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Infielder Stars in Hollywood

His mother wanted him to be Rudolph Valentino. His father wanted him to be Tony Lazzeri.

As usual, mother knew best.

Johnny Berardino became, like Tony Lazzeri, a major league infielder in the American League for 11 years--which would have been 15, except he went to war for four of them.

But as John Beradino (actors always change their names to fit marquees), he became a star actor for 30 years. Spencer Tracy didn’t last that long.

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He was no threat at all to Sir Laurence Olivier. He didn’t exactly get the parts Valentino did. He didn’t get the girl, he got the sick. He was typecast. Not as a lover, as a doctor.

It was unique in the annals of film. Usually, athletes who made it in Hollywood played Tarzan or they were the lookouts at the gang hideout. They never had any line of dialogue, other than an elephant call or a “you want I should pinch his head off now, boss?”

His lines had verbs in them, and if they weren’t Shakespeare, they were at least more popular with the masses than “King Lear” or “The Merchant of Venice” ever had been.

So, John Beradino never played Hamlet or Marc Antony, but this week he gets his star in the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, where he is listed with the Clark Gables, Jimmy Stewarts, Henry Fondas, Gene Kellys and other legends of Tinseltown.

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Lots of sports stars hanker for a show business career after they are through playing. They’ve acquired a taste for applause and fame, and they see this as a way to continue getting it.

But the ability to hit the curveball or throw in the three-pointer or kick the field goal in the clutch doesn’t insure that you can ever deliver a line in the clutch, too, and do it credibly.

Johnny Berardino was as good an infielder as any of his generation of ballplayers--not Tony Lazzeri, perhaps, or Napoleon Lajoie. But he could hit the breaking stuff and turn the double play. In 1940, he hit 16 home runs and drove in 85 for the old St. Louis Browns. The next year, he hit .271. Then he went in the Army in the flower of his career.

He was almost Bill Veeck’s favorite ballplayer. Veeck, the maverick owner of the Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, loved Berardino. He had bought him from the Browns for his Indians and, when Berardino showed up with an agent, Veeck was entranced. No one in baseball had ever done that before.

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Veeck was bemused, until Berardino suddenly announced that because of his Hollywood career (which was nonexistent at the time), he was taking a terrible risk entrusting his good looks to the vagaries of batting against, say, Allie Reynolds. Veeck, the P.T. Barnum of baseball, was overjoyed. He knew a publicity gimmick when he heard one. Anyone could sign a second baseman. How many could sign a budding John Barrymore, a great profile? Veeck promptly announced that he was insuring Berardino’s features with Lloyd’s of London for $1 million. If they got dented by an ear-high fastball, he collected. The premium was not high--78 cents a month, as Veeck recollected it. The insurance company figured the likelihood of pitchers throwing at a .190 hitter--which Berardino was at the time--was remote. Lloyd’s was not above a little publicity itself.

It was great good fun, and Veeck always sent for Berardino wherever he went. In fact, when Veeck was on the verge of transferring the Browns to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, he contacted Berardino to become his L.A. broadcaster. If baseball hadn’t shunted Veeck’s move aside--they got the team away from him and moved it to Baltimore instead--John Berardino might be Vin Scully today.

Instead, Berardino turned to films. He found his niche as Dr. Steven Hardy in “General Hospital” in that illegitimate offspring of the theater called soap operas, which are convoluted dramas Euripides never envisioned.

John-loves-Donna-who-loves-Philip-who-loves-Sybil-who-loves-John-who- has-cancer-and-an-illegitimate-daughter-in-Altoona-and-who-tries-to- keep-everyone-from-knowing-about-his-prison-record-which-he-was- wrongfully-convicted-to-and-which-now-that-he’s-a-renowned-brain- surgeon-he-doesn’t-want-any-of-his-ex-wives (3)-to-find-out-about.

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He didn’t get the part on his good looks. Actually, L.A.-born and L.A.-raised, he had been acting all his life, starting in Our Gang comedies in the ‘30s. He took acting lessons, even while he was playing baseball, and was better at stealing a scene than a base.

“General Hospital” and Beradino celebrate their 30th year on the air together this week, the longest-running pairing since Lunt and Fontanne and longest in the annals of television.

Veeck is gone now. So are the St. Louis Browns. But “General Hospital” and John Beradino are still headline stuff. Beradino became a millionaire without ever having to step into any more Bob Feller fastballs. He was, in a sense, the game’s first million-dollar player. But he could never have made the millions he has as an American League infielder in his day.

Of course, infielders who bat .271 and hit 16 homers today get the key to the mint--$20 million or so for five years or so. But the nice thing about soaps is the characters age along with the actors. In baseball, you age. The game doesn’t.

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John Beradino as Dr. Steven Hardy on “General Hospital” will never be confused with Rudolph Valentino as the Sheik of Araby--and he’ll never make the Hall of Fame as Tony Lazzeri has done.

But how many second basemen have their own star on Hollywood Boulevard? Conversely, how many soap stars ever went four for five against Bob Feller in his prime?

He might have batted eighth in the grand old game, but he’s a cleanup hitter on daytime TV and has been for 30 years.


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