Baseball as we know it today began when the National League was formed in 1876, though many of the rules still had to be refined and much of the equipment was crude. By 1903, when the first World Series was held between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball would not only be recognizable to the modern fan, but almost exactly the same as it appears today. This coincides with the timeline of the invention and rise in popularity of the movie camera and the kinetoscope, a device used to view moving pictures.
Both baseball and the film industry have grown with America, many times even leading the nation in breaking down some of the social barriers along the way. Jackie Robinson stepped into the limelight in 1947, eight years before Rosa Parks would refuse to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, and 16 years before Martin Luther King Jr. would march on Washington. During World War II, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley started an all-girls league while the men were overseas. In 1978, Universal Pictures’ The Deer Hunter dealt with the realities of Vietnam War veterans when many Americans were still attempting to cope privately with the topic. In 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the issue of interracial marriage was tackled. The ability of these two mediums to make a real change in society is part of their importance to us.
The marriage of baseball and film has a history of ups and downs that goes back to the first days of the medium. Thomas Edison released the first film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze, in 1894 and four years later released the first movie about baseball entitled The Ball Game. This first baseball film was more of a quick glimpse of how the game was played in those days rather than an actual plot-driven movie. Over the next 20 years or so most of the films about baseball would be very short silent films about which we know very little. The genre begins to produce longer features around 1916 with a film adaptation of the Ernest Lawrence Thayer poem Casey at the Bat. While two films had already appeared by the same name by 1916, this version starred a young comedian named DeWolf Hopper who had, by this time, recited the poem over ten thousand times for audiences in his comedy stage act.
Quite possibly the first baseball film that dealt with any serious issue was the 1923 film Trifling With Honor which was clearly a message in retrospect of the 1919 World Series intentionally lost by the Chicago White Sox. The film’s protagonist is a former inmate who makes good as a ballplayer and is then confronted by gamblers who want him to throw a game with the threat of revealing his jail time if he refuses. In this case the honor of baseball is saved when the ex-con refuses the blackmailers. Just four years removed from the national scandal, this is the first step of filmmakers in using their format to address key baseball issues of the day. This theme can also be seen the following year in Hit and Run and again in 1926’s Out of the West when gamblers kidnap the star ballplayer to keep him from playing only to have him escape and eventually win the big game.
1927 gave us Babe Comes Home, a silly tale starring Babe Ruth as Babe Dugan, a star hitter who has given up tobacco for his new wife. He goes into a slump before the big game and ultimately his wife tosses him his chewing tobacco from the stands just in time to hit the winning home run. Babe Comes Home would be the second of nine films featuring Babe Ruth in what had become a popular career move for ballplayers. Mike Donlin, the great outfielder of the first decades of the 20th century, would star in 60 movies from 1917 to 1935. In 1927 MGM released Slide, Kelly, Slide, a film that featured Donlin and three very famous ballplayers of the day all playing themselves: Yankee greats Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel, along with Bob’s brother and New York Giant Irish Meusel.
1928’s Warming Up was one of the first pictures to feature a big Hollywood star when Jean Arthur played opposite Richard Dix. It was also the first baseball picture to feature sound. Mike Donlin appeared in this one as well.
Although the decade of the ‘30s brought with it nationwide economic depression, you wouldn’t have known it by going to the cinema. The baseball films of this era continued the happy-go-lucky themes of the previous decade with movies like They Learned About Women, a picture about two baseball stars who try their luck at being vaudevillians and 1932’s Fireman, Save My Child which told the story of a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who liked to chase fire engines through the streets. This last film is undoubtedly in homage to pitching great Rube Waddell, who had the same tendency during the middle of games. Waddell was an interesting character. He was so bad at holding onto money that the Philadelphia A’s once paid him in one dollar bills, in the hopes that he would spend it more slowly. He began 1903 sleeping in a firehouse in Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in a saloon in Wheeling, West Virginia. In between those events he won 22 games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men’s Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama, courted, married and became separated from May Wynne Skinner, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion. This type of reckless behavior is seen throughout the early 1900’s by professional ballplayers and the willingness to take on Hollywood with zero acting experience shows the wild and carefree spirit of the time.
1937’s Girls Can Play, a mystery starring Rita Hayworth, gave us the first glimpse into women playing the game. The following year with the release of Brother Rat, we see two more Hollywood stars, Ronald Reagan and his future wife Jane Wyman, along with up-and-coming Eddie Albert.
The baseball film that would be the first big blockbuster was 1942’s Pride of the Yankees which starred Gary Cooper as Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig, Teresa Wright as his wife, and Walter Brennan as Gehrig’s sportswriter friend. The film won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing and was nominated for 11 Oscars overall, including Best Actor & Actress and Best Picture. The movie tells the story of the life of Lou Gehrig who had just passed away in 1941 at the age of 36 from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, later known simply as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gehrig was one of the biggest stars of the previous 15 years in the big leagues. He was known for his kind personality and his powerful swing. His biggest accomplishment was his consecutive games-played streak of 2,130 games, a record that would last until 1995. America watched this fine young man who never missed a game for 13 years slowly fall more and more ill to an unknown disease. Gehrig would retire in 1939 and give his famous speech to the Yankee stadium crowd in which he said, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for…Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Cooper would recite these same lines in the film which also starred former Yankee greats Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig as themselves. The film is generally regarded as a correct adaptation of Gehrig’s life, yet not quite a great film, if for no other reason than it, like Gehrig’s life, didn’t have much drama until the very end. New York Times writer Bosley Crowther wrote, “It is, without being pretentious, a real saga of American life-homely, humorous, sentimental and composed in patient detail. But, by the very nature of its subject, it lacks conflict till well on toward its end. And that is its principal weakness as a dramatic film.”
The film’s greatness and its downfall are one in the same in that although it is an excellent biography of Lou, all biographies are not necessarily all that interesting and exciting. Croweth would go on to say, “The Pride of the Yankees is not anything to raise the blood-pressure. But as a simple, moving story with an ironic heart-tug at the end, it serves as a fitting memorial to the real Lou.” One interesting tidbit about the filming is that Gary Cooper was right-handed while Gehrig was a lefty. Director Sam Wood decided to reverse the numbers on the backs of the players’ jerseys, have them run to third base instead of first when they got a hit, and later flip the film to make it all look correct.
Also in 1942 Twentieth Century Fox released It Happened in Flatbush, a film that featured a different ballclub from New York City, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers had been a bad ball club almost year-in and year-out since their inception in 1884. Finally, they began to put the pieces together in the early 1940’s and would achieve greatness with the coming of Jackie Robinson in April of ’47. They were known as “Dem Bums” to their fans and the players were a lovable bunch of losers that could never quite get it together. It Happened in Flatbush tried to re-create the tone and environment of Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ home ballpark and its wacky characters, but never really grasped the feel of the team. Time magazine said, “The inspiration is authentic, but the film fumbles the atmosphere, fails to capture the special cachet of Brooklyn and ‘dem bums’.” Many of the real Dodgers appeared in the film playing themselves. This is the first of the “disliked woman owner takes over team” plots which we will see again in 1989’s Major League. The following year, the Dodgers appeared again in the comedy Whistling in Brooklyn.
As great an accomplishment as Pride of the Yankees had been in ’42, there were still to be plenty of duds in the baseball genre over the coming years. In 1948, The Babe Ruth Story was released starring William Bendix as the Sultan of Swat. This has got to be, if not the worst, the most astonishingly arrogant myth-making baseball film of all. Babe Ruth is made to look like a modern day prophet. In the film he saves a boy’s puppy from dying, gives an amazing Billy Graham-like speech over the deathbed of his manager, and causes a paraplegic kid to miraculously rise and walk from his wheelchair. The saddest part of all is that the movie was quite successful because only two days after its release, Babe passed away from cancer.
A new plot theme to develop in baseball films was that of the average Joe who, by mysterious circumstances, finds himself in the major leagues. It Happens Every Spring is a comedy starring Ray Milland as a Professor who, after a laboratory accident, realizes that he has discovered a new substance that repels wood. He utilizes this to work his way into the bigs and become a star pitcher. This theme is also found in 1993’s Rookie of the Year. That film features a young boy who breaks his arm playing baseball only to have it heal in a way that allows him to throw extraordinarily fast. He makes it to the pros as a pitcher as well. The Kid from Left Field (1953) and Little Big League (1994) both feature a child that, through unforeseen events, ends up managing a big league baseball team. 1958’s Damn Yankees is a film version of the popular theater production wherein a fan wishes to be young again to play ball for his favorite team. He makes a deal to “sell his soul” for the opportunity. These miraculous happenings play into American’s dreams to have a chance to make it in the pro game.
The 1940’s ended on a good note for baseball in Hollywood when a huge star, Jimmy Stewart, played Monty Stratton in 1949’s The Stratton Story. The picture is based on the true story a former Chicago White Sox pitcher, who in 1938 accidentally shot himself in the leg while hunting. Stratton’s leg had to be amputated, but with the help of a wooden leg he worked his way back to the minors. James Stewart’s wife in the film is played by June Allyson. The two would play husband and wife in two other films as well: Strategic Air Command, and The Glenn Miller Story. This film was directed by Sam Wood who also directed They Learned about Women and the Pride of the Yankees. The Stratton Story won an Academy Award for Best Writing. As the 1940’s closed, the only two movies to garner Oscar recognition were biography pieces that centered on tragic events.
1950 gave us The Jackie Robinson Story, another biographical film but this time, Jackie plays himself. Surprisingly, he does a wonderful job even though some of his lines are a bit contrived. Overall the story was enjoyable but some felt that more could have been done with it. Time magazine’s review stated that “It might have been a powerful movie stating the case for the U.S. Negro in terms that combined authenticity, drama and the irresistible appeal of an underdog’s courageous fight to ultimate triumph. Fumbling, overtactful treatment has reduced it to considerably less. But the emotional potential of the film’s raw material is so high that no ineptitude by the producers can keep the sparks entirely off the screen.”
The next significant movie is 1957’s Fear Strikes Out which is the true story of major league centerfielder Jimmy Piersall who struggled with a Bipolar disorder. Piersall was portrayed by a very un-athletic looking Anthony Perkins. It was yet another biography film, but would be the last for 35 years.
1973’s classic Bang the Drum Slowly starring Robert DeNiro was a box office success. The fictional story is one of a dying catcher’s friendship with the team’s star pitcher who is determined to make the best of his friend’s final season, all the while not letting on to anyone else of the catcher’s impending demise. This is the baseball equivalent of football’s Brian’s Song and there are some very poignant moments in the film. DeNiro’s character, while explaining why he doesn’t want others to know of his condition, says “Everybody’d be nice to you if they knew you were dying.” To which the pitcher replies “Everybody knows everybody is dying; that’s why people are as good as they are.” This was the first film to show baseball in a relatively genuine light. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his August, 1973 review “There are no telegraphed big moments on the field, when everything depends on a strikeout or a home run or something. Even Bruce’s (DeNiro) last big hit in his last time at bat is limited, tactfully, to a triple.”
The movie would have one Oscar nomination and earn over $50 million in theaters.
In 1976, a new kind of baseball movie was released. Hollywood had apparently tired of the tragic hero scenario and wanted to make audiences laugh. Instead of retreating back to their former tactics of slapstick comedy, they added another element to the films: kids. The Bad News Bears shows a mismatched bunch of youths being pulled together by their alcoholic manager played by Walter Matthau. The kids begin as irreverent, terribly inept ballplayers gradually improving by adding an older, rebellious misfit outfielder and a girl pitcher played by Tatum O’Neal. The cast itself adds a new dimension to the traditional baseball film with Hispanics, blacks and the female presence all represented on the team. The kids eventually become a pretty good team and, more importantly, learn a lesson about having a win-at-all-cost mentality towards the game.
In 1984, The Natural was released. It was to be the first in a string of films about the National Pastime that would be highly successful. It tells the tale of a middle aged ballplayer attempting to make a comeback after having his budding career cut short years earlier when he is shot by a mysterious woman. The ballplayer works his way back to the majors and predictably hits the winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the big game. The home run ball crashes into the stadium lights, causing sparks to light up the night sky as the triumphant musical score echoes and the hero trots around the base path in slow motion. It’s quite possible that many people liked this film simply because it had been so long since a baseball movie ended in such a Herculean way. Many sports fans love the underdog and for a long time, Hollywood had showcased the somber biography or the simple, wacky schtick of foolish wit.
The film was very successful at the box office, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, but critics despised its dreadfully clichéd perfection in the form of its main character, Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, and the amateurish filming style. Richard Schickel of Time claimed that “Backlighting and diffused light, shadows, silhouettes and slow motion, all the camera tricks that signify a departure from ordinary movie realism and the presence of symbolic meaning in a shot, are indiscriminately, even promiscuously thrown at the audience.” Roger Ebert talked about the accuracy of the actual game when he says “As for the baseball, the movie isn’t even subtle. When a team is losing, it makes Little League errors. When it’s winning, the hits are so accurate they even smash the bad guy’s windows. There’s not a second of real baseball strategy in the whole film.” The movie-goers seemed to take quite a liking to it, however. The film’s score is still played at ballparks all over the country when a player hits a home run.
In 1988, Kevin Costner debuted in the first of three of baseball films in which he would star. Bull Durham is likely the most accurate portrayal of baseball ever presented in a film. The Director, Ron Shelton, played minor league ball for a few years and made use of his experiences in the details of this classic. The story is principally a love triangle between two players and a woman (Susan Sarandon), and it follows these three through a minor league baseball season. The conversations between players during the games, the traveling, the hotels, and the monotony of it all are the true gems of this film. The filmmaker suggests to the viewer that winning isn’t all that important, but the relationships are. Roger Ebert declared that “‘Bull Durham'” is a treasure of a movie because it knows so much about baseball and so little about love. The movie is a completely unrealistic romantic fantasy, and in the real world the delicate little balancing act of these three people would crash into pieces. But this is a movie, and so we want to believe in love, and we want to believe that once in a while lovers can get a break from fate. That’s why the movie’s ending is so perfect. Not because it seems just right, but because it seems wildly impossible, and we want to believe it anyway.“
Another film came out that same year that has been exceedingly overlooked in the motion picture archives. Eight Men Out told the true story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the team that intentionally lost the World Series to make a quick buck from gamblers who would bet against them. The players were banned for life the following season by the newly appointed commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. The film is extremely accurate to the true facts of the case, possibly too accurate, leaving the viewer feeling like they are watching a documentary. The one departure in truthfulness is the mythical ending where we find one of the players leaving the courtroom accosted by a youngster who pleads to the player “Say it ain’t so, Joe” The acting is good, but not great, which is surprising considering the cast. John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd, and Michael Lerner all star in the film. For baseball history buffs the film is spectacular. For the average audience member, the plot with all its twists and turns, even though true, gets jumbled and confusing quickly. The film did very poorly in theaters earning only $5 million. In exact contrast to The Natural, although the public didn’t quite get it, this time the critics loved the film. New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin argued that “Chief among the director’s other accomplishments are insuring that the World Series games are genuinely exciting, despite what the audience knows about their ultimate outcome, and making an extremely complicated plot full of bribes, counter-bribes and double-crosses seem crystal clear.”
The Black Sox scandal would rock the sports world in 1919 and would make forever infamous a player named Joe Jackson. Joe once played a minor league game in his bare feet because his shoes were too tight. This earned him the nickname “Shoeless”, a moniker which would stay with him for the rest of his life. One of the best hitters in baseball history, he was only 30 at the time of his banishment, and much has been made about his actual involvement with the sabotage. Jackson appears again in our next film, 1989’s Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner’s second film is a magical yarn about an Iowa farmer who hears a voice in his cornfield telling him to build a baseball field on his land. He does and soon enough players from baseball’s past begin to arrive. First Shoeless Joe, and then the rest of the eight banned players begin to play ball every day on the field. The catch is that only Costner and his family can see them. The story gets stranger and stranger as he begins to hear new messages with new instructions. The climax of the film comes when a supporting character, played by James Earl Jones, gives a speech on the meaning of the game. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
This quote concisely sums up this magnificent film. The ghosts of baseball’s past can live as long as we never forget them. Ebert agrees in his 1989 consideration: “Why do they come back from the great beyond and play in this cornfield? Not to make any kind of vast, earth-shattering statement, but simply to hit a few and field a few, and remind us of a good and innocent time.” About the speech he says that “There is a speech in this movie about baseball that is so simple and true that it is heartbreaking. And the whole attitude toward the players reflects that attitude.”
Another film released that year was Major League. This simple but very funny film stars Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, and Corbin Bersen, and Tom Berenger. The old fashioned gags are out in force in this fun picture about a group of rag-tag players purposely assembled by a no-good female owner who wants the team to finish dead last in the league so that she can relocate the team. Of course the team bonds as the season goes on and eventually wins the pennant. Nothing new plot-wise, but the gags have become the stuff of baseball legend including the pitcher’s wild haircut and the playing of the song “Wild Thing” as he enters the game which has been used by actual Major League players in later years. Uproarious quotes delivered by Bob Uecker who plays the team’s radio announcer can be heard throughout the film including the scene when the inaccurate pitcher (Sheen) tosses a pitch 10 feet wide of the plate and Uecker tosses back “Just a bit outside”. The film, but not its two sequels, was especially successful, bringing in over $50 million.
In 1992, two films were released; one a failure and one the most successful baseball film of all time. The Babe, starring John Goodman, might as well have been made 50 years ago. This performance adds nothing to the history or biography of the Babe and tells the same old anecdotes as always. Babe was a very likeable and happy-go-lucky type of guy, but you wouldn’t know it by sitting through this film. Overall, one could argue that this film simply didn’t need to be made.
In A League of Their Own, we see the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball Association, a league that sprang up during World War II while the majority of men were overseas.
The league blossomed into a ten team format with clubs in Racine, Kenosha, Rockford, South Bend, and Minneapolis among others. Former MLB players took to the field as managers including the great Jimmie Foxx and Hall of Famer Max Carey. (In the film, Tom Hanks plays a former ballplayer-turned-manager named Jimmy Dugan.) Branch Rickey, the man who would soon break the color barrier in the Majors by signing Jackie Robinson, agreed to finance two teams. In 1948, the league played an exhibition game in Yankee Stadium. The league lasted from 1942 until 1954 and in some seasons pulled an attendance of over a million. From 1943 to 1954, the AAGPBL allowed talented women athletes a chance to play professional baseball. A League of Their Own is an inspirational film and with earnings upward of $107 Million, the most popular baseball film ever.
1993’s The Sandlot is another movie about kids playing baseball. Kind of. It’s more the tale of a group of suburban kids in the early sixties fascinated with the game and the camaraderie it allows them. Many scenes are of a child’s imagination running wild while it is still allowed to. The clichés are there, the unnecessary cursing, the overweight catcher we saw from The Bad News Bears is there. But there is something underneath all that. It’s a film of nostalgia that allows us to be 12 again, and that makes it my favorite baseball flick.
The Sandlot would end the run of baseball flicks until 1999’s For Love of the Game, another Costner movie. This one is in essence a love story told around the plotline that Costner, a middle-aged pitcher, is pitching a perfect game in his final season. The game spans the length of the movie and goes back and forth to past events in his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. It’s a good performance by Costner and there are interesting timeline sequences in the film.
The history of baseball in film can basically be broken down into just a few eras. The early/silent era, when most films have a hero who belts the winning wallop at just the right time. The biographical era starting with Lou Gehrig and ending with Fear Strikes Out. The contemporary era when baseball is used as a platform on top of which is built a separate plot. A League of Their Own is about Feminism, not baseball. The Sandlot is about growing up, not baseball. Field of Dreams is about trusting your instincts and not abandoning your dreams, not baseball. Yet, baseball speaks to us in a way we all understand. It is our history. It’s the one thing we have all experienced. Discussing World War II with your Grandfather is a one- sided commentary, but baseball is the same now as it was then. It is a language we all speak equally and therefore it speaks through the ages. That is why such weighty themes can be thrust upon its shoulders and it can bear them. Baseball in film, although full of hits and misses, has been spectacularly accepted. Attempting to name more than a couple hockey, football, or basketball movies can prove quite difficult indeed and yet there are hundreds of baseball films. The changing tide of the filmmaking industry has not ignored the sport in any era, but has seen more successes recently than in years past. More recent films such as Fever Pitch and The Final Season still re-hash the same old storylines. Maybe it’s part of our nature as Americans to always want the underdog to win; to always want the hero to hit the winning home run in the bottom of the ninth. Maybe we just like the old-fashioned slower pace of baseball in a hectic world. Maybe Americans yearn for a forgotten, simpler time that can be re-captured in Hollywood and in baseball. Maybe it’s just like Lawrence Ritter says: “The strongest things that baseball has going for it today are its yesterdays.”