Baseball’s Connection to M*A*S*H

Baseball and M*A*S*H have more connections than one may think.

Hawkeye: What does everybody want here? What do these people want more than anything else?
Trapper John McIntyre: To go home or to Tokyo, whichever comes first.
Hawkeye: What do they really want?
Trapper John: Sex!
Hawkeye: Ah!
Trapper John: Except for those baseball perverts.

The scene, as several generations of viewers will recognize, is from M*A*S*H, which, 45 years after its initial airing, remains a popular-culture icon, sustained by DVD viewing and cable reruns. Surprisingly, for a comedy-drama set in a war zone half a world away, it often turned to baseball as a touchstone for its American characters.

Indeed, it did so from the very first episode…

Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers from the pilot episode of M*A*S*H

“The Pilot” (1972)
The M*A*S*H/baseball connection stretches back to the show’s initial episode, which aired on September 17, 1972, and deals with Hawkeye’s efforts to raise money for his houseboy, Ho-Jon, so he can attend college in the States. During the episode, which is heavy on madcap activity and low on seriousness, Hawkeye (played by Alan Alda) and his partner in shenanigans and surgery, Trapper John (Waybe Rogers), can be seen talking about the desires of everyone in the 4077th. As part of their exchange, baseball comes up, but in the weird way detailed above.

Naturally, the closing line is accompanied by roars from the laugh track, which accompanied almost all of the show’s episodes. (In contrast to many comedies from the 1970s, M*A*S*H was never filmed in front of a live audience.)

There were many more episodes that touched on baseball. Among them:

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (1976)
Like many M*A*S*H episodes, this one presents concurrent plots: one serious and one comical, and both executed skillfully. While Hawkeye faces the possibility of permanent blindness after trying to fix the nurses’ furnace, the butt-of-all-jokes Frank Burns (played wonderfully by the late Larry Linville) devises a devious way to earn some money. Frank listens to the original broadcast of a game between the Dodgers and Giants, which ends in a walkoff three-run homer for Brooklyn. Later, Frank and some of the enlisted men are listening to a rebroadcast of the game. Not realizing that the game had already been played, the enlisted men agree to a small bet with Frank on the outcome. When the Dodgers hit the unexpected home run to win the game, Frank collects his winnings from his unsuspecting victims.

Hawkeye and his new bunkmate, B.J. Hunnicutt (played by Mike Farrell), quickly discover Frank’s nefarious methods. With some help from Radar (Gary Burghoff) and Klinger (Jamie Farr), they stage a phony recreation of a game, complete with sound effects and the wrong outcome (an Indians win over the Yankees), thereby fooling Frank. Major Burns, convinced that he knows the outcome of the game, then places a new bet, this time with seemingly half of the camp. When he learns that the Yankees have won the game, he is literally stalked by a half-dozen camp members, each of whom wants the bet paid off. And once again, Hawkeye and B.J. have exacted revenge on their hapless foil.

This episode was written by Ken Levine, a lifelong baseball fan. In 1991, Levine became a broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles and later did broadcast work for the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. For three seasons, Levine hosted “Dodger Talk,” a postgame radio show that followed each Dodgers broadcast on KABC Radio.

“Dr. Winchester and Mr. Hyde” (1978)
Also written by Levine, this episode focuses on Major Charles Winchester (Frank’s replacement) and his battle with amphetamines, but also features a group of Marines who are being treated by the 4077th. The four Marines are not referred to by name during the episode, but the closing credits reveal their identities as “Solita,” “Remy,” “Grich,” and “Chalk.” Those names should be familiar; they represented the starting infield for the California Angels in 1977. Intentionally or not, Levine did misspell the name of first baseman Tony Solaita in the credits, but otherwise was correct in referencing Jerry Remy, Bobby Grich and Dave Chalk.

The episode aired in February of 1978, or well after the 1977 major league season ended. The ’77 Angels, who were expected to be a strong contender, dissolved into a morass of underachievement, finishing 74-88, fifth in the American League West. Of the four Angels featured in the credits, only Grich and Chalk returned to the team in 1978.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“A War for All Seasons” (1980)
M*A*S*H’s most baseball-centric episode covers the entire year of 1951, again using the Dodgers and the Giants as a backdrop. Charles Winchester (played by David Ogden Stiers), who knows nothing about baseball, decides to take the other doctors up on a bet; he puts his money on the “sure-thing” Dodgers, who are holding on to a massive 14-game lead in the National League pennant race, but gives the other bettors in camp favorable odds. As the episode progresses, Charles takes advice from Klinger and learns more and more about our national pastime, but becomes increasingly worried as the Dodgers’ lead shrivels to nothing. Winchester begins to warn Klinger of the dangerous ramifications should they surrender the pennant to the Giants.

Toward the end of the episode, we see Winchester pacing back and forth as he listens to an Armed Forces Radio transmission of the final tiebreaking game between the Dodgers and the Giants. As the play-by-play announcer (who is not Russ Hodges, but rather a voice actor) delivers the news of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run, Charles is left crushed, knowing that he owes a fortune to the rest of the camp. He drops his Dodgers cap to the ground; a moment later, we see him lying on his back, having passed out from the shock of the Dodgers’ loss.

The episode closes with the camp watching a highlight reel of the events of 1951. When the reel shows a replay of the Thomson home run, Charles charges toward the front of the mess tent brandishing a large kitchen knife and begins to slash the screen to pieces. Then, looking for Klinger, whom he blames for his wave of betting losses, Winchester shouts, “Where is that Lebanese mongoose?”

This 1980 episode has drawn some criticism for the way that it distorts the M*A*S*H timeline, which was already questionable given that the Korean War lasted only three years while M*A*S*H was already into its ninth season. But the use of the Dodgers/Giants’ story line is effective in moving the episode from spring to summer to fall, while also reminding us of the importance of baseball as a diversion for those doctors and soldiers trapped in the midst of war.

“Friends and Enemies” (1983)
Former Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Jim Lefebvre makes a guest appearance as a character named Sgt. Zarilli. It was a brief but important speaking role, in which Lefebvre’s character tells Colonel Sherman Potter (played by Harry Morgan) that a longtime friend of his made a serious error in judgment on the battle field, resulting in massive injuries to the regiment. (Lefebvre had a fairly significant career as an actor. In guest appearances on numerous TV shows from the 1960’s, ’70’s and ’80’s, Lefebvre put in time on Batman, Gilligan’s Island, Knight Rider and St. Elsewhere.)

Aside from these individual episodes, a more continuous baseball theme can be found in season seven, which aired from 1978 to 1979. Throughout this season of M*A*S*H, Levine continued using baseball player names for the patients who came through the 4077th. This time, Levine took names from the Los Angeles Dodgers, including broadcasters, coaches, and owners. Among the character names Levine used were “Hough” (Charlie Hough), “Private Sutton” (Don Sutton), “Ferguson” (Joe Ferguson), “Russell” (Bill Russell), “Private Welch” (Bob Welch), “Colonel Lacy” (Lee Lacy), “Private North” (Bill North), “O’Malley” (owner Peter O’Malley), “Corporal Basgall” (coach Monty Basgall) and “Sergeant Jerry Scully” (broadcaster Vin Scully).

Levine was not the only baseball-connected writer on M*A*S*H. Another was story editor and producer Thad Mumford, who wrote 17 episodes in the show’s final four seasons. In the late 1960’s, a young Mumford had served as a ballboy and batboy for the New York Yankees. “I remember looking out at the expanse of Yankee Stadium with reverence,” Mumford once told the Associated Press. “But it became a job, particularly during doubleheaders in the middle of July, when you had to fight off swarms of mosquitoes.”

Mumford found better work contributing to M*A*S*H until its farewell episode in 1983. Mumford then turned his experience with both a successful TV show and the Yankees into a job as a creative consultant for a 1983 NBC show called Bay City Blues, about a fictional minor league team in California. Mumford conducted extensive research for the show, including a long series of interviews with players and coaches, but that did not translate into success for the new TV venture. Though the show featured a good cast (including Bernie Casey, Dennis Franz and Sharon Stone), only four episodes made it on to NBC’s airwaves before the network canceled it because of poor ratings.

Contributors to M*A*S*H developed a kinship with baseball in other ways, too. Beginning in the eighth season, after Klinger has been chosen as Radar’s replacement and forced to dispatch with his array of dresses and skirts, the corporal begins to don a baseball cap in many of the episodes. (The cap also can occasionally be seen on the head of Colonel Potter.)  Klinger explains that the cap represents his hometown Toledo Mud Hens, the longtime minor league franchise. In some episodes, Klinger also wore a Mud Hens jersey, as seen below.

(Jamie Farr and Alan Alda examine a bottle of wine on the outdoor set of M*A*S*H)

Jamie Farr, who played Klinger, hails from Toledo in real life and has long been a fan of the Mud Hens. Almost immediately, the cap created controversy. Its style, with a red bill and a blue crown and a white “T” on the front, looks very similar to the style of cap worn by the Texas Rangers in the 1970’s. A number of fans wrote to Farr, pointing out what they considered a wardrobe error. Actually, Farr and the folks responsible for putting together M*A*S*H knew better. Having done their research, they determined that the Mud Hens of the early 1950s, when the Korean War took place, used a cap that was virtually identical to the Rangers’ cap of the ’70’s. So the cap was, and is, historically accurate.

When the Mud Hens’ organization realized what M*A*S*H was doing, team executives arranged to send Mud Hens memorabilia to Farr and other cast members. The incorporation of the Mud Hens’ cap into the show helped make the franchise one of the most recognizable and well-branded minor league team in baseball. Ever since the cap made its debut on national television, Farr has become the Mud Hens’ No. 1 celebrity fan. He has been invited to throw out ceremonial first pitches and also starred in a series of commercials that helped raise money for a new ballpark in Toledo. And last August, the Mud Hens celebrated the 45th anniversary of M*A*S*H by distributing Corporal Klinger bobbleheads at the ballpark.

Farr is not the only alumnus of M*A*S*H to develop a tie to baseball. Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper on the first three seasons of the show, later became a successful entrepreneur and eventually gained a minority share in the Oakland A’s.

(Rogers, McLean Stevenson, and Alda in a typical moment on M*A*S*H)

Rogers’ interest in the A’s grew out of a friendship with Lew Wolff, who was the head of real estate for 20th Century Fox and owned a bungalow near the lot where M*A*S*H was filmed. The two eventually became business partners, co-founding Plaza Bank of Commerce in San Jose. Wolff would later become the majority owner of the A’s.

When Wolff purchased a majority interest in the A’s, he decided to give Rogers a small piece of the franchise. For a guy like Rogers, a fan of the game who had enjoyed playing baseball with his young son in the 1970s, the opportunity to own part of a ballclub was a welcome proposition. Rogers maintained his financial interest in the A’s until his death on New Year’s Eve, 2015.

In creating these associations with baseball, Rogers and Farr succeeded in making M*A*S*H even more appealing to me. I became interested in the show in the late 1970’s, when CBS started airing reruns during the afternoon. I quickly became enamored of the show, particularly the first three seasons, when Rogers and the remarkably talented McLean Stevenson co-starred with Alan Alda, and when the show’s writers emphasized the zaniness of life in a mobile army surgical hospital. Those first three seasons remain the peak of M*A*S*H; the show became a little too heavy-handed and maudlin in later years, but still delivered the goods from time to time.

Once I became aware of the show’s many connections to baseball, that avenue only cemented my love of one of TV’s greatest situation comedy-dramas. I now find myself looking for additional baseball references. I’m sure I have missed a few along the way. With 251 episodes captured on DVD, there’s still a lot of material to sift through.

References and Resources:

Internet Movie Data Base

M*A*S*H TV series, 1972-1983

Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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87 Cards
4 years ago

Bruce-you hit me right in the childhood.

When I read of the recent death of David Ogden Stiers, my first image of was of his kindness and modesty toward music lovers (I met him in college; Stiers took to conducting chamber orchestras after-M*A*SH; I was assigned /volunteered to drive him around town; Stiers didn’t drive- ever-I used to work with one of his childhood mates from Oregon).

My second image was of him in the referenced “War for All Seasons” episode with his character lying supine after Bobby Thomson’s famous home-run, a Brooklyn hat on his heart to punctuate the loss. For me, that image with its Dem-Bums-heart-break motif overrides the cliche Russ Hodges “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” radio call.

Thirdly, when informed by Klinger that Carl Erskine hurdled a victory over the Cards (three-hitter; August 17, 1951 per B/R), the blue-blooded Winchester responds “Good Ole Ersk” with appropriate hand-wringing–now my reflex association with that pitcher.

Lastly, I recall Captain Hunnicutt observing “That Mays kid is on fire” and Corporal Klinger advising the rookie was “a flash-in-the-pan”.

“M*A*S*H” aired four times a night out in the sticks where I toiled for my teen years; I took on a more rich and fulfilling life in the after-years from leaving home—for military service in Korea.

John DiFool2
4 years ago

I would have sworn the camp played an actual game at one point. Or was that in the original film?

87 Cards
4 years ago
Reply to  John DiFool2

The film had a ringered football game.

It has been decades since I read the original Richard Hooker “M*A*SH novel; I recall an unnamed draftee character “who was an infielder in the Three-I League”.

4 years ago
Reply to  John DiFool2

I think there were a few episodes with scenes baseball being played. Season 2 Operation Noselift was one. Radar pretended to get injured playing baseball. The others, if there were any, were even less a part of the plot.

4 years ago

[redacted after i re-read the whole article]

Marc Schneider
4 years ago

What’s interesting to me is how, regardless of the popularity of football, baseball always has a place in the American soul. Even in a science fiction show, Deep Space 9, a Star Trek spinoff, set hundreds of years in the future, the protagonist is a baseball fan and there are episodes where they are playing baseball. And, of course, the Bobby Thomson home run is a lodestar of American culture; it’s the center of the Don DeLillo book, “Underworld.” It’s as if, even if you aren’t a big baseball fan, there are things about baseball that you know and, for a show about soldiers far away from home and often grievously wounded, it’s a perfect slice of Americana that helps illuminate the costs of war.

4 years ago

IIRC, in an early episode, Trapper made friendly w/ a wounded soldier who, like the doctor, hailed from Boston, by talking about Ted Williams’ enlisting in the war as a jet pilot, and they shared their love of the Splendid Splinter’s exploits on the field.

4 years ago

Several years ago the St. Paul Saints had a M*A*S*H night promotion. An army helicopter landed in the outfield before the game, 2 people dressed as medics climbed out with a stretcher. In the middle of the stretcher was a camouflage baseball. They carried the stretcher with the ball up to the pitchers mound for the person throwing out the first pitch to use. Classic Veeck.