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Peter Funt Recalls Candid Camera At Diethrick Park

In this Aug. 6, 1990 file photo, Peter Funt of the “Candid Camera” television show shares a laugh with Jamestown Expos pitcher Bob Baxter, who was a victim of a prank that was aired on CBS two months later. P-J file photo by Jim Riggs

The window to one of the rooms in the press box atop the roof at Diethrick Park is open, the grass on the field is manicured, the infield dirt has been dragged and the basepaths and batter’s box have been lined.

Oh, and yeah, there’s hardly a cloud in the sky.

It’s a great day for baseball on Jamestown’s east side.

Except there is no game scheduled. Instead, a dozen chairs are set up in a semicircle in front of home plate and a camera, affixed to a tripod, stands there as well to record the retelling of one of the most memorable moments in the history of America’s pastime in the city. That came on Aug. 6, 1990, the evening when Peter Funt and his “Candid Camera” television crew arrived at the ballpark to pull a stunt on an unsuspecting Jamestown Expos starting pitcher.

“I’m so touched that you keep this sequence alive for us,” Funt said.

With local sports historian Greg Peterson filming in the background, Peter Funt of “Candid Camera” fame plays catch with his son during an appearance at Diethrick Park on Saturday morning. Funt returned to the ballpark for the first time since he created a “Candid Camera” segment there on Aug. 6, 1990. It was aired on TV two months later. P-J photo by Scott Kindberg

It’s pretty clear that the memory of that summer night 31 years ago will never die.

“If we had this sort of support for every sequence, my dad (Allen) before me and I have done, we’d spend every day of our lives running around paying tribute to sequences, because there are thousands of them.

“Thanks to you guys, this one lingers on.”

How could it not?

— — —

A quick Internet search finds that “Candid Camera,” a hidden-camera reality show, ran for 38 seasons, beginning in 1948. More than 1,000 shows, featuring practical jokes of all sorts, were produced. Funt was an executive producer for 10 seasons. His father served in that role for decades before that.

And on summer night in August 1990, “Candid Camera” found its way to Jamestown, because Allen asked a simple question to his son: “Hey, Pete, what would happen in a baseball game if the catcher gave signals that the pitcher couldn’t recognize?”

The younger Funt had no idea.

“I went back home to Connecticut and I forgot about the whole thing until the phone rang and he said, ‘Have you made any progress?'”

“I spent the next few weeks calling all levels of professional baseball, trying to find some organization that would let me do this, and I found none,” Funt continued, “until, finally, the New York-Penn League — I don’t know why — said if it’s OK with the umpires and OK with the team and if it’s at your own expense, OK. Jamestown, New York, here we are.”

Funt has never regretted it.

In fact, the now 74-year-old calls the episode one of his “Candid Camera” favorites, eclipsed only by one he did with the Joe Torre-managed New York Yankees two decades ago.

The short version of the Jamestown sequence, played out in front of a crowd of nearly 2,000, goes like this:

Taped at the start of the regularly scheduled NY-P League game against the Niagara Falls Rapids — the first game that evening was the completion of a suspended game — the gag was, according to an article in The Post-Journal, only known by the Jamestown Expos coaching and front office staff; Todd Peterson, the public address announcer; Post-Journal sports editor Jim Riggs; scoreboard operator Bob Payne; and the umpires.

Funt then set up the prank by having Expos’ catcher Dan Hargis give nonsense signs to Bob Baxter, the unsuspecting and clearly flustered starting pitcher, who would ultimately get “thrown out” of the game without having thrown a pitch. Hargis and Funt, who posed as the home-plate umpire, were wearing microphones.

“That visit here was one of the scariest experiences of my life,” Funt admitted. … Everything was out of our norm. We don’t target one person usually, and yet here we were doing that. We had one chance. What if it didn’t work? What if the mic failed? We’d be dead. We had absolutely no backup.”

As it turned out, Funt needn’t have worried. It went without a hitch, with a huge assist from the WJTN Radio tandem of Pete Hubbell and Skip Pierce, who were broadcasting the game from the press box, but were unaware of the shenanigans playing out on the field.

“The best thing that happened that night was an absolute miracle,” Funt recalled. “We watched the first game (from the press box) and I realized during the game there was a live radio broadcast. I think it was probably the best thought I ever had in my career.

“I asked if we could get a line and plug (the radio) line into our recorder and record that, because those two guys were the stars of the whole show.”

And when Funt ultimately “ejected” Baxter from the game, Hubbell, a Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame inductee, was incredulous.

Said Funt: “The guy on the radio said, ‘This is unprecedented in the history of baseball. We’ve never seen anything like it.’ It was a bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but I was thrilled.”

So much so that Funt has devoted four or five pages to the Jamestown experience in his recently published book.

“The beauty part was the play-by-play,” Funt said. “I shudder to think what it would have been like if we hadn’t had the voices of the radio announcers. It would have been kind of dull. Gosh, if only I’d been able to do a few more sequences of that quality, I’d have an Emmy.

“I was so pleasantly surprised when I finally did get back to the editing room and I was able to listen to the clean radio feed of these wonderful guys, I was just blown away. I realized immediately that this was the meat and potatoes of what we’ve got. They’re bringing the whole thing to life and yet they too were surprised.

“In fact, the final words that they said, at least on our tape, was, ‘Well, they really got us,’ because they had no idea. That was so pure.”

— — —

Before Peter and Daniel Funt left Diethrick Park on Saturday, they took positions on the infield — dad at shortstop and son at first base — and had a game of catch while Greg Peterson, the local sports historian who conducted the earlier interview, videotaped it all.

“It was great to come here,” Funt said. “I said to Danny as I drove over here, ‘I hope Greg found somebody to come to this gathering.'”

To be perfectly “candid,” the folks in attendance on a beautiful late-summer day realized the hour they spent at the ballpark on Falconer Street covered all the bases indeed.

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