The first assistant director checked the camera crew and eyed the extras in the stands. "All right, ladies and gentlemen," he boomed through a megaphone, "this is picture."
We were filming A Winner Never Quits—The Pete Gray Story, an ABC made-for-TV docudrama, and for this scene we were in Long Beach, Calif., at Blair Field, which in a bit of creative casting was playing the part of Yankee Stadium. The plot, were it capsulized in snappy movie-speak, might read something like this: Son of a Pennsylvania coal miner struggles against adversity and prejudice to become the only one-armed ballplayer ever to reach the majors. A Winner Never Quits is also a true story, although many of the specifics in the film are fiction. Pete Gray really did play in the majors in 1945, with the St. Louis Browns, and his achievement was indeed a remarkable one—war years or no war years. Keith Carradine was cast as Gray, Dennis Weaver played his father, and Mare Winningham, hot off the set of St. Elmo's Fire, portrayed Gray's love interest.
But at this moment the stars weren't out. Scene No. 183, Take 1, was ready to roll. My scene. My catch. I had been cast as Phil Canzoni, a fictional leftfielder of the 1945 Browns. In the next few minutes (if I was lucky), Canzoni would make the greatest—and only—catch of his short-lived celluloid career, a diving, sprawling, four-star grab guaranteed to make the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert jump out of their reclining seats. The Catch would end a Yankee scoring threat and represent a fictional turning point in Gray's career. Canzoni, you see, would get hurt. Not hospital hurt, but whatever damage I could inflict after sprinting 15 yards and landing on my face would be just fine with the directors. Gray, naturally, would be called upon to finish the game. He would get a hit or two, make a great catch of his own and end our picture on a high note.
How did I get myself into this vintage gray wool Browns' uniform with the orange-and-brown piping? By breaking Vacation Rule No. 1: Thou shalt never answer a telephone before 8 a.m.
"How would you like to be an extra in a movie?" The voice belonged to Frank Pace, coproducer on the Gray film and a good friend. He was short of ballplayers.
"Three days. Easy work. You get to meet Keith," said Pace.
I declined. I had never acted and had no desire to stand around for hours on end. Besides, I was a stone's throw from the beach in San Diego and not about to budge. "Sorry, Frank," I said. "Maybe some other time." That's when Pace played his trump card. "You get to make a great catch."
"What kind of catch?"
"I don't know, we haven't decided yet. Something spectacular. You'll get your own scene. It would be something to show your grandchildren." I was almost persuaded, but one thing worried me: I'm very nearsighted (20/200). I'm one of those people who has to remember where he puts his glasses at night in order to find them the next morning. I wore contacts while playing shortstop in college, but nowadays I wear horn-rimmed glasses during softball games in Central Park. I didn't remember anyone wearing Clark Kent-type glasses in the outfield in 1945.
"Frank," I said, "I can't see very well without my glasses."
"That's O.K.," said Pace. "You'll only have to run about 15 yards. Someone will throw you the ball. It shouldn't be too tough."
"Oh...O.K.," I said.
Pace caught my concern. "By the way," he said, "just how bad are your eyes?"
He found out the next day. I was standing in leftfield, worried. The only way I could focus on the batter was by blinking my eyes. After a while, I felt like a traffic light. The first ball hit to me—a hard grounder—bounced off my glove and rolled behind me.
"All right," said Pace, who was responsible for orchestrating the baseball scenes. "We're only live if the ball's hit to leftfield. We want to set up the Canzoni catch."
The hitter was Mike Paciorek, brother of Tom, the Texas Ranger utility man. Like his brother, Mike—who played college ball at Michigan—is well built and hits with power. He ripped the next pitch, deep down the line. Instinctively, I turned, trying to focus on the blurry object, and sprinted to the wall—an imposing concrete slab 12 feet high. Miraculously—at this point I could have used a guide dog—I was able to make a beautiful running catch inches in front of the wall. Even my teammates let out a few congratulatory whoops.
"Nice grab," said Pace, as I ran off the field. "You didn't even turn and look at the wall. Good instincts. But don't get cocky. We'll need that tomorrow."
As I ran to the bench to rest, I noticed Carradine warming up. At 35, he has earned a reputation as an actor willing to take risks, to accept the offbeat. Gray's life story was no exception.
Gray was six years old when his right arm was crushed by the wheel of a milk truck and had to be amputated above the elbow. He worked endlessly at his game, earning a shot at the majors after winning the MVP award in the Class A Southern Association with Memphis in 1944. He hit .333 that year and tied the league record with 68 stolen bases. His career was inspiring enough to warrant a movie, and, in fact, the notion of doing one had been talked about in Hollywood for almost 40 years. Among the obstacles that kept the cameras from rolling were the demands of the starring role. It required an actor to spend hours in a rigid shoulder harness that held the right arm snugly across the chest. Catching and throwing one-handed on the sidelines, Carradine wielded his black glove to snare the baseball, then slipped the mitt under his right armpit, pulled the ball out and threw. His throws were swift and accurate, remarkable because Carradine, a natural righthander, was forced to learn to throw lefthanded.
A gate attraction because of his handicap, Gray was hailed as an inspiration to wounded vets returning from World War II. His superb defensive skills won him the admiration of New York sports-writers, who dubbed him a "one-armed wonder." Gray did his best to downplay his disability. But as time wore on, the publicity surrounding the handicap began to bother him. He played 77 games with the Browns in 1945, hitting .218; then the war ended and he returned to the minors. After leaving baseball in 1949, he had a bout with alcohol. He is described in stories written in the 1970s as a "frightened" and "bitter" man. Today a non-drinker, Gray, 68, guards his privacy. He lives in his hometown of Nanticoke, Pa., has no phone and resists all requests for interviews. "I don't want to be bothered, that's all," he says.
Bringing Gray's story to life, lacing fact with fiction (the Canzoni catch, Gray's climactic grab) was left to director Mel Damski, ex-Colgate catcher, Long Island sportswriter, full-time Mets fanatic. Up in the broadcast booth Phil Stone, an NBC football announcer and radio man for the San Francisco Giants, provided the play-by-play. It was Stone who would call the critical Canzoni catch, a day before we actually filmed it.
"How do you want to do this?" Stone asked Damski.
"I don't know," said the director. "Nothing's really set. Why don't you ad-lib it."
Ad-lib? Great. What if Stone, a friend, suddenly went Hollywood on me and turned my catch into a death-defying stunt?
I need not have worried. Stone played his part perfectly: "We're in the bottom of the fifth, all tied at five, the Yanks have two on with two out and Oscar Grimes stepping in. Grimes, hitting .260, already has a double on the day. Here's the pitch. Grimes drills it hard to leftfield; it is hit a ton. Canzoni's on a dead run. He makes a diving catch. What a play by Phil Canzoni! Wait just a minute. Canzoni is down. He may have hurt himself on the play. The Browns' trainer is out checking on him. Oh my, it looks like that'll be all for him today. Well, folks, with the injury to Phil Canzoni, it looks like we're going to get a chance to see the man many people came to Yankee Stadium hoping to see: Pete Gray." When Stone finished, the actors and crew cheered as if he'd just hit a grand slam.
My catch was set for the following day. Between takes I'd done some scouting of my own: I needed a partner, someone to throw that perfect fly ball. It had to look as if it was coming off a bat and it had to fall into an area defined by Damski and his cameramen. I chose a strong-armed ex-minor league infielder named Jerry Lane and the newest, whitest ball around. Without my glasses I could leave nothing to chance.
As the cameras set up, I took some deep breaths, eyed my mark and mentally ran through the sequence I had worked out: sprint 15 yards, dive, catch the ball, pretend to pull a hamstring. About 100 extras—fans decked out in fedoras and zoot suits—filled a section of stands behind home plate. (In typical Hollywood fashion, home plate at Blair Field was leftfield at Yankee Stadium.)
I took a couple of practice runs. Lane, playing Dan Marino, threw two passes right on the button. I picked them both off, sprawling splendidly in the grass. "Great catches," said Pace as I warmed up again. "But save a couple, will ya?"
The director's slate snapped down. Two hundred people waited, watching my every move. For the only time in my life, I was an actor. People depended on me. Time and money were going to be wasted if I didn't make this catch.
"Ready, Camera A," someone said. "Ready, Camera B."
"O.K., action," said Damski.
Pounding my old, leatherless glove, which wasn't big enough to hold a dinner salad, I began my sprint, watching Lane, my eyes blinking once or twice.
The throw was perfect—looped, but with some mustard on it. It fell right into camera range. I dived, stretched and watched as the ball landed right in my mitt...and popped out.
"That's O.K.," said Damski. "Let's do it again." We should have been done after the second take. Another strike from Lane. Another perfect dive, the ball caught an inch off the grass as I slammed down. A nine on the Willie Mays Meter.
Suddenly directors and cameramen were huddled in conference. "Ah, crowd," said the assistant director, "you were a little weak on that one. Remember, this ends the inning. You're supposed to react to the catch. Get excited. O.K., let's do it again."
I flubbed the next throw, a perfect toss. "Damn," I muttered to myself, my pride beginning to hurt as much as my bloodied arms and aching knees. "You all right?" asked Damski. "You want some knee pads or something?"
I said, "No, fine, Mel. I just want to catch the damn ball."
I took another look at Lane. We both knew this couldn't go on all day. I started my sprint, Jerry firing, this time a tad too hard. Overthrow, I thought. I accelerated. The ball was dropping eight feet in front. It was a dive I had attempted dozens of times playing shortstop in high school and college. Do or die. Catch it or you don't. So I dived extending my left arm—a lifeguard reaching out to a floundering swimmer. Two inches off the turf, the baseball settled softly into the webbing of my glove. I bounced and remembered to stay down, to play out the scene. The crowd erupted.
I talked to Pace today. He says the Catch looks wonderful on film, the network likes the show, and to watch for Carradine and Canzoni on TV during the second week of the season. I'm busy planning the party, the big bash in honor of my alter ego, his catch and a movie even Pete Gray himself should enjoy.
COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES TELEVISION
Canzoni saves the day: The perfect grab set up Gray's chance to star in a big league ball game.
In his one year with St. Louis, Gray hit .218. The next season, he was back in the minors.