Bringing Gray's story to life, lacing fact with fiction (the Canzoni catch, Gray's climactic grab) was left to director Mel Damski, ex-Colgate catcher, Long Island sportswriter, full-time Mets fanatic. Up in the broadcast booth Phil Stone, an NBC football announcer and radio man for the San Francisco Giants, provided the play-by-play. It was Stone who would call the critical Canzoni catch, a day before we actually filmed it.
"How do you want to do this?" Stone asked Damski.
"I don't know," said the director. "Nothing's really set. Why don't you ad-lib it."
Ad-lib? Great. What if Stone, a friend, suddenly went Hollywood on me and turned my catch into a death-defying stunt?
I need not have worried. Stone played his part perfectly: "We're in the bottom of the fifth, all tied at five, the Yanks have two on with two out and Oscar Grimes stepping in. Grimes, hitting .260, already has a double on the day. Here's the pitch. Grimes drills it hard to leftfield; it is hit a ton. Canzoni's on a dead run. He makes a diving catch. What a play by Phil Canzoni! Wait just a minute. Canzoni is down. He may have hurt himself on the play. The Browns' trainer is out checking on him. Oh my, it looks like that'll be all for him today. Well, folks, with the injury to Phil Canzoni, it looks like we're going to get a chance to see the man many people came to Yankee Stadium hoping to see: Pete Gray." When Stone finished, the actors and crew cheered as if he'd just hit a grand slam.
My catch was set for the following day. Between takes I'd done some scouting of my own: I needed a partner, someone to throw that perfect fly ball. It had to look as if it was coming off a bat and it had to fall into an area defined by Damski and his cameramen. I chose a strong-armed ex-minor league infielder named Jerry Lane and the newest, whitest ball around. Without my glasses I could leave nothing to chance.
As the cameras set up, I took some deep breaths, eyed my mark and mentally ran through the sequence I had worked out: sprint 15 yards, dive, catch the ball, pretend to pull a hamstring. About 100 extras—fans decked out in fedoras and zoot suits—filled a section of stands behind home plate. (In typical Hollywood fashion, home plate at Blair Field was leftfield at Yankee Stadium.)
I took a couple of practice runs. Lane, playing Dan Marino, threw two passes right on the button. I picked them both off, sprawling splendidly in the grass. "Great catches," said Pace as I warmed up again. "But save a couple, will ya?"
The director's slate snapped down. Two hundred people waited, watching my every move. For the only time in my life, I was an actor. People depended on me. Time and money were going to be wasted if I didn't make this catch.
"Ready, Camera A," someone said. "Ready, Camera B."