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Danny Kaye hummed a Strauss waltz as he swung a fungo bat—da-dum-da-da-dum, swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh—in the cramped clubhouse at the Seattle Mariners' spring training camp in Tempe, Ariz. His audience of players, coaches and locker-room functionaries stood just out of range, backs safely to the walls, as he swung and hummed and lectured on the dynamics of the level swing, on the virtues of just meeting the ball.
"Power is not good in itself, unless it is used to manufacture speed," Kaye advised his listeners, among them Seattle Coach Vada Pinson, who accumulated 2,757 hits and 256 home runs in 18 major league seasons. "The simple things in life are the most difficult to do. I remember playing golf with Kirk Douglas once." Here Kaye instantly transformed his slender self into a burly and grimacing Douglas, arms held out from the body to accommodate protruding latissimi dorsi. "Kirk would take that big muscular swing and go oomph, swish-oomph! I'd take my easy swing like this—swish-swoosh—and outdrive him by 15 yards on every hole. I could see it was sending him over the side. Finally, he couldn't take it any longer. 'Listen, you redheaded s.o.b.,' he shouted, 'I'm bigger than you are and stronger than you are and younger than you are, and I swing harder than you can. So how come you hit the damn ball farther?' "
Kaye became Kaye again, smiled contentedly, took another easy cut with the fungo and said, "Well, in trying to muscle up on every swing, he was only interfering with the speed of the club." Then Kaye demonstrated how the extra effort interrupted the flow of the downswing. "He was working against himself. I was using what power I had to manufacture speed. The simple things in life are the most difficult to do." Da-dum-da-da-dum, swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh....
The Seattle players and coaches, all of whom know much more about swinging a baseball bat than a comedian does, listened attentively, nodding gravely in agreement, as if the simple truths imparted by Kaye were as unfamiliar to them as Hegelian dialectic. Of course, they were more or less obliged to mind their lessons, because the lecturer was their employer, one of the two managing general partners of the new American League franchise, and they knew full well that many careers have been truncated by inattentiveness on such occasions. Then, too, Kaye is a famous entertainer, and free performances, however brief, by celebrities of his stature are not easily come by. Furthermore, the players and coaches were still trying to take the measure of this unusual man, so unlike them and yet so involved with them. Beyond all that, Kaye is a spellbinder, a man of such commanding presence and an anecdotist and mime of such uncanny skill that even a discourse on the paving of highways might prove riveting. Beyond even that, Kaye has accomplished so much in so many diverse fields that to ignore what he has to say on anything would be rampant foolishness. He already knows a lot about baseball and, if he should dedicate himself to this pastime with anything approaching the energy and tenacity he has applied to more complicated disciplines, the game and those in it would be the richer for his counsel.
Kaye is celebrated as an entertainer, singer, dancer, master of double talk and dialect and star of such exceptional motion pictures as Up in Arms, The Kid from Brooklyn and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty . By his own choice, his public appearances have been increasingly rare of late, although he protests that he is not retired but is merely aware that "I've done all that, been there before." He was most recently seen on national television last December as Captain Hook to Mia Farrow's Peter Pan, and he continues to function as a globe-trotting goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, for which he has raised many millions of dollars.
What is less well known about Kaye is that he is a conductor of symphony orchestras who, though he can neither read music nor play an instrument, has been acclaimed by such maestros as Dimitri Mitropoulos, Charles Munch, Zubin Mehta and Seiji Ozawa. He is a renowned chef, the only American amateur to receive "Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France," the top French culinary award. Only a handful of chefs in the world have been so honored. He is a pilot skilled enough to fly every plane in the sky, including the immense 747, and durable enough to have flown (on behalf of UNICEF) a private jet to 65 cities in 4� days. Though Kaye's formal education stopped short of graduation from Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School, his lifelong interest in medicine has made him an extraordinarily well-informed layman who can comfortably discuss surgical technique in the company of such distinguished physicians as his friend Dr. Michael DeBakey, the Houston heart surgeon. And now Kaye has a baseball team.
Kaye brings to each of these fields what his wife Sylvia describes as "very superior equipment, an acuteness of perception that is staggering, an ability to absorb from his eyes, ears and senses that is incredible." He has, says she, "a brain like a blotter." Says Mrs. Olive Behrendt, Kaye's friend and chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, "There is nothing that Danny loves to do that he does not do as well or better than anyone in the world." Adds Vin Scully, another of Kaye's friends and the voice of the Dodgers, "Danny is a lot of person. He is a group photo."
Kaye's experiences with golf, a game he eschewed until he was more than 40 years old, illustrate his capacity for total immersion in whatever commands his interest. One day Abe Lastfogel, board chairman of the William Morris Agency, invited Kaye to the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills. "Have you ever played golf?" Lastfogel innocently inquired. Kaye replied with derision. Golf, he said, was an old man's game. And it made no sense. Striking a ball, then walking after it to strike it anew, seemed an unparalleled exercise in futility. Lastfogel persisted. He set a ball on a tee, handed Kaye one of his clubs and urged him to take a swing at it. Kaye obliged by blasting the ball 200 yards down the middle of the fairway. "See, I told you," Kaye snorted. "It's a silly game." Lastfogel was undaunted. He set another ball on the tee and bid Kaye have another swing. This time the ball ascended many feet into the air and descended only a few yards from where Kaye stood. Kaye tried again: a dribbler off to the side. And again: a slice into the trees. Concluding that there was more to this golf than met the eye, Kaye hurried to the clubhouse, bought a set of clubs and hired the club professional to give him lessons.
For the next five weeks, Kaye never left the practice tee. "I took a lesson every day," he says. "The first time I played a round, I broke 100. By the end of that year, I broke 90. A year later, I broke 80." He became a five-handicap player, and on one memorable day, he nearly broke 70. "I needed only a three-foot putt to do it on the 18th green," Kaye says. "I missed it. I can't explain how, but I missed it. The next day I was ready for another shot at breaking 70. I felt marvelous. It was a perfect day. Everything was right. I shot an 86." Kaye virtually abandoned golf in the 1960s, but not because of the frustrations inherent in the game. "I had been playing about four, five times a week," he says. "Then I took on a television show and found that I was lucky to get to the course once a week. That did it. I'm not crazy about doing anything badly, so I gave it up."
Kaye's affection for baseball is much more unyielding. He has been an ardent fan since the '20s, when as Daniel David Kaminsky, the son of an immigrant tailor, he started going to Ebbets Field. The ball park then represented the limit of his horizons. "When we had to go to the Polo Grounds, it was like a safari into darkest Africa," Kaye says. "Who knew where Yankee Stadium was? Dazzy Vance, Van Lingle Mungo, Burleigh Grimes—they were my heroes. I'd save nickels and dimes for a seat in the bleachers. The Dodgers were everything to me in those days."