At this point, we all have different things helping us get through the day. This is one of my things.
At this point, we all have different things helping us get through the day. This is one of my things.
“Excuse me, but what the hell’s going on out here?”
“Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man’s here. We need a live … is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose’s glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. That about right? We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
You don’t have to know me that well before you realize I’m not one to speak in absolutes, especially when it comes to cinema. I’ll praise the things I love, I’ll critique the stuff I don’t – so long as it’s in the right context – but I’m allergic to any claims that make our experience of the the world narrower. Five greatest this and ten worst that is bullshit clickbait, not a way to engage film — or life for that matter. People can continue to ask me for my five favorite movies until the end of time [it happens constantly], but I will never give a straight answer. The parameters of the question are nonsense.
And yet, while I live my whole life by the creed above, I have absolutely no problem saying that Bull Durham is the greatest movie that will ever be made about baseball. It’s the exception that proves the rule.
Bull Durham is one of those rare instances where a story embodies the essence of what it depicts. The movie isn’t about baseball, it is baseball. It reverberates with the same heartbeat you’ll hear deep down – if you can tune out all the extra bullshit – at the core of the game.
Bull Durham reveals that baseball is more than a sport, it’s a religion. The faithful worship a deity that is romantic and holy, but unvarnished, profane, and steeped in the ordinary dailiness of life. The articles of faith demand a streak of irreverence in the devotions of the faithful.
It should come as no surprise that it was written and directed by a man who played minor league ball for five years — not some casual layperson or weekend warrior, but a true believer, properly initiated into the faith.
Players are among the faithful, many as devout as the impassioned supplicant of any other god. After all, religion is humanity’s attempt at finding some level of agency and order in a chaotic universe. You can’t control droughts, plagues, natural disasters, or the mystery of death, but maybe you can negotiate with the higher powers who can. Which is what makes it a direct analogue to baseball.
More than in any other sport, a ballplayer isn’t in control of the outcome of their actions. The variables in baseball are crueler. A perfectly executed pitch can result in a weak, broken bat single that finds a hole, driving in runs or breaking up a no-hitter. The hardest hit ball all day may become just another zero in the box score. It’s why ballplayers are by far the most superstitious athletes in the world. The game, like life, isn’t fair. It’s a game of hanging breaking balls and missing your pitch; not a game of inches, but fractions of an inch. On every single pitch, a slight, barely perceptible tilt in angle separates success from failure. Greatness and mediocrity are separated by a razor’s edge.
Crash Davis — philosopher, poet, and career minor leaguer — explains: “You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK? There’s six months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball — a ground ball with eyes! — you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
Playing a game like that for a living, it’s understandable one would seek the rituals and offerings that might appease the gods.*
And if baseball is a religion, Crash Davis is high priest. Nuke Laloosh** may be a force of nature, an insane talent, but he may pitch an entire, bright but relatively brief career without ever truly understanding the game. But Crash pours over the minutia in order to read the meaning – quite literally – between the lines. He lives and breathes the game, putting in the work everyday well after it’s clear that those twenty-one days in the show are all he’s ever going to get.
But Bull Durham isn’t just a hymn to the players who understand the true holiness of the game, it’s just as much a hymn to the zealots, the happy few whose love of the game defies the boundaries of reason. There are plenty of baseball fans, even rabid fans of their clubs, who remain reasonable in their reverence. Perfectly ordinary folk. And then there’s the sort whose devotion runs deeper than that, to a degree that looks ridiculous to those outside the fold. It gets to the point where our belief is barely metaphorical anymore. Deep down, we almost believe that baseball is a key to unlock the secrets of the universe.
Annie and Crash reflect this faith back to us. And like us, they see the world differently than most. It’s no coincidence that Shelton has written both of these characters as philosophers pondering the mysteries of the universe, as readers of fiction and poetry who speak in grand romantic metaphors. That’s the sort of soul most likely to fall this deeply in love with the game. You’d be hard-pressed to find this particular brand of disciple who wasn’t. [That is by no means meant to discredit other lovers of the game, those who hold a deep and abiding affection that never reaches this degree of absurdity.]
You can definitely enjoy Bull Durham as a great film, even if you don’t care about baseball. It’s a well written, well-crafted film, populated with lovable (now iconic) characters, and immensely quotable dialogue. It’s sharp, well paced, and wonderfully shot — a scene that comes to mind is when they switch to handheld while we hear Crash’s thought process during a particular at bat. [I love that scene, especially when Crash tells the bat boy to shut up. Classic. I’ll laugh at it ever time.] And you’ll definitely enjoy the film more if you appreciate baseball to any degree.
But, like baseball, there’s another level under the surface for those with eyes to see. Visible to those whose love of the game exceeds rationality. For this sort of disciple, and I obviously consider myself among them, Crash Davis is our high priest, Annie Savoy is our patron saint, and Bull Durham is our blessed sacrament.
*In case you’ve any doubt that a player’s superstitions can reach religious levels, take the case of batting legend Wade Boggs as an example: He ate chicken before every game [one and a half chickens a day]. He woke up at the same time every day and ran sprints at 7:17 pm. He beat a path from the dugout to third base by taking the exact same route, there and back, every time. He drew the Hebrew for ‘life’ in the batter’s box before every at-bat [he isn’t Jewish]. He asked Sherm Feller, the public announcer at his home park of Fenway, not to announce his uniform number during introductions, because Boggs once broke out of a slump on a day when Feller forgot to announce his number. Are you sure it’s only a coincidence that he was one of the greatest hitters of all time? The dude once went a an entire season — 719 plate appearances — in which he only struck out 34 times! Something was working.]
**In a sad coincidence, Steve Dalkowski – the man who inspired Shelton to write the character of “Nuke” LaLoosh – died last week due to complications of Covid-19. He never made it past the minors, but one season, in 62 innings, he struck out 121 batters and walked 129.
I dislike the people around you. They’re greedy and selfish… I wonder where you left behind your old self. All those headlines have rewritten your true character.
My penultimate baseball film was a late edition to the list. It was a happy accident that I found it at all. I’d never heard of I Will Buy You, and it didn’t show up in any of the research I did. Then, by chance, I stumbled on it while randomly browsing the Criterion Collection. I’m so glad I did, because this movie is, without a close second, the best new film I watched for this series.
The story follows Diasuke Kishimoto, a scout trying to recruit the best young prospect in Japan, and his interactions with the various characters circling the soon-to-be mega rich superstar. Kishimoto struggles to decide how much of his soul he’s willing to give away to achieve his ultimate goal, as it becomes harder and harder to discern who’s using who, what ulterior motives are hidden beneath every surface, and if perhaps some characters are more (or less) sympathetic that he’d thought.
There is so much I love about this movie, and it would take a long-form essay to scratch the surface. Director Masaki Kobayashi is a legend (if you’ve never seen Samurai Rebellion, you should remedy that promptly). Keiji Sada is craaaaaaazy good in the lead role (he tragically died in a car crash at 37, robbing the world of the rest of his career). The script is rich, poignant, and timeless – it doesn’t lose a bit of relevance in the 64 years since its release.
Also, what is the deal with 40s and 50s Japanese directors and cinematographers being better at blocking than anyone else before or since?! You could follow the emotion of this film entirely through the positioning and movement of characters in each frame.
Fun fact: I subscribed to the Criterion Channel just to watch this movie. Now, it’s going to keep me warm on these cold Covid nights.
Next Up: Bull Durham, the greatest baseball movie of all time.
Everybody’d be nice to you if they knew you were dying.
Before 1973, no one had ever heard of Robert De Niro. By the end of the year, his performances in Bang the Drum Slowly and Scorsese’s Mean Streets announced the arrival of a singular talent. Throw in his 1974 role as a young Don Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, and you didn’t have to look too hard to see a legend in the making.
Bang the Drum Slowly is an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Mark Harris. [I’ve never heard of him either.] It’s the story of Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty), star pitcher for the New York Mammoths (a stand-in for the Yankees), and Bruce Pearson (De Niro). Pearson is a backup catcher secretly dying of Hodgkin’s disease, Wiggin is the only member of the team who knows, and the movie chronicles Wiggin’s attempts to care for an odd, none-too-bright, disliked member of the ball club as the season wears on, and Pearson’s illness worsens.
De Niro’s performance as the terminally ill Pearson is as advertised, but Moriarty’s turn as Henry Wiggin is beautiful and heartbreaking. I think his performance deserves more praise, overlooked as it is by De Niro’s first starring role.
If you’re like me, you’ll go through most of the runtime thinking, “I know what people say about this movie, but I there’s no way I’m going to cry.” But it sneaks up on you. When the final act rolled around, there was plenty of “I’m not crying, you’re crying!” on sofá de la Small.
The remaining thoughts are spoilery, so if you plan to watch the film eventually, you’ve been warned.
To me, much of this film is about the power of kindness. The kindness toward Pearson — first by Wiggin, and then the rest of the team — is exclusively due to his illness, and yet, it positively impacts everyone involved. Whether it’s Pearson becoming a better hitter once Wiggin takes the time to offer advice, or the team pulling together after they discover the truth of Pearson’s illness, transforming a once fractured clubhouse in the united juggernaut they should have been all along. The acts of kindness lift up both the giver and the receiver.
And can we talk about the end? The team, fighting to let Pearson finish the clinching game, even though at times he can barely stand. They will him to finish, and he has no idea they all know he’s dying. Wiggin, rolling up Pearson’s uniform in the hospital, knowing he will never wear it again. Or Pearson, promising to be ready for spring training on the airport tarmac. And as he walks to board the plane, they shoot the scene from behind Wiggin. He’s stuck on other side of the fence, separated from the friend he’s stayed beside every step of the way; he can’t follow Pearson where he goes next. T-E-A-R-S.
Up Next: I Will Buy You, a Japanese film I discovered by accident while exploring the Criterion site.
Jimmy: “Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up. You can’t deny that.”
Dottie: “It just got too hard.”
Jimmy: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
A League of Their Own is a classic. It’s synonymous with the genre, as evidenced by the fact that — and this surprised me — it is by far the film people mentioned most when they heard or read that I was doing this. It belongs on any list of the greatest baseball movies worth its salt.
Sure, just about every aspect of film’s production gets pretty cheesy at times, but the film has so much going for it.
The Rockford Peaches may be the most well-drawn team in the pantheon of baseball cinema. I’d say it’s definitely the best written team of adults, as the competition would come from The Bad News Bears and The Sandlot. The Rockford Peaches clubhouse is populated by people, not lazy clichés. I’m not saying they aren’t based on clichés, they definitely are, but the writing works well enough, and the performances add enough extra depth, that the women aren’t cookie cutter dialogue machines. It’s believable you could grab a drink with these players.
Jimmy Dugan is one of Hanks’s best and most loved performances, which is no small feat. He is the quintessential washed up baseball star whose vices have dragged down from his pedestal too soon. His arc, from drunk showing up for a paycheck to invested coach who loves his team, is satisfyingly believable. And let us not forget, “There’s no crying in baseball!” isn’t just one of the most best lines in any baseball movie, it’s genuinely iconic in all of film history.
Dugan is also the last of Hanks’s broad comedic roles. He still made comedies, but his over the top persona gave way to quieter, more nuanced characters. [Woody has some moments in the Toy Story films that come the closest to that old energy.]
Geena Davis breathes a badass energy into Dottie. Her greatness is believable. She’s tough, she’s got ice water in her veins, and she’s head and shoulders better than any other player in the league. [At 6′ tall, she’s also literally head and shoulders above any other player in the league.]
Dottie’s story has made me sad and angry — sangry? — ever since I saw the movie for the first time as a 10-year-old. [She dropped the ball on purpose to let her sister win!?!?!?!!] As much as A League of Their Own is a sweet, charming homage to the game, it’s impossible for me to feel that it isn’t also a tragedy. Dottie’s story has always broken my heart.
Dottie continually diminishes her own considerable strength and talent, ostensibly for two primary reasons.
In part, she is forced to do so because her sister, Kit, is too immature to be treated like an adult. Kit can’t even be relieved in a game without throwing a temper tantrum. Her arm was gassed, it would have been time for any pitcher to be pulled from the game. Yet she acted like her sister was guilty of profound betrayal, simply because Dottie did what any catcher should do in that situation. There are eight other Peaches on the field, and the league wasn’t created to cater to her feelings, but she can only see herself. [Blerg! Grow the fuck up, Kit!] Even my wife’s takeaway — and mind you, she is no passionate baseball devotee — was that Kit acted like a child who didn’t respect the game.
But Kit isn’t the only excuse Dottie hides behind. With her husband returned from the war, she quits the game to start a family. We’ve been given absolutely zero indication that her husband has asked her to quit, or disapproves of her playing; it is never confirmed that it would unfeasible to start a family and continue to play; but still, she walks away. She’s the best at what she does, she comes alive playing the game in a way that’s unique from any other facet of her life, but she’s always looking for a reason to quit. A story about a person who didn’t lean into such a singular talent, and who continually sabotaged her potential, is a sad story.
And then I realize that women have always been expected to hang up their cleats when the time comes to start and care for a family. When phenom hitter Marla Hooch falls in love, she quits the league and gets married. No questions asked. All must be sacrificed at the altar of “traditional family values,” as it would later come to be known.
Perhaps Dottie is continually trying to manufacture reasons to walk away, to never truly let her love of the game take over, because she knows it will all be taken away from her in the end. Her husband never asks her to quit, but maybe she can’t bring herself to ask, to hope that she might be able to hold onto a family and baseball. She’s trying to shield herself from heartbreak.
How could you not be sangry?
Up Next: Bang the Drum Slowly, the film that began the ascendancy of Robert De Niro (it came out just before Mean Streets).
Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order buy wins, you need to buys runs.
To put it simply, Moneyball is a great movie. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are excellent, and Bennett Miller’s direction combines with a script by the legendary Aaron Sorkin to create a perfectly paced, engaging, eminently watchable film.
As for the facts, it’s hit-and-miss, with an emphasis on miss. Many of the changes make sense. It’s simpler to create a lone character — Hill’s Peter Brand — as an amalgam of the team of advisors at the heart of the A’s moneyball strategy. And it’s more satisfying to remove nuance and celebrate Billy Beane’s devil-may-care innovation that pioneered analytics in baseball, precipitating a dramatic shift as to how teams evaluate players.
Beane and the A’s were absolutely part of the inception of a new era, but it was a much smaller, far more mixed role than the book and movie imply. It depicts the A’s as a team betting on brand new strategies that the rest of the idiots running teams rejected out of hand until they saw the A’s success. In reality, sabermetrics (the general name for the sort of analysis seen in the film) was being utilized by teams to varying degrees by all of baseball since the 90s. Don’t get me wrong, Beane has done great work in his career. That’s clearly evidenced by the fact that he was the A’s general manager for 18 years, before becoming executive vice president of baseball operations in 2016. Being a general manager in baseball is often a thankless job, and 16 years is an impressive length of time to keep the job for the same team. In the current era, Beane’s tenure is surpassed only by Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s 22 years on the job. He’s a talented front office executive, he’s just not the unqualified genius pioneer the movie depicts.
A really great description of the exaggeration of Beane and the A’s role in the rise of sabermetrics, in far more detail, is Allan Barra’s writeup for the Atlantic back in 2011.
For my money, the most egregious omission in the film was leaving out the players who played the biggest role in the team’s success during that period. For one, the primary reason for that team’s success was the pitching of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. They were a fearsome, unrivaled 1-2-3 punch giving the team a favorable pitching matchup for 60% of their games. And then there’s Miguel Tejada, an MVP who was the heart of the A’s offense for the entire era of perennial playoff appearances.
Again, I love the movie. But it seems important to separate fact from fiction in the myth of Billy Beane.
Up next: A League of Their Own, one of the best loved baseball movies of all time.
Sometimes, when you feel right, there’s a groove there, and the bat just eases into it and meets that ball. When the bat meets that ball and you feel that ball just give, you know it’s going to go a long way. Damn, if you don’t feel like you’re going to live forever.
Eight Men Out is about the Chicago Black Sox, a team most of us learned about when their ghosts walked out of a cornfield in Iowa in Field of Dreams.
In 1919, seven members of the greatest team in the world agreed to take money in exchange for throwing the World Series. When the conspiracy eventually came to light, all seven players were banned for life. Buck Weaver was also banned, even though he played well in the series and didn’t take any money. He was exiled just the same for knowing about the plot and not informing anyone. His ban had less to do with his actions, and more to do with a league trying to save face in the wake of a scandal so severe it had the power to undermine the legitimacy of the entire institution.
Critics really love this film, which confuses me. It’s not a bad film, but such effusive praise seems misplaced. There’s some solid camerawork, and a few standout performances, but overall the film is really ham-fisted and clumsy. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety throughout, from the writing to the majority of the acting. I felt like there was a lot of tell, and very little show. Perhaps it’s just a style I’m not partial to. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Either way, the story is a captivating illustration of the economic realities in America, both then and now.
What the players did was unquestionably wrong. I’d normally argue against most conceptions of the so-called “purity” of baseball, but even on my short list, intentionally losing games for money is a desecration.
However, the story here is just as much about the circumstances that precipitated the crime as it is the crime itself. If the economics of the game hadn’t been rigged against the players in the first place, the whole thing likely never would have happened.
Then, as is still true today, the people responsible for revenue are not the ones who profit from it. The players were the reason people bought tickets to see the game, but they were paid very little while White Sox owner Charles Comiskey made a fortune. Functionally, they weren’t men being paid commensurately for their skill and talent, they were a product being exploited to make the rich richer.
The unfair power dynamic is also clear in that the players were banned for life for defrauding the game. And yet, while trying to minimize the fallout, Comiskey committed well-documented fraud, in conspiracy with other owners, and faced no consequences.
It’s a microcosm of the economic realities in America at the time, and the dynamic is stronger now than ever. It’s true economically — instead of being paid market value for our skills and abilities, the result of our labor primarily benefits an elite group who hold all the cards. And it’s true in terms of accountability. If I get caught conning you, I go to prison. If corporations and billionaires get caught conning the world, the worst case scenario is they get their wrists slapped and write themselves billions of dollars in severance checks.
I get that this may seem too political for this series. Playful was my intended tone when I started this whole thing. After all, I’m just following through on the ridiculous decision to watch 30 baseball movies in 30 days, because I couldn’t handle the start of April without the game. It’s reasonable to assume I’d avoid discussing anything polarizing. But I’m just going where the movies take me. As these films are immediately compared and contrasted with one another due to my daily viewing schedule, the corrupt economics of the game becomes an clear a thread I can’t ignore.
A conversation on economics isn’t coming out of left field [rim shot]. Baseball reflects the country, and economic disparity has been a part of the game for the near entirety of its history. It’s not just depicted in films indicting the game, it’s also referenced in films heralding its enduring beauty. With each passing movie, it got harder and harder to avoid the topic altogether.
I love baseball, but I can’t ignore the fact that the institution is synonymous with exploitation.
So, go ahead and call me a socialist, claiming to do so in the so-called capitalism. But if I’m criticizing the economic realities listed above, the system I’m criticizing isn’t capitalism, but aristocracy.
Up Next: Let’s leave behind talk of economics as we watch: [reads card] Moneyball. Okay, nevermind then. Let’s keep talking about wealth gaps.
Show me what you’re made of, why don’t ya?
The Phenom is another film in this series you should watch even if you don’t enjoy baseball.
The story follows Hopper Gibson, a young pitcher wrestling with the impact his abusive father has on his life and his relationship with the game. Writer-director Noah Buschel has created something really special. Combined with powerful performances by Johnny Simmons and Ethan Hawke, as the father and son, the result can be hard to watch. The weight of the contempt and emotional violence is visceral.
I have no idea what sort of research and life experience works at the core Buschel’s script, but his depiction of weathering that sort of abuse is so accurate to reality. It’s clearly rooted in either personal experience, or deep empathy — perhaps both. That’s also true of the performances. Hawke’s portrayal of limitless contempt for his son, contempt that only increases as his son achieves things personally and professionally that escape him, looks exactly how it did in my own life. And on the other side, Simmons perfectly reflected back to me the experience of having to keep your head down and ride out a firestorm of emotional violence once it gets going. You only hope to avoid doing something to escalate it, but often acquiescence itself fuels the rage as it burns hotter and hotter until it elicits a response. You can see in his performance the portrayal of the way trauma can become commonplace. It’s not that it ever stops hurting, it’s just that the pain becomes the expected climate of your life.
It’s always laudable when a film gets the details right when it’s depicting something you have a lot experience with. This is especially true when the subject matter is associated with personal trauma. I’m grateful for this film.
And as a bonus, the baseball is really authentic, too!
Fun fact: The film has a musical theme, but it’s entirely diegetic, i.e. all the music in the film comes from sources within the film. So we hear the theme as organ music at a game, or when someone is whistling, or on the radio.
Up Next: Eight Men Out, the story of eight players given a lifetime ban from baseball for their role in throwing the 1919 World Series.
This guy’s the out you’ve been waiting your whole life for.
I’m going to be honest with you friends, I don’t really like this movie. I don’t hate it, I just don’t adore it the way most baseball fans seem to. There are a sizable percentage of fans who list this as their #1 all-time favorite baseball movie. It wouldn’t be in my top ten [I think it’s genuinely blasphemous to call it the best, but I’ll explain that later this month, because I’m saving the best for last.]
So, if you’re among the film’s many devoted fans, I’d ask you to look away. I don’t want to be the guy who shits on something you love without invitation. Let’s just agree to disagree on this one. See you next post.
Still here? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Major League is a light, baseball themed 80s comedy that does exactly what it sets out to do. Like most 80s comedies, it’s got several fun, likable characters who don’t really have arcs as much as isolated comedic situations that somehow, through the goodwill of the audience, resolve into something resembling a satisfying conclusion.
Does anyone’s growth from the beginning of the film to the end make sense? No. Do people expect it to in your average 80s comedy. Also, no.
However, the racism against indigenous peoples is turned waaaaaay up past eleven. It’s a given from the outset, when the central team is called the Indians and has a mascot named Chief Wahoo. But they really get after it over the course of this movie. That part of the film didn’t age well, which is good, because it shouldn’t have been ok in the 80s, either.
Then there was the gross dynamic of the central relationship between protagonist Jake Taylor and ex-girlfiend Lynn Wells.
Their love story: Jake comes back to Cleveland, where he knows Lynn lives. He makes no attempt to look her up until he sees her at a restaurant with another guy. Instead of approaching her at her table to say hello, he fakes a phone call as way to talk to her away from her date, so he can tell her he’s moved back to town. I guess he’s assuming she’ll immediately drop everything to be with him again. He asks her for her number, and refuses to accept her answer when she says no. She gives him a fake number, because she doesn’t want to talk to him. He then arrives, unsolicited, at her place of work. She tells him she doesn’t want to talk to him, because he was a cheating asshole when they were together. After that, he apologizes, acknowledges he was the one who fucked things up between them, tells her she deserves all the happiness in the world, and then respects her wishes by leaving her alone. He moves on with his own life, taking with him the lessons he’s learned after his own behavior has driven away the woman he loved. LULZ, jk. He totally ignores what she’s saying, and continues to harass her. He doesn’t know where she lives. Because she didn’t tell him! Because she didn’t want him to know where she lived!! Because she DOESN’T WANT TO TALK TO HIM! So he follows her car home to find out where her apartment is. He does this TWICE, because the first time he accidentally went to her fiancé’s apartment! The second time he follows her home, she cheats on her fiancé with him. Which, okay, in other circumstances, having hate sex with an ex you have a lot of chemistry with before you get married makes sense. But with the guy who’s been stalking you for the last few months?! After that, with absolutely no further interactions, she abruptly leaves her fiancé, and shows up at the game to be in love with Jake Taylor forever. Even though he’s done absolutely nothing to show he’s grown up at all. He’s merely stalked her, disregarded her wishes – because ‘no’ means ‘probably’ – and ignored her relationship with another man, because he wanted her so it doesn’t matter that she’s in a relationship with another adult. Oh, and then, even though only three men on the team could possibly know who she is, because again, Jake and Lynn don’t have an actual relationship, she is carried onto the field after the game and celebrated by the team just as much as the pennant. Freeze frame. The end.
To use a Liz Lemonism: Whuck?
Major League has better moments. Wild Thing Vaughn and Willie Mays Hayes are silly 80s comedic characters of the highest order, back when Sheen and Snipes were still relatively normal, or at least we didn’t know they were fame-monsters, yet. The two characters are also the most authentic baseball personalities in the film. Intentional caricatures, to be sure, but they felt like baseball to me, if that makes any sense… probably not.
But, for the most part, the movie falls into the same traps as many 80s comedies: it’s largely a juvenile male fantasy where characters are mostly just cartoons whose personalities are made of up a series of one-liners, with plenty of racism and misogyny spread throughout.
Wow. That got waaaaay more critical than I anticipated once I got going.
Up Next: A gem many people have never heard of, 2016’s The Phenom. It’s about a wildly talented rookie pitcher in the midst of a breakdown. Spoiler alert: The post is going to include me recommending you watch it.
You told me once, “A man has to know where he’s goin’!” Where are you goin’, Monty?
I finally liked a baseball movie from the 40s or 50s!
In The Stratton Story, Jimmy Stewart plays real life pitcher Monty Stratton, whose burgeoning career was cut short when he lost his right leg in a hunting accident in 1938. At 26 years old, his career as a superstar was over. But Stratton trained himself to pitch on his prosthetic, and eventually played in the minors from 1946 to 1953. If there was ever a story deserving a film adaptation, this is that fucking story!
An athlete’s skill is often exaggerated on the way to a big screen adaption. Elite talent plays better in a story like this, so Hollywood has been known to fudge the numbers a bit. In this case, no exaggeration was necessary. Stratton was the real deal. As a 25-year-old, he won 15 of his 21 starts, pitching to a 2.40 ERA and an MLB leading WHIP of 1.087. He was 25!!
It’s heartbreaking to think of a kid with that much promise cut down by a freak accident. But what might have ended as a tragedy became a story about the triumph of the human spirit overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s true. The guy lost his leg, and eight full years later he returned to pitch at the professional level. Even with all their appendages, it’s an unlikely story for a player to leave the game and return to professional play eight years later. I wouldn’t believe Stratton’s story in a purely fictional film, but he actually did it! He never achieved sustained success at any level after his return, but getting paid to pitch for seven more years under those circumstances is remarkable
I didn’t expect much going into this one, but it was far superior to more celebrated baseball films of the era. It transcended those films because the emotional cues were richer and more authentic. I cared about these characters.
The core of the film is Stratton’s relationship with his wife, Ethel. If that hadn’t worked, nothing could have saved the film, but it really, really worked. In far too many films, the character of Ethel would have been a two-dimensional foil for Stewart to play off of as he fights his way back from the edge of despair. In The Stratton Story, Monty becomes more of a side character through the end of the second act, as we follow the emotional toll on Ethel as she tries to keep things together and help her husband remember who he is. Her character is still primarily played in terms of her husband’s story, but she’s a three-dimensional character whose worth doesn’t derive from him. She loves him, and fights against the hopelessness shadowing her family after the accident. June Allyson crushes it in the role, and I don’t think the film would have worked without her.
Unfortunately, they didn’t stick the landing. Stratton’s return to baseball is illustrated through his first game back on the mound. The game is overly contrived, doesn’t make any sense, and undermines the power of what Monty Stratton actually accomplished. The film depicts superhuman success, where Stratton is able to overcome one obstacle after another as he pitches, fields bunts, and knocks in game winning RBI. What he did was already amazing. There was no need to fabricate this sort of performance.
This crime of a finale reaches its denouement with the film’s final line (which is delivered by a disembodied narrator that I guess is meant to be a sportscaster). I don’t even remember the actual wordage, but it’s painfully overwritten nonsense hammering home the fact that Monty Stratton was courageous and inspiring. We just watched an entire film showing us that. Then, as if we haven’t gotten the point, they fabricate an impossibly successful return to the mound in a game full of scenarios that make absolutely no sense on a baseball field. Then, in case we still haven’t gotten it yet, they basically just tell us, word for word, what the takeaway about ole’ Monty Stratton was meant to be.
I have no idea what the real story is, but it felt like someone wrote a great movie, and then the studio was like, “Yeah, but do you think the audience will understand what you’re trying to say? Let’s really nail it home! I want to make sure everyone leaves knowing they are supposed to be impressed by Monty Stratton. You’ve gotta lay it on thicker!”
That was a long complaint, but even so, I enjoyed the rest of the film enough that I’m really glad I added it to the list.
Also, I couldn’t write this whole post without pointing out that Jimmy Stewart joins Cooper and Redford in the ridiculous club of old men playing baseball prospects. A 41-year-old Stewart played a man who was only 26 when he lost his leg. Stratton was only 42 years old when he retired the second time. And yet, we have Stewart playing a 21-year-old early in the film, and he was older than Stratton was at any point in the story. What is the deal with this phenomenon in baseball movies?!
On the other hand, with the notable exception of the final game (ugh), the movie was better at depicting baseball than others of the time. Baseball movies from the 40s and 50s — at least the ones I’ve seen — play really fast and loose with the details of the game itself. That being the case, I was shocked and impressed that in scenes with Stratton on the mound, Stewart pitched from the stretch with runners on base! It’s a detail that would be expected these days, in the age of hyper-criticism. But in 1949, it speaks to an admirable commitment to respect the player and the game. Perhaps I’m the only person alive who cares about this detail, but I audibly reacted the first time it happened, and I was watching the film alone.
Up Next: The 80s baseball classic, Major League.