July 18th, 2009

carole lombard 06
  • vp19

Don't quit your day job

That's a picture from perhaps my greatest thrill as a baseball fan -- David Cone's perfect game, which happened 10 years ago today at Yankee Stadium (the old one, not its lavish successor a block north). Cone pitched it against the Montreal Expos...who, ironically, became the team I now root for, the woebegone Washington Nationals. To see more about Cone's gem, including video highlights, go to http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/baseballs_best/mlb_bb_gamepage.jsp?story_page=bb_99reg_071899_monnya.

Cone was masterful on that Sunday afternoon, Yogi Berra Day at the Stadium (the beloved Yankees catcher and manager had recently ended a 14-year estrangement from the club). He never went to a three-ball count on any batter -- something I don't think has happened in any other of the handful of perfect games in baseball history -- and also waited out a 33-minute rain delay in the third inning. It didn't matter...27 up, 27 down. (Before this masterpiece, Cone was best known for striking out 19 Philadelphia batters while with the New York Mets on the final day of the 1991 season -- and as fate would have it, I was at Veterans Stadium in Philly that afternoon.)

I've been a very fortunate baseball fan. Not only have I seen a perfect game, but I also witnessed an equally rare feat, an unassisted triple play, by Oakland's Randy Velarde at Yankee Stadium on Memorial Day 2000. Millions of fans have gone entire lifetimes without witnessing either, much less both. Heck, I've even seen the National League win an All-Star Game (at the Vet in 1996; they haven't won one since).

Where's this leading? For many years, a side benefit of ballplayers' fame was that they got to appear on TV shows, usually sitcoms. I can recall Dean Chance, the Angels' sixties ace, appearing on "The Lucy Show" and hearing a Little Leaguer say he had pitched a no-hitter, but lost 8-0 -- "no hits, but 32 walks." (Cue the laugh track.)

But even before TV, athletes found their way into movies, and not just in cameo roles, either. On its "Silent Sunday Nights," Turner Classic Movies occasionally shows a 1920 film Babe Ruth starred in, when he took advantage of his newfound fame as a home run slugger. It wasn't much of a movie, but Ruth made up for it some 22 years later when he portrayed himself in the Gary Cooper biopic of Lou Gehrig, "Pride Of The Yankees."

On April 2, 1932, Louella Parsons examined the track record, pardon the mixed metaphor, of athletes and other non-actors trying their hand on the big screen. In her opinion, most of them deserved a quick trip to the showers.

"Champions in any field can be assured of a contract with the movies. Producers just love to sign these celebrities and when they do, nine out of every ten make one picture and then blow up. A champion prize fighter, baseball player, football hero, runner, swimmer, aviator doesn’t necessarily make a champion movie star."

Parsons said Johnny Weissmuller, who had just made his first Tarzan picture, had bucked the trend (as Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams did later -- is there something about swimmers that makes them better actors?), but added, "If he had a picture in which he was inappropriately cast, Mr. Johnny Weissmuller would be back swimming in less time than it takes to write this."

Another athlete who tried his hand at films was 1920s football legend Red Grange, of whom Parsons said:

"There are many more who were ballyhooed as coming into the movies at fabulous salaries and who lasted for a brief moment. Red Grange, football hero, crashed the gates of Hollywood with a noise that resounded throughout the world. He made one or two pictures and then after he ceased playing football, we heard no more about him as a movie star."

I think Grange acted in silents, but he might have had the voice -- if not the acting ability -- for talkies. In 1931, a Chicago radio station hired him to broadcast White Sox and Cubs games, and radio reviews of the time were generally favorable.

Parsons didn't limit herself to athletes in this column. She looked at singer0bandleader Rudy Vallee's foray into film:

"What about Rudy Vallee? His fame has become synonymous for mob enthusiasm. Women and children stormed the door of every theater in which he sang. Here was a sure-fire thing for the movies. Rudy and his megaphone! He made one picture for RKO and while I never saw the box office receipts, I do know they weren’t sufficient to get him a return invitation."

Vallee eventually repackaged himself as a capable character actor, as he proved in "The Palm Beach Story" and other movies.

To read the Parsons column in full, where she brings up names from Queen Marie of Romania to tenor John McCormack to aviatrix Ruth Elder, go to http://hollywoodheyday.blogspot.com/2009/07/champs-flop-in-first-movie.html.

I'm not sure whether Carole Lombard would have traded her film stardom for a singles title at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open (feats her good friend Alice Marble achieved), but I do know she worked with several actors who first gained fame in sports. Boxer Maxie Rosenbloom had a small role as a tough guy in "Nothing Sacred" and acted sporadically, while Nat Pendleton (with Carole, at right, in "The Gay Bride") was a collegiate wrestling champion at Columbia and won a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics, He gained renown as a solid character actor, particularly in comedies.

As for Cone, he made his way to TV...but thankfully not in a sitcom. He's an analyst on Yankees games for their YES cable network.
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