Phil Mankowski’s dream role was a “Natural” fit

Phil Mankowski's 1979 Topps baseball card

Phil Mankowski’s 1979 Topps baseball card

I watched Phil Mankowski play third base last night. OK, it was as the fictional Hank Benz in the 1984 Robert Redford film, The Natural. But it still was a fun little blast of nostalgia, especially watching Mankowski/Benz take a ground ball in the onions.

Fans of a certain age recall Mankowski as the shaggy-haired blonde who replaced slick-fielding Aurelio “Chi Chi” Rodriguez in the last month of the 1976 season and stuck around Tiger Stadium the next few summers, a reliable if unspectacular presence during the Ralph Houk era. “It’s hard to break in with a guy like Chi Chi ahead of you,” Mankowski said at the time. “But all I’ve ever asked for was a chance.”

Mankowski was so unassuming that at the start of his third season in Detroit, the name sewn on the back of his uniform read “Makowski.” He wasn’t offended. After spending six years in the minors, the Tigers’ 1970 draft pick was grateful to be drawing a big-league paycheck. His father, a Brooklyn farmhand in the early 1940s, and his older brother, who was stuck in Minnesota’s system in the ‘60s, never made it to the majors.

Mankowski, a left-handed hitter, usually was platooned. He demonstrated a steady bat but with little power. He hit between .271 and .276 in each of his first three seasons but unfortunately didn’t figure into new manager Sparky Anderson’s plans. At the end of the 1979 campaign, he and Jerry Morales were traded to the New York Mets for Richie Hebner. Mankowski retired after the 1982 season with a .264 batting average in 269 games spread over six big-league summers. He went to work as a floor manager for Rusty Staub, his teammate on the Tigers and Mets, at a restaurant Staub operated in New York.

It was there that Mankowski first learned from a waitress—a part-time actress—that producers were casting for a baseball film starring Robert Redford, himself an accomplished college player. “I really didn’t think much about it at first,” Mankowski later told a reporter. “But then, I figured I had nothing to lose. I put a photograph and a couple of my baseball cards in an envelope and went to the casting director’s office.” Two weeks later, Mankowski got called for an audition.

More than 300 people tried out for the various baseball roles. The photogenic Mankowski, who was only 30 and just a year or so removed from the majors, was one of the thirteen selected to be Redford’s teammates on the fictional Gotham Knights. He played Hank Benz and wore No. 5 in the movie.

One scene called for Mankowski to get smacked in the groin with a bad-hop grounder while being distracted by a pretty woman in the stands. Upon watching the painful episode on the big screen, the standard reaction from friends and family members was to ask, “How many takes did it take to get it right?”

The most memorable part of the experience was filming many of the scenes at old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, Mankowski’s home town. In the late 1960s, he had played high-school games at the park.

“The fact that I was going home and it was a baseball movie made it almost too good to be true,” Mankowski said. “The whole thing was like a dream.”