It was the spring of 1984 when I received a phone call from a long time friend and former batting practice pitcher Tony Ferrara. Tony called to tell me that Robert Redford was making a movie called, The Natural. He was looking to cast baseball players to play on a fictional team called the “New York Knights.”
I went to meet with the producers because they knew I had played some minor league baseball. They immediately told me that this was a period piece that took place in 1939 — a time, when there weren’t any blacks or dark skinned Hispanics who played in the big leagues.
Nevertheless, they told me that they would consider whether I could pass for an Italian. I thought that maybe I would make the cut since I had already done a baseball film with Andy Garcia called, “Blue Skies Again.” To work with Robert Redford would be a dream come true.
In the meantime, along with Tony Ferrara, I helped the producers cast other players and provided instruction to the producers on how baseball teams run practices.
Two days later, I received the call I was dreading. The producers told me that they were not going to be able to use me in the film, but would love if I signed on as an adviser. Naturally, I was extremely disappointed, because I thought that this was going to be a great film — and it was.
I told the casting director that I had a guy that played with me in high school and that I competed against in the minor leagues when he played for the Cardinals organization and me for the Pirates organization. It was then that I recommended Kenny Grassano for the role that I had hoped to play. And if that wasn’t enough, he was Italian. The casting director responded, “oh no, is he dark?” And with a smile on my face, I told him, “no, he’s whiter than you” — and we laughed.
That afternoon, I called Kenny and told him that I had a movie part for him. Naturally, people that know me well know that I can be a practical joker — so Kenny never believed it was true. I had to convince him to take a ride up to a remote field in Westchester, where the filmmakers were holding workouts. It wasn’t until he arrived and saw Robert Redford that he believed me.
As a matter of fact, Kenny was so good, that they scripted lines for him. And Kenny was a guy that had never acted in his life. Kenny had the looks of a Ben Affleck and if he wanted to, could have made his living acting.
From what I understand, Robert Redford loved the scenes that Kenny appeared in. Kenny was a natural. Just like he was on the baseball field.
Even though I had gone on to make other films, I regretted that I never had the opportunity to appear in such an epic production as The Natural. However, Kenny Grassano was so grateful that he never forgot that I opened the door for him to be able to appear in one of the biggest productions in Hollywood history.
Years later, Kenny would end up suffering from multiple sclerosis. Kenny fought like a champion to keep living life and to be an incredible father to his children. It was very difficult for me to see Kenny in this condition, because if you knew him, he was a strong, beautifully chiseled athlete. To see this disease tear him down and later, he would also end up suffering from cancer, there just aren’t words to explain why such a good person had to suffer so much.
Despite his trials and tribulations, Kenny never felt sorry for himself. I will never forget when Kenny asked me to take a ride to a baseball facility to watch his son practice. He tried to act like he wasn’t sick — but he tripped and fell to the floor. It reminded me of the scene in the Pride of the Yankees when Lou Gehrig fell in the locker room and the team pretended that they didn’t see anything. However, with Kenny, he didn’t try to hide it and he didn’t give a damn. He got right up and said that he couldn’t wait for me to see his son throw.
That was probably the last time I saw Kenny alive. He would die of cancer a little while later.
This week, Kenny’s youngest son, Vincent, graduated from college with a degree in sports management. I am supposed to start helping produce a film this summer called, “Stano,” a fantasy about a guy from the Bronx who has bad luck, goes to prison, and when he gets out, still has a desire to play ball.
One of the first things I plan to do for that production is to hire Vincent as one of the ball players. I saw a picture of him, and the resemblance to his old man is uncanny. As great as The Natural was, maybe, just maybe, Vincent Grassano will bring the same blessing to the production of Stano.
In life, I have been fortunate to know some wonderful people with incredible hearts. Few rival that of, Munson, Murcer, Catfish, Billy, the Boss, and Kenny Grassano.