Dan Geller, Giant in the Jewish community, dies at 79

Every time a Barry Bonds home run splashes into the waves of McCovey Cove — and doesn't glance off a catwalk or exposed air-conditioning duct in St. Petersburg's wretched Tropicana Field — Bay Area sports fans ought to offer up a hearty thank-you to Dan Geller.

Geller was one of a handful of local investors who stepped up to the plate in 1992 and helped keep the San Francisco Giants in town, snatching the franchise out of the jaws of a Florida-based ownership group.

Described as "the most generous man in the world" by friends and associates, the real-estate tycoon and World War II Army Air Force gunner succumbed to cancer June 4. He was 79 years old.

"Whenever he shook your hand he always said two things to people: 'I'm proud of you' and 'you're a mensch.' I think a lot of people who heard the sad news felt the same thing about him. We're very, very proud of him and he was the ultimate mensch," said Larry Baer, the Giants' chief operating officer.

"He was just amazing in every way. He did all the little things, like send notes to Dusty [Baker] or management or players he got to know. He let them know how much he cared about them. If you were wearing a Giants uniform, you were his friend. And he'd do anything he could to help you."

Geller was also a giant in the Jewish community. A longtime member of Congregation Emanu-El, the native Rhode Islander was never hesitant to throw his weight behind a Jewish charitable cause.

Raised in an Orthodox household, Geller was heavily involved in the JCC of San Francisco, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Home, and recently donated $1 million to Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He also established the Dan and Mona Geller supporting fund with the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

"He was always talking about Israel's struggle and ways to strengthen the Jewish community here and in Israel," said Baer. "I think he was very committed to stand up and be counted as a Jewish person in the community. Jewish causes were a strong part of his identity."

Geller was also generous with his business expertise. Longtime friend Larry Myers recalls Geller's propensity to take young real estate agents under his wing.

"He was certainly an unselfish guy. He helped a lot of young people who didn't have a direction in life to get into the real estate business, or helped those who were struggling to become more successful," said Myers. Geller assisted his young proteges "a great deal, with no financial gain for himself. He was a very good guy, he really was."

Companions described Geller as a casual baseball fan prior to his investment in the Giants in 1992, which was largely motivated by civic pride. Yet once Geller became involved in the baseball world, he became a passionate follower of the game.

Friends said attending a ballgame with Geller was a joyous experience.

"It was a pleasure to go to a game with somebody who was such a great fan; he loved the sport so much," said Harold Zlot, a past JCF president.

Added Nate Levine, the executive director of the S.F. JCC, "It was a real treat; he was such an avid fan. We had plans to go to a Giants game soon, but, unfortunately, that never happened."

Geller's favorite ballpark companions, however, were his grandchildren.

"He was an incredible collection of positives. But at the same time, he was different," recalled close friend Kevin O'Brien. "He was exceedingly successful, but he never showed it. He never flaunted it. He was very clever and funny, but always at the right time. He was a war hero, but he didn't talk about it much. He was a family man, but out with a group of guys, he was just hilarious. Dan loved to laugh and he just loved being around people. If you got him into that environment he just lit up like a light bulb."

Geller's passion for baseball provided him with a respite during his 15-month battle with cancer. He made it a goal for himself to make it to spring training with his family this year, and he did — despite flying back to the Bay Area on Mondays for cancer treatments throughout the week before heading back to Arizona for the weekend's games.

Geller had hoped to travel with the team for last weekend's interleague series in Yankee Stadium, but, sadly, came up short.

"I will miss his infectious personality," said Myers. "And I'll miss his companionship and friendship, because they were unwavering."

Geller is survived by his wife of 43 years, Mona, of San Francisco; by daughters Debbie Reynolds of San Francisco and Gwen Solberg of Chicago, and four grandchildren.

Donations can be sent in care of the Mt. Zion Health Fund, 3330 Geary Blvd., S.F. A memorial service is planned for 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday at Pac Bell Park.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.