'Foul Ball Billy' Fundaro, popular Tigers usher for 51 years, dies at 77
Bill Fundaro, known affectionately as "Foul Ball Billy" during much of his 50-plus-year tenure as an usher for the Detroit Tigers and a long-time teacher and coach in Metro Detroit, died Sunday. He was 77.
Fundaro started with the Tigers in 1968, and his last season was 2019. There were no ushers in 2020, with no fans allowed for the shortened Major League Baseball season.
Much of Fundaro's tenure at Tiger Stadium was spent behind the plate, retrieving balls off the screen. He'd collect them and give them to umpires or fans. When moving to Comerica Park, he transitioned to the seats, with the ball-boys taking over his old duties.
The Tigers honored him in 2018, for his 50 years with the organization. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch that May day, before a Tigers' victory over the White Sox.
"He was just the salt of the earth," said Bill Barker, a long-time friend who's known Fundaro since Fundaro coached him in middle-school baseball at St. Mary's of Redford.
Fundaro grew up in Dearborn, attending St. Alphonsus, and later Marquette University in Milwaukee.
His first teaching job was at St. Anne in southwest Detroit, and from there he went on to teach and coach at St. Mary's. Eventually, he moved to public school, at Riverside in Dearborn Heights.
He later taught at Clara B. Ford Academy, a school for troubled girls.
"The teaching gigs were what he was most proud of," said Barker, 67, who now lives in Georgia. "He really helped a lot of people ... people from every walk of life."
Aside from baseball, Fundaro also coached high-school football.
Barker called him the "busiest guy" he knew. Fundaro was an avid — and good — photographer, occasionally shooting for the Detroit Lions, Michigan football and area concerts. He was also a frequent fundraiser, getting involved in any cause that caught his attention. Particularly back in the day, when such things weren't as regulated, he had access to autographs and memorabilia, and he put those connections to good use. His generosity extended beyond fundraisers, as well. Barker recalls playing in an over-40s baseball league in Georgia and struggling to find bats; he mentioned it in passing to Fundaro, who mailed him a handful of wooden bats.
"He helped so many people," Barker said. "The guy would do anything for you."
Fundaro enjoyed having a postgame spirit or two at Casey's, a long-time popular hangout for Tigers and visiting players, back in the days of Tiger Stadium. He was a regular at class reunions, occasionally arriving late following a night game. He enjoyed Detroit's St. Patrick's Day Parade. During the baseball offseason, he was a frequent attendee at Red Wings games. He was quick with a joke.
But it was his ties to the Tigers that drew him notoriety. He was one of the only non-players, umpires or base coaches on the field during play in the Tiger Stadium days, usually dressed in bright orange — and so close to the action, he had to pay attention to every pitch. Often asked if he ever got hit by a screaming foul ball, he'd reply, "Sure did."
"He had great reflexes," said Lary Sorensen, former Tigers broadcaster.
When Fundaro transitioned to Comerica Park, he was relocated to safer territory, working the prime box seats behind home plate. Fans who recognized him from seeing him on television during their childhood days frequently would ask him for selfies, he would always oblige, and then post them to Facebook.
Fundaro, also known as "Billy Fun," knew the players, their spouses, the fans — and rarely, if ever, forgot a name.
"Living this crazy baseball life was always easier when I was sharing laughs with you," Brooke Maroth, wife of former Tigers pitcher Mike Maroth, wrote on Facebook. "And listening to your stories are some of my greatest treasures from this game. Of all the blessings God has given to our family in baseball life, YOU are among the greatest.
"Your smile blessed my heart every time I walked into Comerica."
Fundaro is survived by daughter Gina and son Bill, and four grandchildren. Visitation is from 3:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Stanley Turowski Funeral Home in Dearborn Heights. A funeral mass will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Alphonsus-St. Clement Parish. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to The Capuchin Soup Kitchen.