Almost certainly, operating the “B&F Café” in tiny Alleman, provided just enough income for Fritz and Bessie Culp to keep their heads above water.
Only during spring planting and fall harvest did farmers stop by for a quick noon lunch. Even then, if a dozen home-cooked meals were served, it was a banner day.
Most of the tiny café’s business came a penny at a time from the few kids who lived in Alleman. It was there that 3-cent candy bars, penny baseball cards, and 6-cent bottles of pop went out the door as often as kids had enough money to buy them.
Although “B&F Café” hung on a sign above the front door, most everyone in town called the joint “Bessie’s” because it was Bessie who ran the place. Fritz (real name Fred) was rarely seen.
About the only time you’d see much of Fritz was during the Spring and Fall, when Alleman High School played its baseball games. School consolidation was still on the horizon and few small Iowa towns had football; baseball was played in both Spring and Fall.
Fritz was hired by the school to be the umpire its home games. I doubt Fritz was paid much, if anything, to fulfill that task, but it was his way of “giving back” to the community.
I thought it was pretty neat to see Fritz standing out there on the field calling balls and strikes, safes and outs.
Fritz performed the task from a spot behind the pitcher. From there he called each pitch and from there he made rulings on close plays at every base. In those days, umpiring from behind the pitcher was not uncommon. Quite a few small towns had umpires who made their calls from behind the mound. Umpires who worked the game behind the catcher had to have their own face masks and chest protectors; not all could afford those luxuries.
The few kids my age who lived in town would flock to the ball diamond on game days. To us, the Alleman Wildcats were the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees and whatever other team was a personal favorite.
At one of those early 1950s contests, I saw Fritz raise his right hand and say “strike one.” The next pitch brought a resounding “strike two” from Fritz.
It was then I heard someone from behind the backstop yell something like, “Hey, Homer, you missed that one.”
“Homer?” I thought. “Who’s Homer.”
I looked around for the only Homer I knew – the Post Master. But, he wasn’t there.
The fan, however, kept up shouting the name “Homer.” It wasn’t long before I discovered he was yelling at Fritz out there behind the pitcher.
Naturally, I thought, it must be someone from out of town. Everyone in Alleman knew Fritz.
“C’mon, Homer. Get in the game.”
“Hey, Homer, you’re missing a good game out there.”
“Hey, Homer, have an idea.”
Finally, I said something to one of the teachers there, suggesting that perhaps I should go over and let the man know he was yelling at Fritz, not Homer.
Thankfully, the teacher took time to explain that “Homer” was just something the fan was yelling because he thought Fritz wasn’t being completely unbiased in his rulings on balls and strikes.
I couldn’t understand. To everyone in Alleman, Fritz was a gentle, quiet man about 70 years old. His eyesight was good enough to read – I’d seen him do it, holding the morning paper at arm’s length, bringing it nearer, then moving it away from him again.
I don’t remember exactly when ol’ Fritz gave up his umpiring duties.
I just remember all of us in Alleman were sad to see him go. We kinda liked ol’ “Homer.”
(Bill Haglund is a writer for Stephens Media.)