Of the 40 years that I have been a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I have probably done approximately 15 films. Four of the films were baseball oriented movies. They were “Blue Skies Again” with Andy Garcia, “The Sluggers Wife” with Rebecca De Mornay, “Curves Along the Way” with Paul Sorvino and “Bottom of the Ninth” with Joe Manganiello and Sofia Vergara.
The film that I wanted more than any but didn’t get but today I’m happy I didn’t get was the legendary film, “The Natural.” That film starred Robert Redford.
What happened was that I had just finished my third film, two of which were baseball films. I received a call from Actor Tony Ferrara, who was also a batting practice pitcher for the Yankees. Tony set up a meeting for me and the casting people. I received a script and after reading it, immediately realized that this was going to be a huge hit and I wanted in.
When I walked into the casting office, after we went through our formalities, I knew there was a problem. They told me that the film takes place in 1939. That meant there were no players of color. One of the directors said that maybe I could pass as an Italian. At that moment I would let them make me a Martian. The character was a great part in the film. I knew that I could’ve done a great job. They told me they would get back to me after talking to the producers.
The next day, the phone call did come but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I did understand because I had already been around the film world for a while and knew that business was business. At that moment I asked them if they had an actor in mind and they said no. I told them that I had someone that would be perfect. I said he is tall and handsome and had been a pitcher in pro ball. We actually played against each other in the minor leagues. Oh and by the way he was a real Italian. They had me bring my friend and high school teammate Ken Grassano to an interview. They liked him immediately, they had him read some lines plus they already knew that he could play baseball.
The rest was history. Kenny was just fabulous in the role of the wise guy, team pitching ace. Kenny was not intimidated at all working opposite the great Robert Redford. When I went to the premiere everyone congratulated me for the great job that Kenny did. I really couldn’t have been more proud of him. For years, Kenny thanked me for getting him that opportunity. Kenny was one of the most wonderful people that I have ever known.
Years after the Natural, Kenny ended up getting cancer and fought like a champion. Bravery like his is only found on the battlefields of war. We lost him too soon. He never complained. Kenny was a great father and his kids are a great example of the greatness of their dad. Two years ago I got to be a co producer in the film, “Bottom of the Ninth” and got to get two of Kenny’s sons in the film.
The reason I write this story today is because the Major League Network was showing The Natural and in watching this wonderful film, through my tears I thank God that Kenny and not me got that part. First of all he was brilliant in it. I would not have done what he did. Secondly, for the rest of our lives all the Grassanos and me and the world can see the great performance of Robert Redford and Kenny Grassano in what arguably is the greatest sports film of all time. My pal was a Natural.
I dedicate this story to my coach Chuck Feinstein, Calvin Bruton, Raul Lopez, Lee Edwards, Derek Lee, Tony Montalbano, Jimi Madorma, Angelo Fusco, Ken Spera, Mike Wiseman, Hector Pagan and all members of the Springfield Gardens High School Golden Eagles.