Gashouse Hillbillies

Joe DiMaggio, an Italian ballplayer from San Francisco, won the American League MVP Award in 1941. (But Ted Williams was The Sporting News Player of the Year.) Dolph Camilli was the other MVP winner that year. He was another Italian San Franciscan. Camilli captured two legs of the Triple Crown, leading the Senior Circuit in home runs and RBI and leading his Brooklyn Dodgers to the pennant. Teammate Pete Reiser took the batting crown. Dolph was of the MVP species “clutch slugger on a pennant winner” like Justin Morneau.

He had an older brother named Francisco who was also an athlete. He boxed under the name Frankie Campbell*. Eleven years before Dolph was the MVP, Campbell’s career and life came to a tragic end when injuries suffered in the ring during a bout against Max Baer killed him.

*This wasn’t the first boxer-baseballist combo from San Fran. Gentleman Jim Corbett had a brother who played baseball at St. Mary’s, then appeared in the majors.

Max Baer was once heavyweight champeen of the world—back when that meant something. If you saw Cinderella Man, he was the guy that Braddock had to beat to win the title. The Campbell fight was early in his career, but he went on to the top of the heap and defeated Primo Carnera. Max went Hollywood. He appeared in some films, like Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams, along with his brother Buddy Baer. His son, Max Baer Jr., went on to become an actor as well.

Buddy Ebsen wanted to be a doctor, but the Depression curtailed his studies. He got into vaudeville instead and would have been the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz* except for an allergy. He couldn’t handle the aluminum dust that was part of the Tin Man’s getup. He wound up getting other roles on the big screen and the small screen. Then he appeared in Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

*I tried watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. I also tried syncing that album to Full Metal Jacket. I liked that better. Supposedly, Animals syncs well with Casablanca and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The Wall works with Alice In Wonderland and Apocalypse Now. I don’t think that it’s synchronicity. I think that these movies are structured similarly and Pink Floyd just happens to be a cinematic band with a cinematic sound. So is Radiohead, apparently. Kid A is supposed to sync well with some movies.

Paul Henning was a writer for radio. He did scripts for such shows as Fibber McGee and Molly and Burns and Allen. Broke into television and created The Bob Cummings Show. It was a time of rural comedies like The Andy Griffith Show (which Henning sometimes wrote for.) Television had reached flyover country—emphasis on the word country—and it was an untapped market.

Leo Durocher was a western Massachusetts product who started out with the Yankees during their first glory days. Skipper Miller Huggins took a shine to him, but he was nicknamed “The All-American Out.” I’m not going to tell you that much about Leo the Lip. If you want to read more, seek out Nice Guys Finish Last.

A good fielding shortstop without much of a bat, he moved around. Played with the Cardinals when they were the Gashouse Gang.* Got into managing and took over the Dodgers. He was manager the year Camilli won his MVP.** Anyways, Durocher fell out of favor in Brooklyn and went on to manage the Giants. But then he returned to the Dodgers as a coach. He was with them in LA and The Lip wound up doing some guest shots on TV.

*Between Pepper Martin and the Dean brothers, the Gashouse Gang were a pretty rustic bunch themselves.

** The Camillis must have had some athletic genes. I forgot to mention this earlier, but in addition to Dolph and Frankie, Dolph had a son named Doug who was a catcher during the 1960s.

Stuntcasting Los Angeles sports personalities on sitcoms was common in the 1960s. Larry Granillo mentioned a clip of Durocher on Mr. Ed. Just from the 1965 Dodgers, many of the players earned TV credit playing either themselves or other roles. Mr. Ed also had John Roseboro, Willie Davis, and Sandy Koufax. Don Drysdale and Wes Parker appeared on The Brady Bunch. Jim Lefebvre and Lou Johnson were on Gilligan’s Island; as was Rudy LaRusso of the Lakers.*

*Before there was Curt Flood, there was Rudy LaRusso. Rudy was a tough power forward; half-Italian, half-Jewish who hailed from Brooklyn and went to James Madison High. From there he went to Dartmouth before being drafted by the then Minneapolis Lakers. Red Auerbach had territorial rights to him, but passed. He was an All-Star, a Don Rickles fan (according to one news story), and must’ve been something of an enforcer. In my research on him, I found a number of boxscores that said “Fouled Out – LaRusso.”

In January of 1967, LaRusso was part of a three-way trade that would send him to Detroit. But he refused to go to the Pistons and retired. He had established himself in the Los Angeles area and had a day job as a stockbroker in Beverly Hills with McDonnell and Company. The league suspended him. LaRusso’s attorney filed an anti-trust suit and sought compensation for the balance of his contract plus any future basketball income. But the forward and the NBA never went to trial.

1967 was also the year that the American Basketball Association started. One of the franchises would be the Oakland Oaks (Pat Boone would be a part owner.) They hired Bruce Hale as head coach. Hale’s son-in-law was Rick Barry. Barry would jump across the Bay from the San Francisco Warriors to the new team (more on that in a future edition of this series.) The NBA was also expanding that year, and SF also lost Warrior-poet Tom Meschery. They needed a forward. So head coach Bill Sharman talked ownership into trying to see if LaRusso would be interested in going north. The 6-9 Ivy Leaguer said that he’d “rather pursue a career than a lawsuit” and SF purchased his rights from Detroit.

Leonard Koppett and David Halberstam have written about different events involving the NBAPA, but I didn’t see anything by them about LaRusso. So I worry that I may be overstating the significance of him here. But two years later, there were a number of baseball players who were traded that balked at the deals; Donn Clendenon, Hawk Harrelson, and, ultimately, Flood. Were they inspired by LaRusso?

Lefebvre was also on Batman. Maury Wills guested on Get Smart. Willie Davis and Don Drysdale were on The Flying Nun. Don Drysdale was on Leave It to Beaver, which means that the Bradys and Cleavers were in the same universe.

Leo the Lip had Hollywood connections. He was pals with Frank Sinatra. Manager Walter Alston wasn’t exactly actor material. Alston did have a non-speaking role in The Geisha Boy, but didn’t have the charisma of a Durocher.

It was an era that had rather unrealistic, absurdist TV shows* and the Lip was on a few of them. In addition to Mr. Ed, Durocher appeared on The Munsters, and The Beverly Hillbillies. It was in the last of these where he appeared alongside Max Baer Jr. (aka Jethro Bodine.) The show was a Paul Henning creation and starred Ebsen, Baer, Irene Ryan and Donna Douglas. The episode “The Clampetts and The Dodgers” aired April 10. 1963. Durocher plays golf with the Clampetts and finds out that Jethro has a live arm. The problem is, he can’t throw the ball without loading it up with possum fat. And far be it from Durocher to cheat.

*The Clampetts may have had a John Steinbeck-meets-Marcel Duchamp vibe but they were more plausible than many of their TV counterparts. There was Gomer Pyle who, like Beetle Bailey, remained stateside despite the war in Indochina. POWs were running Stalag 13. Samantha Stevens was a bewitched Betty Draper before there was a Betty Draper. Then there were Jeannie, My Favorite Martian and My Mother the Car, not to mention a flying nun and a talking horse. TV goes through these phases. Seinfeld got bizarro towards the end. “The Butter Shave,” anyone?

Did they talk about Max’s dad beating to death the brother of one of Leo’s more valuable players? Who knows? The conversation would have been 47 years ago and I doubt Baer remembers it. And Durocher didn’t mention it in his memoirs. Max Jr. wasn’t born yet when it happened, but said that while he was growing up his father would cry about Campbell’s death.

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Comments

  1. jmac66 said...

    And wasn’t it the Donna Reed Show that had an episode with Drysdale and Willie Mays playing themselves?

    yes—they were “recruiting” Paul Peterson (and Durocher had a cameo at the very end if that show, also)

  2. John Downing said...

    Loved this article.Perhaps a story about the many athletes,baseball players in the majority,that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.I also recall the Yankees of yore(Berra,McDougal, etc) performing (?)on the Phil Silvers Show.What a thriil for a younster to see his favorite players in civvies and on a prime time television show.Those were truly the ‘good ole days’

  3. Paul E said...

    I believe Durocher “warned” Elroy Hirsch not to get too excited about Herman’s “punting ability” in an episode of the Munsters after Leo had “scouted” Herman as a baseball player.

    Speaking of far fetched and absurd, do you think anyone in 1965 would have imagined MLB players earning $3,000,000 on average in 2010?

  4. BronxBob said...

    Wes Parker actually had a featured role in 1970’s on a Norman Lear show called “All That Glitters”

    Concept was role reversals, so Parker’s role was to be the “eye candy” secretary for his libidinous female boss

    after that I have no idea what happened to his acting career

    (Parker also part of the only all switch hitting infield in MLB history along with Jr Gilliam, Maury Wills and Jim Lefebvre)

  5. Marc Schneider said...

    This is one of the coolest articles I’ve read here.  I am old enough to remember some, although not all, of the episodes mentioned.  I often think about the surrealism embodied in many of these sitcoms, and having the baseball players only adds to it.  (BTW, Joe Namath also appeared on the Brady Bunch.)  These sitcoms sort of have their own reality, which is unlike anything resembling our own. The connection between Leave It to Beaver and the Brady Bunch is neat, but no one wrote a book called “Growing Up Cleaver.”

  6. Steve Treder said...

    Unlike the other jocks who were taking those roles on sitcoms just for the heck of it, Wes Parker was seriously angling for an acting career.  One of the reasons he was willing to retire from baseball at the age of 32, even though he clearly had plenty of skill left, was that he felt the time was right to devote his energy to the acting career full time.

    He did land various small parts on various TV shows through the mid-to-late 1970s, but he was never able to break through and establish a successful ongoing acting career.

    Here’s his IMDB page:

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0662696/

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