So this is sort of weird, but earlier today SI.com posted a profile of Randy (Macho Man) Savage by a writer named Justin Barrasso. And it was very well done, and is certainly worth your time. But as soon as I saw it I thought, “Um … what?” Because much of it concerns Savage’s early years as a minor league baseball player—the exact story I wrote for SI.com a week after he died in 2011.
Anyhow, for some reason SI.com lost much of its archives, and the piece no longer seems to exist. I was really proud of it, because I reported the hell out of the thing and turned it around in, I think, two days.
Anyhow, here it is …
He sat home for two-straight days, waiting … waiting … waiting.
The boy had a dream, after all. From the time he was, oh, 7 or 8, the one thing Randall Mario Poffo wanted to do was play baseball. He was the kid who carried his mitt and bat everywhere; who begged his little brother Lanny to get off the couch and come to the back yard for some extra BP; who pinched himself every time his father, Angelo, took the boys to Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park to catch Hank Aaron or Roger Maris or Willie Mays as they came through town.
Was Randy the greatest athlete Downers Grove North High School had ever produced? No, probably not. But when it came to determination; when it came to drive, well, no one else was even close.
Once, while he was matriculating at Herrick Junior High, a physical education teacher questioned whether any of the students could do 100 sit-ups without stopping. Randy exceeded 1,000. Another time, John Guarnaccia, a longtime childhood friend, spotted the right-handed Randy launching balls as a lefty. “Uh, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Well, a coach might want me to pitch,” Randy replied. “But I don’t wanna burn out my arm. So I’ll learn to do it lefty, and I’ll save my right for the important things.”
Guarnaccia laughed and walked away.
“No exaggeration,” he says now. “Randy became fully ambidextrous.”
As a junior at Downers Grove North, Poffo batted .500 for the Trojans, helping the team to a West Suburban Conference title. The next year, he improved to .525, and the club repeated. With the local reputation as a winner, and power to all fields, and a cannon of an arm from behind the plate, a future in pro ball seemed all but inevitable. A handful of scouts had come to suburban Illinois to watch him play, and while he didn’t perform particularly well in their presence (a 102-degree fever rendered him useless), the interest was undeniable.
“We all assumed Randy would be welcomed into professional baseball,” says Lanny. “It was more than his dream. It was his destiny.”
Hence, on June 8, 1971, Randy Poffo—handsome, polite, clean cut—sat inside his house at 3909 Venard Road and waited for the phone to ring. At approximately 10 am, the Chicago White Sox opened baseball’s amateur draft by selecting Danny Goodwin, a catcher out of Peoria Central High in nearby Peoria, Illinois. Roughly three hours later, with the 40th pick, the Chicago Cubs took catcher Steve Haug, also from Illinois. One spot later, the Oakland A’s tabbed catcher Ron Williamson. Four picks after that, Michael Uremovich, another catcher, went to the Twins. Then Steve Hergenrader to the White Sox. And David Christiansen to the Angels. And Michael Frazier to the Dodgers. And … and … by the time two days and 48 rounds had passed a whopping 66 catchers were selected.
None by the name of Randy Poffo.
“That was the darkest of dark times for us,” says Lanny. “To describe it simply as sad does the pain no justice. Randy was ignored. Completely ignored. I assure you, he never forgot that feeling.
He died this past Friday.
Before we go on, you should probably be told as much. Randy Poffo, the kid who dreamed of playing baseball, was driving his Jeep Wrangler in Pinellas County, Florida when, at approximately 9:25 am, he suffered a major heart attack. The Jeep veered over the raised concrete median divider, crossed over several lanes and crashed head-on into a tree.
When police arrived, they found Poffo’s wife, Lynn, hurt but stable. Beside her, slumped forward in the driver’s seat, was the lifeless body of a thickly built man with a white beard and a familiar face. He was 58. “I believe Randy was already gone when it hit,” says Lanny, who wrestled in the WWF under the sobriquet, The Genius. “Which is the better way, I suppose.”
If the accident sounds familiar but the name does not, that’s probably because Randy Poffo was better known—actually, universally known—as Randy (Macho Man) Savage, one of the most accomplished and beloved professional wrestlers of all time. A former champion in both Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, the Macho Man became something of an iconic figure, what with his distinctive “Oooh Yeah!” growl, his bright, flamboyant duds, his outrageous appearances in myriad Slim Jim commercials (“Snap into a Slim Jim!”) and his cameo role as Bone Saw McGraw in the movie Spiderman.
Yet to a small handful of people, Macho Man Savage was merely a role; a funny-yet-foreign character that defined but a tiny sliver of a person’s life. To them, Randy Poffo was not a wrestler; not a pitch-man; not an actor; not a comic book character.
He was a ballplayer.
“That was his love,” says Barry Cernoch, a high school teammate. “That’s what Randy was all about.”
Back in the 1960s, Downers Grove, Illinois was the model of suburban bliss. Located 30 miles west of Chicago, the village served as the perfect outpost for commuters who needed to work in the Windy City, but didn’t desire to live there. It boasted a high-achieving school district, myriad shops and restaurants and a nonexistent crime rate. In other words, it was the ideal place for Angelo and Judy Poffo to start a family. In particular, Angelo—who was born and raised in Downers Grove—loved the low-key simplicity of things. By night, he was “the Masked Miser” and “the Carpet Bagger”; a loathed villain of professional wrestling whose infamous Italian Neckbreaker move shut down opponents. By day, however, he was merely a (albeit large) suburban dad; a proud graduate of DePaul University who stressed academics above all else.
Randy was born on November 15, 1952, and before long he was a walking, talking, breathing ode to all things baseball. Though his preferred team was the Cubs, his two favorite players were Cincinnati’s Pete Rose (for the hustle) and Johnny Bench (for his status as the game’s elite catcher). In 1962, when her oldest son was 10, Judy signed Randy up for Downers Grove Little League. He was assigned to a team called, oddly, the Moose, which was sponsored by a local VFW lodge. From the very first day, he was a catcher. “What was immediately noteworthy was that Randy threw the ball back to the pitcher with more velocity than the pitcher pitched the ball to Randy,” says Guarnaccia. “He was definitely the best player in town for his age. There was no doubt about it.” In order to help Randy (and, later, Lanny) develop, his parents built a winterized batting cage (with a pitching machine) besides the house. A one-time catcher at DePaul, Angelo filled Randy’s mind with strategies and ideas—how to call a game; how to block the plate; how to see the field; how to emulate players like Bench and Randy Hundley.
Following his sophomore year at Downers Grove High, Randy was shocked to learn that his parents were planning on uprooting the family for 11 months to Hawaii. Angelo had a lucrative opportunity to wrestle on the big island, as well as in Japan, and he also saw it as a chance for his kids to focus solely on baseball. Hence, in 1968-69, the Poffos lived in a small apartment on Kanekapolei Street in Honolulu, and the boys—to their utmost delight—simply missed a year of school. “We were home schooled, where we had to write reports for my mother,” says Lanny. “But it was nothing formal.”
During the time away, Randy and Lanny played nonstop baseball. There were never-ending games of catch, followed by more never-ending games of catch. Though only 16 at the time, Randy made his semi-pro debut, starting at catcher for the Gouveas Sausage Phillies. One of his teammates was John Matias, who, two years later, would play outfield for the White Sox. “That time in Hawaii made Randy a different level player,” says Lanny. “It helped us both develop in big ways.”
The Poffos returned to Illinois, and Randy spent his final two seasons starring for one of the state’s better prep teams. But when the 1971 draft came and went, his heart sank. Sure, he could probably follow his father into the family business. But the goal wasn’t to become a professional wrestler. It was to play ball.
Which is why, the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers used the 794th and final pick to take Don Stackpole, a (what else?) catcher from Wildomar, California, Angelo Poffo forced his son into the car and drove 283 miles to St. Louis, where the Cardinals were holding a two-day open-call tryout camp. In his first at-bat during hitting drills, Randy laced a line drive into the center-right gap that bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double. When the session ended, he was brought into the executive offices and offered a $500-per-week contract and an invitation to join the organization’s rookie league club in Tampa, Florida. Of the approximately 300 players in attendance, he was the only one to catch the franchise’s eye. “No bonus whatsoever,” says Lanny. “Randy signed the same day as Keith Hernandez. He was elated. It wasn’t about the money. It was so much bigger than that.”
“You know what’s funny about Randy?” says Jim Walthour. “He was quiet. You wouldn’t think that from someone who went on to wrestle like he did. But he really was. A quiet, nice young man.”
Walthour is on the other end of the phone. Randy Poffo has been dead for less than 48 hours, and the memories—inspired by sadness, inspired by nostalgia—come flowing. Long ago, in the blissful summer of ’71, the two ballplayers shared a dingy hotel room off of Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, Florida. They were mere boys at the time—Randy not yet 19, Jim just north of 20—assigned to the Cardinals’ Gulf Coast League team. “We actually signed our contracts at Busch Stadium on the same day,” says Walthour, who batted .205 that first season and was out of the game within two years. “Randy was a great guy. A really hard worker, and a kid with a lot of pride.”
Unlike the major leagues, where special athletes rule the landscape, rookie ball is a place where baseball players come in all shapes, sizes and skill levels. It’s the spot where organizations first figure out which guys can play, which guys might be able to play and which guys would be better served pumping gas. A whopping 46 men suited up for the GCL Cards in 1971, and only six reached the major leagues. Of those, a mere three—outfielders Jerry Mumphrey, Mike Vail and Larry Herndon—had lengthy careers.
The take on Poffo was mixed. In 35 games, he batted .286 (best for any regular), with a team-high two home runs (the ballparks were enormous) and a .492 slugging percentage. On the bright side, he worked his rear off, usually staying late after workouts and games to run the outfield and practice throwing down to second. He also possessed unusually strong forearms—not overly muscular, but thick and tight. “He used to do, like, 1,500 sit-ups every morning,” says Jethro Mills, a pitcher with the team. “That says something.” (Angelo Poffo actually held the world record for sit-ups, once completing 6,033 in four hours and ten minutes). Yet Poffo was also as slow as mud, and his swing—while dynamic when it made contact—was long and twitchy. “He was average in a lot of areas,” says Mike Moore, who served as a longtime minor league general manager in the 1970s and later became the president of Minor League Baseball. “Didn’t run fast, average bat, average defensively. But a super individual.”
Because the days of summer baseball are long and the minds of young players are often devilish, the intense Poffo proved a great mark. Teammates loved the kid, but also laughed at his never-say-die approach to absolutely all endeavors. Though he was anything but obnoxiously competitive, Poffo found motivation in proving others wrong. If someone said he couldn’t throw a baseball from the outfield to home on one hop, he did it. If someone said he couldn’t hit the tree behind the left field wall, he did it, too. Hence, one day, while Poffo sat alone in the clubhouse, a gaggle of Cardinals spoke loudly of the atomic sit-up, and how nobody—absolutely nobody—could successfully unleash one.
“What’s the atomic sit-up?” Poffo asked.
“What,” replied a teammate, “you think you can do it?”
“Hell,” he said, “if it’s a sit-up, I sure can.”
Poffo was told to get on the floor in sit-up position. One teammate would line up behind him, place a towel over Poffo’s eyes and try and hold his arms down. “And Randy had to break free and do a sit-up,” says Mills, laughing. “So it was up to him to fight and fight and put up a full effort.” Someone shouted Go!, and Poffo—eyes covered—struggled forward, trying to sit up. “While this is happening, another guy pulls down his pants and stands in front of Randy, his ass hanging in front of Randy’s face. Randy’s fighting, fighting, fighting, and suddenly the guy holding his arms just let’s go.”
With that, the future WWF heavyweight champion found his face in another man’s anus.
“Maybe the funniest thing I saw all year,” says Mills. “But Randy could laugh about it. He was a good sport.”
Despite a productive rookie run, Poffo wasn’t promoted. He returned to Sarasota for the 1972 season, and continued his path as a marginal prospect with good pop but only so-so potential. Though his three home runs (in 52 games) led the team, there was nothing about his game—save for his throwing arm—that suggested he possessed genuine major league talent.
He did, however, possess genuine major league smarts.
As highly touted teammates like Mumphrey and Vail made comfortable salaries, Poffo battled to survive on his weekly $500 check. Yet while he lacked the natural baseball ability to make it big, his ability in another area came in handy. “You wouldn’t believe how much money Randy made in the minors from playing cards,” says Lanny. “He’d make sure to play with all the bonus babies, and he’d take them to the cleaners. Was he the best baseball player? No. But he had a brain like a razor blade—very sharp. I always said, Randy belonged on ESPN with the poker players.”
Once again, Poffo began 1973 in the Gulf Coast League. But then, just when he appeared to be on his way out, something amazing happened: His bat came alive. Poffo batted .344 in 25 games, and midway through the season was euphoric when the organization promoted him to Class A Orangeburg of the Western Carolinas League.
He was assigned to room with a young outfielder named Tito Landrum, who would go on to play nine major league seasons. “Every time we saw each other, we’d always in front of friends, make a big deal about who owed who for the last month’s rent,” Landrum recently told the Baseball History Examiner. “To be honest with you, right down to this day I couldn’t tell you if I owed the last month’s rent or he owed the last month’s rent.”
If professional baseball was the dream, Orangeburg, S.C. proved nightmarish. The Cardinals played in dilapidated Mirmow Field, often swimming through cheesecake-thick layers of humidity. The surface was a rock-and-mud salad; the stands were 70 percent empty; the team finished 50-72. Plus, the ballclub was managed by Jimmy Piersall, the one-time Red Sox slugger whose mental stability was often in question. “Man, was he ever crazy,” says Bill Lorillard, a lefthanded reliever with the team. “On Opening Day in Orangeburg that season, he was standing on the third base side and the umpire was brushing off the plate. Jimmy slid down the line and took out the umpire for no apparent reason. Just … because.”
Poffo had started in the Gulf Coast League, but upon being promoted he found himself either on the bench or spelling others at catcher or first. He hit .250 in 116 at-bats, and showed little. A highlight came late in the season when Guarnaccia, a fourth-round draft pick of the Phillies now playing for Spartanburg, stepped up to the plate while Poffo was catching. The two smiled at each other—a couple of kids from suburban Illinois, reunited in a gnat-infested minor league stadium. “I don’t know if you wanna print this,” Guarnaccia says, “but when I got up there Randy looked at me and said, ‘I’ll tell you what pitches are coming.’ And he did. That was just loyalty to a friend. Nothing more.”
Poffo’s season concluded shortly thereafter, when he separated his right shoulder in a home plate collision.
Come season’s end, the Cardinals released him.
“That was hard for Randy,” says Lanny. “I don’t think he took it well, because he saw it as perhaps the end of the road.”
There was one last chance. With a vacant spot on their Class A Florida State League club, the Cincinnati Reds signed Poffo and assigned him to the Tampa Tarpons. Though he batted only .232, he paced the team with 131 games, 461 at-bats, nine home runs and 66 RBIs. “Honestly, he didn’t have the talent to go any farther,” says Moore, who was the Tarpons’ general manager. “He just didn’t. But I’ll never forget this—one day [manager] Russ Nixon and I got to the stadium at 1 in the afternoon, and I peeked out onto the field and saw these baseballs flying across the diamond. It was Randy, all alone, with a bucket of balls, standing in center and throwing them one by one to home plate, all with his left hand. I said, ‘Randy, what are you doing?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Trying to make myself more valuable.’ He was that type of guy.”
With the season and, as it turned out, his baseball career coming to a completion, Poffo seemed resigned to the fact that he’d never crouch behind the plate at Busch Stadium and hear the roar of the crowd as a Bob Gibson fastball slammed into his glove. It just wasn’t realistic, and no matter how hard he worked, well, work was never quite enough.
There was, however, a neon sign of things to come. Midway through a game against the Winter Haven Red Sox, Poffo was preparing to bat when Rac Slider, the opposing manager, signaled for a pitching change. As the opposing lefthander warmed up, Poffo walked up the plate and timed the pitches. “So the pitcher just rears back and drills Randy in the helmet,” says Don Werner, a Tampa catcher. “Randy charged the mound and started fighting the guy. We were all wondering what in the world he was doing.”
Little did anyone know, Randy Poffo’s baseball career was days away from completion.
Little did anyone know, Randy (Macho Man) Savage’s wrestling career had just begun.