In honor of Major League Baseball's Opening Day, I'd like to share with you my baseball-related "claim to fame". Now don't go getting excited and thinking that my connections to fame will help you meet your favorite Detroit Tiger or Texas Ranger. My claim, while true, is pretty mild as far as these things go (unless you're a huge baseball fan), which is why I placed the phrase in quotes.
My great-grandfather's name was Herbert Bruce Mueller. I called him Pop Pop, and though I don't really remember him - he passed away when I was very young - I understand him to have been a kind and generous man.
When Pop Pop's son - my grandfather, Russ - passed away, my dad began sorting through family documents and researching his family tree. My dad was shocked to learn that Pop Pop was not Russ's biological father and therefore not his biological grandfather (or my biological great-grandfather). Russ's biological father was actually a man named Roy Van Graafleiland.
Roy was a professional baseball umpire in the American League during a time when almost all baseball games were played during the day. After each three-to-four game series, the players, coaches, umpires, and groupies would board a train together and travel to the next city on their schedule. These train rides took place primarily at night, and likely involved a fair amount of drinking and carousing.
Roy's wife and Russ's mother, Marian, was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Marian's father didn't approve of Roy's behavior while he was on the road, and eventually Marian's family convinced her to divorce Roy, which was considered quite a scandal in the 1920's.
When Russ was about eight years old, Marian married Pop Pop and they immediately changed Russ and his little sister, Fay's, last name from Van Graafleiland to Mueller. Back then, very few legal documents were required so changing one's name was not as difficult or time-consuming as it is today.
That would have been the end of the story except that when Russ qualified for Social Security, he needed his birth certificate to prove his identity and eligibility. He couldn't produce a birth certificate that said "Russ Mueller", only one that said "Russ Van Graflan" (Roy changed his name from Van Graafleiland to Van Graflan for ease of spelling in the newspapers). After Russ produced his income tax/W-2 information, military service records, and marriage certificate and after about six months of discussion, he was finally granted his US pension.
Russ never spoke of Roy, likely because of his close relationship to Pop Pop and the fact that the extended family never thought very highly of Roy. Russ did, however, speak of a baseball that had been given to him...a baseball that had been autographed by the 1927 Yankees, arguably the best baseball team of all-time. Unfortunately someone disposed of or discarded the baseball - which would likely be worth at least a few thousand dollars today - many years ago.
Throughout the course of my dad's research (most of which was done before the internet) we learned that Roy was something of a famous umpire, playing an important role in one of the most well-known baseball games of all time. Roy was the umpire behind home plate for Babe Ruth's called shot in game three of the 1932 World Series. As I understand it, there's always been some debate over whether or not Babe pointing toward the outfield was actually him predicting that his next hit would be a home run, but Roy stated that Babe looked over at the Cubs bench and said, "let him put this one over and I'll knock it over the wall out there".
So here's to Major League Baseball, to Opening Day, to all the players and coaches and umpires and groupies, and last but not least, to the great-grandpa who stepped up to the plate and raised another man's little boy as his own.