July 7, 2022

I See Great Things in Baseball – Part 3: The Movies

Photo by Jose Morales on Unsplash.

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final essay by Tom Gotowka on the subject of baseball. We apologize for the delay between the second and third essays, but we made the choice, in consultation with Tom, to hold the latter as it arrived in our Inbox very close to election day. We did not wish it to become lost in all the excitement of our election reporting … and so now that the dust has settled, here it is finally for your reading pleasure.

I said in in the first essay that, “It’s that time of year when many of us start thinking about how well the Red Sox will undoubtedly do next year”. As expected, the New London Day recently had the headline: “A year after World Series Win, Red Sox Looking to Rebuild – finished the season out of the playoffs for the first time since 2015”.

I’m discussing baseball in the movies in this third and final essay. The following “anthology” is a representative list of what I believe are key examples of that genre. These movies are arranged chronologically and not by any sort of ranking. However. I have viewed each of these at least once – some in the theater, and many on DVD. I’m not going to do a play-by-play on any of these, but only highlight some of the scenes that made me occasionally watch them more than once. You will notice that these early movies relied heavily on sentimentality and heroism.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is a tribute to Yankees’ first baseman, Lou Gehrig, who was known as the “Iron Horse” during his 2,130 consecutive games played. Released early in WW2, it is a reflection on baseball, strong family values, and the “American way of life.” The movie follows Gehrig from his childhood in the German immigrant Yorkville neighborhood in Manhattan’s upper east side, through his recruitment by the Yankees from Columbia University (leaving the engineering program, much to his mother’s disappointment) and ending with his courageous “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech at his farewell day in 1939.

Gehrig tragically succumbed, at age 37, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a deadly nerve disease, which now bears his name:- Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gary Cooper’s performance as Gehrig was much more convincing off the field than on the field. Nevertheless, watch this movie if you want to see what “acting presidential” really looks like.

The Babe Ruth Story (1948) was the first movie about the life of Babe Ruth. This movie relied more on sentimentality than historical accuracy. My guess is that it was rushed into release after news broke that Babe Ruth was dying from cancer. The film presents his life, from his early and incorrigible childhood as a budding juvenile delinquent on the streets of Baltimore, and then to his “exile” by his parents to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, where the Xaverian Brothers provided direction and discipline … and introduced him to baseball.

The movie includes his “called shot” in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. The Babe is played by William Bendix, who certainly bears a slight resemblance to him. Some trivia: Bendix had actually been a bat boy at Yankee Stadium during the 1920s, and had regularly seen Babe Ruth play. He was fired from that job after fulfilling Ruth’s request for an order of 15 hot dogs and sodas before a game.

The Stratton Story (1949) follows Texas farm boy and future baseball star Monty Stratton as he rises from the minor leagues to the majors. Stratton was a great right-handed pitcher for the Chicago White Sox in the 1930s, compiling a 37-19 won-loss record in three seasons. His major league career ended in 1938, when a serious hunting accident forced doctors to amputate his right leg. The story shows how Stratton, through incredible determination and the support of his family and friends, walked and pitched again. Amazingly, he continued to pitch in the minor leagues with a wooden leg through the late 1940s and into the 1950s. James Stewart plays a believable Monty Stratton.

The Pride of St. Louis (1952) presents the life story of Jerome Herman “Dizzy” Dean, who is billed, in the opening credits, as “one of the most colorful characters of our time”. This is another “feel-good” baseball movie that provided Americans with an alternative to the “film noir” and some of the sci-fi films of the day covering “atomic energy mutations.”

Dan Dailey plays the charming “hick” Dizzy Dean, taking him from his discovery at a “very local” game in the Arkansas Ozarks, through the Texas League, and then on to the St. Louis Cardinals roster – winning the World Series and breaking some major league pitching records along the way. An injury leads to the early end of his career, and his re-emergence in radio broadcasting. Richard Crenna plays his brother Paul “Daffy” Dean, who was also a major league pitcher.

Damn Yankees (1958) is a movie adaptation of the 1956 Broadway musical about the pennant race between the dominant New York Yankees and the hapless Washington Senators. Like the German legend of Faust and his deal with the devil, an aging and ardent baseball fan, Joe Boyd, seizes an opportunity provided by a devilish man named Applegate to lead his beloved Senators to the pennant; mysteriously joining the team as superstar Joe Hardy, This is an interesting departure from the heroic ball players of past movies and is included because it is so unique.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1972) is another sentimental baseball story, covering the strong friendship between a star major league pitcher and a developmentally delayed (my diagnosis) catcher, as they cope with the catcher’s terminal illness. This movie is worth seeing, not only because it has such a wonderful title, derived from the cowboy song “Streets of Laredo”; but because it’s also an opportunity to see Robert De Niro in one of his earlier roles, playing the catcher, Bruce Pearson.

The Natural (1984) Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, is a farm boy with “an amazing gift for throwing a baseball.” As a rising star on the pitcher’s mound, he strikes out the “Whammer” (i.e., Babe Ruth) in three pitches in an exhibition. He is shot and seriously injured by an insane woman who apparently targets champion athletes. Hobbs is forced to drop out of play for an extended period. He finally returns as a middle-aged rookie and powerful hitter to take a losing 1930s baseball team to the top of the league.

Along the way, he encounters gamblers, suspicious reporters, purveyors of fake news, loose women, and finally … the love of his life. Hobbs’ bat, which he had hand-hewn from a lightning-struck tree and engraved “Wonder Boy,” has an ongoing presence in the more meta-physical aspects of the movie. Like Red Sox Hall of Famer, Ted Williams, Hobbs’ goal was for people to say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

For me, the final few baseball sequences make the first two hours more than worthwhile. Hobbs finally breaks “Wonder Boy”, and then turns to batboy Bobby Savoy: “Pick me out a winner Bobby”, who hands him his own hand-hewn bat, “The Savoy Special”. Hobbs homers into the lights in his last time at bat, unleashing a huge display of sparks and fireworks. Redford is believable as a major league baseball player.

Bull Durham (1988) Kevin Costner plays a perennial minor league catcher reassigned to the Durham Bulls to help mature, mentor, and “protect” a young pitching standout (from the local women and all the other distracting temptations). Susan Sarandon plays Annie Savoy, whose goal in life seems to be developing a romance each season with a team member. The movie tracks these three characters through the season and, of course, pitcher and catcher each strikes up a romance with Annie, who is considered the team’s “mascot”, and refers to baseball as her “religion”. Although largely a comedy, Bull Durham has some excellent dialogue and treats the game with a bit of reverence.

Eight Men Out (1988) is the story of eight players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who were banned from the game for life by the Baseball Commissioner for their role in a scandal involving gambling and the “throwing” of World Series games. These baseball stars were depicted in this movie as naïve working men, who made some awful decisions, and were treated in the film with some compassion.

Field of Dreams (1989) Kevin Costner plays Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, who hears a voice in his corn field tell him, “If you build it, he will come”. In this movie, adapted from W. P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe,” for some reason, Ray interprets the message as an instruction to build a baseball field in the cornfield on his farm. The ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series all appear on the field.

As the voices continue (i.e., “Ease his Pain”), Ray seeks out a reclusive author to help him understand the meaning of the messages. As noted in my second essay, “this is a mix of fantasy, mysticism, and historical facts to demonstrate the importance of baseball in America’s memory”.

Major League (1989) is not a sentimental look at America’s game. Rather, it is John Belushi’s “Animal House”, set in a baseball stadium. The movie follows the exploits and shenanigans of a roster of misfits – some very talented – playing for a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians. The team’s new owner, a former showgirl, put together this purposely horrible team so that they’ll lose badly and she can then move the team to Miami to warmer weather and a new stadium.

When the plot is eventually uncovered, the team starts winning just to spite her. This movie and its whacky cast of oddballs is worth a view or two. Bob Uecker is outstanding as the team’s play-by-play announcer. The movie actually spawned two spinoffs; neither of which is worth seeing.

The Babe (1992) is a more detailed review of the life of Babe Ruth than the 1948 film. “All the boxes are checked” in this movie biography. John Goodman plays a pudgy and somewhat “clownish” Babe Ruth. The story begins in Baltimore, early in the twentieth century, where a troubled and undisciplined boy is sent to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. There, Brother Matthias introduces him to baseball and is stunned by Ruth’s power.

Over time, he continues to excel as a powerful hitter and a gifted pitcher on an organized team. As the movie progresses, Ruth receives some attention from major league scouts, who sign him to a contract with the Orioles. Ruth is sold to the Boston Red Sox and begins to gain wide attention for his home runs. Unfortunately, after Ruth demands more money, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sells him to the New York Yankees to finance his Broadway shows. This sale then becomes, and is forever known in Boston as “The Curse of the Bambino”.

In 1932, during the World Series against the Cubs, Ruth points to center field and hits a towering home run, “calling his shot” on behalf of a boy dying in a hospital bed. Moving ahead, the movie shows Babe in decline. He wants to pursue his ambition of managing a baseball team, and the Yankees release him from his contract. He signs with the Boston Braves as a manager, but his presence on the team is more comedic than anything else.

The film ends with a broken Ruth, walking through the entrance tunnel where he is confronted by the “dying boy”, who, now healthy and an adult, tells him “You’re the best; the best there’s ever been”.

A League of Their Own (1992) is a fictionalized and almost farcical account of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League AAGPBL), which was founded by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley during World War II to keep baseball in the public’s eye while many of baseball’s male players were in military service; and women took on many roles that had historically been handled only by men. The league operated between 1943 and 1954. The movie is a “flashback” by a former player, who is attending the opening of the AAGPBL exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The movie includes Tom Hanks, who plays an alcoholic former major leaguer serving as team manager; and Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Lori Petty, and Megan Cavanaugh as core team members.

Cobb (1994) is the story of sportswriter, Al Stump, chosen by Ty Cobb to ghost-write his “authorized” autobiography. The writer meets a mortally ill and aged Cobb in his Lake Tahoe home, and finds a drunken, cynical, racist man, who tries to manipulate both him and the facts. The grand house sits without heat or electricity because Cobb is battling the utility companies. His domestic staff has also left him. As Cobb tries to “set the record straight” about his life in and out of baseball, Stump must either present an accurate picture of a terrible man, who happened to be both an American sports hero and the first man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, or candy-coat his life.

This dilemma plays out through the end of the movie, and Stump’s indecision on whether to write a tribute to a legendary player, or a confirmation of what is an almost anti-social personality. Tyrus Raymond Cobb is well-played by Tommy Lee Jones, who presents him as an unsympathetic, and utterly vicious character.

Money Ball (2011) is the account of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season and the methods used by their general manager, Billy Beane, to pull together a low cost, but competitive team.

Beane, played by Brad Pitt, has been saddled with the lowest player salary budget in the major leagues. So, he recruits Peter Brand, a young Yale economics graduate with some radical ideas about how to assess player value: i.e., “an analytical, evidence-based, ‘sabermetric’ approach, based on detailed statistical data” to selecting and signing under-valued players (rather than relying on their scouts’ experience and intuition). Brand had validated his approach for Beane by demonstrating how his method would not have drafted Beane (who was a mediocre major league player) until the ninth round.

42 (2013) tracks the life of Jackie Robinson as he breaks major league baseball’s color barrier and becomes the first African-American player on a major league roster. Robinson was a graduate of UCLA, where he was the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was also commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army in 1943, having joined in 1942.

By 1946, he is playing in the Negro League. Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, is general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and interested in recruiting Robinson for the team. The movie shows how Rickey’s interest in Robinson developed and how he made his decision to recruit him for the Dodger organization. Their discussions acknowledge just how difficult life will be for Robinson and his family when he joins the team. Rickey told Robinson that “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”

Robinson was initially assigned to the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and was well-received there as a star player. Life changes immensely when he reports to the Dodgers in Brooklyn and begins playing at Ebbets Field. Robinson and his family endure unrelenting racist hostility on and off the field, from his opponents, his teammates, and the Brooklyn fans alike.

The movie clearly shows his struggle to endure this abuse without complaint. Harrison Ford is terrific as Branch Rickey. Chadwick Boseman is very good as Robinson. This movie is very inspirational and one of those that, if only for its historic value, one should see at least once.

The following documentary has become an important resource in reviewing baseball history.

Ken Burns Baseball (1994) Although not a movie, is a chronology of the game of baseball from its inception. The documentary is divided into nine segments, each representing an inning. Burns uses a period film in his history, which is a “must-view for anyone interested in the history of baseball.”

As I complete this final essay, I am struck by the news that the 2019 World Series is the Houston Astros versus the Washington Nationals.
Holy Cow! It has been over 80 years since team from Washington D.C. has had a berth in the World Series. The 1933 World Series featured the New York Giants and the Washington Senators. The Giants won in five games.

I said that I would dedicate these essays to my Dad, who was a baseball fan, a baseball player, and a baseball coach. As I said, his most unforgettable advice was “never be the only player on the field with a clean jersey.” He also decried any of his players walking while on the ball field, “except after the umpire says ‘ball four’ … otherwise you run out to your position and back into the dugout.”