DFA: A BLOG ABOUT LIFE ON THE BASEBALL MARGINS: August 7, 2008
DFA, chapter 34: Harry Kurtzman, King of the Obscure Punchline
… Because that part wasn’t going well. The team announced some cuts today, and I was one of them. Which meant I got sent to the minor league “gulag” (Letty’s word for the Yankees’ Tampa minor league complex), although it was far superior to the rat-traps in the low minors. But six other catchers got to stay with the big club and continue to have a chance to impress them by playing in exhibition games, whereas we at the minor league complex just did drills all day. We were like the slow students who had to stay after class.
What was even more humiliating was that while I was being demoted, the Yankees announced that they had signed famous comedian Harry Kurtzman to a one-day contract, and that he would be working out with the team for a few days before playing in a real game against the Pittsburgh Pirates – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.
Kurtzman was a big Yankees fan, and the team didn’t mind using him to help create Hollywood buzz. They kowtowed to him: free access to the owner’s box, the clubhouse, the trainer’s room (which pissed off the players), the announcer’s booth – I wouldn’t be surprised if they reserved a mausoleum for him in Monument Valley. Although his movie, “’68,” about the dismally inept Yankee team of 1968 – part of the “Horace Clarke years,” as many called them – didn’t sit well with George (especially as it took potshots at Richard Nixon, to whom George once made illegal campaign contributions, and included scenes of cops beating up political protesters). But since the movie (which bombed at the box office), Kurtzman had wormed his way into the good graces of Princes Hank and Hal, Lonn Trost, Randy Levine and the rest of the poo-bahs.
Kurtzman claimed to have played minor league ball before his showbiz career, but nobody could dig up any verification of this. Let me tell you, dudes, it hurts when a guy old enough to be your father – or worse, your corny uncle who gets tanked and puts on a lampshade and does the mambo at every family affair – someone who isn’t even a pro – gets a chance to play while you’re in the minor league gulag doing squat-thrusts with Fred “Knuckles” Fiorentino, the strength and conditioning coach. (Not even the first string strength coach, Knuckles was short for “knuckle-dragger” – he had an oversized cranium, dark, beetle-like eyebrows and so much body hair, he resembled a walking terrarium, plus an awkward, ape-like walk, low to the ground. His solution to every problem was either “ten more squat-thrusts” or “suck it up!”)
As much as I resented Kurtzman’s sideshow, I’d never been around a show business celebrity before. So after finishing my squat-thrusts, I managed to return to the big-league clubhouse under the pretext that I’d forgotten something. The game had just started. Kurtzman was batting leadoff and after groping helplessly at three pitches like a stroke victim, was removed for a non-comedian.
An hour after the game, Kurtzman was still in his Yankee uniform. He was over sixty, but had that gray, nearly embalmed look you saw on people who had tossed a lot of dough at the time-space continuum. His hair, originally a light brown, was now in blackface. Although the coaches and some of the older veterans clearly were enamored of him and familiar with him, having caught him on “SNL” and seen his movies. (See “Harry Kurtzman Filmography” … it’s somewhere around here …), the younger guys could give a damn, and only paid obligatory attention to his nonstop patter.
I should add here that Kurtzman was known as “King of the Obscure Punch line,” because you needed Wikipedia to figure out his jokes. For example:
“My drug test came back positive – for Albenza!”
“After I struck out, I was worried that George Steinbrenner was going to trade me for Clark & McCullough.”
“I didn’t need the Juggs gun – I need an Enigma machine.”
You get the picture.
Binge Dingle, the clubhouse attendant, was clearly annoyed at Kurtzman because he wanted the place vacated so he could clean up. But the oblivious Kurtzman kept doing his act, to fewer and fewer spectators. George Papadopolous, who had loaned Kurtzman his uni number, hung around until the very end waiting for the compensation from Kurtzman that was a universal baseball courtesy, only to wind up with a smudged autograph on a grimy scorecard that had been lying in a pool of sunflower seed gunk on the dugout floor.
“Cheap S.O.B.,” George said, just before being reassigned to the gulag with Knuckles.
Just when we thought Kurtzman had run out of gags, he started recounting old showbiz stories. “So I’m just startin’ out and I’m playin’ this shitheel club in Youngstown, Sir-Laffs-a-Lot, and I’m openin’ for Buzzy McBride, who called himself the human lab rat ‘cause he’d do stuff like let plants grow inside him…anyway –”
Ah, I found it:
Harry Kurtzman Filmography
• 1969: Night of the Gerbils. (Unnamed townsfolk killed by giant mutant gerbils)
• 1970: Afternoon of the Gerbils: The Sequel
• 1972: A Gerbil Before Breakfast
• 1973: Enough with the Gerbils Already! (a one-man show, filmed live at the Sunset Strip)
• 1976: CB Zombies (Unnamed trucker killed by zombies who communicate by CB radio)
• 1978: Zombie Convoy (the sequel to CB Zombies)
• 1980: When Harry Met Larry (his star breakthrough role, as a guy who answers a personal ad that he mistakenly thinks has been placed by a woman)
• 1983: A Comedy Salute to Larry Byrd
• 1986: My Yiddishe Kefiltefishe
• 1989: Cowpies
• 1992: Cowpies II: I Stepped in It Again
• 1995: Goodmenschen (Famed director Marty Cornuto’s depiction of Jewish mob soldiers)
• 1998: Schindler’s To-Do List
• 2002: Comic Relief: The Fight Against Terrorism (a comedy benefit to raise money for the invasion of Iraq)
• 2005: My Shrink is a Gerbil! (a Disney animated film; voice of Gerhardt the Freudian gerbil)
Anyway, between my demotion and Kurtzman’s short-changing my pal George, and the fact that Kurtzman’s just being there was a violation of both my sense of ethics and baseball\'s – I mean, he was like a character from another book, or blog, who got lost and ended up here – something broke inside me and I … I shot him a dirty look and left with Papadopoulos. I mean, what could I do? Like I said, there was something about him that wasn’t even real, and I actually felt like if I took a swing at him, the punch would go right through him. (Not that I know how to throw a punch; my last fistfight was in second grade, with my best friend Bruno. I lost and promptly retired from the fight game.)