Berger’s Burg: Sinatra, Bennett, Matthau — I brushed them all

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Before flying to Mexico on our vacation, Gloria and I stopped off in Los Angeles for a short stay with my brother, Milt, an actor.

At the LAX Airport, we drifted over to the Baggage Claim Carousel to retrieve our luggage when Gloria exclaimed, "Look, there’s Tony Bennett!" I glanced at the short gentleman in a light blue sports jacket standing 30 feet away from me and shook my head. "No, that is not Tony Bennett!" I exclaimed back.

Gloria said, "Look again." I did and it WAS Tony Bennett. This was one of my Brushes With Greatness.

On the flight to Mexico, I began to relive some of my previous Brushes With Greatness. These strokes of luck began when I was a young teenager. Milt and I took frequent walks from our Lower East Side Manhattan apartment to Greenwich Village. We loved to listen to the amateur folk singers singing around the fountain in Washington Square Park. One of the entertainers was a young blonde girl with a wonderful voice.

I finally had the courage to ask her name. It was Mary Travers. It wasn’t until a few years later that I saw Mary again This time she was on television and with Peter, Paul & Mary. This was my first, albeit delayed, Brush With Greatness.

However, there may have been an earlier Brush With Greatness which occurred during my childhood. Walter Matthau, along with his brother, Hank and mother, Rose, were our upstairs neighbors. They lived two floors above us in our tenement building. Should I consider Walter a true BWG since he was just a neighbor?

My next BWG took place when I was 13. Milt and I, ardent St. Louis Cardinal baseball fans, went to the old Polo Grounds to see the Cards play the NY Giants. Back then, baseball players didn’t get the huge salaries they do today, so many of them traveled by subway to and from the ballpark, from their place of residence at the Hotel Commodore on 42nd Street. Well, let me now tell you about this favorite childhood, all-time, Brush With Greatness.

After the game, Milt and I waded through the crowd to get to the subway and found two seats. We sat down and Milt exclaimed, "Look Alex, there’s Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Tony Moore, and Marty Marion (my favorite Cardinal ballplayers) sitting over there." I looked and exclaimed back "No, they’re not," but yet they were. We passed our station and rode with them all the way to 42nd Street.

A few years later, when I was in my late teens, Milt and I were walking in Times Square and we turned the comer on 42nd Street. Coming around the other side, and bumping hard into 6 foot, 1 inch Milt, was a diminutive, African-American man. He looked up at Milt and hurried away. It was Sammy Davis, Jr.

My other Brushes With Greatness were Frank Sinatra; the radio comedian Fred Allen; Burt Lancaster; and Mae West. Frank and Fred were walking solo along 59th Street and Central Park South, on separate occasions. Burt Lancaster, coming out a theater door, pushed me aside to get through the crowd. I met Mae backstage after a performance of "Diamond Lil." I was brought backstage by my actress-sister Anna who was in the show. They added class to my collection of Brushes.

Then, on a flight back from LA, Gloria and I noticed a craggy-faced gentleman seated in the first row of the coach section. “That’s Alan Greenspan!” Gloria exclaimed. "No, it is not Alan Greenspan," I exclaimed back. It WAS Alan Greenspan. Wow! Another wonderful Brush with Greatness.

However, much to my regret, I did miss out on one particular BWG. Before our LA-Mexican vacation I telephoned Milt from New York to advise him of our arrival time in LA. Milt then handed the phone to someone else. An unfamiliar voice greeted me. "Hello, Alex," he said. "Who is this?" I asked. "Harry Boykoff," the voice answered.

Now, for anyone who might not recognize the name, Harry was simply the first big-man superstar (6 feet, 9 inches) in New York City college basketball. He became St. John's University first basketball legend, and an All-American as its star center. He propelled his St. John's teams to national prominence. In the 1943 National Invitation, the biggest college tournament in the country, he led the field in scoring and was named the most valuable player. That year, he also broke the Madison Square Garden scoring record with 45 points.

After serving in the military during World War II, Harry returned to St. John's for two more seasons, and led the team in scoring again and to a spot in the N.I.T competition in both seasons. He blocked so many shots that the rules had to be changed so that a ball on a downward arc could not be legally swatted away by a defender. He also became the first St. John's player to score 1,000 points, including a 54-point game in 1947 when he outscored an entire opposing team's point total.

Upon graduation, Harry went on to play in the NBA where at one point he was the highest paid player in the league, earning $15,000 per season. Harry ended his professional basketball career with the Boston Celtics following the 1950-1951 season. He is a member of the St. John's Athletics Hall of Fame and the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. That, dear reader, was Harry Boykoff!

Now, about the phone call. I was dubious about the voice on the other side. I had to know whether he was, indeed, Harry Boykoff. Despite my being very young when Boykoff was playing basketball, I knew enough to ask him some pointed questions. After quizzing him, he proved to be Harry Boykoff and he said that he wanted to meet me. Imagine that? Harry Boykoff wanted to meet me. Later, I asked Milt how he knew Harry Boykoff. Milt stated that they had made TV commercials together and became friends.

Our vacation passed swiftly and upon returning to LA, we stopped off once again to see Milt. He was very grim.

"Alex," he said, "as a surprise to you, I invited Harry Boykoff over today to meet you, but, unfortunately, fate stepped in. He passed away earlier this week." I was shaken. The great Harry Boykoff, dead. To make matters worse, I was very annoyed that the LA papers printed only a short obituary notice -- 3 lines -- to announce his death. And even the New York Times did not carry his obituary until three months after his death.

But, Harry, even though I never will get to meet you, I want to tell you that your many fans and I mourn your loss. Once you said that you were not an athlete, but just a big guy who got lucky. You were wrong, Harry. You rank among the very best and I will add your name to my Brush With Greatness list. Condolences to your wife Bea and to the rest of your family.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext 139.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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