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Herbert B. Kempner, 84, electrical supply firm owner

Herbert B. Kempner, a former electrical supply company owner and semipro baseball outfielder who once batted against Satchel Paige, died of heart disease Tuesday at St. Agnes HealthCare. The Catonsville resident was 84.

Mr. Kempner was born in Hartford, Conn., and raised in New York from about age 10, when his family moved to the Bronx. His father died of pneumonia when Mr. Kempner was 13, and he became the primary breadwinner for his family.

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He held a series of jobs, including supply clerk at Macy's, where he was issued a pair of roller skates as part of his uniform. He spent most days gliding through the storehouse, taking inventory and hunting down clothing and supplies. At night, he attended Long Island University.

But his true love was baseball. As a child, he sold scorecards at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium and rooted for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

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While working and attending college, Mr. Kempner played for a semiprofessional team. His true talent was batting, said his wife, the former Alice Lindeman. "He could always find a way to get on."

Mr. Kempner was a leadoff hitter and, at about age 20, was deemed good enough for an invitation to a Boston Red Sox tryout. He had dreamed of becoming a major leaguer, but he couldn't attend the tryout because he needed to help support his family, his wife said.

"He always regretted that," she said.

He continued to play semipro ball, and even got a hit off Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, Mrs. Kempner said. "It was the biggest thrill for him."

Mr. Kempner also played in exhibition games with Red Sox great Ted Williams and Negro Leagues star Leon Day, both eventual Hall of Famers.

Mr. Kempner and his wife were introduced by Mrs. Kempner's brother. She was an avid Yankees fan at the time, which gave the couple a ready topic for conversation, she said.

"If you're a baseball [fanatic] like he was, it wouldn't be nice to be married to someone who didn't care about it," she said.

Mr. Kempner joined the Army Air Forces in 1942 and was a physical training instructor. He was discharged in 1945, and married his wife that year on her birthday, Oct. 8. "He always got me two presents, one for our anniversary and one for my birthday," she said.

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Although there were three baseball teams in the New York area then -- the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Giants -- Mr. Kempner was "never a big fan" of the city, his wife said. "His bike was stolen when he first got there. I think that started it," she said.

The couple moved to Baltimore in 1950, and Mr. Kempner became local representative for Champion Lamp Works, a company based in Lynn, Mass. He worked for several other electrical supply companies as a salesman and designer before forming his own company, Herbert B. Kempner Inc., originally based in Catonsville.

Mr. Kempner stayed involved in baseball, playing catch with his children and coaching Little League. "Two hands on the glove, two hands on the glove," he would say.

During a trip to New York with his son, Russell, who was about 11 at the time, Mr. Kempner played in a pickup game with several major leaguers and hit the game-winning triple. "It was incredible. He hadn't put on spikes in 20 years," said Russell Kempner of Ellicott City.

Mr. Kempner also spent time with his family telling jokes and sharing "Herb-isms" -- humorous sayings that family members repeated. Whenever he didn't like someone, he would say: "That person rubs me like torn underwear," according to his daughter, Jane Daniels of Charleston, S.C.

"Pretty soon, I started saying it too," she said. "It was just too funny."

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Mr. Kempner retired in 1998, leaving more time for travel and golf. Not surprisingly, his leadoff hitter traits carried over to the links. "He wasn't an exceptionally long hitter, but he was a great putter," said Irv Bien, a longtime friend and golfing partner.

He was also an avid reader who frequented the Catonsville library and finished a book almost every night, his wife said. He enjoyed the historical novels of Wilber Smith, even turning his grandson into a fan.

He shared his love of reading by becoming a volunteer for the Magic Carpet program, in which he taught reading to elementary school children in Baltimore County.

Even as his health was failing, "he always wanted to go to the library," Mrs. Kempner said.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 3695 Rogers Ave., Ellicott City.

In addition to his wife and two children, he is survived by two grandchildren.


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