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Baseball goes to Hollywood

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From the diamond to Sunset Boulevard.

Chuck Connors from “The Rifleman” Photo by Richard C. Miller/Getty Images

A few days ago, I was thumbing through some old Royal pictures I had taken and came across one of Pete LaCock signing autographs after a game. LaCock was the first of many first basemen that the Royals used trying to replace the production of the disposed of John Mayberry. Big John had made himself persona non grata during the 1977 ALCS, when he showed up late for the pivotal Game Four, which was played in the afternoon. Word around the clubhouse was that Mayberry had spent the previous night celebrating a little too hard. He struck out twice and committed two errors, one being dropped a foul pop, which infuriated manager Whitey Herzog. Herzog yanked Mayberry in the top of the fifth and Big John never played another inning in Royals uniform. It was an unfortunate ending to one of the all-time great Royals careers.

Pete LaCock, Sept. 1978

LaCock had been acquired by the Royals in December of 1976, part of a three-way trade with the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. The Royals got the best of that deal, catching LaCock’s best years. In 1977, LaCock hit .303 over 238 plate appearances, then given the full-time first base job in 1978 and 1979, responded with consecutive seasons of .295 and .277.

LaCock never hit with much power, belting only 12 home runs for Kansas City in 1,104 at-bats. Twelve home runs were a good month for Mayberry, during his peak years. Big John hit 12 dingers during July 1975 and followed that up with 8 more in August. Either way, LaCock played a solid first base and hit for average, and drew some walks. His career OBP with the Royals was a respectable .329. The Royals let him walk after his 1980 contract expired, so he went to Japan and played for the Yokohama Taiyo Whales. His big claim to fame was hitting the only grand slam of his career in the final appearance of legendary Bob Gibson. This infraction of etiquette, at least in Gibson’s eyes, led to Gibson later throwing at and hitting LaCock in an old-timer’s game. When asked about that incident by Bob Costas, Gibson coolly replied, “the books must be balanced, Robert”.

I bring up LaCock because not only was he a decent player for those Royals, but he was also one of the friendliest, routinely hanging around after games and not leaving until everything had been signed. He also came from an unusual background. His father was Peter Marshall, the legendary host of Hollywood Squares. If you are too young to have never seen Squares, you should go to YouTube and check out some old episodes. The show was a riot, often pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to say in late afternoon television.

Peter Marshall: According to Zsa Zsa Gabor, does black look sexy on a woman?

Redd Foxx: I wouldn’t have it any other way…

Peter Marshall: When a couple have a baby, who is responsible for its sex?

Charlie Weaver: I’ll lend him the car. The rest is up to him.

Peter Marshall: according to Movie Life magazine, Ann-Margaret would like to start having babies soon, but her husband wants her to wait a while. Why?

Paul Lynde: He’s out of town.

Anyway, you get the idea. Peter Marshall was brilliant at setting up the jokes and playing the straight guy. And now his kid was playing for the Royals!

All of this got me wondering how many baseball players went the other direction, from the ball field to showbiz? There’s been a ton of movies made about baseball, most of them with actors who looked like they’ve never handled a glove. Professional football is littered with players who made the jump, most famously Jim Brown, one of the greatest ever. Brown retired at the peak of his career to make a go in Hollywood. Brown was in London shooting The Dirty Dozen when bad weather delayed production causing Brown to be late for training camp. Cleveland owner Art Modell threatened to fine Brown for every day he was late. Brown told Modell to take that job and shove it, went into acting full time and appeared in 52 films.

Alex Karras, another all-time great, overcame a rocky college (Iowa) and professional career (Detroit Lions) to find stardom in Tinseltown. He jumped to stardom while portraying Mongo in Mel Brooks classic film Blazing Saddles. Karras appeared in 39 films, including Porky’s and Victor Victoria before cementing his legacy in the TV series Webster. Other football players who made the jump to Hollywood included Fred Dryer, Bubba Smith, Howie Long, Merlin Olsen, Ed Marinaro, Ed O’Neill, and former Kansas City Chief, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.

Baseball players have had a tougher time making the transition. Chuck Connors was one of the first. Connors was an amazing athlete, having played for the NBA’s Boston Celtics from 1947 to 1948 and a short career in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1949) and the Chicago Cubs (1951). Connors, a first baseman, only played in 67 games for the two teams, slashing .238/.280/.302 with two career home runs. He also had a couple of sweet baseball cards, including a 1950 rookie card he shared with one of the all-time great baseball characters, Rocky Bridges. Connors appeared in 53 games for the Celtics, averaging 4.5 points per game. Connors realized his future was not on the court or the diamond and started appearing in movies and television shows. He won the lead in the series The Rifleman which was a huge hit from 1958 to 1963. He passed away in 1992 with 134 credits to his name.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson — Season 18
Uecker on the Tonight Show circa 1980
Photo by: Joseph Del Valle/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Bob Uecker is probably the best-known player to gravitate to a film career. Uecker, a catcher, was never much of a hitter, slashing .200/.293/.287 over a six-year career with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and the Philadelphia Phillies. He did hit 7 of his 14 career home runs with the Phillies in 1966. Uecker, never at loss for a quip, once said that he feared the home run he hit off Sandy Koufax might keep the lefty out of the Hall of Fame. After his playing days mercifully ended, Uecker went into broadcasting. He soon expanded into shows such as The Lighter Side of Sports and the Tonight Show. A new generation of fans was introduced to Uecker when he took the role of wise cracking, hard drinking announcer Harry Doyle in the classic film Major League. “juuust a bit outside”. “Ball seven. Ball eight”.

From 1985 to 1990, he starred in the television series, Mr. Belvedere. Even today, at the age of 87, he still calls some games for the Milwaukee Brewers.

My favorite player to make the jump was Randy Poffo. Poffo was a 6’1, 195-pound catcher from Downers Grove, Illinois, signed by the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school. Poffo never made the majors, having spent four seasons toiling in the lower levels of the minor league system. He retired from baseball after the 1974 season having suffered a shoulder injury in a collision at home plate. His career slash was .254/.346/.391 with 16 home runs and 129 RBI.

After baseball, Poffo matriculated to the wrestling ring. He changed his name to Randy Savage and adopted the Macho Man persona on advice from his mother. Thus began one of the great, and tragic, athletic careers. The Macho Man wrestled from 1973 to 2004 and with his flamboyant personality found his way into television. He appeared in five films and had appearances in 14 television shows including a classic episode of King of the Hill in 2007 in which he voiced the role of one of Bill Dauterive’s meat head weight lifting partners. He’ll always be remembered for his iconic Slim Jim commercials. I fully expect to see some young Macho men at my door this Halloween. Ooooh Yeah!

USA- ‘Macho Man’ Savage in Las Vegas Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images