Sunday, January 4, 2009

Unpublished excerpt from "When Baseball Met Hollywood"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!

Dennis and the Dodger

After the initial burst of TV cameos following his valiant pitching during the 1959 World Series, it took Sandy Koufax two years to get back on the small screen. Leading the Dodger staff with 18 victories and pacing the National League in strikeouts (269) during the 1961 season resurrected Koufax’s abbreviated theatrical career.

Which leads to Dennis and the Dodger, airing May 13, 1962, during the penultimate season of the show’s four-year run. That All - American scamp, Dennis Mitchell (played by a now slightly too old, pre-pubescent Jay North), striped shirt peeking from his overalls, slingshot dangling from his back pocket, romps through the ideal small town of Anywhere, USA. Middle-class, white Christian America, still stuck in a 1950’s time warp. So what‘s a nice Jewish boy like Sandy Koufax of Brooklyn, New York, doing in a place like this?

From the vantage point of the present, it’s an alien world. The opening scene shows Mrs. Wilson, wife of Dennis’ neighbor, the besieged “Good Ol’” Mr. Wilson, is at Mr. Quigley’s store, purchasing sulfur and molasses for her hubby’s spring tonic. What the hell is she talking about? Quigley knows, a fellow traveler in this mysterious world with its secret elixirs. It seems Wilson is headed out on a journey, a journey made necessary by actor Joseph Kearns’ exit from this world in February of 1962. Quigley, played by Willard Waterman, took up his role as Dennis’ foil. Waterman had filled in before, taking over as The Great Gildersleeve in 1950.
And now the plot unfolds. With Wilson out of the picture, the boys need a new baseball coach. In a nice touch of humiliation, Dennis and Tommy run through a list of possible replacements, Quigley nowhere to be found, until he fabricates his baseball prowess, specifically in turning a bunt into a home run. The boys’ look on in zombified disbelief. Turns out, the credo “The business of America is business” spurred Quigley. Lying to preserve a buck, he had to volunteer himself because, as he later tells his wife, he couldn’t let Schneider, from the market across the street, become coach and steal customers. Plus, there’s the potential advertising on the team’s jerseys. Ah, capitalism!

And, as so many intrepid capitalists do, Quigley then turns to the government for a handout. He enters the Mayor’s office, as the Mayor is huddled in conference over how to get in contact with Sandy Koufax, and asks if the city would buy the boys uniforms. Of course, the financially astute Mayor realizes there is no money in the budget for uniforms, but, like any good small town politician, suggests a bit of backroom horse-trading. If Quigley could get Koufax, whom Quigley has never heard of, to get the Dodgers to play a springtime exhibition in their fair city, well, then, the Mayor would certainly do what he could to help with the uniform problem. Plus, the Mayor dangles another promise in front of Quigley, the chairmanship of the Welcoming Committee, if he pulls off the Dodger game. Why Koufax? Sure, he’s a famous pitcher, but more importantly, he’ll be in town visiting his Aunt.

Quigley’s Bears, little walking advertisements for his market, get together for practice. While Quigley goes into a ridiculous old-timey windup, a figure emerges from the left, coolly walking behind the team’s bench. It’s Koufax, clad in a dark sweater, white shirt and gray slacks. With his right leg on the bench, the camera gives us a close-up, his face attentive to the proceedings on the mound, a movie star handsome witness to the sandlot happenings. He stifles a laugh as Quigley’s first attempt hurdles over the backstop, but when Dennis duplicates the absurd pitching form of the Coach, the great lefty must step in. In his ignorance, Quigley is unaware that this is Sandy Koufax. Dennis knows.

In the midst of all the mugging and “Gee whiz” dialogue, Sandy is the most natural of all. Surely no actor, he at least seems like a human being, rather than a 3D cartoon. He looks at Quigley with bemusement mixed with wonder, as if seeing something at the zoo you’d never heard of before. Just what was this strange species? The boys are awestruck and offer the coaching position to Sandy, much to the chagrin of Quigley, left behind in the hubbub. He stands alone, apart from the team as they lineup for a team photo. Mixed with his personal sadness is a slight bitterness that the money he invested in shirts for those little ingrates will be for naught. Mrs. Quigley quips that Koufax would probably open a grocery store, which only wounds Quigley further.

We meet Aunt Harriet, the reason for Sandy’s presence in town. How Sandy Koufax ended up with a prim gray haired WASP of an aunt is left unexplained. More off the wall is when old Auntie waxes on about nice and polite Hack Wilson, the single season RBI champ with 190 in 1930 (since corrected to 191). Wilson, known as one of the games all-time drinkers, was a long way from demure. She rocks and knits as they wait for Koufax to finish shaving. Turns out Harriet was a semi - pro hardball player, although no mention is made of the All - American Girls Professional Baseball League of A League of Their Own fame. His manhood challenged, Quigley goes into a tall tale of a fictional ball field exploit, swinging the bat just in time to clout Sandy on his invaluable left arm. Harriet leads the wounded Koufax out of the room as the forlorn Quigley whimpers.

Quigley’s out as potential Welcoming Committee chair and just when things look bleakest, Dennis and Dad come to the store beseeching the erstwhile coach to return. Not willing to be replaced by Aunt Harriet, Quigley returns as Sandy shows the boys the fine points of the slider. Now clad in Dodger jacket and cap, Koufax is surrounded by Bears caps, the B’s reminiscent of the Brooklyn cap he once wore. As Quigley tries to gain the upper hand over the more knowledgeable Harriet, on the scene to remind him of his inadequacies, he steps into the batter’s box, not realizing that Sandy is on the mound.

And there he is. Jacket off, in a gray sweatshirt as the camera zooms in on his grip, a four-seam fastball. Quigley’s face is a bug-eyed mask of fear, like that of so many National League batters. Sandy stares in as little Tommy gets ready to receive the pitch, and even on this generic little league field, Koufax looks wonderful, his windup and delivery a thing of beauty. Mr. Mitchell fills Sandy in on the exhibition idea and the Welcoming Committee, and Sandy lays one in, a final attempt to hit Quigley’s bat, which it does for a home run, trickling its way to the street. “One of the longest I’ve ever seen,” says Koufax to the Mayor, who has arrived on the scene to put Quigley down. Gallantly, Koufax rises to Quigley’s defense and promises to deliver the Dodgers on the condition that Quigley is named chairman of this disproportionately important Welcoming Committee. Koufax delivers a jibe at Walter Alston with a snicker, although the reality was that Alston was never kind to his talented young southpaw. All through this Koufax seems to be having fun, a true laugh peeking through the falseness of the script.

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