Comedian Jerry Lewis once got a hit against the Tigers in the Astrodome

Jerry Lewis hugs umpire Hank Soar, comes to the plate for his first at-bat, and hams for the crowd. The Detroit catcher is Bob Didier.

During an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers on July 19, 1973, comedian Jerry Lewis hugs umpire Hank Soar, comes to the plate in the first inning, and hams for the crowd. The Detroit catcher is Bob Didier.

Go ahead – reread that headline. I’ll wait for you.

It’s true, comedian Jerry Lewis — that Jerry Lewis — put on a major league uniform and played in a game against the Detroit Tigers. And he did it in Houston at the famed Astrodome, the first indoor stadium in big league baseball and the namesake for astroturf, that funny green stuff that ballplayers bounced around on for several decades when it was in vogue.

But while the playing surface was funny in Houston, there was nothing funny about Lewis being in the lineup against Billy Martin’s Tigers on July 19, 1973, when the Bengals flew into Texas for a quick exhibition game on what was supposed to be a day off. Martin wasn’t too happy about the scheduled exhibition game and neither were most of his troops, most of whom were in the twilight of their careers and coveted any time off from the grind of a 162-game season. So when Martin arrived at his desk in the visiting manager’s office at the Astrodome that July evening, he was not in the mood for laughter. A Houston reporter told Martin that Leo Durocher, the skipper of the Astros, was going to insert Lewis into his lineup for the meaningless contest.

“I don’t care if Leo plays Charlie Chaplin,” Martin snarled, “I don’t have to like it and I don’t have to like being here for a game in the middle of the season.”

While Billy was in a foul mood (not helped by the fact that his team was mired in fourth place in the AL East, a division they had won the previous season), Durocher was having a ball filling out his lineup card nearby in the home clubhouse beneath the Astrodome seats.

“Jerry will play first base and hit leadoff in my lineup,” Durocher told reporters huddled around his desk. “If I had Dean [Martin], I’d play him in right field!”

Durocher was just eight days shy of his 68th birthday, the oldest manager in the game he was a connection to baseball’s legendary past. Leo had been a teammate of Babe Ruth, he’d played with Lou Gehrig and against Ty Cobb, and he’d managed Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. “The Lip” was one of the most colorful characters to ever wear a big league uniform and when he wasn’t making headlines for what he did on the diamond he was in the newspapers for who he rubbed elbows with off it. He was personal friends with many of the great movie stars of Hollywood, and from 1948 to 1960 he was married to actress Laraine Day. Durocher and Lewis were pals from Leo’s days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and now in this exhibition game against the Tigers, the Houston skipper decided it was a perfect time to give the popular comedian a chance to play out a dream – playing in a big league ballpark against real major leaguers.

Lewis was given uniform #9 and when he was introduced as the Astros took the field in the top of the first inning he was showered with applause, even from unlikely spectators.

“I clapped when he went out there [to first base],” Norm Cash said later in an interview with Jerry Green and The Sporting News.

Neither team took the game seriously at all, in fact both the Tigers and Astros sent their pitching coaches to the mound. Art Fowler, with his fat jowls and beer belly, was summoned by Martin to toss a few innings. Fowler faced Lewis who drew a walk. Earlier, Lewis had lined a single up the middle off Detroit’s Mike Strahler. It’s doubtful that Strahler was bearing down as he faced Lewis, who by all accounts took his job seriously while between the white lines. He even drew some mild praise.

“He didn’t look that bad at first,” Cash observed. “He knew where to play the batters and didn’t drop a single throw.”

The 47-year old Lewis played four innings before exiting the game which was won by the home team 10-7. The big hit came in the eighth inning when Houston’s Bob Gallagher hit a bases-clearing grand slam inside-the-park home run. The play developed because two Detroit outfielders misjudged the resiliency and quickness of the fake grass. Center fielder Dick Sharon and left fielder Frank Howard both failed to retrieve the ball off the bat of Gallagher. As the baseball bounced quickly to the warning track and caromed around the hard surface and away from Howard, four Astros runners advanced to home. It was the sort of bizarre play that you’d expect in a bizarre game that featured pitching coaches and comedians on the field and in the middle of the action.

“I’ll just be happy to get out of here and go on [to Arlington to play the Rangers],” Martin said after the game.

To Billy Martin there was little that was funny in baseball.

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