The following is excerpted from Emma Span's 90% Of The Game Is Half Mental: And Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom, an account of one woman's love of baseball—from cheering along at home to being on the team beat and everywhere in between.
This selection, from the chapter titled "Rhubarb and Wonderboy," is an examination of American baseball movies and why there still hasn't been a great one but why the bad ones might be the best of all. Please read and enjoy the excerpt below.
My movie obsession predates my baseball obsession by a considerable length of time. As soon as I was old enough to sit up for two hours, my parents took me to a movie just about every week, without much regard to genre, quality, or—especially when I went with my dad—age-appropriateness. (Terminator 2 at age nine stands out for me, not just for the memorable scenes of nuclear apocalypse but because I had my eyes closed for so much of the film that I missed half the plot, and we had to go back and see it again the next week.)
Between going to the theater, TV, renting, and Netflixing, it's a toss-up whether I've seen more movies or more baseball games in my life, but the count on both has to be in the thousands, which probably explains why I haven't cured cancer yet. So it makes sense that I've got a particular fascination with baseball movies. What makes less sense is why there are so few good ones.
I hate The Natural. Field of Dreams is better, but not my cup of tea. Going much farther back, Take Me Out to the Ballgame is far suckier than any movie involving Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and ballplayers should ever be, and Pride of the Yankees has aged worse than Mo Vaughn. There is a handful of very good baseball films, mostly comedies—Bull Durham being my favorite, and Major League, and The Bad News Bears—and some decent serious ones: Eight Men Out, Bang the Drum Slowly, A League of Their Own. But there aren't many of them, really, and I don't think there's ever been a truly great movie made about baseball. You'd think two classic American pastimes would go better together—consider how many great movies there are about organized crime, or for that matter, how many great movies there are about movies. What's so uncinematic about baseball?
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The Natural, which manages to keep all the pompous grandiosity of its source material but none of its integrity, and which is at least forty-five minutes longer than it needs to be no matter how pretty Robert Redford is, has to be on my list of the most overrated movies of all time. I may be overreacting. When I'm not crazy about a movie that everyone else seems to love, sometimes I start to actively hate it in reaction; this happened with Amelie, a well-made sappy quirkfest about a pathologically charming French girl, which got so many raves from critics and friends that my casual dislike turned into unjustified white-hot loathing. (See also Life Is Beautiful.) But although The Natural may be better in many ways than your average Hollywood cheese, it's also vastly more pretentious. I usually prefer a silly movie that knows what it is to self-serious Oscar bait that overestimates its own intelligence. (See also Crash.)
You probably know the story already, but to review: Young and supertalented ballplayer Roy Hobbs (Redford in gauzy lighting, doing his best to play nineteen at forty-seven) comes up to the majors in the 1920s, only to be seduced, shot, and nearly killed by a mysterious woman, his career cut short before he even gets in a game. Years later, now middle-aged, Hobbs reemerges, joins the New York Knights, and leads the team all the way to the edge of a pennant, despite the corrupt machinations of their owner, "the Judge." Glenn Close plays the nice woman who loves him, but Roy loves Kim Basinger instead, even though she's a plant from the Judge and is negatively affecting his performance on the field—you know how women are. Oh, and he also has a magic bat named Wonderboy. (Lame name for a magic bat, if you ask me; sounds more like what Jose Canseco might have nicknamed his penis.) But in the end he doesn't need the magic bat to rise off his sickbed and hit a dramatic game-winning homer to give the Knights the pennant. In the famous climactic scene, which you've no doubt seen before, the ball hits the stadium lights and they explode in a shower of sparks as Redford rounds the bases in super-duper slo-mo and inspirational music swells.
Finally he marries the good girl, moves back to the wholesome countryside, and plays some catch with his son.
The Natural was directed by Barry Levinson, who was then still at the top of the decades-long downward spiral that would take him from Diner to Envy (which is about jealousy . . . and also a spray that makes dog shit disappear), so I'm not sure how things went so wrong. It's not so much that The Natural is long and humorless, or that Robert Redford appears to have somnambulated through several crucial weeks of filming, or that it's got an over-the-top virgin/whore complex, although all those are issues. No, the real problem is that I read the Bernard Malamud book first. And I didn't even like the book—it's a morality tale, a mannered, dry take on Arthurian legend. But if you read it and then watch the end of the movie . . . I don't want to ruin anything, but let's just say that in the book Roy Hobbs doesn't hit a home run and live happily ever after. At all.
In fact—and on second thought, I'm gonna go ahead and ruin it—at the end of the book Hobbs strikes out; the Knights lose the game; he tries to return the Judge's bribe money, but it's too late; everyone realizes the fix was on; his reputation and career are ruined; he's maimed the one woman who really loves him, Iris, with a foul ball; and the woman he loves tries to shoot him. It's a story of failure, doom, weakness, and disgrace that makes Dostoyevsky's more downbeat works seem like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Last line: " . . . he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears."
So. Then you watch the last scenes of the movie, and as people around you are tearing up at the beautiful imagery and soaring music while Redford circles the bases in slow motion, all you can think is: You have got to be fucking kidding me. It has to be one of the more cynical betrayals of source material ever put to film, the equivalent of ending a Hamlet adaptation with a lovely wedding between the prince and Ophelia.
* * *
The Natural is, in my opinion, far sappier and duller than Field of Dreams, which at least has a sense of humor and was clearly made by people who genuinely adore baseball. Unlike with The Natural, if you held a mirror up to this movie's face, it would fog up.
But both movies share an obsession with father-son games of catch and are, I would have to say, the male equivalent of chick flicks—I just may not be the target audience. I vaguely remember playing catch with my dad a few times growing up, and I'm sure it was a lovely experience. But for film heroes it's become trite shorthand for paternal love.
I was disappointed by another supposed classic, too, as Pride of the Yankees has not aged well at all. It has its moments, and I love both Lou Gehrig and Gary Cooper (and Walter Brennan, and Babe Ruth playing himself ) enough that I can't quite trash it. But I probably should, because there's actually a scene in which Gehrig visits Billy, "a little crippled kid," in the hospital, and promises to hit not one but two home runs for him if the kid promises to try to get better, because "there isn't anything you can't do if you try hard enough." And hit two homers he does, the second coming in his last at-bat, of course. Years later when Gehrig himself has gotten sick and is shuffling into Yankee Stadium for his farewell speech, little Billy is there waiting for him, all grown up. Billy's been standing there all day because he just had to tell Mr. Gehrig: "I did what you said. I tried hard, and I made it! Look, I can walk!" Look, I can roll my eyes so violently they hit my back teeth!
Over the years I've gone to considerable lengths looking for a great forgotten baseball movie. And I haven't found it, not yet—but I have found some incredibly weird ones. Which is almost as good.
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I can't remember exactly when I developed a passion for watching bad movies—not mediocre movies, like The Natural, but absolute messes like the immortal Ed Wood classic Plan 9 from Outer Space or the mind-blowing Troll 2 (which doesn't even reference the first Troll, is actually about goblins, and has the moral "Do not vacation in a town whose name is goblin spelled backward, especially not if the ghost of your dead grandfather has warned you against it."). [Ed. It also includes this scene:
I suspect I picked up my love of terrible acting, creaky plots, and subpar visuals from a proud family tradition, starting when I was about twelve, of gathering around to watch Walker: Texas Ranger together. In case you've not been lucky enough to catch it, it's a hilariously tone-deaf show (from its Chuck Norris–sung opening credits: "For the eyes of a Ranger are upon you, anything you do he's gonna see / When you're in Texas look behind you, 'cause that's where the Ranger's gonna be"), full of ham-handed, earnest anti-drug and-gang rhetoric, and with a touching faith in the ability of children's karate classes to solve any and all social problems. It was also so comfortingly predictable that we used to have running bets on who could most accurately predict the entire episode plot from the first few minutes: "That guy with the European accent is obviously evil—I mean, he's named Broussard, come on—and he's going to kidnap Alex [Walker's long-suffering and oft-kidnapped love interest] after the third commercial break and hold her at the ranch!" It's my first memory of deliberately watching something terrible and enjoying it specifically for its badness.
But certainly not my last. Finding a really great obscure awful movie—like WaxWork, which came on TV around 3:00 a.m. one glorious night my junior year of college—is still a moment of triumph for me. It's only recently that I've discovered the fascinating world of Sci-Fi Channel movies (now SyFy, which is even better) but it turns out I'm just not capable of channel-surfing past something called, say, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep or Gargoyles: Wings of Darkness or the one that started it all, Bats: Human Harvest. Typically these are filmed in Eastern Europe on what looks to be a budget of five grand and star pretty, wooden actors whom you may recognize from a Kmart ad or a long-defunct nineties genre show, with CGI that could be topped by a half-clever twelve-year-old. I love these movies.
I was in the Hall of Fame one day, in the middle of a cold February with several feet of snow blanketing Cooperstown, working on an article for the Voice, when I wandered through their baseball movie display. It's not the most spectacular part of the Hall, mostly props and posters, but one of those posters caught my eye: Rhubarb—The Millionaire Tom Cat. It's a great title, the kind you can't just let pass, at least not if you're me. It's about what happens when an eccentric millionaire leaves his struggling baseball team, the Brooklyn Loons, to a cat. It stars Ray Milland and a cat. "The funniest picture in nine lifetimes," crows one of its taglines, though I imagine that's only true if you spent those nine lifetimes in Communist Russia.
This movie (which, stunningly enough, is not available on DVD) became something of an obsession of mine, and so eventually I tracked it down and ordered the VHS tape. I knew there was a reason I hadn't thrown out my VCR.
You might recall Ray Milland from his heartbreaking performance in The Lost Weekend, for which he won an Academy Award. And you might recall Orangey the cat from his performance as "Cat" in Breakfast at Tiffany's, for which he won a Patsy Award—the animal equivalent of the Oscars, given out between 1951 and 1984 but now tragically defunct. (The very first Patsy was given to Francis, the mule from Francis the Talking Mule. Also, Orangey was trained by Frank Inn, who also worked with Patsy Award winner Arnold the Pig on Green Acres. Now you know. You're welcome.)
Naturally, in Rhubarb, the Brooklyn Loons start winning when Rhubarb takes over, and the players become superstitious about it (this movie depicts ballplayers as having the intellect of slow second graders), which means their chance at the pennant is put in jeopardy when Rhubarb gets catnapped, because without the cat the team's confidence is shot. More detail is probably not necessary, except to say that the hero's fiancée's severe allergy to Rhubarb is a major plot point and apparently admissible in court as evidence of identity.
Rhubarb turned out to be stilted, silly, and just plain odd enough to be entertaining, but it was not actively terrible. For that I recommend a movie called Night Game, which I read about on an extremely comprehensive list of baseball movies, and knew immediately that I needed to see.
Another film inexplicably passed over by DVD distributors, Night Game stars Roy Scheider as a Houston police detective in the eighties (very, very much in the eighties). I saw Jaws at a very young and impressionable age; for years I would nervously check for fins even in the deep end of a swimming pool at the Y, and even now I tend to anxiously scan the horizon when in the ocean. So I have a soft spot for Scheider and would like to point out that it really isn't his fault the movie is so awful. Listen to the plot and tell me if even Laurence Olivier could have done anything with this:
There's a serial killer on the loose, and he's killing blond women with a hook in what turns out to be a pattern—one murder every time a certain Houston Astros pitcher wins a night game at home. Scheider's character, who is presented as a likeable, straight-shooting kind of guy even though he is dating his ex-girlfriend's daughter, is on the case. This is the kind of movie where a scantily clad blonde, when being chased by a vicious hook-handed murderer, will not only run away from all the people and lights of a carnival onto a dark, empty beach but then actually run up the stairs of a desolate construction project, thus trapping herself completely alone.
Anyway, toward the end, Scheider makes a blood-chilling discovery (spoiler alert!): a Houston Astros pitcher got cut from spring training a while back and then, as he was dejectedly leaving the complex, was hit by a bus, a tragic accident in which he lost his hand. And now whenever his replacement wins a home night game he goes out and kills a blond woman. We've all been there, right? I mean, every time the guy who replaced me at the Voice gets a cover story, I go out and strangle a pigeon.
* * *
I actually had some expectations for 1962's Safe at Home, which stars (sort of) Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, in the flesh, with cameos from then-manager Ralph Houk and Whitey Ford.
Now that I think about it, Safe at Home would make a much better scary-serial-killer title than Night Game. But instead it's about a nine-year-old named Hutch who tries to impress his Little League teammates by claiming he and his father are friends with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, then runs away to spring training to try to convince the Yankee superstars to attend his team's awards banquet. Hijinks ensue, sort of, and everyone runs around yelling, "Gosh! Gee!"
I discovered the existence of Safe at Home just by accident a year or two ago, when I was, for reasons that now completely elude me, searching for information on Joe Pepitone. In an old "Sports of the Times" story, I came across an Arthur Daley account of lighthearted batting-cage banter regarding Mantle and Maris's upcoming movie premiere, and did a double-take. Mantle and Maris starred in a movie? How come I'd never heard of it?
Well, that question turned out to have an easy answer: because it's really, really bad. Even The Natural is a much better movie than Safe at Home, in part because it turns out that Wonderboy is able to convey a far wider range of emotions on film than Mickey Mantle. It seems mean-spirited to rag too much on the acting in this movie: the kids are, after all, just kids, while Mantle and Maris and manager Ralph Houk are amateurs. But the end result is that only one of the movie's main characters is actually played by a capable actor, and the whole thing resembles nothing so much as an eighty-four-minute version of an old Post cereal ad.
Hutch has recently moved from New York to Florida with his father, who owns a charter fishing boat. Hutch cooks, cleans, and takes care of his father's laundry, which was almost enough to make me want children, but it's made clear that in fact we're supposed to think Hutch's dad is putting too much adult responsibility on him. And in a subplot never seen on the big screen before or since, he's missing his son's Little League games because of work! When a bully starts giving Hutch crap about his father, he spins his lie about Mantle and Maris, and it spirals out of control, as these things always do in movies (but not in real life, where one of my middle school classmates successfully convinced everyone for years that her uncle had murdered Jimmy Hoffa and buried him under Lot D at the Meadowlands). So Hutch sets out for Fort Lauderdale to meet Mantle and Maris and enlist their help.
The movie came out in 1962, but its heart is completely in the fifties. It takes place in a world in which every single human being is cheerful and friendly (even the bully is fairly polite) and crime is nonexistent; nothing this idyllic ever shows up on movie screens these days except at the beginning of horror films. Anyway, eventually Mantle and Maris take a liking to Hutch, and they're really perfectly likeable on-screen, but they appear to have seen their lines for the first time five minutes before filming began. The kid also endears himself to the obligatory crusty old coach—William "Fred Mertz" Frawley, the lone capable actor mentioned above. Meanwhile, Whitey Ford's advertised cameo consists of just one completely expressionless sentence ("Houk wants to see you right away"). They should've gotten Yogi.
Eventually Hutch explains his situation to Mantle and Maris. Though they have no other plans, they refuse to come to the banquet, because Lying Is Wrong. After a stern and decidedly judgmental lecture—"You can't make a foul ball fair by moving the baseline. It's just not in the rules!"—that leaves Hutch near tears, the kid agrees to tell his teammates the truth, just as his dad shows up to comfort him. (And if I were a hardworking widower fishing boat captain, I'm not sure I would take as kindly as Hutch's dad does to parenting tips from the Mick, but never mind.)
However, after Hutch makes his painful public confession to his teammates, his father declares that Hutch now has two new friends—and they've invited the whole Little League team down to meet the Yankees and watch spring training. Everyone is thrilled, Hutch is a hero, and I try to remember why it was again, exactly, that lying was supposed to be bad and harmful, instead of totally awesome. (It reminds me of the way The Wizard of Oz tries to pretend that its lesson is "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!" Not only does that make no sense when you break it down, but in fact, every frame of the movie is screaming at you to get the hell off the family farm, run away to a big city, and hang out with weirdos and misfits. Has a kid ever watched it and said, "Gee, I better not go off and have any adventures"? Least sincere moral ever.)
* * *
So why aren't there more good baseball movies? I suppose there aren't a ton of truly great sports movies, period—a few here and there, but it's not been exactly the most creatively fertile genre. Still, I feel that, given its impressive literary tradition (Thomas Boswell wrote that more good baseball books appear in a single year than have been written about football in the past fifty years, which may be an exaggeration but not a big one), there ought to be plenty of great baseball films yet to be made. Maybe it's that it's hard to balance the tone, going for either the bawdy locker-room comedy or the self-serious "America's pastime" approach. Maybe studios think the average sports fan isn't smart enough to want really thoughtful and intelligent baseball flicks.
In the end, it probably doesn't matter all that much, because baseball can tell its own stories. The Tampa Bay Rays going from last place to first in 2008 wasn't much less believable than the hapless Indians doing the same in Major League, and the 2004 Red Sox World Series could have easily been a movie plot, although it might not seem believable enough; in fact, when it was grafted onto the romantic comedy plot of Fever Pitch, it felt to me like a cheesy movie cliché even though it had just happened. Unadapted baseball is full of drama and plots.
Still, tragically few of those plots involve hook-handed pitchers going on killing sprees, or team-owning cats (or, in a movie I'd pay a heck of a lot to see, both). That's why we still need Hollywood.
Emma Span has written about baseball for the Village Voice, Slate, the New York Press, and popular blogs such as Bronx Banter, among many other publications; yet when she appeared on Jeopardy! in the fall of 2009, she missed an easy question about Mickey Mantle (claiming that "the buzzer timing was really tricky"). She graduated from Yale University in 2003 and now lives in Brooklyn. 90% Of The Game Is Half Mental is her first book.