Chris Franklin, a junior at Murrieta Mesa High School, said he’s nervous about Friday night’s game against Temecula’s Great Oak High School.
Chris’s second base glove isn’t the problem. Neither is his swing at home plate.
The butterflies come from knowing he’s playing on the baseball field named after his famous great grandfather, Pete Lehr.
For the first time in his family’s history, a Lehr descendant – Chris – will play on Pete Lehr Field at in Lake Elsinore as the Rams take on the Wolf Pack beginning at 5 p.m. Every year, as the high school baseball season closes, stadium officials open the facility to local teams.
Not only is the field named after Lehr, so is a nearby street that parallels the stadium.
Such tribute is paid because without Lehr The Diamond might never have been built. Lehr, who loved the game quite possibly as much as he loved anything outside family and God, donated the land in which the stadium and both its parking lots sit.
When Lehr first discovered Lake Elsinore in the early part of the 20th Century, he couldn’t believe what he saw, according to a Nov. 30, 1986 article published in the Press-Enterprise.
“I said to myself, ‘My God, is this what they call heaven?’” Lehr told the newspaper as he recounted his first view of the city looking out from high above on the Ortega Highway. “Lake Elsinore was just a little town. To me, I couldn’t see why people didn’t love this place.”
Kalynn Franklin, who is Chris’s mom and Lehr’s granddaughter, keeps the yellowed news clipping framed in the family’s Murrieta home. It’s one of many memories of the their long history in the Valley.
The story started nearly 70 years ago when Lehr moved to Lake Elsinore and began buying land in the city and Lakeland Village. He had already proven himself a successful businessman in his hometown of Orange County, where at various times he owned land, a trucking company, a fast food restaurant and service stations.
His beginnings out West were humble. Born to a German father and a Mexican mother, Lehr got work in an Orange County oil field, one of several that lined the coast in the early 20th Century.
“He got that job because he could play baseball,” Kaylnn said.
Back in the day, men were hired for their prowess on the baseball field, not in the oil fields.
“They had company teams, and the owners wanted good players,” Kalynn continued. “He was hired right away.”
Apparently, Lehr was so first-rate that the oil bosses always gave him game days off to ensure he would be rested when it was time to suit up, Kalynn added.
His reputation on the company team, and later at university, eventually got the attention of the New York Yankees and Lehr was handed an offer to play on the pinstripe’s farm team, but by that time he was married and had set down roots.
“He couldn’t afford to bring his family back East, so he decided not to go,” Kalynn said.
Lake Elsinore Gets A Win
Lehr’s decision to forego a shot at the big league benefitted Lake Elsinore. On April 14, 1994, it was Opening Day at The Diamond – the very first opener. Construction on the multi-million dollar city-owned stadium was finally complete and The Storm had a new home.
Pete Lehr was there that day with some of his family. Well into his 80s, he was beaming, as Franklin family photos show.
“He was all baseball,” Chris explained. “It’s pretty much all he ever talked about.”
But Kalynn remembers that her grandfather was very humble, despite the accolades and many thanks for his contribution to the city.
“He deflected” questions about his land donation, she said. “He just wanted to leave a place where families could enjoy themselves.”
One For Tataboy
As for Chris, he doesn’t remember ever not playing baseball. At 2 days old he was at The Diamond with his mom, who worked in the office back then. When he was 2 years old, he wanted catcher’s gear from Santa – “the kind the pros wear.” Slugger Mark McGwire was his hero. When he decided to try out for high school ball, he made the team right away. College recruiters have already started talking to him.
Chris wears number 5, and Friday’s game has a lot of significance for him.
“I’m playing for someone who could have played for the Yankees,” he said.
When he walks onto Pete Lehr Field Friday, he said he’ll be carrying a piece of Tataboy with him – the name he called his great grandfather, who passed in 2002 at age 94.
Thirty-nine family members are scheduled to watch Chris play Friday. The great grandson said Tataboy would be proud.
“He’d probably just smile and say, ‘Have fun.’”