Marvin LeShane was the cousin of Johnny Merton, who lived on the 500 block of North Euclid Avenue. Johnny described his cousin, who was from Detroit, as the greatest 14-year-old baseball player who ever lived. Merton’s stories really impressed the guys in my neighborhood, so we couldn’t wait to meet this golden boy.
We got our chance in June 1954, when the 6-foot, 180-pound muscular kid came to visit the Merton family. Johnny suggested we all go to the Holmes School baseball diamond to play a game of home run derby. The field was perfect because it had a fence completely around the outfield.
We played home run derby with six guys — a left-fielder, center-fielder, right-fielder, pitcher, catcher and batter. During the course of the derby, each batter would get up to bat 10 times and get three swings. Then after his swings, he and the other players would rotate left. The winner, of course, would be the guy who hit the most home runs over the fence.
Before we started to play, Marv regaled us with stories of his prowess as a ballplayer and in between bragging, he made fun of all of the Chicago pro teams.
When the contest started, Eric Bourne was the first pitcher, Billy Becker, Charlie Mack, and Rich Schu were in the outfield, and Johnny Merton was the catcher — and he wore full catching gear. I did not play because I had broken the ring finger on my left hand two days before the derby.
Out of courtesy, we let Marv bat first. He fouled off two pitches and whiffed on the third pitch. This did not deflate his ego in the least, however. In fact he told us he would blast the first pitch he saw his next time at bat over the centerfield fence (350 feet).
As the contest continued, Charlie Mack smacked three pitches over the left field fence (275 feet). All of them came on pitches dished up by Marvelous Marv. Some of the other guys hit one or two over the fence, but Marv’s bat was silent.
The derby ended after a few hours and Charlie Mack with four homers was the winner.
What about Marvelous Marv? Well, he struck out seven times and the other at bats were either pop-ups or ground balls that would have been easily fielded by a shortstop or a third baseman. He even fell down a few times when he rippled the air, and he dropped three fly balls when he tried to imitate Al Kaline (the Tigers’ right fielder).
At the end of the contest, Marv told us he was certain that Becker and Bourne had thrown spitballs and when Mack and Schu were the catchers, they made him nervous by talking to him when he was at bat. During the derby, I stood by the backstop and I never heard any chatter from either Mack or Schu, and I know none of the guys knew how to throw a spitter.
For a long time, Merton took a real ribbing about his cousin, and on that hot June day 60 years ago, a legend died on the Holmes School baseball diamond.
John Stanger is a lifelong resident of Oak Park, a 1957 graduate of OPRF High School, married with three grown children and five grandchildren, and a retired English professor (Elmhurst College). Living two miles from where he grew up, he hasn’t gotten far in 74 years.