Story and photos by Darl DeVault and Richard Mills
For a decade, actor Mark Harmon, star of the CBS action drama “NCIS” provided the spark needed to propel The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital in Bethany to a fundraising goal. He and his famous friends sustained a 16-year charity mission in the area raising more than $1 million through the “Pitch in for Kids” baseball charity game, bowling competition and auction.
Locally, Dr. Michael Wright of the Oklahoma Sports Science and Orthopedics (OSSO) was friends with Harmon during his time in San Bernardino. He participated in baseball charity games Harmon organized. Moving to Oklahoma City in 1998, Wright soon connected with The Children’s Center. (story continues below)
Wright then called Harmon to invite him and his charity team “the Bombers” to consider The Children’s Center as a fundraising stop on a several-city tour the team did each summer.
The Bombers played the OSSO Healthcare Network Outlaws, a team of physicians and staff members of the medical organization. Each year OSSO served as the primary sponsor and producer of this premier fundraising event.
The relationship with The Children’s Center began in 2001. The event was a rousing success. The team made the hospital its focus each year for that decade.
“It’s humbling to look back and see the positive impact Mark Harmon, the Bombers charity baseball team and the OSSO baseball team had on fundraising and raising our hospital’s visibility in the community,” said Albert Gray, executive chairman of the board at The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital.
The first time Harmon visited The Children’s Center, patients greeted him at the door with excitement. At the time, the hospital only had a complex care unit with 100 inpatient beds. Harmon toured the facility, where the patients played baseball with him in the hospital gym. The children used toys to mark the bases and enjoyed their time with Harmon.
It was evident Harmon empathized with the patients, so raising money for this hospital was an easy decision. He saw the need and understood the hospital relied on private contributions from organizations and individuals to provide continued pediatric and rehabilitative care.
Although a career actor, Harmon is no stranger to competitive athletics. He was the UCLA Bruins’ starting quarterback in 1972 and 1973. The National Football Foundation gave him their award for All-Round Excellence in 1973.
For the 10 years Harmon and his friends helped the Children’s Center, they hosted a bowling competition and auction on Friday night for sponsors and hospital employees. On Saturday, the group staged a charity baseball game at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in the afternoon before the minor league night game. Harmon was gracious in signing autographs while posing for photos with fans at the events.
The Bombers team of Harmon’s Hollywood industry friends and former star MLB players made the trip from southern California each year. Harmon’s college roommate and now his agent Barry Axelrod was the Bombers’ manager and often late-inning pitcher. Hollywood super producer Frank Marshall and MLB veterans Wally Joyner (first base) and Cy Young winning pitcher Rick Sutcliffe (now an ESPN broadcaster) accompanied Harmon each year. Other teammates included Mark Heydorff, Peter Dubrawski, John Sciarra, Steve Klausen, Ed Galigher, Brad Lyman, Jim Peterson, Deacon Nauslar, team historian and catcher Don Manning. Most years Scott Wedman, Rusty Van Dam, Scott Wedman, Bruce Walton, MLB veteran Mickey Hatcher and long-time player coach Chuck Olsen rounded out the team.
Often, local sports stars, celebrities and media members played for the OSSO team against the Bombers in the seven-inning game.
Harmon, the Bombers and OSSO raised $1 million through their annual fundraiser. This sustained the hospital in raising the remaining $9 million needed for a new Pediatric Medical Rehabilitation Unit. This unit added 20 additional inpatient beds, providing short-term care for children and teenagers needing rehabilitation after an injury or illness.
Many of the staff and supporters of The Children’s Center are certain God brought Harmon and the Bombers to Bethany each year.
The grateful management and staff at The Children’s Center wish Harmon a resounding Happy Birthday on his 70th birthday September 2nd. They are proud he and his friends played a key role in the legacy of helping children and teens heal and thrive, as the hospital has expanded to treat more patients since then.
Exciting recent developments at the hospital, with more than 700 employees, include the opening of a community compounding pharmacy. In keeping with the Bombers’ efforts, the hospital opened a state-of-the-art Adaptive Recreation and Fine Arts Center. They are working to open an adaptive ballfield for patients and the community later this year.
These new facilities expand the hospital’s reach into the surrounding community. It will offer children with differing abilities opportunities to participate in therapies, arts, and recreational activities.
“Harmon and his team truly had a heart for our patients, and the fact that we are weeks away from completing construction on our own ballfield speaks to the impact they had through their charity baseball game. We are forever grateful,” Gray said.
After finishing the fundraising drive for the hospital, Harmon and his group moved their philanthropic efforts to other children’s concerns locally for six more years before Dr. Wright moved his practice to Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
Revamped, it became the Mark Harmon Celebrity Weekend. Each year the team took part in a bowling event and a baseball game or golf event to raise funds for children related non-profits supported by the OK Kidz Charities Foundation.