by Dan Smith
On Christmas Eve, I read with sadness of the suicide of former major league baseball player Ryan Freel at age 36.
The first report I saw was by the Associated Press news service and was an in-depth report on his baseball career and death in his home in Jacksonville. Nowhere in the piece did I see anything linking Mr. Freel to our area, so I began to search the Internet.
I found lots of stories on the life of Ryan Freel, but not one mention of Daytona Beach. Indeed, very few people here in Volusia County are aware of the fact that Ryan was the great-grandson of Lee Bible. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Lee Bible was the local mechanic who raced to his death on our beach in 1929.
Bible, a devoted racing fan, had moved his family from Eastern Tennessee in the early '20s to be near the famed beach. He, his wife, Ann, and daughter, Grace, lived above the little garage just off Main Street that he rented from Bessie Crews, who owned the Fernwood Hotel. Lee found the going here tough and was barely eking out a living, but he was thrilled to be a part of the local racing community. Each weekend he would run his hot rod down at New Smyrna Beach.
By 1928, the land speed record attempts on the beach were the domain of the rich. In those days the two most famous men on the sand were Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave, both wealthy Brits who would be knighted for their exploits on our beach.
Lee was only an interested bystander until New Jersey contractor Jim White brought his big Triplex to the beach in 1928. Bible was hired for the daunting task of getting the three big 1000hp Packard engines to run together. The driver was famed Indy pro Ray Keech. After weeks of brutal testing, the battered Keech was finally able to raise the record slightly to 207 mph.
Keech was happy it was over, but Mr. White was disappointed. He felt the car could do much better and vowed to return the next year. By the time he brought the monster back to the beach, word had gotten out of the beating that Keech had sustained and now no one would dare drive the car. The press dubbed it the death machine. With time running out, White turned to the mechanic Lee Bible to drive the car. Lee was overjoyed. This was the reason he had left Tennessee. It was his one and only chance to place his name in the record books.
On March13, 1929, Lee rolled the big Triplex down the beach. He knew it would not be easy for only days before Major Segrave had raised the record to an unthinkable 231 mph. Some say that as he neared the finish line the record was in his sights, but just then a photographer stumbled out onto the track. Lee swerved, but hit the man dismembering him in front of thousands. The car went over and screamed down the beach on its side and when it came to rest Lee Bible was dead at age 42.
Several years ago I began writing a screenplay on the life of Lee Bible and my research led me to his grandson, Patrick Freel, who lives in Arizona. As we talked I learned that Pat's son, Ryan, was playing center field for the Cincinnati Reds and after that I began to follow his career. I found it amusing that Ryan was himself a daredevil. He played baseball in a flat out way that led to many injuries that would sideline him. As soon as he healed he would go right back on the field and go all out once more. It was the only way he knew how to play.
I have to think that Ryan inherited that bravery from his great-grandpa Lee Bible. That day in 1929, when Lee drove the Triplex down the beach, he knew he was not qualified for such a task, but that wasn't going to stop him. I am certain he would have been proud of the way Ryan played baseball. His style was in keeping with the family tradition. My thoughts are with the Freel family who lost a brave son recently and a brave grandfather long ago.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned."