Picture a slim, beardless ruddy-cheeked Swedish Santa Claus in a slate blue business suit and brightly striped bow tie with the rough, gnarled hands of a catcher. It's Al Erle, the benevolent czar of semi-pro baseball in San Francisco for more than a half-century until his death at 95 in 1978.
Al reigned from behind a counter in the sporting goods department of a popular men's clothing store, Hirsh & Price, on the edge of the largely Italian North Beach neighborhood that had sent the DiMaggios, Joe, Vince and Dom, to the Major Leagues, and Crosetti, Lazzeri, Lodigiani and others.
The pungent leather smell from gloves heaped on tables in a mass of brown and black and yellow leather hung in the air like incense. And there, right at the top of the six steps you climbed to Al's domain , were the bats, rack upon rack of them. Few could resist the temptation to try them out, to circle a bat in a blurred arc under the harsh overhead lights that reflected in the lightly varnished white or brown ash.
Stark white and rich pearl gray uniforms hung like robes aside the bats, crushed against each other on hangars across an entire wall, some with royal blue piping and lettering, some trimmed in crimson, some in navy, some in black. Stacks of matching caps swayed on a nearby table. Glossy white balls and other magical tools of our trade-to-be sat in overflowing glass showcases, waiting to be fondled.
Most of the many semi-pro teams in San Francisco and the city's suburbs bought their uniforms and equipment from Al Erle. He in turn performed the extremely complicated task of putting together the schedules for the hundreds of games the teams played every week, and he was forever arranging dinners and other fund-raising affairs, as well as presiding over the popular San Francisco Old Timers Baseball Association that he co-founded in 1941.
Al perched on a stool in a corner talking quietly with a seemingly endless flow of visitors and customers, his courtly manner, if not his scarred hands, belying his background as a catcher for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and other teams in the rough-and-tumble of professional baseball early in the 20th century. All the while, he'd be peering intently over his glasses at piles of paper strewn across the top of the showcase in front of him and scribbling notes as he sorted through them.
“Throwing a curve to a hitter like that with two balls on him? No son, I wouldn't do that. You'd be much better off, if you don't mind my saying so, just laying that fine fastball of yours right in there. Yes, I think that might be the best strategy. Lay it right in there. Odds are, with your stuff, he's not going to do much with it.”
Al turns to the manager of a semi-pro team. “I could bring the price down a little if you could see your way clear to buying a dozen...Ah, but wait a minute here. Your club's just starting up, I'm sure we can get the price down a little anyway. But don't tell anybody, now….”
Up steps an eager, much younger customer. “Son,” Al tells him, “you'd be better off with the long-fingered model. That's what a pitcher needs to hide the ball. And look here. It's cheaper than that infielder's model with the short fingers....”
Al turns to the other side of the room.
“My,” he says, “that's a nice swing, You handle the bat like Ping Bodie...Never heard of Ping Bodie? Well, let me tell you…”
The telephone next to Al rings; it's always ringing. “Hold a minute, please, Jim. Al sorts through his papers, meanwhile continuing his discourse on the hitting skills of old-time San Francisco Seal Ping Bodie. “Right, Jim, you'll Healdsburg on Sunday up there and they'll play a return game with you at Big Rec two weeks after that....”
Al knew just about anyone who counted in San Francisco baseball, at every level: Joe Cronin, by then manager of the American League's Boston Red Sox, but also Joe Burton, manager of the Owl Drug Store team in the city.
Al was, as the sportswriters often described him, “a walking encyclopedia of baseball. “They often called him “legendary” as well and rightly so. He could recall the days before the turn of the 20th century when he and others, including even catchers, played barehanded or close to it. He could tell you about the great professional players of those early days but also about many of the professional prospects playing on local semi-pro teams. That heavy hitting left fielder on the Gordon Realty team, for instance, the slick shortstop for Johnnie's Billiards, and so many others who owed so much to Al's help.
It was rare for a professional team to sign a local ballplayer without getting a recommendation from Al Erle, and he was definitely the man to see if you were looking for a team to play on, pro or semi-pro.
“Sure,” he assured by buddy Bob and me, “I can find you something for the summer.”
“For pay?” I dared ask.
Al smiled gently, and rummaged swiftly through his papers. “Sure, for pay.”
Ten bucks a game, plus easy jobs at a lumber mill paying better than three-hundred a month. We were going to get paid for playing ball! We were on the way, surely, to the New York Yankees, first stop Boonville, California the Boonville Loggers of the semi-professional Mendocino County League.
Sure, it didn't quite work out that way, but we had a great time trying to make it happen — the time of a lifetime, thanks to Al Erle, and his lifetime devotion to the greatest game of all.