Did Robert Redford play high school baseball with Don Drysdale?
In his entertaining memoir, Bob Broeg: Memories of a Hall of Fame Sportswriter, the late, great St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg related the following story:
I broke away one weekend to watch Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in "Barefoot in the Park." Two nights later, I attended an unusual Sunday night preview of an ill-fated Burt Lahr venture, "Foxy." At intermission, I rose, turned, stretched, and looked into the blue eyes of - Robert Redford. Impulsively, I introduced myself, mentioned his show, and said, "You're goin to be a great success..." Redford, pleased, wondered what I did. When I told him, he arched his brows. "Then," he said, "I guess you know my high-school teammate, Don Drysdale?" Redford told me he had played the outfield behind Drysdale when Van Nuys was a fruit-and-vegetable farm area. "I hope," said the actor, "that Drysdale makes the Hall of Fame one day." When I later related the story to Drysdale, he assured me, "Redford was a pretty good ball player."
So you can certainly understand that a story that cool has been passed around many times over the years. You can find in many different books the fact that Robert Redford and Don Drysdale played high school baseball with each other and that Redford then attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship.
But is it true?
Let us find out!
The first time I had any reason to doubt the story (which I had seen a few times over the years) came when Lee Barnathan did an article at the end of last year about the late Drysdale, specifically about his former classmates remembering the Hall of Fame Dodger pitcher. Here is Barnathan's article. While working on the article, Barnathan had a couple of former classmates of Drysdale's cast some doubt about whether Redford actually played for the Van Nuys team. One particularly good friend of Drysdale's specifically stated that he did not think that Redford was on the high school baseball team. So Barnathan contacted me and I began to look into it.
One thing was for certain - Redford and Drysdale definitely did both attend Van Nuys high school at the same time. So they certainly were familiar with each other. Barnathan helped with another aspect of the story when he scanned Van Nuys yearbooks from 1952-1954 (Redford and Drysdale both graduated in 1954) to note that there are no references to Redford as being on the baseball team, although there was a mention of Redford being on the tennis team.
The fact that Redford was not mentioned as being on the team in the yearbook was a major piece of the puzzle, but I was not prepared to fully discount the story because of the existence of the baseball college scholarship. It certainly is not impossible to get a baseball college scholarship without playing varsity baseball in high school, but it is fairly unlikely. That part of the story kept holding me up from just discounting this as a false story.
However, a few months back, Michael Feeney Callan released his highly-anticipated Redford biography, appropriately titled Robert Redford: The Biography. In it, Callan refutes the idea that Redford ever played high school baseball, but even better, he settles the college aspect of the story, and he does it in such a way that matches up perfectly with past stories I have seen about Redford being "kicked off" the University of Colorado baseball team. As Callan notes, Redford (although Redford was clearly a bright guy, traditional schooling was not his forte, so his grades made his college options somewhat limited) was recruited by University of Colorado at Boulder under the notion that if he performed well, he would get a sports scholarship after the fact (which is not that uncommon - David Eckstein, for instance, was a walk-on at the University of Florida as a freshman but then received a baseball scholarship for his sophomore year). Soon into his time there, though, Redford became disinterested in baseball and left the team (he might technically have been kicked off of the team for missing practices and for partying too much, but either way, it was only a matter of time before he was off of the team, as he had lost all interest in playing the sport at school). Redford became interested in art and he eventually left school before graduating and ended up in New York, first studying art and then, much more famously, working as an actor.
Now Redford definitely had skills as a baseball player, so I think there are ways of accepting Broeg's story in such a way that doesn't leave the take as "Redford was making things up." Perhaps he and Drysdale played baseball with each other outside of school? Again, Redford was a talented enough athlete to be offered the promise of a scholarship, so the notion that Redford played non-high school baseball is quite easy to believe. Similarly, it is very believable that Drysdale would play baseball outside of school, as well (especially over the summer). So the two teens could easily have played baseball together, leaving the mistake only that Redford said "teammate" instead of "classmate" (and even then - if they played together during the summer, they would, in a way, be "teammates"). Thus, Drysdale could have been speaking honestly when asked about Redford's skills, as opposed to some takes on the situation I have read where people feel as though Drysdale was just trying not to embarrass Redford by pointing out the falsehood.
Whatever the background, though, the legend itself is...
Thanks to Bill Broeg, Lee Barnathan and Michael Feeney Callan for the information needed for this piece.
Be sure to check out my website, Sports Legends Revealed, for more sports legends! I have archives of all the past legends featured on the site in the categories of: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey and the Olympics.
Left photo: Don Drysdale. Credit: Associated Press
Right photo: Robert Redford. Credit: Sony Pictures