The Fabulous Fisher Family November 6, 2013

The one thing you don’t want to hear about your writing is somebody saying, “There’s all sorts of stuff in there that’s wrong.”

But when I called up Mary Lou Fisher, that’s what she said about my e-book, Contender: Triumph, Tragedy and Canadian Baseball Player Harry Fisher.

Technically, Mary Lou is the widow of Harry Fisher’s nephew, Lewis Fisher. But we’re talking about a big, spread-out farm family,

Harry Fisher as a young ballplayer

Harry Fisher as a young ballplayer

and when her husband Lew was born in 1928, his Uncle Harry was a toddler. The two grew up together in the baseball-crazy Fisher family, and Lew made it to the minor leagues himself. In fact, it was to talk about her husband’s baseball career that I gave her a call at her antique shop, Bittersweet, in Farmington, Pennsylvania.

Had she known Harry well?

“I always thought Lew and Harry were the two handsomest men I’d ever seen,” Mary Lou said. “And two of the biggest liars.”

Okay. The pictures show Harry’s blond good looks. But had some of his—let’s call them exaggerations—made it into family lore I’d been told by other relatives? What did I get wrong?

“Harry never played ball in Hollywood,” Mary Lou said. “He never met all those movie stars, nothing like that.”

Well, actually Harry’s career as a pitcher with the Hollywood Stars is well-documented in baseball references and period newspapers. In fact, one contemporary sportswriter agreed with part of Mary Lou’s assessment in calling Harry “the handsome Hollywood hurler.” I’d also talked to first baseman Chuck Stevens, who’d played with Harry in Hollywood, and Mr. Stevens has fond memories of their time among the movie stars. Groucho Marx kibitzing on the bench after batting practice. Glen Ford inviting them to weekend barbecues.

“Well, I never heard that,” Mary Lou said.

Perhaps because his surviving baseball friends remember Harry as a quiet man?

“Both Harry and Lew had outgoing natures,” she said. “Maybe Harry had to fight to be top dog in his family, there were so many of them and he was the youngest. But he was very outgoing, very talkative.”

So here you get the kind of differing interpretations that make it so hard to pin down both contemporary news and historical narrative. And that’s before you fold in the contradictions in human nature. To a man, ballplayers who knew Harry remember him as quiet, and his niece Arlie Fisher Gibson—about the same age as Lew and Harry—said he was a good listener, not a talker. Harry would come home to southwestern Ontario during his years in baseball, Arlie told me, and instead of telling tales about his glamorous career, he’d sit at the kitchen table asking questions about old friends.

Yet maybe Harry could relax with Lew Fisher. Not only had they known each other all their lives, both had aspired to professional baseball careers. Maybe he was talkative among his closest male friends.

I wondered about the real Harry Fisher.

And what about Lew?

 

baseballMary Lou Fisher agrees that Fisher family life revolved around baseball. Harry Fisher and his eight brothers and sisters grew up playing pick-up games together, she said, or hitting the ball around with players from the nearby Moraviantown reserve, members of the Lenape nation of the Delaware people.

Other relatives recall the Fisher brothers playing in a local county league with the Moraviantown team, but there’s no reason they couldn’t have played pick-up, too. As the second generation grew up—including Mary Lou’s husband, Lewis—the Fishers could field two full teams of remarkably good ballplayers during family reunions southeast of London. They were athletic and, according to their cousin and my mother-in-law, Mary Knox, uniformly courteous.

Lewis Fisher was a pitcher, like Harry. I first heard about Lew from his sister, Leona Fisher Webster, who contacted me when my e-book about Harry came out, and later put me in touch with Mary Lou. Leona said that she’d played baseball herself, “but I didn’t have the talent they had. I know my mother had a fit when I would go out and catch my brother. He was a southpaw, and he threw hard.”

Most the Fisher brothers never made it out of the county leagues. But Lew Fisher took his fastball to the London Majors in 1947, aged 19.

“Now it’s a miracle if a pitcher pitches nine innings,” Leona said. “I remember my brother pitching both games of a double-header in London. He won the first and lost the second, 1-0.”

Lew was picked up in London by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and since he was still underage, Leona remembers their father signing the contract. Mary Lou says the signing fee was $500, a good chunk of change in those days. In 1948, Lew reported to the Davenport Pirates, where he joined Harry on the pitching roster.

It wasn’t long before Harry was called up to the New Orleans Pelicans, where he pitched well and slugged for power. Before long, Harry would make the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting his time in the Show, his glory days, his ride on the tilt-a-whirl.

For Lew, it was a different story. In 1948, he headed to Pennsylvania to pitch for the Pirate-affiliated Uniontown Coal Barons. It was a life-changing move. He met Mary Lou, a local girl who, in her words, “wasn’t sports minded.” Lew first asked her to marry him in July, they got engaged in August and were married in October.

Lew’s sister Leona has a story about her brother’s time on the Coal Barons. Gambling was so rife in Pennsylvania, she said, Lew had to be escorted to and from the stadium by police to prevent gamblers from trying to bribe him into throwing games.

“We could go to the games, but we couldn’t holler for Lew. The gamblers weren’t supposed to know who we were, that we had a connection, so they could put on the pressure. My sister-in-law couldn’t go to the games at all. It was a bit dangerous in Pennsylvania back then.”

Mary Lou doesn’t remember it that way. She remembers gambling, and people betting on Lew’s performance, but no police and no danger. She didn’t go to many of Lew’s games over the years because she eventually had three children at home.

“We got married October 9, 1948,” she remembers precisely. “And on October 19, 1949, we had our son.”

But if Lew pitched for the Coal Barons in the summer of 1948?

 

In January of 1949, Lewis and Mary Lou Fisher moved to Ontario, where he spent another season with the London Majors. A year later, he got his big chance, receiving the call to attend spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was Lew’s brief taste of glory. He roomed with legendary pitcher Bob Friend, hurt his ankle and went home, his friendprofessional career over almost before it began.

Or so he said at the time.

“I have a grandson who’s crazy about sports,” Mary Lou said. “A couple of years ago, he talked to Bob Friend, who remembered Lew well. He said Lew didn’t hurt his ankle. He missed his wife and baby.

“I know he also talked to a player and his wife who said you couldn’t live off the salary they paid, not with a family. You needed something else.”

It’s hard to believe these days, when even grunt ballplayers earn several hundred thousand dollars a year, that a southpaw with a good arm would give up his chance at a professional baseball career. Even in the 1950s, most players in the Big Leagues earned about seven times the salary of the average working man.

Leona Fisher says that when Lew first hung up his cleats, their father received two or three phone calls a week from Joe L. Brown, whom she remembers as an investor in the Pirates. In fact, Brown was business manager of the Waco Pirates farm team. The son of Hollywood actor Joe. E. Brown (Some Like It Hot), the younger Brown would become general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955 and stay until the end of the 1976 season.

“He begged my Dad not to let him quit,” Leona said. “But my brother told my husband he was sick of life on the road.”

Instead, Lew went down the mines. Mary Lou’s father was a Pennsylvania coal miner, and he got Lew a job. After a few years underground, Lew took a course in landscape design and opened his own landscaping company, which he ran for the rest of his life.

“He was always a hard worker,” Mary Lou said. A man, she would add in a mild, off-the-record anecdote, who didn’t often take the Lord’s name in vain.

Lew Fisher continued to play baseball recreationally in Uniontown. Mary Lou remembers scouts coming to their house, saying he was a far better pitcher than anyone in the Big 10 Uniontown leagues. He could have had a career, they said. Yet whatever his reasons, he chose not to try.

“I told him to make the decision,” Mary Lou said. “I told him, I will never say anything one way or the other. You have to decide whether you’re going to go.”

A pause.

“I didn’t want to be blamed for it later.”

 

So what about Harry Fisher, who decided to give baseball his best shot, and kept pitching for more than 20 years?

Mary Lou Fisher still vividly remembers the time Harry phoned Lew to say he’d been called up to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

harryfisher-cover“Lew stuttered sometimes on the phone. He did back then. We got him over it. I heard him stuttering and then he hung up and told me, ‘Harry’s going to the Pirates.’

“I said, ‘How could you tell, you were stuttering so badly. You couldn’t have heard a thing.’

“He said, ‘He stuttered just as bad, so it got through.’”

Harry played baseball from coast to coast to coast in the U.S., married twice, suffered painful losses, and finally quit baseball in 1959. He had his adventures in spades. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what Mrs. Fisher meant when she told me that both Lew and Harry were liars.

“They just lied,” she said. “Lew lied even when it didn’t even make any difference. It was just easier. They got that from his father. He told whoppers.”

Signifying what?

“They were just very good liars,” she said.

After running his landscaping company for 50 years, Lew died in February, 2012, suffering from lung cancer and emphysema for eight years before dying of pneumonia.

The mines? I asked.

“Cigarettes,” she said. Lew’s father and his Uncle Murray, his father’s brother, both died of lung cancer, too. “They’re smokers up in Canada.”

And Harry? Here’s where a mistake might have crept into print, although it’s hard to be sure. Harry died a suicide at 55, and other family members told me that he killed himself in a hotel room, as the local newspaper reported. Harry’s sister Maude, now 93, thinks he was depressed, having no one to talk to about his extraordinary life. Arlie Fisher Gibson, a niece of Harry’s age, believes he was suffering from cancer, given the cancer in the family. As an athlete, he wasn’t willing to let his body collapse.

According to Mary Lou, he gassed himself in his car. Her son was in Canada at the time, and he told her that Harry used a hose attached to the exhaust pipe.

One thing a couple of old ballplayers remembered: Harry loved cars.

I wondered if Mary Lou knew why he’d done it.

“I heard he was out a lot of money from gambling,” she said. “But I don’t think anyone ever really knew.”

An outgoing man, remarkably handsome, a liar, a talker, a gambler who was finally caught out.

A quiet man, courteous and well liked by other ballplayers, fond of cars and leather jackets, unable to push his career forward and later beset by regrets.

If the truth is always somewhere in between, then Harry Fisher was truly a complex man.

“I remember one time Lew and Harry played against one another up in Canada, maybe in Kitchener,” Mary Lou told me. “Lew pitched to Harry and hit him three times. After the game, his wife and I kept our heads down. But they just laughed.”