Jim Quamo is sitting at a picnic table near the pond at Rochester’s Cobbs Hill Park. Decked out in a Boston Red Sox cap and T-shirt, he rummages through a gigantic, clear plastic bag stuffed with photographs, magazines, newspapers and autographed baseballs and softballs.
“Here’s what I was looking for,’’ he says, pulling out a photo. “There’s Bob.”
“Bob” just so happens to be Robert Redford — yes, THE Robert Redford — and the golden-haired movie star is looking tan and buff in a sleeveless undershirt. Standing next to him is Quamo, attired in a thick, navy blue umpire’s uniform and cap. In the background, we see part of a baseball diamond and the stands of Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, the old Rockpile. The Polaroid was taken in early August 1983 on the movie set of The Natural, and it’s worth a lot more than a thousand words to Quamo. “I turned it into a Christmas card that December, and sent it out to all my relatives,’’ he says, grinning impishly. “It read: ‘Season’s Greetings from Jim and Bob.’ Everybody got a kick out of that.”
As an umpire in that classic baseball film, Quamo had a camera-close view of Redford’s portrayal of Roy Hobbs, the unknown, middle-aged slugger with the mysterious past who appears out of nowhere in the 1930s to carry the bungling New York Knights to the pennant. “Redford really was believable at the plate, even though he was something like 46 years old at the time,’’ Quamo says. “He wasn’t a stiff like so many actors who play athletes in films. Had a nice, smooth, left-handed swing. Made solid contact. Of course, the pitchers usually weren’t throwing very hard. Mostly meatball pitches.’’
After several days of filming, the umpire got up the gumption to say something to the famous Hollywood actor. “I told him, ‘Bob, you handle the stick very well.’ He thanked me, and said, ‘Jim, I’m trying my best to make it look real, but it ain’t easy at my age.’ ’’
Quamo had no trouble making his role look real. In fact, you might say he, like the Hobbs character, was a natural. See, it wasn’t really acting for Quamo because he had been playing an umpire in real life for years, working scores of baseball and softball games in the Rochester area. His spoken lines in the movie — “Play ball!” and “No, no. He’s safe! He dropped the ball!’’ — were short and sweet and right up his alley. No memorization required. “I was in my natural environment,’’ he says. “I was on a ball diamond umping a game.”
The strike zone has long been Quamo’s comfort zone. Although the 78-year-old retired elementary school teacher has cut way back on his schedule, he continues to umpire local girls modified softball games, thereby extending his streak of calling balls and strikes to 45 years. Through the decades, he’s worked thousands of college, high school, travel and rec league baseball and softball games. He’s also been behind the plate for Rochester exhibitions featuring fastpitch softball legend Eddie Feigner of The King and His Court fame, and the Colorado Silver Bullets all-women’s traveling baseball team that was managed by Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro. In 1990, Quamo filled in as an emergency umpire for four International League games involving the Rochester Red Wings at old Silver Stadium.
But of all the games he has umpired, none will ever top the make-believe ones he worked during the making of The Natural. “It was quite a thrill being around those movie stars and guys like Phil Mankowski, Joe Charboneau and other ex-major leaguers who played extras,’’ he says. “To be a part of a movie that’s become a classic and still gets shown a lot is something I never could have imagined when I answered that newspaper ad asking for extras back in ‘83.”
Interestingly, director Barry Levinson considered filming the movie in Rochester, but old Silver Stadium at 500 Norton St. didn’t make the cut. “They wanted something more dilapidated,’’ Quamo says. “Silver wasn’t in very good shape in those days, but it was like the Taj Mahal compared to the Rockpile.”
Unlike most extras, Quamo’s best work didn’t wind up on the cutting room floor. There’s a scene shortly after the singing of the national anthem where we see a close-up of him shouting, “Play ball!” He’s in a few other scenes, too, but, as he says, “you really have to pay close attention because I’m there and gone in a hurry.’’
Because he had a speaking part, Quamo was required to become a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, just like the movie’s stars: Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall and Wilford Brimley. Thirty-six years later, he still receives residual checks that pay him each time the film is aired. “You definitely don’t get rich as an extra,’’ he says. “I made a total of $728 for eight days of shooting, and for the first few years after the film came out, I received an annual check for about $144. Now, it’s down to McDonald’s money. Maybe 14 bucks a year.”
Quamo has nothing but good things to say about Redford. “Very down to earth, very focused,’’ he says. “I remember, one day during a break, we were chatting, and he said, ‘Jim, believe me, you would not want to be me. It might be fun and glamorous for about a week, but no longer than that, because I don’t have any privacy. I can’t go anywhere. I live life in a fish bowl.’ ’’
Glenn Close, who played Iris Gaines, Hobbs’ true love, also was a treat. “You couldn’t help but love her,’’ Quamo says. “Real engaging personality. Friendly with everyone. She even picked up a bat during a break and took a little batting practice.” About the only person who wasn’t fun was Basinger, whom he referred to as a “snob.”
There’s nothing snobbish about the jovial Quamo. A native of Lynn, Mass., he graduated with a degree in education from SUNY Brockport in 1965, found a job in the area and never left. He wound up teaching for 33 years, the first few in Caledonia, and the rest in the Gates Chili district. “I taught second through sixth grades — the whole gamut of child development, which is pretty cool,’’ he says. “I often incorporated sports into my teaching. Definitely a great way to teach math.”
And history, too. This week, baseball history is being made in Buffalo, just as it had been back in 1983, with the filming of The Natural. For the first time since 1915, Major League Baseball is being played in the City of Good Neighbors. COVID-19 restrictions in Canada forced the Toronto Blue Jays to find a new home, and after being rejected by Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the Jays settled on Sahlen Field in downtown Buffalo. “It’s a lot nicer than War Memorial,’’ Quamo jokes, reminiscing about the concrete stadium that was razed a few years after the film was released. “I’m happy big-league ball is being played in Buffalo. It’s just too bad fans can’t go because of the pandemic.”
Buffalo’s Blue Jays will have to make do with cardboard cutouts and piped-in crowd noise. “There were real fans in the stands for The Natural, but there were a bunch of cardboard fans, too,’’ Quamo said. “I heard some of the extras made off with cutouts after the shooting ended. Kept ‘em as souvenirs.”
Quamo eyeballed a different souvenir when his acting work was done. “I have a confession to make after all these years,’’ he says, grinning. “I took the umpire’s cap I wore in the movie. I had sweated in it for eight days, so I didn’t think anyone would have wanted it any way.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was just published and is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.