I have always had a fascination with the true “rags to riches” stories of life. Stories of men and women who understood that a part of what they were accomplishing, they would also share with the world. In my life the names that stood out were Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. In the world of entertainment it was Elvis and Sinatra, Jose Feliciano and Frankie Valli for me.
To me, baseball and the arts walked hand in hand. I used to say that if I couldn’t be a baseball player that I wanted to be a movie actor.
On August 16th, 1977, Elvis Presley died. I will never forget how sad I was that day because I was such a big fan. I was sitting behind Reggie Jackson’s desk answering some of his fan mail when Reggie walked into the room to see if there were any important letters in the bunch. He noticed that I was unusually quiet that day so he asked what was wrong. I mentioned that Elvis had died and how I was such a fan. I remember talking about the reasons that I liked Elvis, including the fact that he was very close to people that he did not even know, and how every time he did a movie he included his friends in the film.
I remember how Reggie really paid attention to what I was saying. I did think that he was trying to be a soundboard for me. Well, that winter I got the biggest surprise from “Mr October.” He called me up one day and said how would you like to be in my Volkswagen commercial. I think I screamed out the biggest ‘Hell Yeah’ ever.
One commercial led to another and another. I did spots for products such as “Old Spice” and “Panasonic.” I also noticed how smooth Reggie was in delivering his lines. He was a natural. I learned just as much from him as an actor as I did from him in baseball.
One day, I got a call from Warner Brothers to see if I would like to test for a film called “Blue Skies Again.” I would be working with two up and coming actors named Joey Gian (Who would go on to fame on “Knots Landing”) and Andy Garcia (Academy Award nominee). Would you believe that I got the part of Jerry Washburn, a rookie baseball player. We shot the movie in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. The Casting Director was a lady named Dee Miller and the Director was Richard Michaels, who directed the television series “Bewitched.”
On the set I was pretty popular because the Yankees had just been World Champions and everyone knew that I worked for the team. The one thing that really stood out for me during the early days of the filming was when we had to go to wardrobe to check on our uniforms. I remember being a little disappointed because my uniform number was 66. I wanted a sexier number. Like one or four.
I remember Andy thinking to himself then asking me, ‘What number did Jackie Robinson wear’? I said, ‘forty two!’ Then he said ‘and Roberto Clemente?’I said ‘twenty one!’ Andy said, ‘and Babe Ruth, and I said…..’3.’ Andy said when you put it all together it equals to 66. Andy, Joey and me laughed like crazy because it was a positive sign that I fell in love with the number.
With all the crazy, mystical, very sad, yet incredibly wonderful moments that I have gone through, I remember going to George Steinbrenner in 2006 after one of my books became a best seller and thanking him for saving my life. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I didn’t save your life. Your story was already told, I was just doing what I was supposed to do.’
Then he smiled and told me to get out of there.
Today, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jackie Robinson. The book that I was talking about with Mr. Steinbrenner was called “The Greatest Story NEVER Told.” The book is about the Babe and Jackie. It also introduces a young Roberto Clemente. It’s the story of love of faith and hope.
I dedicate this column to some of my heroes of life. Men like Jackie, The Babe ,The Boss, Roberto, Feliciano, Elvis, Mr. Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Chazz, Murcer, Billy, Thurman and of course Mr. October.