(I’ve had the good fortune to spot many celebrities over the years, purely by chance. What follows is a couple of those serendipitous meetings. My list of sightings currently stands at 102 and counting.)
In 1991, my son, a successful novelist–and Broadway enthusiast– took me to see a play he had already seen, raving, “Wait’ll you see this show, it’s the best ever!” We were walking to the theater district, standing on the corner of 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, waiting to cross at a light, when I spotted Linda Lavin across the street. She had been in a television show called “Alice,” playing a diner waitress with a heart of gold.
Looking at her, I noticed she had locked onto my son’s eyes and when the crossing began, she never took them off him. I followed her orbs as we three navigated through heavy late-afternoon traffic. After we passed one another crossing the street, I turned to my son and said, “Did you see that?” He innocently said, “Yeah, what the hell was that all about?” I said, “I think Alice wants to scramble you some eggs!”
We moved on to see “Les Miserables,” that magnificent musical of the great Victor Hugo classic. At show’s end, we were walking out and who do I see but Don Zimmer, the manager of the Chicago Cubs.
“Zimmer here? How could that be,” I recall thinking. The Cubs were playing the Mets that night at Shea Stadium.
When I got outside the theater, I saw a newspaper rack with the Daily News back page stating Zimmer had been fired that afternoon.
Scant records exist but I’d bet it was the only time a baseball manager got fired and celebrated by going to a Broadway show.
Years later I met Don at a book signing in Tampa and told him about seeing him that night on Broadway. He momentarily reminisced, “That was the best damned play I ever saw!” “Did you like it, too?”
I answered, “Second best. ‘Phantom’ beats it.”
Another interesting sighting of “Popeye” Zimmer had taken place many years earlier, in 1952, when he was a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers. My brother Dave and I had gone to Ebbets Field to see a game.
As was our custom, before the game we walked down to the right-field corner where the Dodger bullpen was located to see up close and personal that day’s pitcher. One of Zimmer’s assignments was to warm up the starter, getting him up to speed by game time.
The starter that day was one of the greatest pitchers in Dodger history, Don Drysdale, a high school classmate of Robert Redford, by the way. At 6’5″, 215, he could really throw smoke.
Zimmer–affectionately nicknamed “Zipper Head” for the ragged scar left from a minor league beaning operation–employed a strange method of motivating Drysdale to throw harder and harder by screaming the most vile and inventive of humiliating curse words at him, some of which I had never heard before, or since. It must’ve worked. Drysdale got to Cooperstown.
Interesting sidebar about Drysdale: When he was chasing the consecutive scoreless innings record in 1968, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, giving his victory speech after the California primary, stopped to excitedly announce to the crowd that “Don Drysdale has just pitched his sixth consecutive shutout.” Moments later, Kennedy was assassinated. A recording of Kennedy’s baseball exultation was found in the pitcher’s possession when Drysdale, by then a Dodger broadcaster, died of a heart attack twenty-five years later in a Montreal hotel. He had proudly carried it with him wherever he went all those years.