He could always hit. A 6-foot-2 prospect out of Brookline, Mass., the scholarly Lerner batted .364 as a high school senior. The brief caption beneath his yearbook portrait conveyed a singular purpose (“Baseball, 2,3,4”) and that singular nickname: Pro. It was supposedly derived from having been called Little Professor as a precocious child.
Lerner claimed to have enjoyed a happy childhood, spending part of his youth in a duplex on Verndale Street, about two miles from Fenway Park. But his son, Glen Lerner, disputes this assertion of boyhood happiness. Maury’s father, Glen says, never told Maury he loved him, never went to his ballgames.
Maybe this explains things, he says.
Lerner signed with the Washington Senators at 18 and was dispatched to play entry-level ball in Erie, Pa. He batted a miserable .167 in 13 games and spent the next few years in the Marines.
But he returned in 1957 to join the Milwaukee Braves franchise in Boise, Idaho, where he smacked 158 hits in 127 games and batted an impressive .328 (“Second-sacker Maury Lerner got the vital hit, a double to right-center”). Then, up in Yakima, Wash., he hit .348 (“Lerner’s drive was against the right field fence”). Then, over in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, he hit .372 for the Wilson Tobs in North Carolina (“Lerner popped one over the short center wall”).
Pittsburgh’s front office was watching, just in case Bill Mazeroski at second or Dick Groat at short got injured. This middle infielder coming up, this Lerner kid, seemed respectful, earnest, even erudite. A real gentleman, except when he wasn’t.
Playing in Nicaragua during the 1959-60 winter season, Lerner was hitting close to .400 and having a good time. So good, in fact, that his manager, the major leaguer Earl Torgeson, announced plans to cut him for missed curfews and other transgressions.
But then Torgeson and Lerner teamed up against some Cuban players, after Lerner complained about too many brush-back pitches. Torgeson got into a fistfight with a Cuban player and resigned. Lerner attacked a Cuban pitcher and a Cuban umpire but kept on playing. And hitting.
Frank Kostro, a future major leaguer known for his pinch-hitting, competed against Lerner that winter. “I was hitting well over .300,” he says. “But I wasn’t even close to the leading hitter — who was Maury Lerner.”
Lerner returned to the United States with a batting title, a reputation for being a good but uptight teammate — and a baby wildcat he had smuggled out in a satchel, according to the book “Memories of Winter Ball,” by Lou Hernández.
He also seemed to carry a self-destructive fear of success. Family lore has it that he sabotaged a chance to move up to the Pirates after Mazeroski got hurt — it is true, at least, that Mazeroski, a future Hall of Famer, incurred a couple of injuries at the time — by picking a fight with his manager.
“One of his biggest regrets,” Glen Lerner says. “Whenever he was going to get promoted, he would do something to undermine it. He didn’t know how to explain it.”
Sliding Into Crime
Maury Lerner was 24, then 25, then 26 — middle-aged in minor league time. A veteran bush leaguer making about $700 a few months of the year. A one-time prospect with no prospects.
He still managed to stand out, though, by reading books, watching his diet and exercising with weights. This was at a time when almost no one in baseball concentrated on strength conditioning, according to Gene Michael, the former Yankees shortstop and general manager who played three games with Lerner on the Savannah Pirates, in Georgia, in 1960.
Though the two ballplayers crossed paths only briefly more than a half-century ago — one going up, the other going down — Michael never forgot Lerner, a good fielder and a great line-drive hitter who advocated chopping down on the ball to beat out the throw to first. Over dinner one night, Lerner lectured on baseball strategy and training in ways that the younger, less experienced Michael had never heard before.
“He was way ahead of us,” Michael says. “Way ahead of us.”
No question. Pro Lerner was looking ahead. By the summer of 1961, the professional ballplayer was also trying out for a life of crime.
He was playing at the time for the Macon Peaches, a collection of has-beens and never-will-bes. One knock-around veteran had struck out in all three of his major league at-bats. Another had toiled for 16 years in the minors, got called up for one game, and didn’t even get to bat.
“A bastard club,” says Tony Bartirome, one of its players. “All on their way down.” Including its good-hitting middle infielder.
Bartirome remembers Lerner being so well mannered that “he was like a priest, almost.” Oh, and another thing: He would occasionally leave the team to take care of some personal matters.
Those personal matters might have included Lerner’s arrest that summer for the armed robbery of a Boston furniture store. He was later sentenced to three years’ probation.
Lerner was arrested again a few months later, charged with conspiring to commit armed robbery and carrying a firearm without a permit. According to Brookline police records, detectives interrupted Lerner and his ex-con companion in the midst of robbing an acquaintance.
Questioned by the police, Lerner repeatedly lied. And while he eventually beat the rap, the young ballplayer made an unfavorable impression. “I know the Brookline police were not fond of him,” Glen Lerner says. “A Jewish troublemaker would not be well looked upon by an Irish police force.”
Maury Lerner held on a little longer to his baseball dreams. He spent part of the 1962 season with the Raleigh Capitals, of the Senators organization, batting .308 and hitting eight home runs, the most of his professional career (“A two-run homer by first baseman Maury Lerner in the eighth inning won the game”).
A teammate, John Kennedy, a future major leaguer, hasn’t forgotten the sounds of obsession that emanated from Lerner’s home in Raleigh, the rhythmic whacks of a fixated hitter striking a tire with a bat.
Thum, thum, thum. …
“He couldn’t care less about anything but hit, hit, hit,” Kennedy says.
One time Lerner coaxed a homeless man who used to linger outside the Devereux Meadow ballpark onto the team bus. He hid the man from the manager, and supplied him with enough beer to last the daylong road trip. An act of kindness, Kennedy says. “As far as I’m concerned, he was a helluva guy.”
A helluva guy who was also passing worthless checks in Tennessee, stealing a television set from a hotel not far from Fenway Park and hustling some college saps in games of pool.
Baseball scouts used to scrutinize Lerner’s every move. Now agents from the F.B.I. were the ones watching.
A Trail of Violence
By this point, Lerner was hanging around with two well-known New England criminals, John Kelley, also known as Red, and George Agisotelis, also known as Billy A. Those two were central suspects in the notorious and still unsolved mail truck robbery in Plymouth, Mass., in 1962, in which men dressed as police officers commandeered a Postal Service truck and made off with the then-record haul of $1.5 million in cash.
But he was also still playing baseball, holding on with a Senators affiliate in Pennsylvania with the exquisite name of the York White Roses. He batted .250 in only 28 games, the reasons for his truncated 1963 season unclear, except for an internal F.B.I. document from that time:
Joseph McKenney, Director of Publicity, American Baseball League, and Joseph Cronin, President of the American League, after reviewing records, advised Maurice Lerner is presently on the suspended list of the York, Pennsylvania, Baseball Team subject to moving up to a higher classification.
Cronin stated that being on the suspended list indicates either Lerner did not report to the York team or was suspended while there for some infraction of the club’s training regulations.
There was no formal announcement, no issued news release. But Pro Lerner had given up baseball to concentrate on a new career. A name that once appeared in scouting sheets and small-town newspapers was now popping up in police intelligence reports.
Maurice Lerner, a.k.a. Pro, a.k.a. Reno. Newly wedded to Arrene Siegel. Suspect in the robberies of the Boston Five Cent Savings Bank and the Suburban National Bank. Associate of known criminals Kelley and Agisotelis. Formerly employed as a professional baseball player. Considered armed and dangerous — whether with gun or bat, it seems.
Part of the growing Lerner reputation was how Pro once applied his bat skills to his new profession by ringing a doorbell and taking a cut at the head of the man who answered. The oft-told story may be apocryphal, but word of Lerner’s penchant for violence had clearly reached the front office of the Patriarca crime family, the Boston Red Sox of the underworld. And he got called up.
When some men made the ill-conceived decision to rob a bookie operation linked to a high-ranking mafioso, it was Lerner, along with Kelley, who was dispatched to straighten things out. When certain people disappeared or stopped breathing, Lerner often seemed to be, shall we say, part of the postmortem conversation.
In January 1965, the body of an inconsequential gangster named Robert Rasmussen was found in Wilmington, Mass., having taken a .38 bullet to the back of his head. An informant later claimed that Rasmussen had tried to extort money from Kelley, so he was lured to Lerner’s apartment with the promise of a nice score, a bookie’s cash-jammed safe — only to wind up dead in a snowbank, wearing little more than a necktie.