I have been thinking about Mike Purl a lot over the past few months. In fact, from the time I first learned about the struggle he was facing, I thought about him almost every day.
I don’t remember when I first met him, but I think it was when he joined the Madera Method Wagon Train. He caught my attention right away for two reasons.
First, he was a different kind of outrider and muleskinner. Of all the adult members of our crew, he was the most orderly. He wasted no motions. He moved with precision, which set him apart from the rest of us on the trail.
The second thing that struck me about Mike was how firmly he was connected to the heart of the history of Madera through his own family.
He grew up with hundreds of stories about our town, and the ones I liked most were the tales about his great grandfather Charles Leggett, and his grandfather, Wilbur Leggett.
Wilbur Leggett was just three years old when Charles Leggett moved his family from Merced to Madera. That was just one year after Madera County was formed out of Fresno County.
By the time Wilbur was in school, Charles had opened Leggett’s Smoke House for business. The father, however, was not satisfied with that; he soon started Leggett’s Jewelry Store and then purchased the Madera Roller Skating Rink. Finally, by 1912, Charles Leggett owned the Madera Opera House and brought the first movies to town.
Of all of Charles’ forays into business, it was the roller rink that captivated young Wilbur. He spent hour after hour practicing with the Madera Roller Polo team and before long became a member of the squad. With Charles coaching and Wilbur playing at his starting position, the Madera team won the 1907-1908 state championship.
By that time, Wilbur Leggett was also showing real promise on the baseball diamond. He won a spot at first base with the Madera Coyotes and played with the team until he left for college.
Wilbur’s love for baseball grew after he enrolled in St. Mary’s College near Oakland in 1910. He easily took the first-base position there, and that’s what he was doing in January 1913, when that bombshell of a telegram came from Frank Navin, the president of the Detroit Tigers! The baseball man wanted Wilbur.
Navin told Wilber that one of his scouts had been watching him, and as a result, the Tigers wanted to sign him up. Leggett was told to be prepared to join the team for spring training in Gulfport, Mississippi. Navin went on to say that a contract was in the mail.
Leggett was stunned, but before the week was out, he was shocked even more. When the contract arrived it called for a monthly stipend of $225. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “With a contract from the Detroit Tigers safely stowed away in his inside pocket, Wilbur Leggett, the crack first baseman for St. Mary’s College for the past two seasons, left college this evening for his home in Madera. He will depart for the East when spring training commences.”
This turn of events in Wilbur’s life surprised no one in Madera. The hometown folks knew he was a natural-born athlete.
The Madera Tribune said of Wilbur: “His many friends are confident that he will make good.”
Well, for three years, he did make good, but then came World War One. Wilbur came home, joined the Army, and was sent to France. His baseball career was over.
After the Allied victory in WW I, Wilbur came home and settled in to make good in his own hometown. It didn’t take long for him to notice Naomi Grace Latham. Her family grew walnuts and grapes on their place on Highway 145 (They would later move to North A Street) and were well known in Madera. Mr. Latham worked as a foreman for the Sugar Pine Lumber Company.
In 1921 Wilbur Leggett and Naomi Grace Leggett were married at Trinity Episcopal Church. Wilbur opened a men’s clothing store with Bill James, and they called it James & Leggett. It was located on the first floor of the Alta Hotel building on the corner of Yosemite Avenue and C Street.
Meanwhile, Naomi Grace taught school. She held classes at Lincoln, Pershing, and Madison Elementary Schools for 30 years.
Wilbur Leggett was good at business, but he never forgot his days in the big leagues, and neither did Maderans. They came regularly into James & Leggetts to see the display case full of baseball memorabilia that had been gathered by Madera’s only major league baseball player. Then came the tragedy.
On Sept. 27, 1931, at 6 o’clock in the morning, the Alta Hotel caught fire. It was destroyed along with James & Leggett’s clothing store, and with that loss went virtually all of the hands-on memories of Wilbur Leggett’s glory years with the Detroit Tigers. Only a few, scattered items were saved, and they are now in the archives of the Madera County Courthouse Museum.
Mike Purl, who carried vivid memories of his grandfather, remembers that he went into accounting after the fire and later formed an accounting partnership with Jamie Lesan. Later they each started their separate businesses, and Wilbur continued as a public accountant until 1963 when he retired.
In May 1965, Wilbur suffered a fall from the deck of his cabin at Sugar Pine. He was taken to Dearborn Hospital where he died of a heart attack on June 20, 1965, without ever leaving the hospital.
When Wilbur Leggett passed away, all of those memories of the Opera House, Leggett’s Smoke House, the Madera Coyote baseball team, and the roller polo champions were vouchsafed in the mind of his grandson, and he added to them.
Mike went on to leave his own indelible mark on Madera.
Who can watch Action News on Channel 30 and not remember Mike Purl? Who can watch an antique fire truck in a parade and not think of Mike Purl? Who can attend a Boy Scout Honor Court and not remember Mike? Who can watch the Madera High drum major marching on the field and not see Mike? Who can seek refuge from the Valley heat in an air-conditioned home and not remember Mike?
He has moved on to his eternal rest — he died August 16 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — and we are left with memories, the memories of Mike Purl, a man for all seasons.
Originally published in The Madera Tribune on August 28, 2017