At the University of Connecticut, I did well enough in baseball but couldn't get anywhere in basketball. Every time I'd have a good day the coach would be looking the other way. I wrote him a letter summarizing my skills and signed the name of my high school coach. When I still didn't get noticed, I told him I might quit basketball. He said it was the manly thing to do.
After graduation I headed to Florida, hoping to catch on with a minor league team. I worked out in Miami Beach with Mickey McDermott and a couple of other pros and took a room in a flophouse. The conversation in a flophouse is unbelievable. The old man rooming with me was crazier than I was. I moved into an old, open wooden press box at Flamingo Park. I dragged a gym mat up there to sleep on and took advantage of the park's washroom facilities. I bathed in the Atlantic Ocean.
Eager to catch on with a team, I got a friend of my father's whose brother owned a pizza place to send me a wire signed by Frank Sinatra. This guy had been Sinatra's secretary. Sinatra was a friend of Leo Durocher. Durocher was then a coach with the Dodgers. The wire said to show this to Durocher and he'll take a look at you.
I hitchhiked to Vero Beach and went to the hotel where the Dodgers stayed. I walked up to Durocher in the lobby and showed him the wire. He said, "Yeah, O.K., go put your stuff on."
When I got to the park he motioned me to take second. I was shaking. He hit me six ground balls. I handled them all. Some of them I handled longer than others. Then he said, "All right, kid, go change your clothes." That was it.
I hung around the lobby waiting for Durocher. He was in and out, talking to people. I know he knew I was there. Finally he came up and said, "Yeah, well, kid, we can't use you." I was too stunned to say anything except "O.K." Now I would know better. Now I would point out that Lou Gehrig wasn't a red-hot fielder, either, but he was a pretty good stick and that Yogi Berra wasn't a very good catcher at the beginning. Hell, I was just getting warmed up.
As it turned out, Durocher had a good eye. Two years of trying to last with a minor league team—any minor league team—not only banked my fire for baseball but also proved I wasn't cut out to be a Bible salesman, a carpenter or a short-order cook. I tried them all as I bounced around the Western Carolina League. I moved pianos. I waited tables. I sold magazines. I messed up an entire hardwood floor.
That fall I married Carol and settled down (tentatively, like a man in a dentist's chair) to teaching school. It was then that I dabbled in acting and got off the punt in the pickup game.
I wrote my brother a letter asking what he thought of my new goal. He wrote back that I ought to "wake up to reality." I went to see my father. His advice was to "never mind that damn football stuff, go get your master's."
Naturally I put in a call to Coach Jim Lee Howell of the New York Giants and asked for a tryout. Howell was very patient. He said the Giants had Don Chandler and didn't need a punter. He said Chandler also placekicked. I had heard of Chandler, but I really didn't know what all he did. I'd never seen a pro football game except on television.