' Bob, he was the first true flamethrower…set the standard for all those other guys.”
I stood corrected, again.
“Did you know on Opening Day in 1940 he pitched a no-hitter at Comiskey Park? Those guys never did that. In fact, Feller's the only pitcher to ever do it. He then went 27-11 with a 2.62 ERA and 261 strikeouts that season. One of the greatest single seasons a pitcher ever had.”
“Clemens has three Cy Youngs. Ryan has almost 6,000 career strikeouts. That's pretty good.”
“Not good enough to beat Feller. He pitched 12 one-hitters and three no-hitters. Led the American League in strikeouts seven years.” I cut him off.
“Ryan also had 12 one-hitters and seven no-hitters. He led the league 11 times. Do your homework,” I replied.
He mumbled something I couldn't understand and darted into the break room. Angie sardonically gave me a mock round of applause.
November 3, 1994
When I arrived at the office, everyone was there…except Fleischer.
“Where's the old man?” I asked Jim.
“He takes this day off every year. You'll never guess why.”
“Uhhm, it's his birthday?”
“Well, sort of. It's Bob Feller's 76th birthday.”
“You're kidding me.”
“Chris, the man is a freak. I don't know how he gets home at night,” Angie said.
Jim said, “He celebrates it every year by getting drunk, talking baseball with the locals, watching the Yankees or Phillies or Mets game, or whatever game is televised. I saw him there last year. Phew, he was in bad shape.”
After hearing that, I left for fresh air and walked around the complex. When I returned, I noticed something unusual on my desk, tucked under an Utterson County phone book: a 1952 Topps card of Bob Feller in a plastic sleeve.
“Jim, check this out.”
He inspected it carefully. “That's a nice card. Where did you get it?” He seemed as confused as I was.
“It was probably Fleischer,” Angie said, surprised, then slightly humbled. “It had to be him.”
I was speechless. The card was worth at least $50, probably more, especially since it was in near mint condition.
There was no difference. Bob Feller's birthday was also Fleischer’s, who was, in many ways, Bob Feller.
I then suddenly saw him, younger, cleaner, and without a limp, talking to Bob Feller on a bus somewhere in middle America covering a game for a major newspaper. Asking smart questions about the war, about his fastball, about his father, and about DiMaggio, Lemon, and Jackie Robinson. I don't know if Fleischer ever covered Feller as a reporter in the mid-50s when Feller's career was concluding and his was just beginning; however, I do know Fleischer covered Feller's career, as a savvy, weathered journalist, during the summer of 1994. And even if he only had an audience of one, Fleischer’s work helped restore my faith in baseball. From someone who loved the sport the way I did, especially as a child, he earned at least a Pulitzer.
November 18, 2006
Today is my 36th birthday. I was watching ESPN, when out of nowhere, my five-year-old son, Ben, asked, “Daddy, who is Greg Maddux?”
I instantly thought of Fleischer.
By any baseball fan's account, Feller was one of the best pitchers ever. During his stellar career, he won 266 games and six times led the American League in wins. In 1948, he won the World Series with Cleveland and was the anchor on one of baseball's legendary pitching staffs, a rotation that included Bob Lemon and fellow Hall of Famer Early Wynn. After his retirement, Feller was the first pitcher since the great Walter Johnson to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. In July 1969, the Professional Baseball's Centennial Celebration chose Feller as the "Greatest Living Right-Hand Pitcher".
April 16, 2007
Today, I'm quietly counting the hours, 67 years later, to celebrate the anniversary of Feller's Opening Day no-hitter. It's funny, because I recently learned from the online version of the Observer that Fleischer died in his hotel room. He was, strangely, 76. There's a beer in the fridge waiting to be drunk, an Indians game waiting to start, a 1952 baseball card in my closet waiting to be viewed, and another story, somewhere, waiting to be reported.