Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig in <em>Pride of the Yankees</em>
Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees
<
1
2
>

I don't have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers.... It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.
—W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe

Baseball movies don't make money. Sports movies in general don't, though sports themselves, merchandized up the ying-yang, cross-collateralized in virtually every area of American life and institutionalized as an unofficial national religion, do. That baseball movies are almost never about baseball is either beside the point or precisely the point. It's a judgment call.

Baseball in the movies dates back almost as long as movies themselves. How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game was made in 1906, two years before D.W. Griffith started directing. Buster Keaton included a prehistoric version of the game, played with tree trunk and boulder, in The Three Ages (1923). Joe E. Brown starred in two Thirties baseball pictures, Elmer the Great and Alibi Ike (after Ring Lardner), while in John Ford's Up the River (1930) escaped con Spencer Tracy broke back into Sing Sing to help his prison team win a game.

Hollywood officially got serious about baseball in 1942 with Pride of the Yankees. A biography of Lou Gehrig, the great New York first baseman who died the previous year after 17 seasons and 2,130 consecutive games, this Samuel Goldwyn prestige picture featured Gary Cooper (fresh from Sergeant York) backed by such diamond legends as Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey. It copped ten Oscar nominations and set the mold for baseball biopics: The Babe Ruth Story (with William Bendix; 1948), The Stratton Story (James Stewart as pitcher Monty Stratton, who returned to the game after losing a leg; 1949), Pride of St. Louis (Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean; 1952) and The Winning Team (also 1952; featuring Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander).

Few of these are interesting films. Neither is Pride of the Yankees as far as the baseball parts of it go. What's striking (no pun intended) about the Gehrig movie is its steady undercurrent of morbidity. Partly this speaks to a fixation on Gehrig's recent, untimely demise; when Gehrig is accidentally beaned while running the basepath following his first major league at-bat, the rookie pleads to stay in the game and his manager jokes, "Are we gonna have to kill you to get you out of here?" The air of fatalism is reinforced by the script's none-too-subtle but provocative attention to the ways Gehrig's domineering mother shaped and frustrated his life; Herman J. Mankiewicz worked on the screenplay, and this, coupled with the low-angle production design and perhaps the presence of a few ghosts from another RKO production the preceding year, tends to recast this biopic as a disquieting sunlight variation on Citizen Kane.

There's precious little sunlight it Fear Strikes Out (1957), based on Boston Red Sox player Jim Piersall's account of the nervous breakdown he suffered during his first major league season and the forces that led to it. Karl Malden is a one-time baseball hopeful trapped in a working-class dead end, and determined that son Tony Perkins will achieve the sports eminence he missed. Fear Strikes Out is a relentless study in American Gothic (Hitchcock would cast Perkins in Psycho on the basis of his work here) that takes the classic American image of the father introducing his son to the great national game and diagnoses something pathological in it. The director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula revisualize the baseball stadium as a shadow zone of nightmare architecture and private terror on fiercely public view.

The case history of obsessiveness in Fear Strikes Out was the dark flipside of the Fifties baseball movie's penchant for veering into giddy fantasy. Not technically a fantasy, but prettily unreal in postcard Technicolor, the MGM musical comedy Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) kept four nimble feet on the ground—those of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as Teddy Roosevelt–era ballplayers who do a song-and-dance act in vaudeville during the off-season. After a story by Kelly and Stanley Donen, Take Me is a breezy jeu d'esprit on the casual kinship between sports and show business.

Things got more desperately whimsical in Rhubarb (1951), in which a cat inherited a ball team, and It Happens Every Spring (1953), wherein chemistry prof Ray Milland developed a formula that, rubbed on horsehide, produced incredible curveballs. In Angels in the Outfield (1951), reportedly the favorite film of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the shades of departed baseball greats intervened to help the Pittsburgh Pirates out of a slump. And in Damn Yankees (1958), the film of George Abbott's Broadway musicomedy, the Devil himself gave a middle-aged fan the chance to become a youthful rookie and lead the Washington Senators to the pennant.

Faustian poetics also figured in Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel The Natural, about a ballplayer out of the heartland who feels he may be "the best there ever was," and places his life and soul on the line to find out. Various demons and dark angels are equally bent on destroying "the best" wherever it be found, but Malamud's enigmatic, driven, just a tad overweening hero is his own worst enemy. Not for nothing is he named Hobbs—an echo of one of Old Nick's more esoteric aliases.

Malamud's novel became the basis, three decades later, for Hollywood's most intensive effort to get the Myth of Baseball on film—The Natural (1984), a star-vehicle-to-the-max for Robert Redford. This swooningly handsome period piece retained enough of Hobbs' enigma to tantalize, but chickened out on the bleaker ironies. In place of mystery the filmmakers unabashedly opted for legend—a superNatural in which the hero shapes his bat from the lightning-struck tree under which his father died: Hobbs has only to open its carrying case for thunder to murmur in salute above the grandstand roof.

To give the devil—in this case, Hollywood—its due, the movie The Natural manages considerable grandeur on its own terms. This does not include, alas, the most frequently quoted "Rocky meets Star Wars" sequence when Hobbs, his side bleeding from a Christ-like wound, wallops the home run of all time and rounds the bases under a slow-motion star shower from exploding stadium lights. But in its opening reels particularly, the film testifies to a glowing faith in baseball as America's noblest dream of itself—a model of manly grace in which an honorable player may father sons in the imaginations of us all.

The recent resurgence of enthusiasm for baseball as the national pastime speaks in part to the pull of a mindless, Reaganesque nostalgia for a kinder, gentler era that never had to bill itself as such. That cavil aside, it's been a salutary turn. Whereas football aspires to nothing other than brute victory under the gun, baseball aspires to beauty. The best movies about it don't even keep score.

There was a brief revival of baseball films during the Bicentennial. The Bad News Bears was much too cute and not nearly as unsentimental as it aimed to be; still, this account of an alcoholic ex–minor leaguer (Walter Matthau) coaching a Little League squad of misfits and feebs to value playing more than winning had its heart in the right place. The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings took up the forgotten Negro leagues of the Thirties. Unlike Kelly and Sinatra in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, who got to clown it up on the playingfield because everybody knew they were really in showbiz, Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) and his teammates must win the indulgence of white fans by heading into their games with a high-stepping "coon show," because no one really accepts them as ballplayers. At the box office, Bingo Long came and went like a pop fly.

***

The current, modest renaissance in baseball movies got under way last year with Bull Durham, a comedy by minor league veteran Ron Shelton, and Eight Men Out, John Sayles' account of the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919.

Bull Durham (anticipated by the entertaining HBO movie Long Gone) concerned itself not at all with how many ballgames the Durham Bulls were winning. It focused on baseball as a way of life, and of looking at life; on the sexiness of ballplayers, ballplaying, and getting older and wiser, especially as exemplified by Kevin Costner and the glorious Susan Sarandon. The central romantic triangle of veteran catcher "Crash" Davis, looking at his last season as a player, Annie Savoy, high priestess of "the Church of Baseball," and Ebby Calvin "Nuke" Laloosh (Tim Robbins), the rookie pitcher with "a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head," lent a hilariously raunchy fillip to the genre's hallowed parenting theme, as both Crash and Annie in their respective ways tutored Nuke for accession to the leagues. Crash and Annie's own long-postponed lovemaking was played like a lazy late-season ballgame, each inning savored for its particular pleasures, with allowance for the traditional seventh-inning stretch.

In focusing on the economic motivations and political fallout of the World Series fixing, Eight Men Out played like a companion piece to Sayles' 1987 coal strike movie Matewan. The ethical shortfall of the variously errant Chicago White Sox, the best team in the history of the game, signals the loss of American innocence. During a coda set several years after the scandal, the very emulsion of the film looks as poisoned as the post-Edenic world.

When it comes to corruption, one would have to look hard to find a more blighted specimen than Major League. This tawdry comedy from David S. Ward (who won an Oscar for sticking it to audiences with The Sting) leads off with a flagrantly specious premise: the showgirl widow of the Cleveland Indians' owner wants to move the franchise to Miami, so she assembles a Bad News Bears of a team to play lousy ball and inspire lease-breaking, sub-minimum attendance.

Forget that Major League steals shamelessly from every baseball movie of the past decade and a half. There isn't an honest move, a legitimate character turn, in the film. Everything's motifs, die-cut and stamped, from the low-comedy commentary by the Japanese groundskeepers to the programmatic rivalries and checkerboard love lives of the players. That's just mechanical badness. What's contemptible about Major League is that it pretends to believe in and serve things that are lovable and good: prowess, self-improvement, the birth of team spirit and its extension to a community that needs to glory in it, the emotional and communal legitimacy of "feel-good" movies and also, of course, baseball. The movie honors none of them.

Field of Dreams honors all of them, and more. It's too early to say if this corn-fed tall tale will fade before the season does or become, as Kevin Costner put it, "this generation's It's a Wonderful Life."

It's a Wonderful Life it's not, which true friends of both films would do well to insist. Although carelessly sentimentalized in the public mind, the Capra movie triumphs aesthetically and emotionally because it's more deeply grounded in blackness than most films noirs. Not much is really at risk in Field of Dreams. The Sixties-bred Iowa corn farmer (Costner) who hears a Voice one evening and consequently plows under his richest acre to build a ballfield for the ghost of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson (he of that earlier Chicago Eight) may lose his land to foreclosure, but that scarcely looms large in his notably drifty life history. Nor does it cost anything to buy into his dream, for the other characters in the movie or for the audience.

I hadn't read W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe when I first saw Field of Dreams (an unfortunate "go for it" title), but it seemed likely that a wonderful novel had been respectfully served by a well-meaning but flatfooted filmmaker. The book proves to be wonderful whimsy indeed, rich in metaphors ("The crack of the bat is as sharp as the yelp of a kicked cur") one has waited years to savor.

But words are metaphors; great filmmaking entails another order of poetry and, apart from minor felicities—the perfectly natural yet evocative fog bank that lies low over the ballfield of an evening, the jokey "I'm melting! I'm melting!" of a Black Sox player who special-effects out of view into the limbo beyond the outfield stand of corn—writer-director Phil Alden Robinson does little to inflect the peculiar reality of Kinsella's fable. (He also appears to have little sense of how wondrous and mysterious and terrible the most ordinary field of rustling corn can be.)

Still, Robinson has adapted and compressed Kinsella's narrative intelligently, and shaped it toward an emotional payoff that is finally the film's alone. Field of Dreams, though it features even less baseball action than Bull Durham, is distinctly a movie about baseball, and how baseball has always been about America. It puts the heart back into heartland, and should touch anyone who craves to replay one move in the game of life.

Pacific Northwest, July 1989

Copyright © 1989 by Richard T. Jameson