Monday, January 30, 2012

Uncle Ben

Last week I posted the story of Ed Duskey, whose Duskey Brothers service station sponsored a baseball team in the 1930's. Here's a story about one of the players on that team.
My Dad's Uncle Ben
Everybody has boxes of old photos that probably should have been sorted and put into albums. My family is no exception. When I was a kid, we had several boxes of old black and white family photos from my father's side of the family.

Grandpa Esterle – my Dad's grandfather – had owned a camera, and pretty much shot anything and everything. Thus we had lots of old photos of my Dad as a baby in the early 1920's, plus tons of photos of Esterle family get-togethers in Lorain and Cleveland.

The photos are all labeled and sorted now. But back in the 1960's, they were still a big mess. The big box of photos would be brought out from time to time, usually on a rainy day when we were bored and stuck indoors. Then, my siblings and I would pick through them, pointing to unfamiliar faces on tiny, yellowing prints and inevitably repeating the same refrain to my mother: "Who's that?" Most of the time, we weren't particularly interested in the answer.

But there were a few photos of a ballplayer, and these weren't tiny snapshots like the rest. They were formal studio portraits. My brothers and I wondered: did we have a major leaguer in the family?

"That's your father's Uncle Ben," Mom explained. She wasn't sure what team he played on or when, but it wasn't a major league team. Consequently, my brothers and I would lose interest and move on to the next photo.

It wasn't until much later that I learned the story of Uncle Ben.

Uncle Ben (left) and Uncle Fred
Grandpa Esterle had moved his family from Hungary to Lorain in 1905, coming through Ellis Island like so many other families, so he could get a job in the steel mill. While his daughter (my Dad's mother) and his other son (my Dad's Uncle Fred) were born in the old country, Uncle Ben was born right here in Lorain in 1906.

Uncle Ben's story isn't all that different from many others in Lorain. He grew up, and graduated from Lorain High School in 1924. Along the way, he became a pretty good athlete. He was a catcher for several of Lorain's leading amateur baseball teams, including the Duskey Brothers Class A baseball team. (In 1934 the team represented Lorain in the National Baseball Federation tournament in Cleveland.)

More important than Uncle Ben's athletic accomplishments, however, was the close bond he had with my father. Since Dad's father worked on the railroad and was away much of the time, Uncle Ben filled a big void in his life.

Dad had lots of Grandpa Esterle stories, and many of them included Uncle Ben also. Once, Uncle Ben brought home a big turtle he had apparently found. Since Grandpa Esterle liked pets, he drilled a hole in the turtle's shell and they tied him up outside, just like a dog.

Uncle Ben and my father as boy
During Prohibition, Grandpa Esterle made beer and whiskey. Once, someone tipped him off that his house was going to be raided the next day. Naturally, Grandpa Esterle and Uncle Ben did what they had to do: drink as much of the homemade brew as they could the night before.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the raid didn't occur.

Like his father, Uncle Ben got a job at the mill as a pipefitter. Later, he married Ruth, his sweetheart. They began their life together in a house that Grandpa Esterle owned on W. 30th Street.

The future looked bright for Uncle Ben. But then tragedy struck at the steel mill.

On February 28, 1937, Uncle Ben and several other workers in the shipping department were draining oil out of a cast iron reservoir. They were using compressed air to force oil out of the reservoir.

The side of the reservoir blew out, and during the explosion one of the many flying pieces of cast iron struck Uncle Ben in the head. He suffered a 14-inch fracture through the top of his skull, and the side of his head was crushed. After lying in a coma for 25 hours, he died in St. Joseph Hospital.

He was thirty years old, and had only been married for six months. More than 400 people attended his funeral. His former teammates were active and honorary pall bearers.

My father took it very hard. His mother later told my Mom that he rode his bike out to Elmwood Cemetery often to visit his Uncle Ben's grave.

Uncle Ben's widow remarried four years after his death, and she and her new husband lived in a house on East Erie Avenue.

I saw her outside the house in the 1990's, wearing a house dress and pulling weeds. I briefly considered stopping and introducing myself. But too many years had passed since the tragic accident.

She lived to the ripe old age of 93 and passed away in 2006.

After Uncle Ben died, Grandpa Esterle rented out the house on W. 30th Street to other tenants. Later, he gave the house to my parents when they got married. 
More than sixty years after the accident that claimed Uncle Ben's life, my Dad still couldn't talk about it.  He only wanted to remember the happy times. In the last few years before he died, his face would still light up when he was talking about the good times with Grandpa Esterle and Uncle Ben.
Since I go out to Elmwood Cemetery now to visit my father's grave, I try to swing by and pay my respects to Uncle Ben as well. He's buried in a single plot next to his widow and her second husband.


Today, I am constantly reminded of Uncle Ben. There's Uncle Ben® Brand rice that I buy regularly. Even Peter Parker – Spider-Man – had an Uncle Ben that died tragically.

But, like my Dad – with the exception of this post – I don't dwell on the sadness associated with his uncle. I'd much rather chuckle at the silly stories that Dad told me about his mother's family, all filled with warmth and love, all played out against the backdrop of the Lorain of the past.


Dorene from Ohio said...

What a beautiful tribute to your Uncle Ben!

Dan Brady said...

Thanks, Dorene! I was thinking of you and your website yesterday when I was writing this because I almost put a shot of his headstone on there!

Ken said...

Thanks Dan.

Dorene from Ohio said...

Dan, My Hungarian ancestors mostly stayed in Erie County. They worked at the Medusa Cement factory, and they worked really hard. The younger generations loved your post really hit home.