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Lacking Actual Baseball, Here Are Baseball Films to Watch

by John Aquino on 04/02/20

During stay-at-home orders and in the absence of actual baseball, I thought it might be interesting to review (and maybe later look at) some fictitious and fact-based films about baseball.

Fictitious Baseball Movies

There are too many films to count let alone review in which baseball is a major plot element. Here are some important ones and some of my favorites.

They Learned About Women (1930). Directed by Sam Wood and Jack Conway. An odd, early M-G-M musical film about two vaudevillians who are also professional baseball players and who fall in love with the same woman. The stars, Joe Schenck and  Gus Van, were vaudevillians and baseball fans. Two things are interesting about it. It includes actual pre-1930 footage of games at Yankee Stadium that are well blended in with scenes shot on studio sets and are wonderful to see. And it inspired (without credit) a better-known Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), which was made by the same studio, starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and is about two vaudevillians who are also professional ball players, although it is set in the 1890s and not the 1930s. In They Learned About Women, it is also interesting to see Bessie Love, a fabled silent screen actress discovered by D.W. Griffith and a co-star of John Gilbert. She gives a plucky performance. At the end, when Van scores the winning run and collapses, she and the rest of the fans crowd around him and she is stuck in the back of the mob and can't get to him. She crawls on her knees through the crowd, comes out the other end, dusts herself off, and embraces Van. Co-director Wood went onto direct the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races as well as Pride of the Yankees (1942) (see below). The other director, Jack Conway, was later in charge of Viva Villa! (1934), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and The Hucksters (1946).

It Happens Every Spring (1949). Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay by Valentine Davies. ( )This is, perhaps, my favorite baseball film. It's about a chemistry professor, played by Ray Milland, who discovers a composition that repels wood. Underpaid, he cannot afford to marry his sweetheart, and so, he leaves the campus, manages to join a major league team as a pitcher named Kelly, and becomes a strikeout ace as batters swing at his pitches, which seem to bounce over their bats. No actual professional teams are mentioned because the baseball commissioner Happy Chandler denied permission to use the names, feeling that the film condoned cheating Admittedly, baseball is still reeling from the Houston Astros signal-stealing scandal. But Chandler's decision amuses me because the movie is a fantasy. There was and is no such chemical composition. The screenplay was written by the same woman who wrote the script for A Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Also, Major League Baseball did cooperate two years later with the film Angels in the Outfield, where the protagonist is clearly the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In that film, angels help the players perform better than they normally do--a kind of cheating, I think. And five years after that, MLB supported the film Damn Yankees (1958) in which the protagonist sells his soul to the devil in return for which the man becomes young again and leads the Washington Senators to win the pennant over the New York Yankees. Both of these later films deal with a form of cheating and both are fantasy too. Anyway, It Happens Every Spring conveys a wonderful feel for the game of baseball. Paul Douglas, who was new to films, is marvelous as Milland's catcher Monk Lanigan, and Ted de Corsica, who usually played villains, excels as the gruff and reasonable manager. (Dolan says, "Kelly's not indispensable!" Lanigan says, "I know, but the team can't get along without him.") When Kelly during the last game informs Lanigan that his special pitch is gone, Lanigan reminds him he has seven guys behind him backing him up. It's a charming, feel-good film. Milland tried to repeat the magic two years later with another baseball film titled Rhubarb about a cat that inherits a baseball team. But it's not as good. Disney borrowed the idea of It Happens Every Spring in The Absent Minded Professor (1961) in which a professor creates a substance that, when placed on the soles of basketball players shoes, helps them jump higher.

Angels in the Outfield (1951). Directed by Clarence Brown. Screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley and George Wells. ( ) In this film, angels help the Pittsburgh Pirates win ballgames. Paul Douglas is again marvelous as the loud-mouth, foul-tongued, but gentle-at-heart manager. The special effects are non-existent (in contrast to the 1994 overproduced remake) ( ), but the cast is wonderful--Janet Leigh as a reporter who falls in love with Douglas; Spring Byington as the nun in charge of the little girl, played by Donna Corcoran, who is the only one who can see the angels; Lewis Stone as the commissioner; James Whitmore as the unseen voice of the head angel; Bruce Bennett as a dying pitcher; and Kennan Wynn as a skeptical sports broadcaster. There are cameos by Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and Bing Crosby, then part-owner of the Pirates. The story is simple, funny, and compelling, Again, a feel-good M-G-M film that Disney felt was good enough to remake.

Damn Yankees (1958). Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. It's more a musical than a baseball film, but, as a native Washingtonian, the story about a Washington Senators fan named Joe who sells his soul to the devil so that he can play and help his team win holds a special place in my heart. (Please note that, as far as we know, a Washington D.C. team won the World Series in 2019 without the help of the devil.) The songs, especially "Heart," are good, the cast, mostly imported from the original Broadway show except for Tab Hunter as the lead, enjoyable. The filmmakers used footage of the Senators' home run hitter at the time, Roy Sievers, to double for Joe Hardy.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). Directed by John Hancock. Screenplay by Mark Harris from his novel. The story was first adapted from Harris' novel by Arnold Shulman for a 1956 television broadcast starring Paul Newman and Albert Salmi in the roles played in the movie by Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro. It's an elegiac story of a pitcher who learns his catcher is dying of cancer and who makes sure his teammate finishes his last season. There's a good supporting cast in Vince Gardenia, Phil Foster, and Ann Wedgeworth. It's beautifully acted and speaks of teamwork and love.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). Directed by John Badham. This welcome film has a great cast of African-American actors in a story inspired by Negro league baseball of the 1930s. Actually, the film's tale is about players who, fed up by the league's treatment of its players, go barnstorming on their own throughout Midwest towns. It's great to see James Earl Jones, who seems to be enjoying himself tremendously, Billy Dee Williams, and especially, Richard Pryor, who is constantly trying to break into the still-segregated Major League Baseball by pretending to be, first, a Cuban, and then a Native American. It's enjoyable, delivering its message about racism earnestly but not in a heavy-handed manner.

The Natural (1984). Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry. A magnificent cast--Robert Redford Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley, Darren McGavin (unbilled), Kim Bassinger, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky--in a lovingly producer film that is based on a great novel by Bernard Malamud. It loves the game and its myths. The only problem is that it distorts the bleak ending of the novel and replaces it with a feel-good if implausible finish ( ). 

Bull Durham (1988). Written and Directed by Ron Shelton. A little raunchy for some tastes, but, overall, a very smart baseball movie. It's about Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a minor league catcher, who is assigned by his manager to shepherd a hot young pitcher, Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who's a little wild. Meanwhile, a fan, Annie Savoy, tells Crash and Ebby that she will sleep with one of them throughout the season. Crash opts out, Ebby goes with Annie, but she's really attracted to Crash. Meanwhile, we're given a full picture of the minor league team amid squabbles on the mound about proper wedding presents and Crash trying to mold Ebby into a reliable pitcher. Shelton really knows and loves baseball. 

Major League (1989). Directed and Written by David S. Ward. The new owner of the Cleveland Indians puts together a horrible team so that she'll have an excuse to move it to another city to her profit. The team actually bonds together and wins. The movie was modeled on the efforts of Minnesota Twins' owner Calvin Griffith to move the Twins from Minneapolis. (He had previously moved the Washington Senators to Minneapolis where they became the Twins.) The film treads some of the same territory as Bull Durham from the year before, but cast has an easy charm and the dialogue and situations are funny (David S. Ward, who wrote the script and directed, also wrote The Sting (1973)). The movie spawned two sequels.

Field of Dreams (1989). Directed and written by Phil Alden Robinson. This iconic movie--in which the ghosts of baseball players, some of whom were part of the Black Sox 1919 World Series scandal, come from an Iowa Farmer's corn field to play ball again--is not really a movie about the playing of the game. It's a movie about its myth and spirit. Some may get a bit confused about the bit of time travel that involves the character played by Burt Lancaster. But it is a weird and joyous film. Kevin Costner, who had appeared in Bull Durham the year before, stars.

A League of Their Own (1992). Directed by Penny Marshall. This fictional film was inspired by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was formed during World War II to help keep baseball alive while male players had gone to war. One drawback of the film is that it suggests the league was unpopular and had to rely on bizarre gimmicks to attract fans. Actually, the league was immediately successful, especially because the teams played in the Midwest in towns that had never been able to watch professional teams. The movie coined an iconic line as the bewildered male coach portrayed by Tom Hanks, reacts to one of his player's tears by exclaiming, "There's no crying in baseball!" It's an amusing and touching film, well acted by Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, and Rosie O'Donnell, which sheds light on what to many was a forgotten part of baseball history.

For the Love of the Game (1999). Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Dana Stevens. Costner again, this time as a pitcher who, during what may turn out to be a perfect game, looks back on his life and concludes that it has not been perfect. A film that does indeed exhibit great love for the game and yet, at the same time, doesn't produce a great deal of warmth, and there is little humor. Well acted by Costner and Robin Wright, it still tanked at the box office. It's a film that anyone that loves the game should see. But be in a sober frame of mind.

Fever Pitch (2005). Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Baseball fan comedy about a Boston Red Sox fan who is forced to make a decision about whom he loves more, his team or his girlfriend. This film focuses on fervent baseball fandom. It was fortunate enough to be in production when the Red Sox finally broke the "Curse of the Bambino" (which sprang from the Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919) and won their first world championship in 86 years. The ending was reworked to take advantage of the victory. Otherwise, it's a pleasant romantic comedy that ends with the heroine (played by Drew Barrymore) jumping onto the field and spiriting to her love at the other end, evading security guards as she runs. This was filmed after an actual game with the stands half-full.

Fact-Based Baseball Movies:

The Pride of the Yankees (1942). This biography of Lou Gehrig was directed by Sam Wood and co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, the year after he won the Oscar for co-writing (really for writing) Citizen Kane. Made pending the approval of Mrs. Gehrig, it's an enjoyable film, generally factual, with sharp dialogue and broad characterizations. A caveat is that Cooper does little ball-playing--he had never played before, had to learn to bat left-handed, and was doubled a lot. Still, he projects the dignity and humor of Gehrig, especially through the scenes of his discovering and suffering through the illness that now bears his name (see ). It's also enjoyable to watch Babe Ruth playing himself.  Gehrig's story was retold in a 1977 television movie titled A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story with a badly miscast Edward Hermann as Gehrig (an attempt to capitalize on his playing Franklin Roosevelt the year before) and a story that is really Mrs. Gehrig's.

The Babe Ruth Story (1948). Directed by Roy Del Ruth (no relation).  ( ) It's good to see the usually dependable William Bendix in a starring role for a change. But he doesn't resemble Ruth physically or in his manner, the script is clunky and factually inaccurate. Ruth was still alive, although dying, at the time of the film's release, which explains the inconclusive ending. Bendix also had to learn and hit left-handed because he was a righty. Two years later, Bendix played an umpire in Kill the Umpire. Ruth appeared as himself in Pride of the Yankees and the now-lost 1927 silent The Babe Comes Home.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Directed by Alfred E. Green.  ( )Jackie Robinson portrays himself, the first African-American to play major league baseball and does a believable job. It's an inexpensively produced, hackneyed, but sweet film on an important event in baseball history. It ends halfway through his career (which lasted six more years), leaves out such events as his WWII court-martial that was prompted by his race ,and includes silly comic relief from Ben Lessy as a player appropriately named Shorty. Robinson's story was told again in 42 (2013).

The Winning Team (1952). Directed by Lew Seiler. A sometimes accurate biopic of Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had the unique distinction of being named after one president and played by another--Ronald Reagan. It has a good feel for the game and depicts Alexander's battle with epilepsy and alcoholism. The ending, in which he is asked to take over in the seventh inning of the seventh game of the 1926 World Series when the starting pitcher develops a blister and goes on to pitch flawlessly (striking out Yankee Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded), even after Alexander had already pitched two winning games in the series, is surprisingly true (see ). The only deviation from fact is he didn't strike out the final batter to win the game, although that is the better dramatic ending; Babe Ruth was called out trying to steal second. The always reliable Frank Lovejoy delivers again as player-manager Roger Hornsby. The love story between Alexander and his wife Aimee is the focus of the film. To some degree, his struggles with the bottle are not emphasized enough. After the events portrayed in the film, Aimee divorced Alexander because of his alcoholism, remarried him, and divorced him again. He died destitute two years before the movie was made. Overall, a good baseball movie.

Eight Men Out (1988). Written and directed by John Sayles. This film dramatizes the Black Sox Scandal when Chicago players accepted bribes to lose the 1919 World Series. It's a very respectable film, well produced, well acted, especially by David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte. The actors seem to know what they are doing on the field. Sayes reportedly cast Charlie Sheen and John Cusack as much for their playing abilities as for their thespian skills. Any inaccuracies are generally due to the book on which Sayles' screenplay was based. It is not, however, a feel-good baseball film.

The Babe (1992). Directed by Arthur Hiller. Screenplay by John Fusco. Another film biop of Babe Ruth, which goes to the other extreme from the Babe Ruth Story. Rather than the hulky, uncoordinated but goodhearted Bendix, Ruth is shown as a grossly fat from the start (Ruth became fatter as he career continued but he started fit and was said to have the grace of a ballet dancer), slovenly, and selfish. There are scores of minor inaccuracies, but the biggest complaint is that this Ruth is just not very likable. 

Cobb (1994). Directed and written by Ron Shelton from a book and article by Al Stump. Tommie Lee Jones, who plays Cobb, is usually dependable, but he overacts in playing the very nasty Cobb. The title character is never likable or even sympathetic, and the film's accuracy is totally dependent on Stump's book, which was based on interviews with Cobb. Some have suggested that either Cobb or Stump or both made most of it up. Stump is a character in the film. Shelton did, however, direct the excellent fictitious baseball film, Bull Durham (1988).

Moneyball (2011). Directed by Bennett Miller. Screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Chronicles Oakland A's manager Billy Beane's efforts to develop a team on a small budget by using computer analytics in acquiring players--which is how, almost a decade after the film came out, the game is now played. Well written by Sorkin and Zaillian and acted by Brad Pitt, Robin Wright (again, after For the Love of the Game), Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's a fun film.

Copyright 2020 by John T. Aquino

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