Good days, and good memories of being there in Tommy Lasorda’s office…and the people you met in the name of the Dodgers.
As usual, Hamburger was running the show in the press dining room.
As usual, it was a beautiful day at Dodger Stadium. But this was Los Angeles and nothing was ever usual.
For instance, during the pregame interview with Tommy Lasorda we were interrupted by the presence and arrivals of Leo Durocher, Don Rickles, Sammy Davis, Jr., and a phone call to the Dodger manager allegedly from – who else – Frank Sinatra.
“Ya don’t believe me?” Lasorda said, thrusting the phone my way. “Here, talk to him!”
The voice on the other end of the line was muffled and had a bourbon scuff. It sounded like late nights and Lucky Strikes. It could, indeed, have been Frank.
“See,” Lasorda said. “Told ya – ya bleep. Come in here questioning my veracity, ya bleep!”
The adage was true. Every day in Lasorda’s office was a show. It was also true that those with a tender ear should never cross his threshold. Lasorda’s notion of a friendly greeting always included profanity in one form or another.
But the show in LA extended well beyond Lasorda’s office. Turn a corner in the press box or dining room and there was no telling just whom you might encounter.
True, Shea Stadium had its share of stars. It was common to see rocker Billie Joel and model Christy Brinkley hanging around, or singer Carly Simon.
Of course, there was a night during the ’86 playoffs when a group of us were gathered in a hallway discussing a trade, when suddenly and without ceremony, we were herded-up against a wall by Secret Service men. They were clearing the way for former president Richard Nixon.
As he passed, Nixon smiled broadly and said, “How’s it going, boys?”
No one returned his greeting. The Secret Service men were a most forbidding looking lot.
But without doubt, it was LA that held the most surprises, and it was there that I met Florence Henderson, a star of stage and screen whose smile matched those sunny afternoons in Chavez Ravine.
She was 82 when she died Thanksgiving Day. She was a spunky 50-something when we were introduced and I found myself standing face-to-face with the actress most known for her role as Mrs. Carol Brady in The Brady Bunch.
First pitch was approaching but there was still time to linger in Hamburger’s dining room, where the food was far better and more expansive than anywhere else in the National League. Hamburger, a Hispanic gentleman of middle years, was in charge of the daily fare, as well as being one hell of a Maitre d’. He knew everyone and he made sure his customers, regardless of their stature, were properly introduced.
That’s how I ended up seated with Chuck Connors, The Rifleman and a childhood hero. Connors’ was a great story. He had played ball in the Majors for Brooklyn and the Cubs, and in the NBA for the Rochester Royals and Boston Celtics. He was a big 6-foot-6 with shocking red hair, and once served a pivotal role in a contract holdout between the Dodgers’ star pitchers—Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale—and the club.
I had filled my notebook and was following Connors to the press box when Henderson, no more than 5-foot-3, charged into our path. She had penetrating blue eyes and an absorbing nature that drew others—unwittingly or not—into her sphere.
She and Connors were obviously well acquainted. After introductions were made, nothing would suit her other than a return trip to the dining room for a “quick cup of coffee to catch up.”
As I began to take my leave, she touched my arm. “No, no,” she said. “Please join us. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Yeah,” Connors said. “Please do?” It sounded more like a plea than an invitation.
I followed sheepishly and found myself awash in a believe-it-or-not dream: “Kid from Blocher, Indiana Sips Coffee with Hollywood Celebs.”
We talked for 10, maybe 15 minutes and Ms. Henderson—“Call me, Flo”—proved to be a most curious individual, persistent, too. She asked lots of questions and when she learned I was a Hoosier by birth, she literally bubbled.
“Me, too,” she said. “Where? What town?”
Turned out, she was born and raised in Dale, near Santa Claus, about 60 or 70 miles from my hometown in Scott County. Her father farmed tobacco in Spencer County.
Turned out, she was one of the least self-possessed people I had ever met. She talked about starting her career in high school plays—and, of course—going to basketball games.
“Back then,” she said, “every one in town went to the games.”
Ultimately, duty called. The game was about to start. Connors walked with me toward the press box. When we were safely out of her earshot, he looked at me and smiled.
“I think,” he said, “Mrs. Brady likes you.”
With that, The Rifleman offered a wink. He went his way and I went mine, never to see either he or Ms. Henderson ever again, except of course, on television reruns.
When I heard the news of her death Friday morning, I couldn’t help but think about our meeting and about how fortunate I had been that day at Dodger Stadium.
I can’t say that I knew Florence Henderson, but I can tell you this. Yeah, she had a killer smile. More important, she had a lot of guts and a lot of drive and she never lost a hold on who she was or where she came from. That’s saying something.
It’s a long, damn road from Dale, Indiana to Broadway and Hollywood.