R5 Ask Westchester: Captain Kirk, Sing Sing, and the Sultan of Swat

Q: I grew up in Briarcliff and was talking to an old friend who claimed that William Shatner lived in Briarcliff at one point during his career. I told her that was nonsense. I’m right, aren’t I? —Lauren Roecker, Charlton, NY

A: Sort of, but your friend’s facts are a little off. Long before the Enterprise’s maiden voyage, its captain, James Kirk, aka William Shatner, was a struggling actor. In 1958, he landed the lead in the Broadway play The World of Suzie Wong, in which he played a Canadian artist who falls in love with a Chinese prostitute.

Shatner wrote this in his autobiography:

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“Gloria [his wife at the time] and I moved back to New York and we bought a little house in Hastings-on-Hudson for $19,000. This was an amazing step for me, this was roots…I was confident I could afford it; I was going to be paid $750 a week to star in a Broadway show. That was a tremendous amount of money in 1958.”

Natalie Barry, a trustee at the Hastings Historical Society, let me know that the Shatners lived on 97 Summit Drive in a house that still stands today. Our old neighbor, Bill, once wrote in a Wall Street Journal column that he loved the place because of its tree house.

By the way, the critics crushed The World of Suzie Wong. So much so that Shatner said he started to speed up his lines and change his intonation to move the action of the play along and to add humor where it wasn’t meant. Some claim that this is where his iconic clipped and overly dramatic tone began. 

The play ran for 14 months, and, after that, Bill Shatner moved on. He, of course, continues to live long and prosper.

Q: I read that a bat used by Babe Ruth was auctioned off for $126,500, and that it was the bat he used to hit his longest home run ever. The interesting thing is that it was from an exhibition game at Sing Sing. Is that true? And, if so, what’s the story? —Pasquale  Palumbo, Hawthorne

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A: Before baseball became a gazillion-dollar enterprise, loaded with pampered, overpaid prima donnas who were showered with endorsement deals and hounded by paparazzi, it employed simpler, more grass-rootsy ways to market itself and raise extra cash. One of the primary ways it did this was through exhibition games, wherein the team would travel to a small city on an off-day and play a local minor-league or semi-pro club. Sometimes it was for extra money, and sometimes it was for goodwill and marketing.

Sing Sing was a progressive prison at the time, and the warden emphasized sports. The prison baseball team, the Black Sheep, played exhibition games throughout the year against local semi-pro teams, and they held their own. They also hosted the Yankees and other MLB players from time to time.

In the 1929 game, Babe Ruth hit three homers, the first of which has become a bit of baseball lore. The Sing Sing diamond was 340 feet down the right field line but it had a 40-foot stone wall with three watchtowers. Ruth’s homerun cleared the wall and purportedly traveled 620 feet, making it by far the longest homerun ever hit.

Now, I did say this was baseball “lore,” and others claim the shot went a mere
520 feet.

The length of the homerun isn’t the only thing in question. Some say the Bronx Bombers won 17-3, others 15-3, but it isn’t really important when you think of the fact that the New York Yankees played a game, mid-season in front of 1,500 hundred inmates at a state prison.

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Hard to picture the current team and their $220 million+ payroll taking the trip up the Deegan today, isn’t it?

Q: What is the house receded in the woods near Bloomingdale’s in White Plains a little bit past the Whole Foods? —David  Peletier,  Larchmont

A: After Babe Ruth hit that massive homerun at Sing Sing, he and Bill Shatner hunkered down with a bunch of booze and loose women in that house to get away from it all.

Sorry. That isn’t true.

The real answer is pretty boring, though.

According to my new best friend, Patrick Raftery, librarian at the Westchester Historical Society, that building was the pump house for the man-made Bloomingdale pond, which acted as a reservoir.

I really like my first answer better. 

Have a question for “Ask Westchester”? Email edit@westchestermagazine.com. Subject line: ASK WESTCHESTER.

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