Baseball and Film: America's Pastime meets America's Passion

by Dr. Andrew C. Lannen

Though derived from the English game of "rounders," baseball has nevertheless long had a distinctly American feel to it. America's claim to the game was formally enshrined in the early 20th century with the promulgation and widespread acceptance of the Abner Doubleday myth in 1907. According to professional baseball, Doubleday had single-handedly created the game from scratch in 1839. Despite Doubleday never mentioning this to anyone in his lifetime, he could not object to this conclusion since he had passed away in 1893.

Even before this, though, public sentiment claimed that game as American. Late nineteenth century audiences thrilled to the exploits of local clubs, and curious onlookers paid to see exhibition games staged by touring professional baseball teams like the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Ernest Thayer's famous 1888 poem"~Casey at the Bat" eloquently expressed the emotional currency that fans invested in game in the fictional town of Mudville, whose joy died out when their hero Casey struck out with the game on the line.

Unsurprisingly, then, when Thomas Edison and other inventors began experimenting with motion pictures in the 1880s and 1890s, a popular early subject was baseball. The first known film was a short 1898 Edison feature called The Ball Game. The following year, Edison produced a visual adaptation of Thayer's popular poem. Several early motion pictures even explored the interest of women in playing baseball, a topic soon dropped by filmmakers and mostly ignored until 1992's A League of their Own. Before film, baseball was limited to the mere thousands that could be packed into individual ballparks. By the early 20th century, the sport could reach tens of millions of people in local theaters in every town and city. America's pastime, baseball, had met and fallen in love with America's passion, the cinema.

By the 1920s, both baseball and movies dominated American popular culture, and they fed on each other's popularity. The excitement of baseball helped to generate newsreels, short films, and fictional features, which in turn sparked more interest in the sport. The most direct tie between the two cultural megaliths was Babe Ruth. In the late 1910s and 1920s, Ruth became perhaps the most famous sports figure in history. In 1920, he made the jump to the silver screen in Heading Home, where he played a hometown baseball hero appropriately named "Babe." Over the next 22 years, he played himself in six more short films and three full length features. Jackie Robinson tried to make a similar crossover in 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story, about his transition from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers and the re-integration of the major leagues. Unfortunately, Robinson showed why he had a long term contract with the Dodgers rather than with MGM. What should have been a dramatic and stirring story about overcoming tremendous odds was instead dragged down by wooden acting and cheap settings. Despite that setback, players continue to show up in Hollywood releases, though now largely in bit parts.

For most of the 20th century, baseball as inspiration was in vogue. Players overcame hardships, or faced down tragedy with grace, as in Pride of the Yankees (1942). Gary Cooper played the role of real-life Yankee Lou Gehrig, who died at age 37 from a muscular disease, just a year before the film's release. Delivering the dying Gehrig's farewell speech in front of a packed stadium, Cooper delivered one of the most memorable lines in cinema history: "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." In a similar vein, the novel Bang The Drum Slowly portrayed the moving friendship between two teammates as one wasted away and died during their final season together. The story struck such a chord in audiences that it was adapted into movie form twice, once for television (1956) and once for theatres (1973).

In a more upbeat film, The Rookie (2002) cast Dennis Quaid as a former minor league pitcher and high school teacher whose students convince him to tryout for the major leagues. Based on the true story of Jimmy Morris of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he went on to become a 35-year old rookie, the oldest in decades. Morris' true life story parallels an earlier inspirational box office smash, The Natural (1984). In this feature, Robert Redford played Roy Hobbs, a teen phenom who disappeared for a couple of decades after being shot by an obsessed fan. In his 30s, Hobbs traveled to New York to tryout for the big leagues, becoming a aged rookie and leading his team to the pennant. Sometimes life truly does imitate art, though imperfectly since the Devil Rays have never had a winning season, let alone a pennant.

Some baseball films today still stress the game's ability to unite those of disparate backgrounds. A standard cliche in Hollywood is the team of misfits and outcasts who learn to play as a team, leading to success both in baseball and in life. Examples are too numerous to mention them all, but a few notable recent efforts include Major League (1991), Hardball (2001), and the 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears (the superior original came out in 1976). Baseball's ability to be a universal ambassador for peace and goodwill is, from Hollywood's perspective, limitless. It could even manage to overcome decades of hostility between nations, as in 1992's Comrades of Summer, set in the Cold War Soviet Union. Communist leaders recruit a washed up manager from the United States to coach a Soviet baseball team, teaching them not only the sport, but also how to be like Americans. In Field of Dreams (1989), baseball miraculously managed to unite both the living and dead devotees of the sport. No brain eating zombies here-just ghosts of baseball's past who convince a farmer to build a baseball diamond over his corn so that they could return from beyond the grave for another chance to play.

Starting in the 1980s, though, Hollywood began taking a much more in-depth and nuanced look at the all too flawed human beings that played or still play the game. Two major pictures, Eight Men Out (1988) and Cobb (1994) turned their focus to some of the -game's most famous, or infamous, figures. Eight Men Out recounts the story of the "Black Sox" scandal where several members of the Chicago White Sox took bribes in return for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series. The players in this rendition of the event are neither infallible heroes nor diabolical villains, but rather just average men who made poor decisions under pressure. Cobb, which is based on an official biography, investigates the personality of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, one of the greatest (and most hated) players ever. In the film, as in real life, Cobb throws insults and punches with nearly as much frequency as he does baseballs, making him unpopular with fellow players and fans alike. For from feeling any sense of remorse or shame, Cobb revels in the attention. If the spotlight shone on him, it was proof of his greatness. The anti-hero replaces the hero.

Even one of the most beloved baseball movies of recent decades, Bull Durham (1988), takes a more equivocal stance. Not toward the game-for which the film exudes love from beginning to end-but toward the players. The rookie hotshot pitcher Nuke LaLoosh initially cares little about anything except filling his petty desires. He sees baseball as just a tool to get what he wants, but slowly changes his outlook under the tutelage of wizened catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who managed to make it to the big leagues for only a few days in a long minor league career. Despite his mentorship, though, Davis too is profoundly imperfect: cynical, distrustful, and more than a bit jealous. This skeptical look at players might in part stem from the sport's labor problems in the 1970s and 1980s. The next generation of baseball films might continue down that path as the current doping scandals begin working their way into screenplays. One thing is certain. People will buy tickets to watch baseball-in person and on the big screen. Some fans are happy, others are disappointed, many more are angry about the current state of the sport, but they still pay attention. No matter the scandal of the day, those who love baseball will always search to find the best in it and preserve that for the future.


Dr. Lannen's Top 10 Baseball Feature Films

1. A League of Their Own (1992)

An insightful look into the then largely forgotten woman's baseball league established to keep the national pastime going during World War II.   Focusing on the tensions between men and women, it also manages to communicate a common love for baseball from both sexes. Tom Hanks shines as a drunken, crotchety, resentful manager (based on real life player and manager Jimmie Foxx) who slowly gets won over by his female players.

2. Bull Durham (1988)

It is rare to find quality feature films set in the minor leagues, but that is the only workable setting for this humorous story of a rookie hotshot pitcher (Tim Robbins) who must learn about the game of baseball both off and on the field. His teachers are an aging catcher (Kevin Costner) and a wise groupie (Susan Sarandon). A fine cast, good dialogue, and biting wit raise this film far above the typical passing-of-the-generations story.

3. Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Tells the tragic story of Lou Gehrig (played by Gary Cooper), who was struck with a fatal muscular disease and died in 1941 before reaching his 39 th birthday. The movie's instant popularity was driven not only by the memory of Gehrig's dignity in his last days, but also by the outbreak of World War II and the nation's need for an "everyman" hero. Interesting to note is the appearance of several Yankees, including Babe Ruth, playing themselves. Though the film was made quickly and could not fully anticipate Gehrig's legacy, it has held up remarkably well over the decades.

4. Field of Dreams (1989)

With big baseball movies in back-to-back years (see #2), Kevin Costner here established himself as the reigning king of the onscreen diamond. Much more somber in tone, this effort has Costner's Mr. Average compelled to build a baseball field in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. The field summons ghosts from the past, lead by Chicago White Sox player Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned for life for helping to rig the 1919 World Series.   Based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P Kinsella.

5. Eight Men Out (1988)

A gripping and evenhanded look at the aforementioned rigging scandal, and based on Eliot Asinof's 1963 book and the "Black Sox" scandal. Faced with a stingy and unpleasant owner, several members of the heavily favored White Sox agreed to take bribes from gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. A strong set performances all around, in particular John Cusack as Buck Weaver, who decided not to participate in the sabotage but still received a lifetime ban for not informing baseball officials.

6. The Natural (1984)

Based loosely on Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel of the same name. The story revolves around Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a teenaged baseball phenomenon who vanishes mysteriously for a decade and a half before becoming a rookie in his mid-30s. His play helps the fictional New York Knights win the pennant while various antagonists probe into his mysterious missing years. Though at times reflection the dark tone of the original novel, it manages one of the best ever "feel good" endings in sport film history.

7. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

Also based on the 1956 novel of the same name, it follows the friendship between two teammates, a star pitcher and his catcher.   The catcher reveals that he is dying, and together the two work their way through the season while coping with the impending end of their relationship. Before being typecast as "tough guy" in Hollywood, Robert DeNiro's turn as the dying half of the duo shows his immense talent.   The film pushes all the right emotional buttons without becoming heavy-handed.

8. Cobb (1994)

A biopic of Ty Cobb, the self-proclaimed most hated man in baseball. A bona fide superstar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cobb (played by Tommy Lee Jones) had a personality that not even a mother could love. Though in his late 40s at the time of filming, Jones successfully manages to convey Cobb's unique disposition in flashbacks as the aged Cobb tells his story to Al Stump (Robert Wuhl), his real-life official biographer.

9. 61* (2001)

Another feel-good film, this one directed for TV by Billy Crystal. Despite this, the production values are superb. Using an ensemble cast, the film explores the chaos swirling around Roger Maris' 1961 chase of Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs. Through Maris hit 61 home runs that season to break the record, the commissioner ruled that it would have an asterisk next to it in the record books since Ruth had hit his in a 154 game season, which had 162 games.

10. The Bad News Bears (1976)

Not path breaking, but entertaining and highly relevant when first released. Much of the film is well-executed variation on a familiar sports movie cliché: a team of oddballs and misfits who learn to work together to achieve success.   Walter Matthau gives an endearing rendition of yet another sports movie cliché - the drunken and cantankerous coach who eventually reveals a heart of gold. The most interesting wrinkle in this film is the addition of a female pitcher (Tatum O'Neal). After years of legal fights, Little League finally started admitting girls in 1974, just two years before the picture's release. Followed by two sequels which can safely be avoided.