Cooperstown Confidential: Boris and Baseball

He juuuuuuust missed getting all of that one. (via Michelle Jay)

I’m not normal. That’s probably the first thing that you need to understand about me. Aside from my family, my two great loves are baseball and horror.

Most people can understand my obsession with baseball. It’s our National Pastime, and our oldest and greatest American sport. But the horror thing is more difficult for some people to swallow. Recently I told one of my co-workers at the Hall of Fame I was planning to attend “Scare-A-Con,” which is an annual horror and sci-fi convention here in upstate New York. My co-worker, a respected teacher, looked at me with a puzzled, almost pathetic look. It’s as if he was asking me, “What’s wrong with you?”

I don’t have an answer for that, but I can tell you that I do enjoy horror films. In my mind, the greatest horror film actor of all time is Boris Karloff. If someone were to create a horror Hall of Fame, similar to our shrine in Cooperstown, Karloff would be part of the first induction class. Not only did he star as the original Frankenstein’s Monster in the 1931 Universal Studios classic, he also played The Mummy, made memorable appearances in such films as The Black Cat and The Body Snatcher, hosted the television series Thriller, and lent his voice to such pop culture classics as The Grinch That Stole Christmas. Karloff’s mannerisms, his piercing stare, and his unique voice made him the ideal leading man of horror. Along with Karloff, the legendary likes of Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Sr., Vincent Price, and perhaps Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would round out that first class of horror Hall of Famers.

Approaching Halloween, I’ve looked more closely at Karloff connection to baseball. While he did not have a direct tie to the game (having never appeared in a baseball-themed film), he was a huge fan of the British sport of cricket, which most historians consider a “cousin” to our national game. While there are many differences between baseball and cricket, the two sports have a similar foundation: a pitcher (or bowler, as it is called in cricket) who delivers the ball toward a batter (or batsman).

Having grown up in England, Karloff developed a strong bond with cricket, which he started playing as a youth. After moving to the United States and Los Angeles, he continued to follow the sport—and play it, too. Karloff became friends with fellow British actor C. Aubrey Smith, who formed the Hollywood Cricket Club in 1932. Smith had been such an accomplished player in England that he played the game professionally there before transitioning to acting fulltime. Smith was regarded as one of the country’s top bowlers, a right-hander who captained England to a victory in his only test match.

Boris Karloff shows off his bowling form.

When Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club, a number of other British-born actors were living in Hollywood, in what was informally known as the “British Colony.” Others who joined the clubs included Cushing (who would become a staple of Hammer Films’ series of horror movies), Nigel Bruce, Ronald Colman, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Elsa Lanchester (who would gain fame as the bride of Frankenstein in 1935) and David Niven. They all played on a pitch that Smith created, complete with grass imported from  England.

In his 1972 biography of Karloff, author Peter Underwood wrote, “On Sundays, Karloff would indulge his endless passion for cricket and play at the Hollywood Cricket Club… While living there, he had a dusty Ford with “Hollywood Cricket Club” emblazoned proudly on the tire cover!”

Not only did Karloff play cricket at least once a week, he followed the game intently as a fan. He was known to cut an interview short by saying that he had to leave to attend a cricket match. When he lived  in England, he made long treks to attend important matches. “He always followed avidly the fortunes of British cricket,” Underwood wrote,  “frequently traveling many miles to attend test matches where his tall figure and characteristic walk was a familiar sight; and he was seen, too, at small local matches. He once umpired a charity match at Hitchin in Hertfordshire.”

Back in the states, Karloff and Smith became so rabid about playing cricket that UCLA hired them in the late 1930s to teach the game. Clearly, these two men were serious about the sport, almost as obsessed with it as they were the craft of acting.

C. Aubrey Smith, the founder of the Hollywood Cricket Club.

Although Karloff lived much of the time in Los Angeles, he also spent some time in New York, where he developed a rooting interest in the Brooklyn Dodgers. While appearing in Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway, he met Dodgers manager Leo Durocher.

Just Breathe: Finding New Ways to Test for Banned Substances
MLB is exploring new testing methods in its efforts to detect banned substances.

Karloff and Durocher struck up a friendship that eventually led to their involvement in a charity baseball game on Aug. 8, 1950, at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles, the home of the Triple-A Hollywood Stars. Gilmore was sometimes used by the movie industry as a film location, including a memorable stint in the 1950s film, The Stratton Story, which starred Jimmy Stewart as one-legged pitcher Monty Stratton. Abandoned by the Stars in 1957, the park was razed one year later. The site of the old park now serves as a parking lot for CBS Television City.

The charity game was billed as “The Leading Men” against “The Comedians.” In fact, it was the sixth annual installment of the game, which was now trying to raise money for Mount Sinai Hospital. It’s not clear whether Durocher asked Karloff to play in the charity game, but clearly someone did. Not only that, but Karloff was asked to make an appearance while wearing his full Frankenstein’s Monster regalia.

Karloff had stopped playing the role in the early 1940s, largely because he felt Universal Studios had gone too far by including the Monster in the “monster rally” films that also featured Dracula and the Wolf Man. (Karloff believed that too many monsters in one film had reached a point of ridiculousness.) But Karloff, an agreeable sort, was willing to resuscitate the role for the game and a good cause.

The organizers of the game brought in famed Universal Studios makeup man Jack Pierce to reprise his work from Universal’s horror classics of the 1930s —with Karloff in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy, and with Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man. He applied the familiar Frankenstein makeup to Karloff’s hands and face and fitted the horror legend with his usual costumed attire, including the dark suit jacket with the shortened sleeves.

Karloff’s participation was not billed in advance; it was staged as a “surprise” appearance for the crowd  at Gilmore Field. Now dressed completely like the Frankenstein Monster, he looked much like he did some 20 years earlier in the original films, with one exception: He was now wearing a pair of small, wire-framed glasses, which he needed to see the ball.

The bespectacled Monster took just one at-bat in the game, but it was a memorable one. Wearing those thick-soled boots that became one of the signatures of the Monster, Karloff plodded his way into the batter’s box. Drawing from his vast experience as a cricket player, Karloff swung the bat and hit a ground ball.

Frankenstein’s Monster gets jammed, but puts the ball in play.

According to the various descriptions of the game, Karloff removed his glasses as he began to run toward first base. The Three Stooges, who were manning the infield, proceeded to fumble the ball and toss it around errantly. Meanwhile, Karloff thundered around the bases in his oversized boots. As The Stooges continued to make mayhem with the ball, he rounded third.

Karloff plodded toward home, where another famed comedian, Buster Keaton, was the catcher. Dressed in a full set of catcher’s equipment, he received the throw from one of The Stooges, well ahead of Karloff’s arrival. Keaton planted himself in front of the plate, with ball in hand, ready to apply the tag. But then, as Karloff approached him and then stopped, inches away, Keaton took a closer look at the runner. Now fully appreciating that Frankenstein’s Monster was in front of him, Keaton pretended to faint, keeling over backward, falling to the ground, and allowing Karloff to score the run in dramatic fashion.

Buster Keaton simply can’t stand the appearance of Frankenstein’s Monster.

Karloff’s groundball inside-the-park home run (if it can be called that) stole the show that Thursday night, a show that also featured Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Peter Lorre (the star of such horror films as Mad Love and Tales of Terror) and John Wayne. The Comedians’  name brand performers included  Jack Benny, Andy Devine and, of course, the Keystone Cops.

In spite of the Karloff home run, the Comedians took the game, 5-3, over the Leading Men. Far more importantly, Mount Sinai Hospital received a nice payment courtesy of the large crowd that filled Gilmore Field that evening.

According to at least one Internet source, Karloff reprised his Frankenstein Monster get-up for other charity and celebrity games, but I’ve seen no evidence of such appearances. There are no photographs,  no other first-hand source documentation that Karloff did this again. So the appearance at Gilmore Field appears to have been a onetime event.

Karloff never appeared in a film about baseball. Given his athletic ability and commanding physical presence, his love of cricket, and his interest in baseball, it would seem like a natural for him. Alas, that never happened, leaving us with only one tangible connection between Karloff and baseball—the day that Frankenstein’s Monster had his way against The Three Stooges.

Resources & References


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
newest oldest most voted
csw117
Member
Member
csw117

Thanks for the lovely article. I have to say, though, that Karloff’s bowling form looks pretty suspect to me – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Throwing_(cricket)!

Joser
Member
Joser

From the thumbnail, I thought this was going to be about this infamous Dodgers try-out. https://youtu.be/6oHb4rZfaYE

Eric Robinson
Member
Member

Great article! As a fan of old monster movies I’ve wanted to stumble across something for years that combined Universal horror and baseball.