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Fred Weber: The Far-reaching, Left-handed First Baseman

“Eat. Sleep. Play ball.” Those were the words Frederick J. Weber lived by for more than a decade. Now living in Door County, Weber was born in Sheboygan, Wis., during the height of baseball season in July of 1929. It’s no coincidence he fell in love with the sport at an early age.

Weber’s fascination with baseball began at the age of three, when a ball was placed in his hands to keep him from moving while being photographed. Little did he know at the time that the seed of his future career in baseball was planted that day.

Now in the last inning of his life, Weber’s memories of his career as a professional baseball player have been rejuvenated through the creation of a “Wall of Fame” in his home. It showcases interesting memorabilia, including a photo of him listening intently to instructions from his first role model and inspiration, former major league ball player Joe Hauser.

Weber is now eager to share his baseball history with kids throughout the Door County community.

Fred gets the baseball bug while holding a ball during a photo session at age 3.

Fred gets the baseball bug while holding a ball during a photo session at age 3.

“When I look back, baseball has been a common thread throughout my entire life,” Weber recounts, realizing the game’s impact on his major life decisions. His fascination with the game grew into his passion after Hauser, then coach for the Sheboygan Indians, threw him a left-handed glove that was abandoned by one of his players at the end of the season.

“Hauser knew I couldn’t afford my own glove and it was his way of showing me I had potential,” said Weber. He chose to follow in the footsteps of his idol by also becoming a left-handed first baseman.

“There was no organized high school baseball team, which meant there was no formal training or practice,” Weber said. As a result, he was forced to learn the sport from his uncle, a local tavern owner, and fellow “tavern league” players in their 20s and 30s.

At the age of 18, Weber signed on with the Oshkosh Giants for one season. Ironically, he and Hauser became rivals when the Sheboygan Indians lost after Weber hit a home run for the Giants and won the game. “He knew I couldn’t hit low balls and would nervously holler, ‘At the knees!’ to his pitcher whenever I came to bat,” Weber said, while recalling the impression he had made on his idol as a formidable opponent.

Fourteen-year-old Fred and friends get a lesson from Fred’s baseball idol, Joe Hauser.

Fourteen-year-old Fred and friends get a lesson from Fred’s baseball idol, Joe Hauser.

Shortly before Hauser passed away in 1997 at the age of 98, Weber visited him in a nursing home in Sheboygan. He brought a picture of them to autograph that appeared in the Sheboygan Press back in 1942. With all his fame and a lifetime of involvement in the sport, Hauser never forgot Weber, and summed him up by signing it with one word: “Lefty.”

In 1949, Weber moved to Florida to play for the Sanford Giants near Orlando, accompanied by his new wife Hildegarde, who had been his high school sweetheart. He signed up to play for them for one year, but broke his ankle mid-season.

In 1950, in what remains one of the highlights of his career, Weber was sent to the New York Giants’ ballpark for three days before heading off to Idaho Falls to play with the Pioneer League. While there, he wore an unnumbered Giants uniform, took in some batting practice, and caught some throws at first base around the same time left-handed first baseman Tookie Gilbert took on his $50,000 signing bonus. As Weber was leaving the field and heading toward the clubhouse, an adoring female fan shouted out to him, “Tookie! Give me your autograph!” to which Weber hesitantly replied, “I’m not Tookie – I’m nobody!” She quickly retorted, “Give me your autograph anyway. One day you might be famous!” Feeling a sudden brush with fame, Weber happily obliged, thinking to himself, “I could get used to this.”

In reality, Weber had no signing bonus, earned $200 per month, had an altercation with his coach in Idaho, and was on a bus back to Wisconsin within two months. In Idaho, Weber came to the realization that there was no way he would make it to the major leagues, considering only one in 50 minor league players make the cut, so he gave up on his dream of playing baseball professionally ever again – or so he thought.

Taking a swing

Hanging up his glove, Weber returned to Sheboygan with no formal education and as a result, was forced into working multiple factory jobs to earn a living. In 1951, he was drafted into the Army, but chose to enlist in the Navy for four years instead. To his surprise, the Navy had baseball leagues, where he initially managed one at the Naval Base in Atlantic City, N.J. He was transferred to Memphis and then to Pensacola, Fla., where he played on the Navy’s All Star Team for nearly three seasons and earned as many trophies.

In 1955, his military career ended and Weber and his wife returned to Sheboygan, where he climbed telephone poles for Wisconsin Bell. His strong and sturdy frame, far-reaching arms, and manual dexterity served him well, but he knew he couldn’t do hard, manual labor for long. The work was more dangerous than a fastball and riskier than stealing a base, so he opted to become a foreman and later was promoted to the engineering department. He was transferred to offices in Ashland, Superior, and lastly to Fond du Lac, where he completed his 30-year career with “Ma Bell” before retiring to Door County at the ripe young age of 57.

While in Ashland and Superior, Weber coached little league baseball for two years and one event left an indelible impression upon him. An 11-year old boy from a poor family wanted to be part of the team, but was not a good player and couldn’t always make practice. “I picked him up from his home and told the other players that the boy deserved a chance and should be placed in the outfield,” Weber recalled. During a play that was just shy of miraculous, a fly ball soared in the boy’s direction and landed smack in his glove. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Weber reminisced, tearing up each time he tells the story. “The other players clapped and cheered, and the boy grinned from ear to ear. It was probably the highlight of his life – and a lesson to the other ball players that everyone deserves a chance.”

Like a spectator, Weber continued to watch his life unfold and little did he know that the best years of his life would be spent in retirement in Door County, mostly because, he said, “My wife had never been happier.” They enjoyed 20 years of retirement bliss together, building their home from the ground up and enjoying the company of visitors. In 2005, however, life threw him a curve ball when his beloved Hildegarde passed away. Since then, Fred has been involved with his church, family and friends, but has had nothing to do with baseball – until recently.

Fred Weber

As his caregiver, I entered Fred’s life in late 2015 and knew his story needed to be told. The spark of inspiration was ignited when I saw a rectangular red, narrow sign above the window in his bathroom that read, “Eat. Sleep. Play ball.” Relocated to his dining room and now surrounded by photos, it has become the centerpiece of his “Wall of Fame,” dedicated to his professional baseball career. No longer hidden, scattered, in shoeboxes and in dusty old photo albums and scrapbooks, I worked closely with Fred to frame and hang old photos, contracts and newspaper clippings. A hutch that previously housed rarely used China dishes now displays memorabilia, including his monogrammed bat, gloves, balls, trophies, cleats, and even a worn-out old sock. He welcomes visitors, particularly school children interested in baseball, and is eager to tell his stories to anyone who lends an ear.

One of his favorite memories to recount is from a photograph taken when he was 14 years old and in the first inning of his life. The picture shows him reaching high over his head, his mother watching him in the background with her arms folded. He was showing her just what it took to be a first baseman: the ability to reach far in all directions to catch the ball. Little did he know at the time that he would have such a far-reaching impact on the lives of so many people throughout his life – both on the baseball diamond and off.

Susan M. Kennedy, MA, MTA, is a freelance writer and sustainable tourism specialist who works across the globe and is based in Door County. She is also a caregiver for Fred through Home Instead Senior Care and grew up in Appleton. Susan can be reached through her website at susankennedy.org.

Fred Weber, 86, currently resides in Sister Bay. All requests for visitation can be made via email to: [email protected].

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