When Hollywood's 'Mr. Baseball' actually played for the Tigers

April 3rd, 2023

Remember that time that Hollywood’s “Mr. Baseball” actually got into a Major League game?

It happened exactly 31 years ago Sunday, when actor Tom Selleck, of “Magnum, P.I.” -- and, yes, “Mr. Baseball” -- fame, stepped to the plate for the Tigers in a Spring Training game against the Reds.

On April 3, 1991, Selleck engrossed himself in his latest role -- a veteran Yankees first baseman who goes to Japan to keep his professional baseball career alive -- in the best way possible: by actually suiting up for a big league club.

“It was just one of the memorable experiences of my life, you know?” Selleck told The Athletic back in 2018. “If anybody asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, it wasn’t an actor. It was to be a professional baseball player.”

Selleck was born in Detroit and his hero was Hall of Fame slugger Al Kaline (it's no coincidence that Selleck regularly wore a Tigers cap in "Magnum, P.I."). He was able to live out multiple baseball dreams during the spring of 1991, including playing long toss with Kaline each day he was with the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla.

Tigers manager Sparky Anderson surprised Selleck during the April 3 contest, calling on him to pinch-hit in the seventh inning. The Hall of Fame manager then thought better of it, since the opposing pitcher at the time was the flame-throwing Nasty Boy, Rob Dibble.

So Selleck stepped into the batter’s box, bad hamstring from the day before and all, in the eighth against right-hander Tim Layana, who himself had a 3.49 ERA out of the bullpen the year before for the World Series champions. Selleck got into a 1-2 hole, but he actually fouled off three pitches with a pretty decent-looking swing.

But alas, Mr. Baseball struck out on a devastating knuckle-curveball. Hey, if a good Major League pitcher is throwing you knuckle-curves, that’s something to be proud of in itself, no matter what the outcome of the plate appearance.

When “Mr. Baseball” premiered in 1992, it was obvious to any baseball fan who watched it that Selleck looked and acted the part well. His character -- an ornery, stubborn, former superstar slugger now on the decline named Jack Elliot -- tries to keep his career alive by going to the only professional team that wanted him, the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball organization.

Following the initial culture shock and an accompanying bad attitude about everything that was happening in his life, Elliot turned his outlook, and his club’s fortunes, around. His successful portrayal of the old ballplayer, however, can be traced directly back to Spring Training in the year prior to the film’s release.

“It was enormously helpful,” Selleck told The Athletic about his Major League experience. “I think there’s a kind of osmosis. You don’t want to be consciously copying something or mimicking anything.”

Selleck’s portrayal in the movie was a home run. And while he didn’t homer in his Spring Training at-bat more than three decades ago, he acquitted himself well. He isn’t the only celebrity who has gotten into a Spring Training game, but he was certainly one of the ones who most looked the part of a Major League player.

Perhaps the way Selleck fit in so well is a byproduct of one of his famous lines from the movie:

“Baseball’s a game. And games are supposed to be fun.”