Re:My Year in Roadfood (2012)
Wed, 01/30/13 3:09 PM
Thanks for the get well wishes! Continuing on my with some of my favorite experiences of 2012..... Back in January, TheTravelinMan let me know he was coming to Pittsburgh for the weekend. He has been here often enough that I am running out of cool touristy places to take him. Knowing he is a big baseball fan, I suggested the Roberto Clemente Musuem and he immediately responded that sounded like a great idea. After an excellent lunch at Tessaro's for some of the best burgers in the country (One of these days, either Ralph or I need to send in a formal Roadfood review, because it really is that good), TTM, my buddy Mike and I drove to the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh where the museum is located. Owner Duane Rieder is a photographer who developed a relationship with the Clemente family and they donated much of what is on display. The building is a beautiful old restored firehouse and yes, the pole is still there! The museum is open by appointment only and there were a few other small groups joining us. I had assumed that Duane would be leading the tour, but instead, a small older man with a thick accent arrived and was introduced to us as Les Banos. He had been the team photographer for the Pirates and was a very close personal friend of Roberto. Here is a photo of Les with Roberto back in the day and Les on the day of our visit. It was a very relaxed leisurely tour, with Les showing us the memorabilia and many of the photographs, which of course he taken himself and had since donated to the museum. If all we did was look at some signed balls and some dusty old photographs, then we still would have had a fun afternoon. But, it was so much more because of the stories. Because of their friendship, Les was able to tell us what Roberto the person was really like. He is so deified here in Pittsburgh, that it is easy to forget that he was a real person, with problems and faults just like anyone else. And Les had countless great stories and through these it was still obvious that he admired the man. Just every kid growing up in Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico did. Some of the stories I was familiar with, but most were completely new to me. Like when the Pirates were on the road in San Diego and Roberto got kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car. Once the bad guys realized who he was, they dropped him back off at the hotel, apologizing the whole way. By the way, Les was originally supposed to be on the plane to Managua, Nicaragua that carried earthquake relief supplies that crashed and killed Roberto. With the years that he was around Major League Baseball, he had also become friends with many of the other great players. And he had plenty of fun stories about them, too. To the surprise of no one, Les said Ernie Banks and Stan Musial were just as nice in real life as they appeared. I was a little surprised to hear such good things about Willie Mays, who was known to be a little cranky. His story of Roberto introducing Willie to the Japanese ambassador on a downtown Pittsburgh street was probably my favorite all day. There was one other superstar ballplayer of the era that Les had nothing good to say about, but I don't think it is appropriate for me to name that person here. Ask me in person sometime. Oh, and then there was the year he was responsible throughout spring training for taking Pie Traynor to the track. And so many more. As if this wasn't interesting enough, he was also worked for one of the big wire services, so he ended up photographing and befriending some of the big Hollywood starlets at the time. So we also heard stories about Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, etc. There was a particularly good one about running into fellow Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor in the Cincinnati airport. By the way, I do need to point something out. This can make it seem like he was boasting about all the famous people he knew, but it wasn't like that at all. The stories were so matter-of-fact, like me telling someone about my Aunt Edna's adnoids, he did not come across as a braggart in the slightest. It was an absolutely fascinating couple of hours hearing Les. But, my back was getting wonky, so I went downstairs to sit on one of the benches. For the life of me, I couldn't understand why I had never heard of Les Banos before. So, I googled his name on my smart phone and the first thing that came up was a Les Banos who was a spy during World War and was credited with saving countless lives. What? That couldn't possibly be the same Les Banos could it? Just then, museum curator Duane Rieter walked by and I asked him. Yes, it was the same man. He had joined the SS in his native Hungary and acted as a double agent for the Allies, feeding them information and changing Nazi orders. I was stunned. How could one man have lived such an amazing life? When Les (along with Mike and TTM) came downstairs, I asked him about his experiences during World War II. As open as he was with the baseball stories, he was reluctant to discuss the war. Which we understood. He said he had seen too many horrifying things and he would rather just forget them. He did tell me that he wrote a book about it. Since he had a copy in his car, I was able to purchase it right there and have him sign it. If you would like to see a short video of Les discussing the war, you can find it here. We sat around for a while longer with Les, just chatting in general. We couldn't stay forever, but the three of us didn't want to leave. Finally, TTM snapped a photo of Mike, Les and I before we left. I had plans of taking other friends who loved baseball to the museum and to meet Les, but it never materialized and Les passed away just a few months later. I can't begin to tell you how many times I have thought about that afternoon and what a great time we had. And how fortunate I feel to have met Les Banos, even if it was just for a few hours.
<message edited by buffetbuster on Wed, 01/30/13 3:31 PM>