BY KEVIN KERNAN
Kevin Lester is a natural.
Comfortable in any situation, Lester, 72, has a way of engaging people. He’s also a natural when it comes to baseball. A former catcher at St. Bonaventure, Lester knows the ins and outs of the game and was a scout and a bullpen catcher for the minor league franchise in Buffalo for many years.
Lester has been an official scorer with the Buffalo Bisons for decades and had a long and distinguished career as a high school athletic director. Lester is a wizard when it comes to baseball equipment, too, and can repair any glove and knows how to turn a lathe when it comes to giving bats just the right feel and look.
So when Robert Redford and the movie “The Natural’’ came to Buffalo in 1983 because War Memorial Stadium was the perfect setting for a 1930s ballpark, and needed help to find local baseball players, Kevin Lester was the perfect man for the job. He could, catch, hit and throw, too.
In the end he did much more than all that and his story is The Story this week at BallNine.
Lester’s behind the scenes role and shots in front of the camera, wearing No. 20 for the New York Knights, sprinkled throughout the movie gives us some fascinating knowledge of this film classic, regarded as one of the finest baseball movies ever made. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the making of the film that was released the following year in 1984.
After all, not many people have a New York Knights championship ring, but Lester does, and he was instrumental in the rings being made and given out by the producers of The Natural.
“They knew what they wanted as far as a look, but I was trying to give them ability, guys who had some game. The New York actors, they didn’t have a lot of ability, but the guys I brought in did.’’
After all, not many people own an honest to goodness “Wonderboy’’ bat, but Lester does, and he actually took part in perfecting the bats Redford used in the movie. More on that later. First, here is how he got the job for “The Natural.’’
“In 1983 they hired me to find ballplayers because I had all the information on local kids,’’ Lester told BallNine.
The producers had found War Memorial Stadium affectionately known as the Rockpile as the perfect ballpark to tell the Roy Hobbs story and Bisons officials recommended Lester. Buffalo also had vintage buildings that could be used like the Parkside Candy Shoppe as an eatery in Chicago, or All-High Stadium that could stand-in for Wrigley, once some ivy was planted or the Central Terminal in Buffalo that became the Chicago train station. Then there was the Ellicott Square Building that became a hotel.
They needed ballplayers to go with all the vintage area locations.
“I played with most of the guys my age and I had some young ones I knew,’’ Lester said of his many baseball connections.
Lester was 33 at the time.
The producer was Mark Johnson and the director was Barry Levinson – you know, the guys who made “Diner.’’ Another producer was Bob Colesberry, who would years later become the creator of HBO’s “The Wire.’’
You are talking serious talent.
“He was just a great guy,’’ Lester said of Colesberry, who died at the age of 57 in 2004.
Kevin Lester (in NY Knights uniform) on set of the filming of The Natural. (Photo courtesy Kevin Lester)
“In addition, to me picking players, they would have us out there, hitting, running sliding, getting their cameras lined up,’’ Lester said of his early work with the film. Lester thought the job was complete, but it was just beginning.
“So when everything was said and done, they gave me a check and I thanked them and Colesberry said, ‘We’ll see you next week.’
Colesberry told Lester, “We want you to be one of the New York Knights.’’
Lester, who grew up a Yankee and a Mickey Mantle fan, and was scouting for the Pirates, took a leave of absence from his job. He was now a member of The Natural’s team for the next six months.
Levinson was trying to get in touch with Buffalo native third baseman Phil Mankowski, a six-year major league player, who played the previous season for the Mets. He wanted him for the role of Hank Benz.
Lester spoke up and told Levinson, “Barry, let me call Phil tonight and he will be here tomorrow.’’
“What are you talking about?’’ Levinson asked.
“I grew up with Phil, he was my best man at my wedding.’’
The producers were thrilled.
“They knew what they wanted as far as a look, but I was trying to give them ability, guys who had some game,’’ Lester said of his New York Knights selections. “The New York actors, they didn’t have a lot of ability, but the guys I brought in did,’’ Lester said. Positions were solidified and the producers told Lester they were basically done procuring baseball talent.
Lester had one more suggestion because they were still looking for some sluggers and were ready to reach out to some big baseball names.
“I got three guys you want to see hit,’’ Lester said. “They’re home run hitters.’’
Kevin Lester as a New York Knight. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lester)
Lester was told that Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool and another name player were coming to Buffalo and War Memorial Stadium.
Lester said, “Well these guys are already here, let’s at least see them hit. So the first guy I put up there was Joe Charboneau. Within three pitches he buried one deep in centerfield. The next guy was Duke McGuire, who I grew up with.’’
McGuire played in the Tigers organization and was in the Bisons front office and and later became a Bisons broadcaster.
“He hits one on the roof of the short porch over in right field,’’ Lester said. “And then Jim Mary, a guy I played with, he deposited a couple over the left field fence. They all hit bombs.’’
A smiling Mark Johnson told Lester, “You probably just saved me $100,000.’’
Lester also helped the movie’s property master Barry Bedig. The first day Lester was using a 1939 era glove that he received for the film. He brought the glove home and said, “I put a little more leather above the web.’’
He made sure the look was real.
Phil Mankowski asked Lester to do the same thing for his glove.
The next day Robert Redford tells the prop master, “Hey, I’d like to get a glove like Phil Mankowski has.’’
Barry Bedig asked Mankowski where the glove came from and was told it was issued by the movie – but Lester did work on the glove.
“I’m thinking I’m going get fired,’’ Lester said of the moment. “Barry Levinson came over to me and said, ‘Hey did you add leather to Mankowski’s glove?’
“I said, ‘Yeah.’ ’’
Levinson said, “Can you do that for Redford’s gloves?’’
Lester took home five gloves for Roy Hobbs and fixed them all up, Kevin Lester style.
Barry Bedig loved the glove work and Lester next found himself on a $300 a week retainer to repair gloves, catcher’s equipment, help them find a painter, a builder or anything that came up where they needed local help.
Janet Lester enjoying a dugout beverage with Robert Redford. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lester)
Caleb Deschanel, an award winning cinematographer, and father to actresses Zooey and Emily Deschanel, also was helped by Lester. First to guard the camera with baseballs flying all over the place during hitting scenes. “A $250,000 camera,’’ Lester said “with the guys hitting line drives, I put a glove in my right hand, had a catcher’s mask on and wrapped myself around the lens.’’
Deschanel’s use of light in the film was majestic, and a few years later Deschanel called Lester to work on another film but Lester declined because his career as an athletic director was going strong and it was the busy fall sports season. The movie?
“Eight Men Out.’’
So on this day at War Memorial Stadium, Deschanel is trying to figure out how to film a scene with baseballs bouncing in the stands to mimic home runs, remember the first time Roy Hobbs was finally allowed to take batting practice by Pop Fisher and blasted balls into the seats.
“We’re trying to figure out to get a ball to land in the frame,’’ Deschanel explained to Lester.
At the time, they were using an air canon they had made to shoot the balls into the stands … with not a lot of success. The ball would knuckle and there is one scene you can see that where the ball bounces like that in the bleachers.
“I’ll throw it,’’ Lester said nonchalantly to Deschanel. “Just tell me where you want it.’’
Deschanel said, “I’ll give you $20 if you can do it.’’
Game on, and others got involved in the wager and soon $180 was riding on the throw into the outfield seats from just beyond the infield at first base. Lester had about 30 seconds to get it right.
He didn’t need it.
Deschanel pointed to the exact area, saying, “I will give you three rows above, three below, six seats either side.’’
Pressure on, the first throw was a bullseye.
“From then on they paid me to throw the balls,’’ said Lester, who always had an accurate arm, going back to his days as a youngster and winning so many stuffed animals at the local Catholic Church carnival, he was banned from those games.
Kevin Lester (r) posing with Robert Redford on the set of The Natural. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lester)
Now the bat. The special bat, the full story of Wonderboy.
Barry Bedig came up to Lester one day and told him Redford liked the bat that Lester was using. The actors would regularly take batting practice at the stadium or the high school where Lester coached baseball and was a teacher, Williamsville South High School in nearby Williamsville, N.Y.
Lester would put Redford in the gym and use the pitching machine. Pretty cool having Roy Hobbs taking BP in your high school gym. Lester became the athletic director at the school in 1985.
“He doesn’t like the Wonderboys we have for him,’’ Bedig told Lester of Redford. “He’s been using your bats in batting practice.’’
Lester would sand his bats down to just how he liked them. It was a long process but that is the bat Roy Hobbs wanted. Bedig then would then have the Wonderboy artwork and lightning bolt added.
Bedig needed six Louisville Sluggers to those specs and asked if they could be shipped overnight for hitting scenes set to be filmed the next day.
Not going to happen. Doesn’t work that way. Bats take a while to be made.
So Lester went home and started to hand sand an extra bat he had to make it just right.
“I stayed up most of the night, hand-sanding the bat and I used a little wood chisel to take my name off the label and take off the shellac,’’ Lester said of the process. “I got one done, cleaned it up real nice and brought it in the next morning and the artist put Wonderboy on it and that is the bat he liked using.’’
“Do you have anymore?’’ Lester was asked.
“I probably got three or four more [at] home,’’ Lester said. “I went to the school the next morning put them on the lathe and just stood there with sandpaper for hours and hours hand sanding as they spun,’’ Lester said, offering up a highlight of a golden piece of movie trivia.
“The bats they used in the movie, the ones Redford used, were the ones I made,’’ Lester said. “At the end of the movie Barry Bedig gave me three of the original Wonderboy bats, one for each of my sons.
“They probably had a dozen of their own Wonderboys, but he didn’t like any of them. When he hit, he used mine,’’ Lester said.
Wonderboy. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lester)
Here is the exact model for all you bat freaks out there – and I am one – I really enjoyed a visit to Louisville-Slugger a number of years ago: The model was a K55 handle, which was Mickey Mantle, Lester said of his bat’s specifications, and the top of the bat was MC44 for Willie McCovey.
“So when I ordered them I asked for a K55 handle, because Mantle was my guy,’’ Lester said, “and I liked the bigger top MC44 because I figured I had a better chance of hitting the ball.’’
Now you know the rest of the story when it comes to Roy Hobbs and Wonderboy.
Lester said Redford was a pleasure to be around and then showed me a wonderful picture of he and Redford standing side by side in their uniforms with their bats, a baseball card shot, and a second photo of Lester’s wife Janet, having a glass of wine with Redford in the dugout. Janet passed away in 2010. They were married in 1971. “We met each other in second grade,’’ Lester said, love in his voice.
“Robert Redford was great to work with and he was a pretty good athlete,’’ Lester added. “In the outfield I’m throwing the balls to him, trying to throw them over his head a little bit, left and right. He swung the bat pretty good and he did have one home run. He tried the whole movie, and he finally got a home run. He was the ultimate professional. If he didn’t like the way a scene went he would say we are going to do this again.
“Wilford Brimley was great to work with, Richard Farnsworth too. I had some great conversations with Farnsworth. He was a stuntman for all the movie stars. He did all the horseback riding for Ronald Reagan.
“And I will tell you this, Glenn Close was outstanding,’’ Lester said. “She was a tomboy too. She would take batting practice with them. Robert Duvall was outstanding as well and you know who I became pretty good friends with was Darren McGavin, the reason being, he comes on the set, and you have to understand, I am comfortable in any situation. I don’t care if I’m dealing with the president of the United States or whatever. My mother always taught me, nobody is better than you, and you are not better than anybody. So Darren McGavin comes on the set and I go over to him and say, “Hey, Nightstalker,’’ he laughed like crazy and he said, ‘You are probably the only guy that watched that show.’ ’’
Lester was first hired in mid-June, shooting began in July and they shot into October and he did not wrap up until going to the West Coast and finishing around Christmas. He’s the guy sitting behind Redford with the bored look on his face in that scene with the “carnival hypnotist’’ saying, “Losing is a disease.’’
Levinson gave Lester an important scene in the movie as well. When Glenn Close passed the note that was eventually passed to Redford in the dugout about their son being in the stands, it was Lester, No. 20, who handed the note to Redford.
Kevin Lester (#20) passes a note to Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) in a scene from The Natural.
One late night after shooting, Lester was sitting in the stands with Levinson and Johnson and some others and Mark Johnson said: “We usually give a gift at the end of the movie. Do you guys want a uniform or a jacket, what do you want?’’
Lester told Johnson, “A lot of guys probably stole that stuff already. When you win a championship in baseball, you get a championship ring.’’
They all thought that was a great idea. Lester got in touch with the Jostens rep from the high school. The rep came with a selection of championship rings. Remember, we said Lester was a huge Yankees fan, he chose a ring with exactly what he wanted, it turned out to be the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates ring.
They used that as a mock-up with Lester’s name on the ring.
“At the premier in Buffalo, May 5th, 1984, they sent the rings to me and I gave the rings to the five local guys who were on the New York Knights on the stage of the Century Theater,’’ Lester said.
All the Knights rings were sent to Lester and he mailed them out to different New York Knights around the country.
“About four days later, another ring came for me and it was gold, with a diamond,’’ Lester said. He called the ring company and was told they made five of these special rings and they wanted him to have one. “The others went to Redford, Levinson, Johnson and Bob Rich Jr., owner of the Bisons.’’
A classic memento from a classic movie.
Through the years, Lester wound up as the catcher for a number of Old-Timers Games as well.
He was asked at one game at War Memorial Stadium in 1984, when he caught both Don Larsen and Whitey Ford and also had Willie Mays come to the plate while he was catching – how do you feel sitting with all these Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers?
Lester looked down the dugout and said, “I feel like the Pope sitting with the Twelve Apostles.’’
Lester coached, taught and was an athletic director in an amazing high school career that spanned 48 years and last year was inducted into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame in the same class that inducted me.
There always will be the magic year of 1983 when The Natural came to Buffalo.
“I never played Major League Baseball,’’ Lester told me, “but my whole career feels major league to me.’’
All the way, and as Robert Redford said so well, “God, I love baseball.’’