At Hydra Publications, our writers have many interests. Tom Wallace, author of the Jack Dantzler mystery series, is a long time sports journalist. With both baseball and the summer movie season in full swing (see what I did there?) we asked Tom to share his thoughts on baseball in the movies, the early years.
When it comes to sports movies there is no question that boxing has been treated best by the Hollywood yokels. It began with the 1920s silent version of “The Champ,” which was sentimental mush but not a bad movie. However, things really started to go uphill with “City for Conquest,” a Cagney movie released in 1940. Since then there have been a slew of excellent flicks about pugilism. Some of the better ones are “Body and Soul,” “Champion,” “The Set-Up,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Great White Hope,” “Rocky,” (an OK flick, but how in the world did it win the Best Picture Oscar over “Taxi Driver”?) and “Raging Bull,” by far the greatest of them all.
There are others, but my purpose with this piece is to look at how poorly baseball was portrayed during the early Hollywood decades. (Forget basketball and football; those two sports have hardly been represented at all in movies.) Until the early 1970s, beginning with the marvelous “Bang the Drum Slowly,” baseball movies were not only bad, they were oftentimes hilariously so.
Following on the heels of that movie some really terrific ones hit the big screen, including “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” “Bad News Bears,” (the original with Walter Matthau), “The Natural,” “Eight Men Out,” “Bull Durham,” (my personal favorite because Kevin Costner is the best baseball actor ever, and because the movie was written and directed by Ron Shelton, who played professionally in the Baltimore Orioles organization), “Major League,” “Field of Dreams,” (the only flaw in this movie is that Ray Liotta throws left-handed and bats right-handed while the character he is portraying, Shoeless Joe Jackson, threw right-handed and hit from the left side), “A League of Their Own,” (making Rosie O’Donnell look like a terrific player is a marvel of great editing!), “Cobb,” “61*,” Moneyball,” and “Trouble with the Curve.”
Now, admittedly, not all of those movies are great. But then, how many movies of any genre are truly great? Only a handful is my answer.
But those movies had some wonderful casting. As stated earlier, Costner just looks like he knows his way around a baseball diamond. And Robert Redford, “The Natural” star, did play baseball as a young boy, and was, in fact, once a teammate of Dodgers’ great Don Drysdale. Redford idolized Ted Williams, even to the point of trying to copy The Splendid Splinter’s swing. And in a final tribute to Williams, Redford wore uniform number 9, Ted’s number, in the movie.
(Note: Kurt Russell did play professional baseball and might have made it to the Big Show had he not sustained a career-ending injury. So, while Costner is believable as an actor playing a baseball player, Russell is/was the real deal.)
It’s certainly not a stretch to envision Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff and irascible Ty Cobb. And believe it or not, Charlie Sheen was a fine baseball player as a teenager, so he came across as very believable in both “Eight Men Out” and as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in “Major League.” Also, in “Eight Men Out,” actor D.B. Sweeney played Shoeless Joe Jackson correctly—throw right, bat lefty.
OK, good stuff aside let’s now turn to the clunkers, all of which are genuine baseball errors committed by the Hollywood writers and directors.
I’m going to begin with a movie that most people love and critics generally accord it four stars. (Dissing this movie is especially painful for me, a life-long New York Yankees fan whose first book report was about the player at the center of this story—Lou Gehrig.)
Yes, I’m talking about “Pride of the Yankees.”
But let’s be brutally honest here—from a baseball perspective, it’s a lousy movie. We love it only because it revolves around the magnificent Gehrig, baseball’s great Greek tragic hero. Yes, there’s a nice love story between him and his wife, but would this movie touch us at all if it was about anyone other than Lou Gehrig? Doubtful, I say.
But what really makes it a bummer is the casting of Gary Cooper as Gehrig. Cooper was an OK actor, but he damn sure wasn’t a baseball player. In fact, he was so stiff he looked less like Gehrig and more like Frankenstein when running around the bases. And he absolutely could not come off as natural when throwing and hitting left-handed, like Gehrig did. In a 1956 interview, Cooper even said the baseball scenes were shot with him throwing and batting right-handed, then reversed. (Later, this story was debunked.)
On a good day, I’ll reluctantly give “Pride of the Yankees” three stars. And I’m only that generous because of my love for Lou Gehrig.
There were two OK baseball movies that did feature fine actors. The first would be James Stewart in “The Monty Stratton Story.” Monty was an all-star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox until he blew his leg off while out hunting. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and did make a comeback. However, he never again reached the big leagues.
Stewart is always fun to watch, but the movie is really more about him than it is about baseball. Two and a half stars is my rating.
“Fear Strikes Out,” the story of Jim Piersall’s mental unraveling, could have been a terrific movie had someone other than Anthony Perkins played the lead role. Don’t get me wrong—Perkins was a solid actor. But he, like Cooper, simply wasn’t a baseball player. In the dramatic scenes when Piersall’s bipolar disorder takes flight, Perkins is extremely good. But in trying to imitate the right-handed Piersall, Perkins, a true lefty, looked more than a little awkward when throwing and batting right-handed.
If you’re willing to overlook the non-athletic Perkins and focus on his acting, this is a decent movie to watch. Three stars.
Somewhere near but not at the bottom is “The Winning Team,” which starred Ronald Reagan as pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. I rate it as a mediocre flick at best, and another bit of absurd casting.
That brings us to these final two baseball duds—“The Babe Ruth Story” and “The Pride of St. Louis.”
William Bendix as the Babe? Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean? Are you kidding me? Talk about ludicrous. Jeez. The movie executives who gave the green light to those casting choices should have been fired on the spot. Or beaned with a high, hard fastball.
I would believe Meryl Streep as Babe Ruth or Dizzy Dean before I’d believe Bendix or Dailey. Unless you’re looking for a good comedy and can’t find an old Marx Brothers movie or one featuring W.C. Fields, stay miles away from these two baseball biopics.
Hey, how about Fields as Babe Ruth and Groucho Marx as Dizzy Dean? That works for me. It would darn sure be a lot more interesting and fun to watch.