I wasn’t always a baseball enthusiast (my wife says “read ‘fanatic’). For most of my life, I more or less despised team sports. In school I was aware of my physical limitations (general clumsiness) so I never felt I could contend with most of the other kids on the team and subconsciously at least, I had a powerful need to not let people down, even if they were people I didn’t really care about (jocks). This attitude grew into a more general hatred of and intellectual superiority over those who enjoyed sports. Then about seven years ago, I took my seven-year-old to his first major league baseball game in Toronto and found, much to my dismay and pleasure, I was having a great time. As a kid, I had enjoyed baseball more than the Canadian staple, hockey, but I had obviously forgotten that joy and this event, coupled with an encroaching mid-life crisis, led, no, drove me to obsess about baseball. For at least six months a year, I became the dreaded sports dad/husband. All this verbiage is simply to explain that my love of the game is a recent development and I’m playing catch up with life-long fans so the breadth of my knowledge and exposure may not be as great as some. I watch copious amounts of ball during the season and then read and watch ball-oriented fiction and non-fiction during the off-season. We all know about the Bull Durhams and Naturals but I wanted to focus on some underrated, unorthodox, even unknown titles that I’ve enjoyed. Some of these aren’t critical darlings but in some way, they have touched me or made me appreciate the game that much more.
Kevin Costner is spotty. He is unreliable. He is too laconic. He is Jimmy Stewart without the chops. But there are two genres that he excels at, in which he seems truly at home, westerns and baseball movies (this would include movies in which he plays a baseball player but aren’t really about baseball, like The Upside Of Anger). My personal favourite of these is For the Love Of the Game. Costner plays a Detroit Tigers pitcher in the dusk of his career, pitching the game of his life, a potential perfect game, and as he plays, he remininces about a life of missed opportunities. There is a wonderful undercurrent of bittersweet regret comingled with wry humour and pathos that really works for me and the movie offers a terrific behind-the-plate view of the sometimes monotonous life of a ball player. Costner gives a good (possibly great) performance and this movie gives credence to my theory that there is no bad John C. Reilly movie (although Stepbrothers comes awfully close).
Jimmy Stewart had the lanky build for a Randy Johnson-like pitcher and as one of the biggest box-office draws of the late 1940’s, was perfect to play White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton in the ‘true’ feel-good Stratton Story. Stratton was one of the winningest pitchers in the American League in the 1930’s until an off-season hunting accident took one of his legs. His recovery and subsequent return to pro ball, albeit the minor leagues, nonetheless is a terrific story of grit and determination. Stewart is, as always, reliable but June Allyson shines as the perky, imperturbable Ethel, the wife who pulled him through. A great look at baseball in the 1930’s.
“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” – Earl Wilson. It has been said by many in the game that a pro ball player makes it based on mental toughness as much as talent. A hitter has less than a second to decide whether he will swing, where he will swing and what to do once he swings and if he succeeds 3 out of every 10 times, he is considered a success. And this with tens of thousands of people screaming at him, many not favorably. This would be enough to drive a normal man crazy and that’s exactly what happened to Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall, documented in his autobiography, Fear Strikes Out. His harrowing ordeal became a movie in 1957 with Anthony Perkins as Piersall and Karl Malden as the tough father with all his dreams invested in his son. Malden is, as usual, terrific and Perkins was certainly able to convey the depression and internal struggle that Piersall fought his whole life but as a ball player, well, Perkins makes a good depressed person. He is just too slight and weak to make us believe he was able to make it that far (and he has a terrible swing). But overall, still a fine movie.
Possibly the greatest player with the greatest story in baseball history is Jackie Robinson. The story of his rise through the ranks of the white baseball world, dealing with overt racism, often from his own teammates and fans, in the most civilized and gracious way, to become one of the best players in the game would make one of the best baseball movies of all time. Well, 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story is not that movie. It’s the children’s Jackie Robinson story, a simplistic and timid tale released only two years after Robinson made it to the ‘show’ and even recognizing the time of its release, it’s abbreviated running time (76 minutes) is wasted brushing lightly on his difficulties as the first black man in a white game. It’s almost a disservice to modern fans who watch every race participating in today’s game to view this early period through the rose-coloured tint this movie offers. Why do I include it on this list, you may ask? Because the man who portrays Jackie Robinson is none other than…Jackie Robinson himself. It becomes an important historical document, one that shows us the soft-spoken, kind man who rewrote the history of the game. Granted, though he IS playing himself, he’s not the best actor but in this performance, we can see a kernel of the great man that was and was to come. So, in the meantime, until someone decides to retell this story properly and respectfully (please!), we’ll have to live with this.
A movie that more accurately deals with the race issue in this period is the 1996 television movie, Soul Of the Game. Blunt, sharp, well-written and acted, this story of the Negro Leagues and their greats, Satchell Paige and Josh Gibson, sets the record straight, showing a much more confident Jackie Robinson, played by Blair Underwood, beating these other players to the ‘bigs’ because he was willing to (pardon the pun) ‘play ball’. Delroy Lindo’s Paige is an excellent portrayal of an aging great trying to hold on to youth and fame just a bit longer.
Seeing that I’m fairly new to the game, there are doubtless other lesser known baseball movies that I could put on my off-season viewing list and I would be most thankful for some suggestions or your thoughts on the ones I’ve mentioned. See you at the park!