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.
Oh how 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 Redlegs/Reds. But after being born with my hips dislocated, and after spending a couple years in grade school of crutches, it was obvious that I'd have to make my living doing something other than fielding grounders or hitting curve balls.
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 would spend 20 years as an American League umpire.
I remember the epiphany: 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 high school student to sign up. So the league manager, who also was the high school athletic director, asked me if I knew how to keep a baseball scorebook and if I'd be interested in being the league's official scorekeeper. To make the job more enticing – as if $1 a game: one game each weekday after school and a doubleheader on Saturday wasn't enticing enough – he told me I could umpire when one of the scheduled umps couldn't make it.
As it turned out, the league scorekeeper submitted scores to the local weekly newspaper, which one day asked if I might try writing a story about that week's games. As every writer or reporter will attest, the three most beautiful words in the world are not "I love you" but "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 in Joliet. 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 good to school during the week and come home and work at the newspaper every weekend and all summers.
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 12 books later, here I am, still writing. And now – finally – saying thanks to Bill Haller.
Every so often, I check eBay and type in "Joliet" or "Lockport," just to see what memento from my childhood might be available. A few weeks ago, someone was selling a bobble head doll of umpire Bill Haller. The doll had been a giveaway promotion by Joliet Jackhammers, who play in the Northern League, an independent professional league.
I bought the bobble head and decided that it was time to thank Bill Haller for inspiring me to what has been more than a wonderful career; it's been a wonderful lifestyle.
I went back to the Internet, posted a note on our high school alumni page asking if anyone knew how to get in touch with my childhood friend Mike Alexander. I not only got Mike's number, but his cousin, Ben's, and his sister, Joan's, and she put me in touch with her brother-in-law, Bill, who now lives in California.
I had great conversations with Ben and Joan, and then a lengthy talk with Bill, whom I thanked for inspiring me.
And now it's your turn, and time to turn the subject from baseball to cars. Who inspired your interest 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 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.
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