STARRING FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS as Dr. Steve Hardy on ABC's long-running General Hospital, John Beradino sometimes found his character's scrubbed, fatherly image vexing. Dr. Hardy, Beradino said in Daily Variety, "goes around kissing women on the forehead. [He] is like a saint. Let's see the dark side of this guy."

Viewers never did. And friends say they never saw the dark side of Beradino, who died last week, at 79, of pancreatic cancer. Off-camera he could be as warm as his TV persona, though much less predictable—a raconteur who punctuated tales from his days as a child actor and Major League Baseball player with rich, infectious laughter. "Inside, he was a 19-year-old," says costar Brad Maule (Hospital's Dr. Tony Jones). "He was ageless and mischievous and always fun."

The only soap actor to sport a World Series ring, Beradino credits his career double play to his parents. Before he was 10, his starstruck mother encouraged him to seek bit parts in Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies, then filming not far from the family's home in Los Angeles. His father, a meatpacking company proprietor, preferred cheering for his son on the baseball diamond. Beradino starred at the University of Southern California, then in 1939 signed with the St. Louis Browns. After playing second base for the Browns and following a stint in the Navy during World War II, he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948, the year they won a world championship.

The .249 lifetime hitter retired in 1953 after suffering a leg injury the previous year. Beradino, then 36, returned to L.A. to act. Divorced and the father of two, he played in the debut episode of General Hospital in 1963 and remained in the role until a week before he died. "He hid the pain and the discomfort so well, people were unaware of his illness," says his second wife, Marjorie Binder, 55, a former TWA flight attendant, who nursed Beradino at home. (Married since 1971, the couple have two children.) "I felt very privileged to be able to take care of him," she says. "He had so much character."