"O.K., Max! Thanks."
I was so happy that I hadn't lost his friendship over my flirtation with tobacco that I threw my remaining cigars into the gutter. The next day my new friend and I spent a couple of hours at Max's place. We sat in the den, surrounded by his memorabilia, and talked. It was very relaxed as Max reminisced. He treated us as adults, probably because he knew that that was important to us as we struggled through our early teens.
He was concerned that we both progress to Babe Ruth League baseball the next season. We both said we would. We talked golf. I'd become one of the better young golfers at Land Park. As we were leaving, Max said that he'd play golf with me in the spring. The prospect of that was exciting to me. I felt grown up. Just before he said goodby he reminded us to watch him on TV when he'd be refereeing a fight in a couple of weeks. We said that we would for sure and that we'd see him before Christmas just to say hello.
Dad, Mom and I watched the Zora Folley—Alonzo Johnson fight on Nov. 18, 1959. We didn't care who won. Max was the ref and stole the show—at least as far as we were concerned. Three days later, early on a Saturday morning, the phone rang before 8 a.m. It was for me. That wasn't supposed to happen. Dad had told all my friends not to call before 10 on weekends. Mom led me into their room to take the call. My thoughts were on the trouble I was in for having an early caller. Then I picked up the phone, and my friend Ted Jury broke the awful news:
"Tim, I just heard it on the radio. Max died this morning." Ted was crying. He never cried, because he was 14 and tough, so I knew it was true. I was absolutely crushed. I told my parents and they cried, too. Within a hour or two the whole city was mourning the loss of Max.
I immediately sensed that my childhood was over. By coincidence, we moved to Fresno three weeks later and it would be 12 years before I returned to Sacramento to live. I did go back a few times in those intervening years to visit the old neighborhood. It was, of course, always fun to see friends, but there was a void that could never be filled.
I never got a picture or an autograph of Max. It didn't dawn on me to do so, even though I had a huge collection of autographs of famous athletes. Max was my friend. I didn't need his signature. He was always there to play with or talk to. He left me a wealth of warm memories that wouldn't be augmented in the least if I had more tangible evidence of our friendship.
The old neighborhood looks nearly identical to the way it did then. The only difference from 30 years ago is that the Stop & Shop is deserted. I shopped there with Mom a lot. I got my first hundred haircuts there. I met Max Baer there in 1951. Because of that it somehow seems fitting that the store stands dark and locked.