Friday, April 15, 2016

Play Ball! Or “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

All of SoCal’s fair-weather sports fans, including me, have spent the last few days marveling over the farewell appearance of Kobe Bryant at Staples Center. Sixty points, including a game-winner! Basketball will never be the same with Kobe missing from the Lakers’ line-up.

Still, it’s the start of baseball season, so by rights I should be paying attention to the Dodgers.  Especially since another farewell season is coming up, involving someone who means the world to me and my fellow Angelenos. Yes, I’m talking about the gloriously mellow-voiced Vin Scully, who will retire at the end of 2016. The veteran play-by-play man is now 88 years old, and so he’s entitled to some rest. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have saluted him by re-naming the road up to their Chavez Ravine ballpark Vin Scully Avenue. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

If you check IMDB, Vin Scully has his share of acting credits. I don’t think there’s an Oscar in his future: he has mostly played (you guessed it) baseball announcers. But this is a man who, through years of radio broadcasting, has known how to use his voice to add color and drama.  Plua, he’s got a great stock of anecdotes. In his earliest days, he used to broadcast games in the hinterlands, where all he had for input was a tickertape feed. When you only know the bare bones of what has happened (three up, three down . . .), it’s up to you to fill the empty air with excitement. He could, and he did.

There are, of course, lots of movies that deal with professional sports: football, basketball, golf, tennis, boxing. But though I haven’t conducted a survey I’m convinced that no sport has seen more screentime than baseball. It makes sense. Baseball is the essence of an American preoccupation. It’s got a long, proud history, and it’s a sport that honors individual heroes as much as it does teamwork. The game is slow enough and the uniforms are revealing enough that individual personalities shine through. That’s probably why the studios were making baseball movies way back in 1942 (Pride of the Yankees) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). Jackie Robinson, the first African-American big league player was honored with a film in his own lifetime: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Since Robinson played himself, the movie was more than a bit stiff and polite. But that was rectified in 2013 when Chadwick Boseman played Jackie (and Harrison Ford was masterful as Branch Rickey) in the underrated 42.  Now documentarian Ken Burns, who chronicled baseball as a sport in 1994, is about to release a four-hour video on Jackie Robinson, made with the cooperation of Robinson’s widow, and concentrating on his post-baseball life as well as his sports legacy.

Of course baseball lends itself to fantasy movies too, like Damn Yankees! This charming musical transfer from Broadway (1958) rings a change on the Faust legend by depicting a true-blue fan who sells his soul to the Devil in order to help his beloved Washington Senators (yep, it’s an oldie) win the pennant. A more serious form of mythology shows up in The Natural (1984), based on Bernard Malamud’s novel eerie novel about fate and fame. And of course there’s Field of Dreams (1989), which has reduced many a grown man to tears, while introducing a phrase we can’t seem to shake: “If you build it, they will come.” (I suspect a lot of bad decisions have been based on that particular piece of folk wisdom.)

More soon. But for now, play ball! 

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