Lawrence "Larry" Manuian, an enduring baseball manager whose indomitable personality sustained the semi-pro Sacramento Smokeys for more than 60 years, died Thursday of cancer, relatives said. He was 90.
Baseball was a passion for Mr. Manuian since his early days in Sacramento on the Manhart American Legion team and a stint with the San Francisco Seals. He founded the Smokeys in 1949 with his brother Paul, an auto dealer who became the sponsor.
Many players went on to the major leagues, including Joe Thurston, Fernando Vina, Butch Metzger, Steve Brown, and F.P. Santangelo. During the 1990s, fans turned out to watch actor Timothy Busfield pitch for the team, comprising mostly college prospects and former professional players.
Despite some canceled seasons, the Smokeys have survived as one of the oldest independent semi-pro teams in baseball, largely because of Mr. Manuian. As team owner, manager, traveling secretary and public relations chief, he was a tough, old-school player who found his fountain of youth in the game.
At 64, he became the oldest person to hit a home run over the 325-foot, left-field fence at Renfree Field. Soon after that, he set a record by hitting 19 line drives off 20 pitches from a 90-mph pitching machine at a local batting cage. He played as a designated hitter in his 80s.
Built like a fireplug, he stood 5-foot-8 1/2 inches tall and weighed 215 pounds. He curled 60-pound dumbbells with his 18 1/2-inch biceps and benched 400 pounds.
His only weakness was his age, which he steadfastly refused to disclose.
"It was out of a sense of pride and a sense of vanity," said Brown. "He just wanted to always look at himself as being at peak performance athletically. He was always referred to as 'the strongest man in baseball.' "
Mr. Manuian's build was matched by a forceful personality. He spoke in short bursts, spewing words like machine-gun fire. Gruff and salty, he chewed out poor players, took on umpires and challenged inmates to a fight during a game at San Quentin Prison.
His bluster was belied by a soft side that he tried to conceal. He made time to chat with homeless people at a park where the Smokeys played. He gave money and found jobs for needy players.
He supported himself with rental properties he owned but spent much of his money to finance the team. He treated players and their families to pizza after games while "going on and on about, 'You guys are draining me!' " recalled Metzger.
"We knew his loyalty to the game was unmatched," Metzger said. "When someone really cares about the game and the team like that, you look past other things. He really cared about people."
The youngest of eight children, Mr. Manuian was born in 1920 in Sanger to Armenian immigrants who family members said fled genocide in Turkey. He moved with his family to Sacramento and graduated from Clarksburg High School and Fresno State College.
During World War II, he played on an Army baseball team and fought in North Africa and Europe with the 486th Air Service Group. He briefly owned two restaurants before founding the Smokeys.
Never married, he was close to his siblings who predeceased him and many nieces and nephews. He spoke Armenian, celebrated his heritage and had lived in Oak Park since 1956.
"He was a private person," said his great-nephew Ed Healy. "He said, 'If you want to talk, let's talk baseball.' That was his life."
Lawrence "Larry" Manuian Born: Dec. 27, 1920 Died: June 30, 2011 Survived by: Relatives in the Sacramento, San Jose, Carmel and Fresno areas Services: Visitation, 2 to 4 p.m. today, and funeral, 2 p.m. Thursday, both events at North Sacramento Funeral Home, 725 El Camino Ave., Sacramento In memory: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Stan Musial League Western Baseball Association.