Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Unpublished excerpt from "When Baseball Met Hollywood"

Last year I worked on a proposed book on the marriage of West Coast baseball and Hollywood. Whether this work will ever see the light of day via the regular publishing process is a mystery. But why let it sit forlornly on my computer. I will run pieces sporadically. Enjoy!
Herman the Rookie. Though by no means one of the first baseball and Hollywood get-togethers, it aired on April 8, 1965, it is one of the greatest. Let’s say an Abraham Lincoln, rather than a Founding Father. It’s another one of Leo Durocher’s appearances in a sweeping show biz career.

On a non-descript Los Angeles field, Herman begins by teaching Eddie the fine points of a curveball, fine to the point of causing the ball to explode in a chalky mist. Turning to a more non-destructive task, Herman gently lofts the ball in the air to hit a fungo. With a mortar shell whistle, the ball goes stratospheric, giving Herman an extensive period to explain proper hitting technique to Eddie, getting all the facts in before the ball clonks him on the noggin. Calmly Herman picks up the ball amid the debris of the first ball, and launches it into space, a Gemini rocket with red stitches.

Turn to Leo Durocher, looking like a wrinkled ‘30’s gangster. Outside Claudio’s CafĂ©-Bar, Leo bemoans the Dodgers' lack of a power slugger, seconds before he is nailed on his bald dome by Herman’s swat from eight blocks away. Leo is very believable as he slumps to the ground and baseball man to the end, ignores his dented skull to pursue the man behind the hit.
After the opening credits, we see Leo in the phone booth, tossing the ball in the air and talking to “Walt,” one of two Dodger Walts, Manager Alston or Owner O'Malley. Leo’s a natural, counting on his “sincere, lovable, charming personality” to get Herman’s name on a Dodger contract. Walt reacts with shock, because we all know, including the laugh track, that Leo is an irascible old cuss.

Over a dinner of double-headed pig (a sly little baseball reference - double header, not pig), Eddie recounts how Herman destroyed all their baseballs. Leo pulls up in his luxury convertible, stopping in front of 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Welcomed by the beautiful Marilyn, Leo little suspects what lurks inside. Like most who leave the East Coast for sunny California, Leo takes a shot at his former Dodger home, citing that he’s never seen anything so run down and creepy, even in Brooklyn. Now in L.A., there’s no time for fond reminiscences of the Dodgers' former home. Leo’s reacts queasily to Lily's greenness (in glorious black and white) and hides behind the dusty old couch when Grandpa appears in a giant flame. Nothing compares to his first sight of Herman emerging from the dungeon via the trapdoor in the living room floor. Grandpa, oblivious to the obvious, assumes that Herman’s black suit reminds Leo of past umpire foes and is the cause of “The Lip’s” swoon.

Settling him in to the electric chair, Leo revives in mid- argument with an ump. Though wary of Herman’s gullibility, the family leaves him alone with Durocher. Leo wins him over and Herman has visions of endorsements and appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Pontificating about career, Herman wonders about the relative merits of safety and security at his funeral home job, as opposed to the glory of a baseball career. Serious matters, one that all job-holders ruminate over, and Herman is no different, weighing these lofty issues as he throws an apple against the wall. The apple ricochets back into his face with a mighty squish.

Lily does her husband's dirty work and calls his boss, Mr. Gateman, to inform him that Herman is trying out for the Dodgers and we cut to a ball field. It’s more of a Little League field than a field a major league team would find itself on, but so be it. None of the uniforms have Dodger insignias or logos, signifying a possible lack of Dodger approval for this episode. Leo boots Bill from the batters box so Herman can hit. Sporting number 26, Bill looks like Darrell Griffith, Dodger outfielder of the time. Herman sports rookie pitcher Mike Kekich’s number 37. Breaking his first bat while tapping the dirt off his giant Frankenstein boot, Herman gets down to business. One ball is shot over the centerfield trees, a grounder digs a trench in the infield, and still another knocks part of the scoreboard over. And then players begin to fall. The third baseman has a grounder burn a hole through his glove, though not through his hand. The first baseman is sent flying as Hermie rounds the bag.

Herman’s brute strength causes Leo to ponder signing Herman to the Dodgers or sending him to Vietnam. In April of 1965, the war was still something one could joke about; the anti-war movement still a year or two from gaining momentum. We cut back briefly to Grandpa at home, showing off his new invention, a ball that always curves. It has nothing on Koufax though. As the players huddle around Herman for autographs, including one for Don Drysdale (although not by Drysdale), Herman heads to the field. Herman plows through the chain link fence to catch a towering fly ball. Trying his hand at second base, Herman levels the base runner merely by standing there, then forces the first baseman into a somersault with his throw to first. When Leo tells Herman to throw home, the catcher begs off. This backstop is former Los Angeles Angel outfielder Ken Hunt, who is credited with an appearance on the show. Everyone leaves the field and Herman whines “Nobody wants to play with me.” Another ball is destroyed in the tantrum.
Owner Walt O’Malley puts the kibosh on the Munster project, citing costs of $75,000 to fix Dodger Stadium after Herman’s trail of wreckage. Let’s be fair - with the 1964 Dodgers eighth in a ten-team league in batting average and known for their offensive futility, there’s no price O’Malley wouldn’t have paid for Herman’s power. Even without the towering green giant, the Dodgers managed to win the National League pennant that year followed by a World Series victory over the Minnesota Twins, who had their own slugging monster, Harmon Killebrew.

Back at the park, Herman punts a football that hits Rams great and General Manager Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch outside Claudio’s. But that’s for a different book.

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