Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame second baseman second only to fellow Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in career batting average, once said, "People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball. I tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." The right-handed slugger, who remains the only player to combine a .400 batting average with 40 or more home runs in the same season (1922, the year he won the first of his two Triple Crowns), also never went to the movies (or read books), claiming that it would harm his eyesight.
Well, spring is here, and we have no baseball because of the ongoing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, and given its novelty and presumptive early stages, it is anyone's guess when baseball (let alone any social activity involving two or more persons in proximity to each other) will return. But instead of staring out the window, you can get your baseball fix by watching movies about the national pastime.
Perhaps more so than any other team sport, baseball's very nature—contemplative and anticipatory, individualistically focused, with the unlikeliest reversals of fortune—lends itself not only to drama, but to drama that is captured effectively by the moving camera. That might sound ironic given that the age-old knock against baseball is that nothing ever happens, that players just stand around waiting for something to happen, which has prodded Major League Baseball to implement "adjustments" designed to speed up the pace of play.
Whether those will be successful remains to be seen. However, "pace of play" is not the same as baseball's mode of play, which has remained essentially the same since 1839, when Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, now the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum—
—All right, you caught me. No, Doubleday didn't invent baseball, but that myth, which may still persist among the uninitiated, exemplifies the storytelling, colorful, prone to embellishment if not outright exaggeration, that has been emblematic of baseball since before movies were invented.
Baseball fans, even casual ones, know that something does happen on the diamond, that action occurs in concentrated doses in between those bouts of "standing around"—but that "standing around" is nevertheless filled with contemplation: What will happen next? What will the consequences be? Not coincidentally, those are also the hallmarks of movie-making, of the many variations of the setup and the payoff in building an engaging dramatic (or comedic) narrative.
Central to baseball's mode of play is the pitcher-hitter confrontation, with the pitcher trying to get the hitter out and the hitter, naturally, trying to avoid that outcome by getting on base, and thus to score runs. There is potential action—and inherent drama—hanging on every pitch, and depending on the game situation, let alone the magnitude of the game itself, that drama can be magnified to cinematic proportions.
How is this for magnitude: In 2004, the Boston Red Sox, playing at home in Fenway Park, have dropped the first three games of the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees, their adversaries in the most storied rivalry in baseball, the same Yankees who in Game Seven of the ALCS from the previous year had foiled Boston's hopes to return to the World Series for the first time since 1986 with—cue the slow-motion cameras—Aaron Boone's dramatic walk-off home run off Tim Wakefield.
Now, in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, the Red Sox face elimination going into the bottom of the ninth inning, down one run in a 4–3 game with leadoff hitter Kevin Millar having to face the Yankees' ace closer Mariano Rivera. Lo, Millar is able to work a walk off the "Sandman," and he is lifted for pinch-runner Dave Roberts—with everybody in the world, certainly Rivera, knowing that Roberts's job was to steal second base.
He did, off the greatest relief pitcher in Major League history, enabling Bill Mueller to single him home to tie the game, which the Red Sox won in extra innings on David Ortiz's twelfth-inning, two-run home run blast. From there, the Red Sox became the only MLB team ever to win a seven-game postseason series after losing the first three games, and then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series victory since Babe Ruth blew town—for New York and the Yankees—in 1918. Talk about drama.
And as Roberts was stealing the most famous base in Red Sox history, how many viewers were reminded of Benny "the Jet" Rodriguez (played by Pablo Vitar as the adult Benny) stealing the one base he had to steal in the 1993 movie The Sandlot?
It's not simply art imitating life, or in this case vice versa. Baseball lends itself to movies because no player, not even a bench player like Roberts, is ever anonymous. Even just "standing around," whether at the plate, in the field, on a base (like pinch-runner Roberts), and certainly on the mound, as any pitcher always has the spotlight on him, players start to become characters—and over its many decades, baseball has seen a wealth of characters.
Quick: Name an offensive lineman who protected New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady? Or name a Detroit Red Wings forward on any other line at the time of the famous, original Gordie Howe-Ted Lindsay-Sid Abel "Production Line"? Sure, fans of those teams, or of football or hockey in general, have a good shot at it. But baseball, especially in the postseason, can put the lasting spotlight on any player, great or small, because of his feats, whether for a season (Mark Fidrych in 1976), a series (Bucky F. Dent in the 1978 World Series), a game (Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series), or even one at-bat (Kirk Gibson as a hitter in the 1988 World Series; Pete Alexander as a pitcher in the 1926 World Series).
All these elements, the constant pitcher-hitter confrontation, the spotlight inevitably touching everyone on the field (think of even the late-inning defensive replacement and of how quickly the ball will find him), and the magnitude of the game situation or of the importance of the game itself, combine to lend themselves to movies.
Yes, many other sports have their epic—and not-so-epic—movies too, but that "standing around" in baseball is the contemplation before the action, the tension, then release, the setup and the payoff that feeds into a dramatic (or comedic) narrative, whether it's Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs, hobbling from the Grim Reaper, displaying his literal light-tower power at the climax of The Natural, or Lori Petty's Kit Keller, battling both the high fastball and her sibling rivalry, hitting a gapper, then running through the stop sign at third to barrel into Geena Davis's catcher Dottie Hinson—her sister and erstwhile teammate—at the plate in A League of Their Own.
And baseball movies don't even need to have "the big game" as the climax. Bull Durham certainly doesn't have one, and given that the action is set in the minor leagues, there isn't even any big-league excitement to begin with. Instead, it focuses on three distinct characters including Kevin Costner's Crash Davis, a career minor-leaguer with a good shot to reach a largely unheralded accomplishment, Tim Robbins's Nuke Laloosh, a young "pheenom" with a good shot to reach the Majors—and Susan Sarandon's "Baseball Annie" Savoy, who isn't even a player but who probably knows more about the church of baseball than the two of them put together.
Charter members of the Church of Baseball (L-R): Tim Robbins ("Nuke LaLoosh"), Susan Sarandon ("Annie Savoy"), and Kevin Costner ("Crash Davis") in Bull Durham.
The relative handful of baseball movies evaluated here are representative of baseball movies overall, from early talkies to contemporary releases, from dramatizations of actual players or events to fanciful depictions, and from classics to obscurities. And since we love our sample sizes in baseball, I won't claim that this sampling is in any way definitive, although several of the best-known baseball movies over the decades are evaluated—and like a good sabermetric analysis, you might be surprised—even angered—at those I consider overrated and underrated.
Furthermore, all of them are feature films, so there are no documentaries, which can number well into the hundreds, if not thousands, if you count television and promotional documentaries (for example, the obligatory annual reports from teams on their seasons, particularly if they won the World Series) and not simply "event" documentaries such as Ken Burns's two landmark series on Baseball.
But even narrowing the categories still keeps this list representative, not definitive, because there are still quite a few more than the ones I've actually seen. And speaking of movies that I have seen, there are a few that I have not seen in so long that it would be unfair to fully evaluate them based on fuzzy memory. Among those are the aforementioned The Sandlot along with Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and Little Big League (1994), and since I was unable to see them again while writing this article, they are not evaluated here. (However, if you want my quick take based on that fuzzy memory: The Sandlot is schmaltzy, Bang the Drum Slowly is sappy, and Little Big League is surprisingly snappy.)
And speaking of evaluations . . . because as baseball fans we all love our statistics, and for this evaluation I am using WAR. No, I don't mean Wins Above Replacement, but rather Wholesale Attractiveness Rating. This WAR encompasses aspects of both baseball and filmmaking, meaning, in essence, that the baseball action needs to be credible to the average viewer, the movie production has to be professional, and the narrative, both in concept (baseball inspiration) and execution (filmmaking expertise), has to be effective.
Wholesale Attractiveness Rating (WAR)
Hall of Famer. Transcendent filmmaking or storytelling that epitomizes a period or style of the genre.
All-Star. Superior but not transcendent filmmaking or storytelling.
League-Average. Filmmaking or storytelling of average value, or typical of a period or style of the genre.
Designated for Assignment. Fundamentally flawed technically and/or artistically, or an interesting failure.
Try a Career in Sales. Technically inferior and/or artistically bankrupt; no redeeming qualities.
Sure, it's subjective, and I'm not fooling anyone by trying to disguise a five-star rating system with these WAR trappings. In that respect, since I don't use half-stars in a five-star rating system but baseball's actual WAR uses decimal values as part of its legacy in Win Shares, these movie WAR ratings have decimals that may indicate a minor matter of degree, but what matters is the value to the left of the decimal point; in other words, a 2.9 WAR does not round up to 3.0; as Clifton James's Charles Comiskey tells David Strathairn's Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out, "Twenty-nine [wins] is not thirty, Eddie." And thus the fix begins for the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Twenty-nine isn't thirty, Eddie: White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn, pitching) becomes a key conspirator in the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series scandal in Eight Men Out.
Final notes on the ratings: Only two movies in this evaluation are Hall of Fame movies with the 5.0 WAR. Just as it is (or should be) hard to get into the real National Baseball Hall of Fame (unless your name is Harold Baines, but I digress), so too is it hard to get that highest WAR—and, to be honest, I did fudge one rating to get to that 5.0 WAR for a movie I consider to be a four-star film elsewhere just so the sole five-star/5.0 WAR film has some company.
On the other hand, no movie in this evaluation gets the dreaded 1.0 WAR—although I was sorely tempted by one "classic" baseball movie—because any baseball movie no matter how mediocre is better than none. Particularly during a time when we don't even know when baseball, let alone any other aspect of our lives, will "get back to normal."
And—last word on ratings—"league-average" is not an insult, either in baseball or in movies. It simply means that the item described as such belongs in the "league," whether it's a player in the Major Leagues or a movie that you would pay money to see in a cinema. And given how much a movie ticket costs these days, "league-average" is worth it considering your investment in time and money to see the movie.
Just as baseball has experienced many eras, from its formative stages in the 19th century to the beginning of "the modern game" in 1901, its transition from "dead ball" to "live ball" by 1920, its incremental league expansion beginning in 1961, the introduction of the tiered playoff structure in 1969, and the institution of the designated hitter in the American League in 1973, so too have movies undergone their evolutionary stages: Movies transitioned from silent film to "talkies" by 1930, endured the gradual imposition of the Production Code (restrictions on what could be shown, and how, in a movie, based on arbitrary moralism) a few years later, and enjoyed the increasing development of color photography before seeing the gradual elimination of the Production Code starting in the 1960s, which accompanied the gradual diminishment of studio-system dominance that had prevailed since the 1920s; meanwhile, movies continued to see breathtaking technical advancements, exemplified by special effects, that remain ongoing.
In that context, I have divided these evaluations into four eras: The Vintage Era, the Golden Era, the Modern Era, and Today's Era. Not coincidentally, these parallel the current structure of baseball's veterans committee, divided into four subcommittees: Early Baseball, Golden Days, Modern Baseball, and Today's Game. The distinctions, explained below in each section, apply primarily, albeit broadly, to filmmaking convention since a staple of baseball movies is retrospective reflection of bygone eras.
So, take a break from the unfolding apocalypse and watch a baseball movie. Sometimes distraction is necessary. Especially now. Even if just for a little while. Enjoy.
I nearly forgot: No spoilers.
The Vintage Era
Movies reviewed in this section:
Alibi Ike (1935): 2.2 WAR
The Babe Ruth Story (1948): 2.0 WAR
Elmer, the Great (1933): 2.3 WAR
Fireman, Save My Child (1932): 2.3 WAR
It Happens Every Spring (1949): 3.6 WAR
Ladies' Day (1943): 2.2 WAR
The Pride of the Yankees (1941): 4.3 WAR
The Winning Team (1952): 2.1 WAR
What defines the Vintage Era? In baseball terms, this would be the Segregation Era prior to 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the 20th-century Major Leagues. (Meanwhile, Larry Doby, the Buzz Aldrin of integrated baseball, became the first African-American player in the American League, debuting with the Cleveland Indians about a month after Robinson's debut with the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers.)
In movie terms, the Vintage Era corresponds in a rough chronological parallel to baseball as three of these movies depict actual baseball players, all of whom played prior to integration: Pete Alexander, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth. But "vintage" also refers to a movie-making style or convention, a throwback (pardon the expression) to a cinematic atmosphere of less realism and more sentimentality that describes three of these movies released after 1947—two of which do profile actual players.
However, before we get to the actual players, let's look at the fictitious ones.
To say that Joe E. Brown was the Kevin Costner of his time might be disingenuous. True, both made three baseball-themed movies. But while Costner is languid, blandly handsome, and credible portraying a baseball player (he did try out for the team at California State University, Fullerton), Brown, probably best-known now for pursuing Jack Lemmon (in drag) in Billy Wilder's legendary 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, was voluble and homely and whose most distinctive feature was his satchel mouth—if Johnny Bench could hold seven baseballs in one hand, then Brown could hold seven in his gaping pie hole.
An unlikely baseball prospect? Joe E. Brown was actually scouted by the Yankees.
Yet Brown, who was already forty years old when he appeared in his first baseball movie, the comedy Fireman, Save My Child (2.3 WAR), had played professional (non-Major League) baseball in his prime and had once been scouted by the New York Yankees. Moreover, Brown's baseball interests continued long after he made his baseball movies. In 1953, he became the first president of the Pony League (now known as PONY Baseball and Softball, with PONY an acronym for Protect Our Nation's Youth, and from whose ranks rose future Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr.), remaining in that post until 1964 as he strongly advocated for youth baseball.
Furthermore, his son Joe L. Brown became the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976. During those two decades, he presided over the Pirates' World Series victories in 1960 and 1971 with squads that included Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Willie Stargell; the younger Brown returned from retirement in 1985 to steady a Pittsburgh franchise rocked by the drug scandals that dogged several Pirates players, including star slugger Dave Parker, along with several non-Pirates players including eventual Hall of Famer Tim Raines (who reputedly slid into many of his 808 career stolen bases head-first so he wouldn't break the glass vial of cocaine he kept in his back pocket).
Nevertheless, none of Joe E. Brown's baseball movies, starting with Fireman, Save My Child, are any great shakes despite evincing Brown's love of the sport. Despite its unusual title, Fireman was actually the third movie made under that title in a 14-year span, and although firemen figure into the stories of all three movies, all three have different storylines, with Brown's the only one to feature baseball. Screenwriters Arthur Caesar, Roy Enright, and Robert Lord work the national pastime into a loopy tale about "Smokey Joe" Grant (Brown), a fireman in small-town Rosedale, Kansas, who invents a "fire extinguisher bomb," a chemical cocktail packed into a softball-sized container that can blow out fires instantly, and who also happens to be the pitching ace of the local team.
But despite Brown's wild wind-up, curb those jokes about the "fireballing right-hander" because baseball is the pretext to launch Fireman's breezy, wacky narrative directed by Lloyd Bacon. Determined to both patent his invention and marry his hometown sweetheart Sally Toby (Evalyn Knapp), Joe finally accepts the Cardinals' offer to go pro. Off he goes to St. Louis, where he leads the Redbirds to the World Series, but two shady operators steer the rube toward con artist June Farnum (Lilian Bond) looking to bilk Joe of his money by making herself his fiancée—and you know Sally, the Big Game, and a Really Big Fire have to factor into the, er, incendiary conclusion.
An amusing, compact trifle, Fireman also displays Smokey Joe's penchant to chase fire engines even right in the middle of the game, a sly reference to the same eccentric behavior of colorful Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell, as well as cinematographer Sol Polito's early attempts at a "catcher cam" recording the ball coming into the hitter from Smokey Joe's funky wind-up. And although Brown's Smokey Joe, a starting pitcher in addition to being a firefighter, does make a relief appearance at a most crucial time, there is no evidence that this might be the origin of a reliever being called a "fireman" coming in to douse late-inning rallies (although it should be). Most significantly, Fireman, Save My Child established the template for Brown's two subsequent baseball comedies: distracted baseball star shrugs off his talent, fumbles with the girl, and falls in with unsavory types looking to exploit him.
First up is Elmer, the Great (2.3 WAR), with Brown this time a bush-league slugging sensation from Gentryville, Indiana, whose contract is bought by the Chicago Cubs, but despite histrionic entreaties by his brother Nick (Sterling Holloway), Elmer is strangely indifferent to playing in the big leagues. (And this is before the Cubs' curse of the Billy goat.) Why? Because lazy Elmer would rather sleep late, then wake to a gargantuan breakfast prepared by his mother (Emma Dunn). His only other interest is hometown honey Nellie Poole (Patricia Ellis), who, in order to spur Elmer to Chicago, rebuffs his advances. Downcast, Elmer nevertheless becomes a rookie "pheenom," leading the Cubs to, as he dubs it, the "World Serious." Elmer's country rube is ripe for practical jokes by his jealous teammates, which include luring him into a phony radio broadcast with glamorous actress Evelyn Corey (Claire Dodd), who falls for him—just as Nellie arrives to visit Elmer.
The other complication involves Elmer's getting mixed up with gamblers during the World Series against the New York Yankees, an allusion to the actual 1919 "Black Sox" World Series scandal that tarnished baseball—and that will resurface again during our evaluations. (The Cubs actually did face the Yankees in the 1932 World Series, most notable for Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" while facing Cubs pitcher Charlie Root, although Brown's Elmer makes no such gesture here.)
Joe E. Brown gets ready to crush one as the talented but lazy slugger Elmer, the Great.
That gambling interference was a theme that haunted Ring Lardner, the famed sports columnist and devotee of the Chicago White Sox who felt betrayed by the team's scandal ("the faith of fifty million Americans," as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in his novel The Great Gatsby, a phrase that Ken Burns later picked up for his documentary Baseball); Lardner scripted Elmer, the Great based on his musical play co-written with the legendary George M. Cohan, and Lardner would also script Brown's third baseball movie. As for Elmer itself, it's another lovable-lunkhead vehicle for Brown that tries to rally around its thin gags but ultimately fails to score.
Brown's third and final baseball movie, Alibi Ike (2.2 WAR), finds him back on the Cubs but this time back on the mound with that wild wind-up of his before he fires a heater across the plate. Frank Farrell (Brown) might not have a screwball in his repertoire, but everything else about this zany but slight baseball comedy is screwball. Truth be told, Frank had better be an ace hurler because his tendency to proffer excuses for just about everything leads to untold—albeit predictable—complications in this one-pitch adaptation by William Haines of Lardner's short story about the country phenom who makes it to the big leagues but can't quite shake his rube image. Again.
He also can't quite shake Dolly Stevens (Olivia de Havilland) either, the fetching sister-in-law of his manager Cap (William Frawley), whose exasperation with Frank usually abates once he's managed to secure a win for the surging Cubbies. (De Havilland would soon graduate to the movie Major Leagues herself, becoming a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress as one of the stars of Hollywood's Golden Age; amazingly, she is still alive at age 103 as of this writing. Meanwhile, Frawley went on to co-star in the landmark television sitcom I Love Lucy.)
No excuses for star power: Brown really gets the girl in Alibi Ike. Olivia de Havilland--she's the one on the left--went on to win two Best Actress Oscars, neither one for this tepid time-filler.
Frank's inability to come clean leads him to pretend that the love letters he exchanges with Dolly are really from some vague "friend," but when Dolly is affronted by his excuses about her and leaves him, he becomes despondent—and susceptible to gamblers wanting him to sully the Cubs' pennant chances. Again. Director Ray Enright executes the slapstick silliness with smooth economy, but this is one narrative that needs a stronger cover story to be substantial and engaging—and credible: The litany of Frank's alibis is pure contrivance to keep a tired punchline going. Furthermore, Alibi Ike needs to explain how the Cubs, the last team to have lights installed in their own ballpark in 1988, manage to play a night game at home in the 1930s.
Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) is also a hurler with girl troubles of his own as gentle comedy ensues when science collides with baseball in It Happens Every Spring (3.6 WAR), but although he really loads up the ball to get an edge over hitters, he is only doing it to win the hand of Debbie Greenleaf (Jean Peters), daughter of the president of the college (Ray Collins) where Vernon toils as a baseball-loving chemistry teacher trying to develop an insecticide to protect trees. However, when an errant baseball destroys his equipment and his experiment (keep an eye out for Alan Hale, Jr., the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, as one of those responsible), he discovers that the surviving residue repels wood—an ideal substance with which to doctor a baseball so it avoids contact with baseball bats.
That premise—yes, it screams "cheater" but just roll with the comedic possibilities—drives the breezy screenplay by Valentine Davies, from a story by Davies and Shirley Smith, compelling Vernon—now billing himself as "Kelly"—to persuade the St. Louis baseball club to hire him as a pitcher, where he hopes to make the money he had planned to make from his invention. Both manager Jimmy Dolan (Ted De Corsia) and owner Edgar Stone (Ed Begley) are understandably skeptical until they see the unusual hop Vernon can put on the ball—then they hire him while assigning catcher Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas) as Vernon's battery- and roommate.
Ray Milland's game face in It Happens Every Spring. Well, not necessarily.
As St. Louis, behind Kelly's improbable pitching, drives toward the pennant, director Lloyd Bacon spurs the narrative along, emphasizing the budding friendship between unlikely pals Monk and Vernon while Vernon tries to conceal his new alter ego from his old alma mater and the increasingly curious Debbie. Milland is quietly appealing and Peters is reliably earnest while Douglas supplies comic color along with Jessie Royce Landis as Debbie's mother. (We will see Douglas crop up in a bigger role shortly.) The actual baseball is credible enough—leaving aside the doctored ball that would send Gaylord Perry into an orgiastic frenzy—for the delightful, if implausible, It Happens Every Spring, even if it never actually states which St. Louis team Kelly is pitching for.
Speaking of implausible, Ladies' Day (2.2 WAR) makes no bones about being anything but a trifling baseball farce that never rises above one joke stretched ad nauseam, yet it manages to coax attention much like a late-inning, come-from-behind rally in a hopeless blowout—the odds are extreme, but there's always that slim chance. And although Eddie Albert and Lupe Vélez receive top billing, it's the supporting cast that carries the day in this adaptation of the 1939 play by Robert Considine, Edward Lilley, and Bertrand Robinson by Dane Lussier and Charles Roberts, whose snappy if spotty script also plays coy with actual baseball names and events.
Eddie Alberts pitches a screwball--comedy, that it--as the improbably-named Wacky Waters in Ladies' Day, which at least knows how to use punctuation correctly.
Albert is Wacky Waters ("Dizzy Dean" was taken already), star pitcher for the "Sox" poised to lead them to victory in the 1941 "Big Series" as long as he's not distracted by dames. Naturally, he falls for movie star Pepita Zorita (Vélez), selling war bonds before a game, and his pitching falls apart. This incenses the other players' wives, who are counting on Series money, and led by Hazel Jones (Patsy Kelly), married to catcher Hippo (Max Baer), they scheme to keep them apart. Although Wacky and Pepita secretly marry, she is offered a film role that separates them, but when production wraps early, the wives snap into action to keep Wacky focused—and away from Pepita—until the Series is over.
All clear on that? Neither am I. This sloppy plotting—when exactly is Wacky wonky? and selling war bonds when the United States is not yet at war?—further weakens the one-joke premise, yet Ladies' Day avoids being cut entirely thanks to efficient direction by Leslie Goodwins and an engaged ensemble, led by Kelly, that includes Iris Adrian, Joan Barclay, Cliff Clark, Jerome Cowan, Tom Kennedy, and, finally, Vélez, playing off her "Mexican Spitfire" chica Latina persona with high-voltage histrionics that can only lead to her becoming a bound-and-gagged hostage in a hotel room. Ladies' Day fouls off a few before ultimately striking out.
Moving from wacky comedy to earnest biography, the next three movies celebrate three legends who are among the earliest inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame—but the quality of the movies commemorating their legacies varies wildly.
The worst of the three has to be The Babe Ruth Story (2.0 WAR), baseball's most famous player whose legendary feats on and off the diamond epitomize Americana—which makes this overweening, underwhelming, childish and risibly sanitized biopic a woeful, dismal failure with precious little to redeem it. George Callahan and Bob Considine based their script on Considine's biography, written with Ruth prior to Ruth's 1948 death from cancer, and from the opening canard, voiced by narrator Knox Manning, that repeats Abner Doubleday's bogus claim to have invented the sport, this three-base error slathers on the moldy Limburger to the mawkish end. (And recall that Considine is also partly responsible for the mediocre Ladies' Day.)
Poor William Bendix is tasked with portraying the larger-than-life slugger, and while the oafish shlub bears a (barely) passing resemblance to the later Ruth, Bendix's reputation as a comedic foil ensures that The Babe Ruth Story forfeits any semblance of plausibility and instead descends into a cartoonish, painfully enacted hagiography of Ruth's life. From a Baltimore reformatory, where George Herman Ruth learns to play baseball from mentor Brother Matthias (Charles Bickford), Rush becomes a pitching star for the Boston Red Sox, with fan Claire Hodgson (Claire Trevor) pointing out how Ruth was tipping his pitches.
William Bendix's revoltin' development: He gets to play the lead in The Babe Ruth Story, which strikes out an awful lot.
That's enough to eventually prompt him to marry her once he becomes a slugging superstar for the New York Yankees—but then this Ruthian legend turns to his youthful fans to ridiculous effect. Indeed, this juvenile narrative finds Ruth ducking a game to save a boy's dog while recasting his notorious "called shot" home run in the 1932 World Series as a promise to a hospitalized child, barefaced idolatry that whitewashes Ruth's more colorful adult escapades while avoiding any actual baseball action. Veteran director Roy Del Ruth's competency along with Bendix's and Trevor's stoic professionalism keep this one from complete awfulness, but The Babe Ruth Story is still both an embarrassment and an affront.
Only marginally better is The Winning Team (2.1 WAR), which finds future president Ronald Reagan portraying ace pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, but the "winning team" here isn't the 1926 St. Louis Cardinals, with whom "Pete" won his only World Series championship, defeating the New York Yankees largely on the strength of his coming into Game Seven in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs to preserve the Cardinals' one-run lead by striking out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded for his only postseason save. Alexander had already pitched two complete-game victories, the second in Game Six, and according to legend, Alexander had been in the bullpen nursing a hangover resulting from his celebrating the night before when player-manager Rogers Hornsby called for him in the seventh. As we all know by now, baseball just lends itself to high—or even low—drama like this.
No, the "winning team" is instead that of Pete and his devoted wife Aimee, portrayed by Doris Day, who not only gets top billing over Reagan but also a singing spotlight. Indeed, this romanticized biopic, scripted by Merwin Gerard, Seeleg Lester, and Ted Sherdeman from Gerard and Lester's story, applies gauzy Hollywood whitewash to Alexander's biography even if it doesn't quite no-hit Alexander's struggles with alcoholism and epilepsy. A telephone lineman and semi-professional ballplayer, "Alex" plans to wed Aimee and buy a farm, but he makes the Majors with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he becomes an ace. Sold to the Chicago Cubs, Alex also serves during World War One and returns with more health issues exacerbated by his new drinking problem, which scotches his playing career and drives Aimee away. But she returns to implore Cardinals player-manager Rogers Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy) to give Alex another chance, and the rest is—
—Well, the rest is just as anodyne as the story up to now. Director Lewis Seiler handles this simple, soft-tossing script with journeyman efficiency as another journeyman, composer David Buttolph, couches the cliché in equally obvious and vapid musical sentiment. Rangy Reagan, amiable and league-average, gets a no-decision here while Day must project her devotion as Frank Ferguson, Eve Miller, and Frank Millican fill out the roster amidst The Winning Team's sentiment and simplicity. Reputedly, in his later years as president, Reagan, who loved to talk about his Hollywood days, regaled a visitor with how he had once portrayed President Grover Cleveland in a movie. The visitor had to discreetly remind the Gipper that he had portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander, the baseball player, not the president for whom Pete was named.
The winning team in The Winning Team: Ronald Reagan (left) as pitcher Pete Alexander and Doris Day as his wife Aimee. One of them became president. Can you guess?
Much better, yet still displaying the pervasive sentimentality of baseball movies of the Vintage Era, is The Pride of the Yankees (4.3 WAR), although sentiment and other potent emotions cannot help but permeate this biopic of slugging New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, with Gary Cooper portraying "The Iron Horse," whose consecutive-game record held for 56 years, and whose career was arrested when he contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal neural disease now named for Gehrig. (Gehrig died in 1941, just seventeen days shy of his 38th birthday.) Adapting Paul Gallico's book, this saccharine screenplay by Jo Swerling, Herman Mankiewicz, and Casey Robinson is keyed more toward domestic drama than to baseball dynamics.
The domestic drama begins with the relationship Gehrig has with his mother (Elsa Janssen), who wants her athletic son to become an engineer and escape their working-class milieu. But when she becomes ill, Gehrig, abetted by his father (Ludwig Stössel), foregoes his Columbia scholarship to become a professional baseball player and secretly subsidize the medical expenses. Naturally, she discovers this along with Gehrig's budding romance with Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), but is eventually won over when Lou becomes a superstar, and all is well until Gehrig slows down and winds up at the Mayo Clinic, where the news is not good.
An iconic shot from an iconic movie about an iconic ballplayer. Gary Cooper as the luckiest man on the face of the Earth: He got to portray Yankee Lou Gehrig on film.
Wright, who became typecast as the strong, supportive woman (Exhibit A is her role in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives), seizes the emotional center as The Pride of the Yankees enters its final innings, moving from the gentle romance between Gehrig and Eleanor to a film with substance. Director Sam Wood conducts the story like a fairy tale, assisted by Rudolph Maté's solicitous photography and Leigh Harline's ever-fulsome score, while Cooper, propped up by real-life Yankees Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Babe Ruth, delivers his trademark quiet stoicism, exemplified by Gehrig's iconic farewell speech. The Pride of the Yankees is well-executed cornpone, but Cooper and Wright manage to justify the film's continuing high regard.