With baseball season underway, we take a look at some famous fans who aspired to playing in the big leagues.
If the world of sports had a hierarchy in America, Major League Baseball would reach the heavenly tiers of god-like status. Even if you never picked up a bat or stepped into a dugout, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t have heart palpitations at the sight of a player slamming one out of the park with a roaring crowd trailing in its glory. Hahhhhh!
So is it any surprise that even the most successful actors, singers, comedians, and politicians harbor some “national pastime” envy? While the world is undoubtedly a better place with these masters of their crafts sharing their true talents, we’re guessing many of them would have secretly traded it all in for a day to play with their favorite teams.
With baseball season officially underway, here is our All-Star roster of famous baseball fans who dabbled in the minors, but wisely decided they’d be better off finding fulfillment off the diamond:
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed sharing an anecdote that illustrated his love for baseball. Describing a childhood day with a friend, he said, “I told him that I wanted to be a real Major League Baseball player. … My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.” Lesser known is another tale about how he played minor league baseball in Kansas under the name of “Wilson” after graduating from high school. Had this been the case, the former West Point football player could have landed in hot water for misrepresenting his amateur eligibility, but it seems he was simply exercising his political skills by fudging the truth. Baseball historians have since attempted to verify Ike’s claims, but have been unable to link him to any “Wilson” playing in Kansas during that time period.
A funnyman with a surprisingly athletic background, Billy Crystal was talented enough to earn a baseball scholarship to attend Marshall University in West Virginia. However, the program was soon canceled, forcing Crystal to return to New York to resume his education and show business aspirations.
His love for the sport no secret, Crystal directed the Emmy-nominated HBO movie 61*, about the race to break Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961. In 2008, the longtime Yankees fan got the chance to appear in a Spring Training game with his beloved team, where he fulfilled his celebrity-turned-ballplayer obligation by striking out.
Like many others in this all-star lineup, George Clooney was a multi-sport athlete in high school who felt he had a decent shot at playing baseball professionally. His hopes were dashed when he failed to get past the first round of tryouts with the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, and while he’s generally done okay for himself since then, even the world’s sexiest man can have trouble with rejection. Perhaps sensing this, the owner of the minor league Dayton Dragons offered Clooney the chance to join his team in 2008. The then 46-year-old leading man declined, although we’re sure a small part of him wanted to give it a shot.
Well before he became known for his videotaped meltdowns and cray cray rants, Charlie Sheen played the iconic role of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn in Major League and Major League II. If he looked convincing as a ballplayer, it’s because he wasn’t far removed from his days as a pitcher and shortstop for Santa Monica High School. Sheen told the L.A. Times in 1989 that the University of Kansas had offered him a scholarship, and it’s quite possible he would have pursued his baseball career further had he not achieved film stardom at an early age. “I don’t regret not continuing with baseball,” he told the Times, “but I’ll always wonder.” We will too, Charlie Sheen. With “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA,” you could have taken “winning” to a whole new level on the playing field.
Although he had already established himself as a child star (or perhaps because of it), actor Kurt Russell thrust himself into a new role as a minor league baseball player in 1971. The stats show he was pretty good: He batted .285 and .325 in his first two seasons, and he was hitting a ridiculous .563 at the advanced Double-A level in 1973 when he sustained a serious shoulder injury. He finished the season as a player-executive with the Portland Mavericks, a ragtag team owned by his baseball-loving father Bing, which is subject of the documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball. While Russell’s overall abilities as a big league prospect may have been marginal, he said in a later interview that baseball ignited an excitement that he never felt as an actor. Baseball fever aside, if Russell hadn’t returned to acting he never would have met his longtime love Goldie Hawn. The actors became a couple after co-starring in the 1984 World War II romcom Swing Shift.
Hip-hop star Nelly, a.k.a., Cornell Haynes Jr., is another gifted athlete who played football and basketball in addition to baseball in high school, who likely could have held his own in the low levels of baseball’s minor leagues. He was named MVP of the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association All-Star Game in 1992, and later attended training camps for the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. However, the lure of the high life of a rap star proved too powerful. “I got wrapped up in the streets,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Money was coming in faster than [team] letters, and I got distracted.”
When it comes to sports, fans likely associate Bill Murray with golf due to his portrayal of groundskeeper Carl Spackler in the comedy classic Caddyshack. Murray even wrote a biography called Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf, but within those pages he recalled his first love: “My childhood summers were all about baseball. I played nearly every day…I’d spend hours at night making phone calls to round up 18 players.” Thanks to his success on the big screen, Murray was able to get his big league baseball fix by acquiring ownership shares of multiple minor league teams. He holds the title of “Director of Fun” for one of them, and was elected to the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame in 2012. So while Murray never had much of a future as a player, he wins an MVP spot on this team for his contributions to the game.
It’s hard to tell now, but Garth Brooks was a kick-butt athlete in high school with spots on the baseball, football, basketball and track teams. He’s also the only player in our roundup of baseball wannabes to have logged significant time competing against real major leaguers. The country crooner spent the 1999 Spring Training season with the San Diego Padres and the 2000 exhibition schedule with the New York Mets, mustering one hit in a combined 39 at-bats. He returned for another spring with the Kansas City Royals in 2004, but at age 42 he was primarily there to raise awareness for a charity. When asked what he believed to be his best position in the game, he answered, “Sitting down and eating.”
The rap star famous for “U Can’t Touch This” has the most interesting baseball backstory of this lot. Well before he donned his first pair of parachute pants, Stanley Burrell performed his moves in the parking lot of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, home of the Oakland A’s. Discovered by eccentric A’s owner Charles O. Finley, Burrell became a bat boy before earning a promotion to honorary executive vice president of the team. Confused as to why a teenager held some vague degree of authority, the players nevertheless liked Burrell enough to nickname him “Little Hammer,” for his resemblance to slugger “Hammerin'” Hank Aaron. Burrell later attempted to try out for the San Francisco Giants before realizing his audiences responded much more favorably to his dancing and, thus, M.C. Hammer was born.