Original Home Run Derby was a television show back in 1959
As a sportswriter in L.A., author was introduced to screenwriter Lou Breslow
Among Breslow's credits were Bedtime for Bonzo and the Babe Ruth Story
First Home Run Derby show featured Mantle vs. Mays playing for money
Lou Breslow called me out of the blue. I was then -- this was, say, 1980 -- a young sportswriter in Los Angeles and I must have written something he found simpatico. He suggested we collaborate on a sports-themed screenplay. As I said, this was Los Angeles and I was newly-arrived from the Ohio hinterlands. In other words, this struck me as the most natural development in the world.
As it turned out, Lou, however chipper, was in his 80s, and pretty much past his prime, screenplay-wise. He hadn't had a credit, in fact, since a 1965 episode of My Mother the Car. I recognized almost right away, starry-eyed that I might have been, that this was probably not a go-project.
Still, this was not an experience I was going to neglect. Our collaboration was performed in the manner of George and Jerry working on their NBC pilot, basically a lot of pencil tapping broken up by another of Lou's off-the-wall stories, each more astonishing than the last. I was, you might say, in total thrall.
You see, Lou didn't so much encompass an era in film-making as he did its entire history. He started as a cameraman on silents, that career ending when he stubbornly cranked away on an important scene, even as he remembered there was no film in the camera. We agreed he had done the right thing. Let the director sort it out.
He found he had more facility for screenwriting, and what facility it must have been. Now he was cranking out screenplays, as many as seven a year back in the early '30s. I gather they were not all distinguished -- I can find little about Rackety Rax or even his partnership with Rube Goldberg (really!) on Soup to Nuts. But in those days, Hollywood was churning out product just as fast and as efficiently as it could. Distinguished was not the point.
All the same, he managed to work steadily across a variety of genres, and with a variety of talent, just piling up credits. He wrote for Abbot and Costello, for the Marx Brothers and even Ronald Reagan, though Lou preferred the chimp's chops on Bedtime for Bonzo to those of the Gipper. "Reagan was an idiot," he said. He much preferred his partnership with Babe Ruth on the Babe Ruth Story. He remembered visiting the Babe in New York and being greeted a little too enthusiastically at his apartment. "How's my favorite [Jew]?" the Babe said, putting his old friend in a headlock and flinging him across the living room.
We were meeting regularly at his Brentwood condo and producing nothing but anecdotes, marvelous as they might have been. His facility had long since departed him (even he knew he'd lost his fastball some years before when he was replaced on a picture by a young gag-writer named Woody Allen) and I never had any. The prospects of a working screenplay were not great. Still, those stories ...
One day we were sitting in his living room, tapping our pencils, when Lou remembered, this during a time his film career was drying up (a couple of Leave it to Beavers was all he was managing), he had invented Home Run Derby. Say what now? Sure, Home Run Derby. It was a weekly show back in 1959, pitting two sluggers, like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in a game show format. "Here," he said, as if I didn't believe him, "I've got the tape."
If I tell you it was funnier than anything he might have scripted for Groucho, well, you don't have to trust me. Do a YouTube search. Today's version, what survives as a staple of All-Star week, is overwhelmed with production value and hype. But, a half-century ago, Lou had few such advantages in transforming what was essentially batting practice into filmed entertainment. He overcame at least some of the obvious obstacles by offering his famous combatants a modest but bewildering pay structure. The winner over the course of a nine-inning game got the magnificent amount of $2,000, plus opportunities of $500 more each time he hit three dingers in a row, with a dazzling array of incentives for homers beyond that.
But there was no overcoming the profound banality of the athletes themselves. The format called for the slugger to return from the plate to visit with the announcer and help with the commentary. In the case of Mantle, this meant slouching awkwardly, grinning wildly and refusing all entreaties for speech. So not only was the action crushingly boring, it was now kind of creepy as well. Mick's grin seemed to turn into a leer over the course the game as he steadfastly refused to offer even the simplest observation on Mays' pokes. I have never seen someone so disturbingly dumbstruck in my life.
I noticed as the reel unspooled that Lou appeared to be having a heart attack. He was, in fact, almost paralyzed with laughter. "What an idiot," he sputtered. This may have been the prototype of a durable sports institution, but it also was a lesson in how unreliable our games and our athletes were in this new age of entertainment. Both the games and the athletes were going to need augmentation, or at least editing -- and, boy, would they get it -- if they were going to continue to amuse or excite us in the years to come.
Properly augmented and severely edited, Home Run Derby survives and, as a celebration of American horsepower, an appeal which Lou had understood before any of us, will survive us all. It was a pretty good idea, after all. It certainly survived its creator who, not so long after this, became physically diminished and not so long after that, died, leaving all his credits and this crazy baseball novelty behind. As for our project, our collaboration, the thing that started this yarn, obviously we didn't finish it. Whatever it was.
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