David Letterman’s Top Ten Baseball Moments
When David Letterman retires following his May 20 broadcast of "The Late Show with David Letterman," we won’t just be saying goodbye to one of the greatest and most influential talk show hosts in television history. We’ll also be losing late-night TV’s biggest baseball fan.
Whether it was via studio guests, taped segments, Top Ten Lists, comedic potshots at A-Rod, or just letting stage manager Biff Henderson loose at the ballpark, Letterman repeatedly found ways to work baseball into his broadcasts over the past 33 years – and to work his agreeably twisted sense of humor into conversations about the game.
A longtime Yankees fan — and a minority owner of the Seattle Mariners during the dire Jeff Smulyan era — Letterman gave plenty of screen time to the boys from the Bronx over the years, but major leaguers of all affiliations (and skill levels) were welcome on his show.
In honor of his retirement, here’s a Top Ten List of our own: David Letterman’s greatest baseball moments.
10. Cal Ripken Jr.’s and Tony Gwynn’s Hall Of Fame Top Ten
In January 2007, shortly after being elected for first-ballot enshrinement in Cooperstown, the Iron Man and Mr. Padre make a surprise joint "Late Show" appearance to deliver "Good Things About Being Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame." Ripken gets the best entry: "Number 6: At any moment, there’s a good chance Bob Costas is boring somebody with stories about me."
9. 2015 Hall of Fame Top Ten
Last January, "The Late Show" came up with another Hall of Fame Top Ten, this time featuring Cooperstown’s incredible Class of 2015: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Craig Biggio and John Smoltz. The best entries of their Top Ten — "Things I Said When I Learned I Made the Baseball Hall of Fame" — belong to the Big Unit, though it’s hard to choose between "Number 9: One step closer to becoming People magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’" and "Number 2: Guess they forgot about me killing that bird."
8. Buddy Biancalana Hits His Way On
Inspired by the euphonious name and sub-Mendoza career batting average, Letterman made a running gag out of Buddy Biancalana in the summer of 1985. Contrasting the light-hitting Kansas City shortstop’s ineptitude at the plate with Pete Rose’s chase of Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record, the "Late Night" host instituted the "Buddy Biancalana Hit Countdown" as a regular feature. But when Biancalana got some key hits against the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series, he not only earned a championship ring, but also an invitation from Letterman to appear on the show.
7. George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin Do Their Thing
(Segment begins at 15:19)
On April 16, 1987, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made a quintessentially Steinbrenner-esque appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," in which he bemoans the team’s television situation, decries increasing player salaries, offers grudging praise for Don Mattingly, refuses to admit that the Yankees are making any money, and generally lives up to his despotic reputation. "Every year I give a speech in the locker room at the beginning of the season," the Boss tells Letterman. "They love it; if they don’t love it, they’re in Seattle." Billy Martin — then employed by the Yankees as a consultant, but just six months away from being named the team’s manager for the fifth time — joined the fun, recounting a memorable hunting story involving Mickey Mantle.
6. Hank Aaron’s Letterman Debut
The answer to the trivia question, "Who was the first baseball player to appear on Letterman?", Aaron guested on just the third-ever episode of "Late Night with David Letterman." The interview finds Hammerin’ Hank — just elected to the Hall of Fame — in a congenial mood, and he has some eloquent words for Dave about the pressures he underwent while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, as well as the writers who didn’t vote for his Hall induction. Special bonus: Al Albert’s "postgame" interview with Aaron.
5. Joe Niekro Talks Scuff
On Aug. 3, 1987, veteran Twins knuckleballer Joe Niekro was ejected from a game against the Angels after being caught on the mound with an emery board and a small piece of sandpaper. During his subsequent 10-game suspension, Niekro paid a hilarious visit to Letterman’s show to demonstrate various ways of doctoring baseballs, while at the same time denying that he’d done anything illegal against the Angels. "You’re telling me that you did not doctor the ball that night," presses Letterman. "Do I look like a doctor?" Niekro responds.
4. Bill Veeck Looks Back
(Segment begins at 56:30)
With their sharp intellects, wry senses of humor and flair for ridiculous stunts, Bill Veeck and David Letterman were clearly kindred spirits. During his charming "Late Night" appearance from November 1983, the former White Sox/Browns/Indians owner holds forth on such colorful subjects as pinch-hitting midgets, adjustable fences and crafty grounds crews, all of which he employed at one time or another. "I don’t advocate breaking the rules," Veeck says, "but I do advocate testing their elasticity."
3. Dave Trains with the Yankees
Letterman donned the pinstripes on several occasions over the years, but this 1992 segment — in which he receives lessons in "the lost art of baseball" from Yankees manager Buck Showalter and hitting coach Frank Howard — might be the best of them. Dave learns the finer points of heckling and spitting, manfully endures the dreaded "hit by the pitch drill," and wows Howard and Showalter with his impressive Sparky Anderson imitation. (And who knew that Hondo was such a big Doublemint fan?)
2. Harmon Killebrew Night
Yes, you read that correctly: On Feb. 11, 1986, Letterman devoted an entire episode of "Late Night" to the Hall of Fame slugger. In addition to Killebrew, the show features appearances by his former Twins teammates Bob Allison and Jim Kaat, country singer Charley Pride, artist LeRoy Nieman, and, of course, "Mr. Showmanship" himself: Liberace. The highly enjoyable episode climaxes with a dramatic ceremony to retire one of Killebrew’s sport coats, with Paul Shaffer, sporting a classic Twins cap, providing music for the ceremony. If you need a reminder of just how brilliant and audacious Letterman was back in his early "Late Night" days, this episode will surely do the trick.
1. Terry Forster Chows Down
Letterman has certainly invited more talented and higher-profile ballplayers to his show over the decades; but for whatever reason, none had quite the pop cultural impact of Forster’s July 1985 appearance. Having been repeatedly derided by the host in preceding weeks as a "fat tub of goo," the hefty hurler — then enjoying an excellent season out of the bullpen for the Braves — wanders onto the "Late Night" set armed with a humongous sandwich and a passel of food-related puns and one-liners. Forster’s spot, which includes a rundown of his favorite stadiums to eat in, will lead to the release of his Fat Is In EP, one of the worst records ever made by a major-league ballplayer. Though the record will be quickly forgotten, the Forster-Letterman connection will remain forever fixed in the minds of "Late Night" viewers. They might not recall that Forster led the American League in saves in 1974, or that he won a ring with the Dodgers in 1981. But to this day, they still fondly remember him as "that fat tub of goo."
Dan Epstein is the author of "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76" — and he’s been a David Letterman fan since the summer of ’80.