Glove Story : When Billy Crystal Discovered Show Business, Baseball’s Loss Was Comedy’s Gain
“I love to play baseball; I could field ground balls all day. When I was just 3, my father would roll a rubber ball to me. It seemed huge, but I always managed to toss it back. Later, in school, we were only allowed to play softball, but on Sundays Dad would take my two brothers, Joel and Richard, and me to the high school to play real baseball. My dad would always pitch. The guy had a good curve; it drove me nuts.
We lived in a small house in Long Beach on Long Island. The backyard was the same shape as Yankee Stadium--a short right field and a deep center--but it was too small for running bases. So we were reduced to a game Joel invented called Bird, played like stickball but with a Little League bat and a badminton shuttlecock. If we hit it as far as my mother’s bedroom window, that was a double; if it touched the roof, it was a triple; if it stayed on the roof or went over the fence, it was a home run. We used fertilizer (even though it made the yard stink) to mark off the batter’s box and the foul lines, and Joel would cut out a cardboard catcher and stand it on an easel behind home plate.
Each of us represented a different team, and we’d imitate the players as we took our turns at bat. I was always the Yankees. When I was Mickey Mantle, my idol, I’d limp, because he had bad knees. We pretended to be the announcers, too. For example, as I stepped up to bat as Tony Kubek, I would simultaneously impersonate Mel Allen, saying, ‘It’s the top of the first and leading off for the Yankees is Tony Kubek. Beautiful day for a ballgame, isn’t it?’ Joel would reply, ‘Sure is, Mel. . . . Crowd looking on. . . . Strike one as Kubek looks back. He’s hitting .267, off to a slow start this year.’
Each year we added more improvised touches. We staged pregame shows in the locker room (our garage), and on old-timers’ day we walked around like old men. For night games, we brought out all my mother’s lamps on extension cords.
In high school, I was an outstanding second baseman, and I think I could have pursued a major-league career. But in college, I discovered that I liked acting more. I never stopped playing, though, and I still try to make my catches as pretty as I can. On Saturdays, I’m at second base for the Royals of the San Fernando Valley Show League. Two seasons ago, the team I was on--the Coney Island Whitefish--won the championship, and I was voted most valuable player in the league.
I also play once a year at Dodger Stadium on Hollywood Stars Night, when celebrities face the press for four innings before a Dodger game. It’s fabulous to be on a major league field with all those fans watching. My first year, I hit a triple and made three successive sparkling plays at shortstop. When I ran off the field, Reggie Smith yelled, ‘That was a major league play.’ In the locker room, Dodger official Steve Brenner asked, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘No, don’t tempt me now, please.’
It wasn’t the only time I’ve had second thoughts about not going for the pros. A few years ago, as a promotional gig, I tried out for the minor-league Bakersfield Mariners. I was better than all the 18-year-olds. I got three hits off a guy who had just been cut by the Houston Astros. I said to the scout, ‘Is there a place in baseball for a 35-year-old second baseman?’ ‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘In the seat right behind the dugout.’
That’s not such a bad place to be; I’ve spent many hours in the stands. I saw my first professional game when I was 8. It was Memorial Day, 1956, the Yankees against the Washington Senators. It was hot and humid, and when we got off the Major Deegan Expressway and onto Jerome Avenue, there was the stadium. It looked huge. Inside, it smelled of peanuts and beer and sweat, like the back room of a speak-easy. The game turned out to be historic: Mickey Mantle came within 18 inches--the closest anyone has ever come--of hitting the ball out of the stadium.
We sat right behind third base, a perfect place to be that day because Mickey was batting left-handed. When Pedro Ramos threw him the pitch, and Mickey hit it 500 feet, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen anyone hit farther than my dad, and I could barely get it past the pitcher’s mound. But that ball just kept going until it bounced off the very top of the facade in right field. A priest sitting in front of me shook his head and said, ‘That almost hit heaven.’
I felt that Mickey knew I was there that day. We seemed to make eye contact often, so I’d look away whenever he’d get near third base. I felt so close to him that I could feel the pains in his knees when he ran. Before the game, my dad had arranged to get Mickey’s autograph on my program. For years, I kept that program wrapped in Saran Wrap on the bookcase in my room.
Flash forward to 1985. I hosted a television special before the All-Star Game, and Mickey was a guest. In the opening, I told the audience that all I wanted as a kid was to have Mickey Mantle throw me a ball and say, ‘You’ve got a good arm, kid.’ For the close, the script (which I selfishly wrote) called for Mickey to do just that. He threw me the ball and said, ‘You’ve got a good arm, kid.’ And I started to cry. I said, ‘Stop the tape; I’ve got something in my eye.’
The program he signed is framed now, and I keep it in my office, along with 15 autographed balls. Some were sent to me by people who know I’m a fan, but I actually requested the one signed, ‘To Billy, You look marvelous, Mel Allen.’ When I was 9, I’d tried to get Allen’s autograph at a game, but it was raining, and he said, ‘Not now, kid, I have to change my shirt.’ Then, last year, I got a call from the TV show Mel narrates, ‘This Week in Baseball.’ They wanted to use my ‘You Look Marvelous’ recording. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘But only if Mel Allen gives me the autograph he refused me almost 30 years ago.’ When I got the ball, I thought, ‘Man, it sure took him long enough to change his shirt; it must have had lots of buttons.’ ” PRODUCED BY LINDEN GROSS