Happy 80th Birthday, Dad
My Dad, George Lederer, turns 80 years old today. Had he lived, Dad would have joined the octogenarian club. However, he barely made it to 50. He died nearly 30 years ago of malignant melanoma.
It was truly an unfortunate set of circumstances that caused his death. He was never correctly diagnosed because he had two forms of cancer whose symptoms disguised each other. Surgeons removed a benign brain tumor in the spring but called the lesion on the back of his head a wen, an unimportant blemish. Instead, it killed him just a few months later. He died on August 14, 1978 at the age of 50.
Dad was a remarkable man. He was born Gert Dagelbert on June 19, 1928, in Offenburg, Germany, the son of Irene and Julius Lederer. My grandfather, known later to us as Opa, owned an electrical supplies business and my grandmother, Omi, worked in the store. The family prospered. Until Hitler. They were forced to take new middle names – Israel for men and Sarah for women – so they could be identified as Jews. Dad's childhood memories consisted of anti-Semitic behavior by his schoolmates and random Gestapo visits at home. The open harrassment hit a new peak in November 1938 when all Jewish males over 18 in Offenburg – Opa included – were rounded up and taken to a concentration camp. My grandfather was eventually released but only after he agreed to sell his business.
Determined to leave Nazi Germany, Julius found a sponsor, a distant cousin of Irene's and a resident of Long Beach, California. Three months after submitting an affadavit, the family's number was called and my grandparents and father landed in New York in May 1939. Each person was allowed to take $55 out of the country so they arrived with $165, some jewelry Irene managed to smuggle out, and the clothes on their backs. Julius and Irene arranged for temporary lodging in New York while they cleaned houses of wealthy Jews to earn bus fare to California.
The family re-located to Long Beach later that summer, just in time for Dad – now known as George David – to go to Horace Mann Elementary School. Unable to speak or write a word of English, Dad was placed into a second grade classroom but caught up with his fellow 11-year-olds in fifth grade before the school term was up. The next year, he decided to become a sportswriter. My father never changed his mind. He was the sports editor of the Wilson High School and Long Beach City College newspapers.
Dad met Patricia Donovan, "a strikingly feminine brunette" as she was later described in a newspaper article and an "A" student, at LBCC in 1948. Engaged in February 1949, they got married that August on my mother's 21st birthday. Dad's parents were none too happy that their son had decided to marry a Catholic girl in St. Cyprian's church. They arranged to be out of town on "vacation" to avoid the whole affair but, under the "if you can't beat them, join them" theory, arrived at the reception at the house that Mom's mother had rented in North Long Beach.
Days before the wedding, Dad was offered a full-time job at The Independent, one of Long Beach's two newspapers. With no car and Dad working nights and Mom days at the Yellow Pages and later for the Board of Education, they made ends meet on about $437 a month. In 1951, they bought a TV and had their first child (Tom). Six months later, my maternal grandmother, who lived in Iowa, died of a stroke at the age of 48 with her two youngest daughters in tow on a trip to California. Being the man that he was, Dad agreed to take in Mom's youngest sisters (ages 10 and 12) and raised them until my maternal grandfather was able to move west. In the meantime, my parents had two more babies (Janet in 1954 and me in 1955). They added a fourth (Gary) in 1962.
Life in the Lederer household took a major turn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Only 29 at the time, Dad was assigned to cover the team even though he had never seen an official major league game. The adjoining photo, taken in February 1958, is one of my favorites. The caption in the local newspaper read: "George Lederer, Independent, Press-Telegram staff reporter, left home office Thursday morning bound for L.A. International Airport and plane that carried him and contingent of Dodgers to the club's spring training home in Vero Beach, Fla. Lederer will give I-PT readers complete coverage of the Dodgers." This article was published a couple of days earlier, inviting readers to "Follow George Lederer" and his exclusive stories in the newspaper.
With Dad on the road half the time, the rest of us followed the Dodgers mostly on the radio. Unable to afford the cost of long-distance phone calls, Dad stayed in touch with us through daily letters that Mom read at dinner time. It was typical for a letter to be postmarked in, say, Cincinnati even though the Dodgers might have proceeded to St. Louis by the time it had arrived via first-class mail. Tom and I attended almost every Sunday game at home and a few night games here and there when we didn't have conflicting ball games of our own. Tom was even fortunate to take a road trip with Dad and the Dodgers.
Dad became President of the Southern California chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America in October 1961 and was named to the BBWAA board of directors in October 1968. As the head of the local chapter of the BBWAA, Dad presented "Miss Dodger" with the winner's trophy after Jimmy Durante crowned her. This photo was on the cover of The Biltmore Hotel magazine during the week of May 19, 1962.
A month earlier, Dad caught the first foul ball in the Dodger Stadium pressbox. The back of the photo is date stamped APR 12 1962. The caption below the Associated Press wirephoto reads, "A 'first' in new Dodger Stadium went to Press-Telegram baseball writer George Lederer, who caught first foul ball hit into press box. He caught it on the fly--barehanded--Wednesday night." Another huge thrill was when Dad traded places with Walt Alston and managed an intra-squad game during spring training.
Under the ownership of Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers were like one big family. The franchise owned an airplane (known as the Kay O' after Mr. O'Malley's wife) and traveled before and after the season to places like Havana, Nassau (1960 and 1963), Jamaica (1961), Puerto Rico (1962), and Japan (1966) with wives included on some of the junkets. St. Patrick's Day always fell during spring training and Mr. O'Malley hosted a big party featuring green beer and poker. Front office executives, manager Walter Alston, coaches, broadcasters, and writers alike wined and dined together, be it in the barracks in Vero Beach or on the road. This photo was taken at the first annual writers' party for the Dodgers at the Golden Ox in Chicago in September 1958. Seated (L to R): Bob Hunter, Walt Alston, Charlie Dressen, Charlie Park, pianist. Standing (L to R): Joe Becker, Frank Finch, George Lederer, Rube Walker, Greg Mulleavy, John B. Old, Alan Roth, Bill Buhler, "Senator" Griffin, Harold (Doc) Wendler. This photo was shot at a dinner event with (L-R) Walt Alston, traveling secretary Lee Scott, Red Patterson, Dad, and Bob Hunter.
As a beat writer for the Dodgers, Dad was one of the four official scorekeepers and served as the team's statistician in the post-Alan Roth days. He was the official scorekeeper when Sandy Koufax threw his perfect game in 1965. Here is his scoresheet. In addition, Dad maintained a "Dodger of the Day" and awarded a trophy to the player with the most Dodger of the Days at the end of the season. At right, he is presenting Sandy Koufax, who was honored in 1963, 1965, and 1966, with the Player of the Year trophy in the dugout before the final home game of the season.
After covering the Dodgers for 11 years, Dad accepted a front office job with the California Angels. Newly appointed general manager Dick Walsh, in one of his first moves, hired him as the club's Director of Public Relations and Promotions in February 1969. He had grown weary of the travel and was ready for a new challenge.
Dad was known as an iron man, someone who never missed a game. In December 1963, Jack Mann of the New York Herald-Tribune made the following comments in prefacing a quote from Dad on Walter Alston: "George Lederer, the best baseball reporter on the West Coast, has covered every inning of the Dodgers for six years."
Hank Hollingworth, Executive Sports Editor of the Independent, Press-Telegram, wrote a column, "George Lederer: He Never Missed."
Nobody has seen more Dodger games since the club transferred to California than George Lederer. He has missed only two contests since 1958 when the club switched to these sunny climes from Brooklyn – and for good reason.
Doug Miles, columnist for the Anaheim Bulletin, wrote the following tribute to Dad when he left the Dodger beat for the Angels front office.
Tonight marks the end of a career for the man whom I consider the finest baseball writer in Southern California, and perhaps it's only one man's personal opinion, but George Lederer, to me, has had no peer in the competitive game of making baseball interesting to the reader.
John Hall wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times about Dad in July 1970 entitled, "Veeck Jr. at Big A":
If any one person is more responsible than any other for the upswing at the gate, though, it is not a ballplayer. It is George Lederer, just a working stiff. He has no pension plan and no Player Assn. to cut his work day to less than five hours. George goes about 18 of every 24.
A year later, Hall devoted another column to Dad.
But above all, it is Lederer who stands out as the most important single force in the Angel pursuit of health and happiness on the attendance meter. He doesn't swing a bat or pitch a ball. Lederer is the Angel public relations and promotion director, a soft-spoken former sportswriter whose quiet manner hardly gives a hint of the electricity constantly bouncing around between his ears.
In the January 8, 1972 issue of The Sporting News, correspondent Dick Miller wrote an article with the following title: "Angels Show Hefty Profit on Lederer's Sharp Promotions."
Lederer may have been California's most valuable player in 1971. As public relations and promotions director, his special nights were directly responsible for putting an additional 206,000 fans into Anaheim Stadium.
Do you think the economics of the game have changed a little bit over the past few decades?
My father's life in baseball was a dream come true. Given his background, one might say an impossible dream come true. But he lived every moment of those years. I like to affectionately call them the Koufax and Ryan years. His timing was perfect. He caught all of Sandy's years in Los Angeles and all but one of Nolan's campaigns in Anaheim. In between, Dad served as a Master of Ceremonies of an event in which he introduced Jackie Robinson and interviewed Roy Campanella. He also received numerous thank you and congratulatory letters from baseball dignitaries and politicians, including Walter O'Malley, Peter O'Malley, and Buzzie Bavasi, as well as President Richard Nixon and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. If it wasn't the Golden Age of Baseball, it was the golden age of his life. He was simply loved by everyone who knew him.
As chronicled last month, my son Joe and I visited Cooperstown. Thanks to Tim Wiles, the Director of Research of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, we were treated to a "behind-the-scenes" tour of the library. We found my Dad's folder directly behind Ricky Ledee's inside one of the filing cabinets in the library of the Hall of Fame. We looked inside, read the clippings, and made copies for my personal use. Man, that was really a special moment for both of us.
The family photo at left is the last one with our Dad. We're all 30 years older now. Can that be? Wow. The clothing, hair, and weight have changed a bit, but that's still my brothers Tom and Gary and my sister Janet standing in the back row, and me with my arm around Mom while she holds hands with the true love of her life (and vice versa). Times change but family and memories last forever. This is a forever moment. It's almost as if it were taken yesterday, a moment frozen in time for all of us to cherish whenever we get the urge.
Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you. I mean, really miss you. It's been a long time. Too long. But we're all doing well. Mom's still going strong. Tom, Janet, Gary, and I are all happily married with good jobs. Your seven grandchildren are growing up. My little Macy even got married last year. And to a great guy. Great grandchildren (in more ways than one) can't be too far off. As I see it, you're alive and well, Dad. Your legacy lives on through all of us. We're all doing our best to make you proud. It's the least we could do. I mean, we couldn't be prouder of you.
Thanks, Dad. Happy Birthday. You're the best.