Thursday, August 24, 2017
233. Jerry Lewis: Hey, who's the clown on first base?
Whether you think his movies are hysterical (like I do) or dopey (then I pity you), one thing's for sure: you know who Jerry Lewis was. I saw "was", because the comedian passed away this week at the age of 91. Very few performers could boast a career arc as broad as Lewis' seven decades of work. From nightclubs to radio to movies, as part of a comedy team and as a solo act, the name Jerry Lewis is synonymous with American comedy. For over 40 years his Labor Day fundraisers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association helped raise millions of dollars for a disease that was unknown and unpronounceable before he brought attention to it. Millions, maybe billions, of people found comfort in the laughter he created over the years. Even actors and comedians who take cheap shots at his being perceived by the French as a "genius" all owe at least a small amount of credit for their careers to this comedic trailblazer. One can go on for eternity cataloging Jerry Lewis' life in show business, but that's not what this story is going to be about. This post will reveal a little-known side of this giant of American comedy, for beyond the movies and fame, Jerry Lewis was a baseball fan.
Jerome (some say it was Joseph) Levitch was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926. At a young age Lewis was exposed to the entertainment business - his father was a vaudevillian and his mother was a professional piano player. Much of Jerry's early life was spent being passed off to relatives and family friends while his parents traveled the vaudeville circuit. This transient lifestyle made the only child feel rootless and vulnerable much of the time. It's not recorded where Jerry Lewis first got his appreciation for baseball, but it is not out of line to opine that the lonely boy found solace in being able to follow one team through newspaper box scores and radio, no matter where he was temporarily living.
When they were able to, the Lewis' took their son with them when they had a lengthy engagement at a club in the Catskills or Jersey shore. As early as age 5, Lewis began appearing on stage with his parents. One of his earliest original comedy bit was to exaggerating lip-sync to a phonograph record - a routine Andy Kaufman appropriated and make his own some forty years later. Lewis knew he was destined for a life in showbiz, and dropped out of high school when he was 15 to pursue his dream. During World War II Lewis was rejected for military service due to a heart murmur, and he spent the war years honing his comedy chops working Manhattan's nightclub circuit. At the Glass Hat Club in 1945, Lewis shared the bill with a slick looking Bing Crosby sound-alike named Dean Martin. The two hit it off and quickly formed a comedy team, Martin and Lewis. With Dean as the suave straight man and Lewis as the zany sidekick, the unscripted act was unlike any other that came before. By 1947 they had reached the pinnacle of New York nightclub acts when they headlined the Copacabana. The following year the duo appeared on Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" TV show. The Sullivan appearance combined with their own NBC radio show quickly made Martin and Lewis the country's most popular comedy act.
Because of their celebrity, the two comedians were soon making the acquaintance of all categories of celebrity. While Dean gravitated towards the Sinatra crowd, Jerry palled around with ballplayers. One of the first big names Lewis formed friendships with was New York Giants manager Leo Durocher. Leo was a fixture of Manhattan's swankier nightclubs and its only natural that he would have caught Martin and Lewis' act on numerous occasions. Durocher piloted the Giants to the pennant in 1951 and after the World Series returned to his home in Los Angeles. In late October the Giants manager and his opponent in the World Series, Casey Stengel, were asked to manage teams in a charity ballgame. It was only natural that Leo reached out to his pal Jerry Lewis who was in Hollywood with Dean at the time. The comedy duo appeared in the late innings of the game, sharing the field with All-Stars such Warren Spahn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon and Hank Sauer.
By this time, Martin and Lewis had transitioned their nightclub and radio act into a full-blown comedy movie franchise. In the years since their first movie in 1949, Martin and Lewis had made over 12 films before 1954.
Lewis' baseball connection to Durocher and his Giants continued through the years. Both Martin and Lewis appeared at the Giants spring training camp in Phoenix in 1954 where the two each managed their own team in an inter squad game. Martin, wearing uniform number "00" played third base while his partner donned a jersey with "?" on the back and played first base for his team. Martin managed a triple when the Lewis' outfielders unwisely played him too shallow. Lewis had a single to his credit and his Giants beat his partner 5-3 before 5,000 fans at Phoenix' Municipal Stadium.
Just after their Giants game, both men's love of the game led to the team optioning an original screenplay for a musical called "Safe at Home". The story revolved around two New York Giants players who desert the team to play ball in Mexico. The two get mixed up with a crooked bullfighter and, you guessed it, hilarity ensues. There was even talk of who would play Durocher in the picture (considering Leo's later penchant of TV and movie cameos, it's only natural go imagine the Giants manager playing himself). Unfortunately for both cinephiles and baseball fans, "Safe at Home" was never produced.
Lewis and his wife Patti lived in Pacific Palisades, a neighborhood on LA's westside. The Lewis family consisted of two boys, Gary and Ronnie, and father passed his love of baseball down to his sons. To encourage the boys, Lewis purchased the vacant lot next to the family's home and constructed their own private ball field. Lewis also added his star power and sponsorship to a local kids ball club named the "Jerry Lewis Stars".
In the spring of 1956, Martin and Lewis again combined their love of baseball with their comedy when the two appeared in a charity game at LA's Wrigley Field. The game pitted a team of major leaguers against a squad of PCL League stars. This time Lewis and Martin appeared on the same team, Lewis at first and Martin at third. The duo acquitted themselves well, with newspaper accounts complimenting their teamwork in the infield and Lewis' errorless play at first. Lewis went 0 for 4, but Martin got himself a single in four at bats.
Exactly ten years to the day of their debut performance in 1946, Martin and Lewis split up. Dean went on to be a leading man in more serious movies like "Rio Bravo" and "Some Came Running", and teaming up with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. as the core of the uber-cool "Rat Pack". Jerry forged ahead as a solo act, establishing himself as more than just a sidekick to Dean Martin. Besides his Vegas act, Lewis branched out and recorded a successful album of standards for Capitol Records that shot to number 3 on the charts. A succession of hit movies followed, making Jerry Lewis one of the most bankable performers in the country.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles in 1958, Jerry Lewis was reported to be one of the first season ticket holders. With a real big league team in the city, Lewis quickly befriended many of the Dodgers players, Gil Hodges in particular. Hodges was one of the teams most popular players and a perennial All-Star. Hodges was also, like Lewis, a first baseman.
In 1959 Lewis was back again at LA's Wrigley Field for a charity game. This time Lewis was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers as they faced a Major League All-Star team piloted by Gene Mauch. Wearing number "55", Lewis took the field alongside Dodgers stars Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Roseboro and Charley Neal. Roseboro's two home runs powered the Dodgers over Mauch's All-Stars, 9-7. Lewis went 0 for 4 against the big league pitching and was credited with three errors of a comedic nature.
Ever since the movie industry moved from New York and New Jersey to Southern California in the 1920's, both studios and prominent actors formed baseball teams. Fatty Arbuckle, one of Hollywood's earliest and popular comedic actors, even owned the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. Tom Mix had a team and Paramount hired Black Sox outcast Fred McMullin as a ringer for their team. Later in the 1940's, Frank Sinatra formed his own team called the Swooners who's rotating roster boasted everyone from Nat King Cole to Robert Wagner and Anthony Quinn. With Jerry Lewis' baseball interest it was only natural that he would do the same, and the "Jerry Lewis Clowns" were formed.
By the early 1960's these celebrity pickup teams had evolved into the Hollywood Entertainment League. Besides the Clowns there was "Garner Gems" led by James Garner, singer Bobby Darin's "Darin's Demons", and Pat Boone's "Boones". Even Lewis' old partner had his own team, "Dean Martin's Dino's". Lewis outfitted his Clowns with home white flannels supplied by Rawlings with "Clowns" in red script across the front. The left sleeve sported a large caricature portrait of Lewis which would become his trademark. Red stirrups with white stripes and a red cap with a white "JL" monogram topped off the uniform.
Besides owning his own team and appearing as a ringer at first base for the Dodgers, Lewis' baseball interest was acknowledged by the game's writers when he was tapped to be the master of ceremonies for the Baseball Writers Awards in January, 1966. The gig was especially personal to Lewis as the event would also honor his beloved Dodgers, that years' World Series champions.
With the advent of television and the popularity of football and basketball, baseball's popularity began a steady decline throughout the 1960's. The Hollywood Entertainers League folded by the end of the decade, yet the game still held some popularity among the stars. The Dodgers and Angels hosted "Hollywood Stars" benefit games fairly regularly, and Lewis would suit up with fellow baseball fans like James Garner, Mickey Rooney, Ricky Nelson and Walter Matthau.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Jerry Lewis' baseball career came on July 19, 1973. The Houston Astros were hosting a rare in-season exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. Lewis' old pal, Leo Durocher, was now skipper of the Astros, and he had a great time writing "Jerry Lewis" batting lead off and playing first base in his line up card. Lewis wore number "9" and hit a single off Detroit's Mike Strahler. Later the Tigers sent their pitching coach, Art Fowler, to the mound, off whom Lewis drew a walk. Tigers first baseman Norm Cash acknowledged that the comedian looked pretty good in his 4 innings of work, noting that he played errorless ball and didn't drop a single throw.
Jerry Lewis' last big brush with baseball came at the tail end of his long career. Having conquered nightclubs, radio, TV, and film, only Broadway remained unchecked on his list of successes. That changed when he took over the roll of the Devil in the revival of "Damn Yankees". For those of you who don't know the play, the story is about a long-suffering Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the Devil to become a star baseball player and finally defeat the Yankees. Lewis drew great reviews, then began a semi-retirement with select guest spots in movies and TV shows.
Jerry Lewis passed away on August 20, 2017 after a long illness. I had wanted to do a card and story on him ever since I found a photo of his Clowns baseball team several years ago. When I was writing my book, The League of Outsider Baseball, I had Jerry penciled in for the "People's Game" chapter which had stories and illustrations of people who you wouldn't think were baseball fans or players. But, unfortunately, Jerry got cut during the outline phase. His baseball interest was a little more dynamic than most, and I wanted more than a page or two in order to give his story a proper telling. Unfortunately, it wasn't until he passed away last week that I revived my story and pulled together all the newspaper clippings I had accumulated and sat down to write. For all the joy his movies gave me ever since I was a kid, and all the good he did with his Muscular Dystrophy telethons, I hope he'd get a kick out of his very own baseball card.