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Boris and Frankenstein Hit a Home Run: Bruce Markusen’s Looks Back at Karloff’s Obscure Connection to Baseball



Boris and Frankenstein Hit a Home Run: Bruce Markusen's Looks Back at Karloff's Obscure Connection to Baseball

Even though it’s been over 50 years since he passed away, Boris Karloff finds himself in the news these days, thanks in part to an excellent documentary that recently made its way into theaters. Called The Man Behind The Monster, the film delves into Karloff’s career and life, including his three iconic performances as Frankenstein’s Monster during the 1930s.

One aspect of Karloff’s life that is not well known is his obscure connection to baseball—and to the British sport of cricket. I started thinking about Boris and baseball after reading the terrific new book, Lights, Camera Action, written by Dan Taylor. It’s about an old minor league franchise, the Hollywood Stars, who became a sensation during the 1940s and fifties.

The Stars’ chief rival in the Pacific Coast League was the Los Angeles Angels, who played at nearby Wrigley Field. A well-known minor league ballpark of that era, Wrigley Field was often used by the movie industry as a film location. Pride of the Yankees and Alibi Ike were two of the more famous films that used Wrigley as a backdrop.

Well, Karloff once played in a baseball game at LA’s Wrigley Field. The game, part of an annual series of charity games, took place on August 8, 1940. It was billed as “The Leading Men” (managed by actress Marlene Dietrich) against “The Comedians,” with proceeds going to the local Mount Sinai Hospital. As part of the charitable effort, one of the organizers asked Karloff to play in the game—but not as himself. No, Karloff was asked to make an appearance while wearing his full Frankenstein’s Monster makeup and outfit.

Frankenstein Plays Baseball

Karloff had stopped playing the role of Frankenstein one year earlier, in 1939. He had appeared in the original film from 1931 and two successful follow-ups, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein and 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. But when Universal later asked him to make another Frankenstein movie, this time in a venture that co-starred Dracula and the Wolf Man, Karloff felt the studio had gone too far. Karloff believed that too many monsters in one film had reached a point of ridiculousness. He also felt that the character of The Monster had run its course, after its inclusion in the first three films.

While Karloff no longer wanted to play Frankenstein on film, he was more than willing to resuscitate the role for a special event and a good cause. So Karloff agreed to make the baseball appearance, resulting in a particularly memorable at-bat at Wrigley Field.

The organizers of the game brought in famed Universal makeup man Jack Pierce to bring back the Frankenstein look for the charity game. Pierce performed his usual magic. Attending the game that night at Wrigley Field, Pierce once again applied the familiar Frankenstein makeup to Karloff’s hands and face, while also fitting the horror legend with his usual attire, including the dark suit jacket with the shortened sleeves.

Karloff’s participation was not billed in advance; it was staged as a “surprise” appearance at Wrigley Field. Now dressed like the Frankenstein Monster, he looked much like he did during his 1930s hey day, with one exception: he was now wearing a pair of small, wire-framed glasses, which he needed to see the ball being pitched toward him. The bespectacled Monster took just one at-bat in the game, but it was a sight that became surreal, even by Hollywood standards. Wearing The Monster’s trademark thick-soled boots, with each one reportedly weighing 20 pounds, Karloff began to make his way toward the batter’s box.

From there Karloff picks up the story. “I might add that the only time I really enjoyed playing The Monster was at the last charity baseball game in Hollywood between a team of comedians and a team of leading men. I strode up to the plate for the occasion in my full makeup as Frankenstein’s Monster, whereupon Buster Keaton, who was catching for The Comedians, promptly shrieked at the sight of me, did a backward somersault, and passed out cold behind home plate.”

“I waved my bat. The pitcher tossed the ball in my direction, and I swung at it as best I could, encumbered with The Monster’s metallic overalls. Luckily enough, I managed to tap the ball, which bounced crazily in the general direction of the pitcher’s box [mound]. It should have been an easy out at first. But as I approached each base, the opposing players fainted dead away, and The Three Stooges…all passed out cold. It was a home run—though horrible.”

Coming many years after the fact, Karloff’s recollection may have been slightly inaccurate—and that’s certainly understandable. The exchange with Keaton, the famed silent era comedian, likely took place as Karloff neared the end of his run around the bases and not prior to the at-bat; a photo from that day shows Karloff without a bat in his hand. Also, a newspaper report in the Hollywood-Citizen News describes the play differently than Karloff, indicating that he hit “a screaming pop-fly to second base” that “started Frankenstein, hindered by 20-pound leaden shoes, down the glory road as one by one, The Three Stooges, manning the bases, crumpled in fright at his approach.”

Karloff’s inside-the-park home run, aided by the cowardly ineptitude of The Stooges, stole the show that Thursday night. Karloff was just one of many brand name performers who appeared for Marlene Dietrich’s Leading Men, including fellow horror star Peter Lorre, future Alfred Hitchcock mainstay Cary Grant, and western film legend John Wayne. The Comedians also featured a few headline performers of their own, including Jack Benny, Andy Devine (who would later appear in an episode of “The Twilight Zone”), and the “Keystone Cops”.

In spite of the Karloff home run, The Leading Men lost the game, 5-3, to The Comedians. Far more importantly, Mount Sinai Hospital received a large payment courtesy of the large crowd that filled Wrigley Field that evening.

Karloff’s home run made a few headlines, but in reality, the British-born actor had little experience playing baseball. He had a much stronger connection to cricket, one of the most popular sports in his native land of England. Upon moving to the United States, he established a permanent residence in Los Angeles, where he continued to follow and play the sport. Karloff became friends with fellow actor C. Aubrey Smith, who had formed the Hollywood Cricket Club in 1932. Smith, a fellow British actor, had actually been a professional cricket player before making the fulltime transition to acting.

In his 1972 biography of Karloff, called The Life of Boris Karloff, author Peter Underwood described the horror legend’s obsession with cricket.

On Sundays, Karloff would indulge his endless passion for cricket and play at the Hollywood Cricket Club… While living there, he had a dusty Ford with “Hollywood Cricket Club” emblazoned proudly on the tire cover!

As much as Karloff loved cricket, he never made a film that involved the sport. Similarly, he never appeared in a baseball movie, of which there have been many over the years. Given his athletic ability, his love of cricket, and his passing interest in baseball, it seems like a natural for him to have appeared at least once in a baseball film, but it never happened.

As a result, we’re left with only one tangible connection between Karloff and our National Pastime. It was the day that Frankenstein’s Monster made The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton pass out while he hit the strangest of home runs.

My thanks to Dan Taylor for his assistance with this article.

Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.