My brother Michael was telling family members in recent times that his goal was to reach 80. This was a noble target, since he had a serious heart attack back in 2007, and was plagued by the inflammatory lung disease with the daunting name, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Those dang Luckys from his early life.
Michael reached 80 on Monday. He collapsed at home in Prior Lake on Wednesday, was unresponsive, wound up at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital and late in the night … well, in Michael-ese, he “cashed in his comic books.”
Friend or mere acquaintance, with Michael, one never died; it always was a case of having cashed in your comic books.
This casual description of death could be based on Michael’s youth spent with our father, Richard, the town undertaker in Fulda, Minn. Those men and women are now funeral directors, but 60 and more years ago in Fulda, you were the town undertaker.
I don’t know how old Michael was when he first became the second man who helped Richard boost the deceased onto a stretcher — and then load the body into the Ford station wagon with the collapsible seats to bring to our funeral facility, but I’d guess 10, meaning through most of the ’50s.
Michael and I had a very different knowledge of my father. I mostly heard the stories of Richard’s halcyon days in Fulda. Michael was 5 ½ years older and lived a fair hunk of those.
To the outside world, the most fascinating of those experiences would be Richard’s role as manager of the Fulda Giants for three or four years starting in the late ’40s. For some Fuldans, he carried the nickname “Red” from his youth, and apparently Red and the other baseball boosters were driven by the need to install lights at the Fulda ballpark.
Thus, it wasn’t exactly a moral stand by my father on a need to bring integration to Murray County for a summer that caused him to recruit and compensate handsomely a pair of Black players to enliven the roster of the 1949 Fulda Giants.
He wanted to put a good enough team on the field to get the locals excited enough to vote in favor of lights (which they did that fall, overwhelmingly, with a municipal bond issue).
The notable players who came to Fulda were Hilton Smith, a veteran pitching star with the Kansas City Monarchs, and Earl Ashby, a catcher, born in Havana, and recently with the Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles.
Smith was voted into Cooperstown as a star of the Negro Leagues in 2001. His arm had gone dead and he mostly played first base (his Wiki page calls him an outstanding hitter) in Fulda in 1949.
Ashby came as a catcher but also pitched effectively. He has a brief Wiki page, and when you look up Earl’s pro career, 1949 is missing. That’s because he was in Fulda.
Michael was a bat boy. I was asking him about those ’49 Giants a couple of months ago, and this was a memory that came immediately to Michael’s mind:
“We were in Iona. Earl was catching and the strap broke on his shin guard. Back then, each team had one set of shin guards. Broke one, the other team would let you use one of theirs.
“Earl showed his broken shin guard to the Iona dugout. They waved him away. They made it clear that a Black guy wasn’t going to use anything of theirs. I was 9 years old, I couldn’t believe it.
“Earl glared at them, got back behind the plate with one shin guard, fuming, and yelling at the pitcher, ‘Throw the ball.’ ”
Michael told me about Earl and the shin guard the same day that he offered up another previously untold tale:
“I remember after we moved to Prior Lake in 1963, Richard saying, ‘Michael, I have to get that brother of yours a job in sports. It’s the only thing he pays attention to. He can’t screw in a lightbulb.’ ”
Michael agreed with the assessment, and Richard called Ted Peterson, the outstate sports reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, and begged him to hire the kid brother — me — as a copy boy.
When he chose to laugh, Michael had a great laugh, and he laughed that day and said: “It’s amazing how much work you got out of by being worthless.”
On Wednesday night, with hospital visitors limited, I was waiting for the official news that Michael had cashed in those comic books, and also taking in TV reports on the chaos that has again erupted in America — and in sports — after the latest stunning police conduct, this time in Kenosha, Wis.
And I recalled Michael’s tale about Earl Ashby and the shin guard, and thinking a 9-year-old kid was amazed by that in 1949, and 71 years later, as he lay dying, we the people were still there:
Divide to conquer. That’s us.
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