Friday, October 27, 2017

Baseball Goes to the Movies (or Root Root Root for the Home Team)

OF COURSE I’m rooting for the Dodgers to win the World Series. I’ve loved the team since it moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, putting down roots at Chavez Ravine after a crazy season playing baseball in the historic L.A. Coliseum, where homeruns over the short left-field fence were almost inevitable. I admit these days I’m something of a fair-weather fan, ignoring the team when they are flailing and paying attention mostly when they’re in the thick of a pennant run.

When I was growing up, though, my whole family bled Dodger Blue. That was the era when Danny Kaye performed a hilarious song outlining a hypothetical game in which the Dodgers miraculously whip their arch-rivals, the San Francisco Giants. (Oh really? No, O’Malley.) Not only did I learn the Dodger Song  (see below) by heart but I actually seized the opportunity to sing part of it for Danny Kaye himself, when he visited the U.S. Pavilion at Expo ’70. (If you think I wasn’t a bit tongue-tied at that moment, you’re very much mistaken.)  

Anyway, now that baseball is in the air, I’m taking the opportunity to wax philosophical about why so many Hollywood movies have baseball settings. I haven’t done a serious survey, but it seems to me there are far more movies about baseball than about any other sport, like football, basketball, tennis, or golf. Why? Maybe it’s for the same reason that baseball has long been considered America’s favorite pastime. Though it of course celebrates teamwork, it also remains the spectator sport that best spotlights the talents of a rugged individualist, the player who can win a game with one pitch or one swing of the bat. 

Looking back on the baseball movies of the past, I see that some of the most famous are those that focus on the deeds of a single hero, like Lou Gehrig in 1942’a The Pride of the Yankees. There are also multitudes of movies in which the heroics come from underdogs who unexpectedly rise to the occasion. Witness, for instance, The Bad News Bears (1976, plus a slew of sequels and remakes), as well as A League of Their Own (1992), in which women show that they too have what it takes to play ball.

For some reason the 1980s (the era when the Dodgers last enjoyed World Series play) gave rise to many notable baseball films. Both The Natural (1984, based on Bernard Malamud’s first novel) and Field of Dreams (1989) endow the sport with mythic dimensions. In 1988, John Sayles delved into baseball history’s ugliest moment, the fixing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox, in Eight Men Out.  Here was a case where the mythology turned dark, in a film highlighting the betrayal of America’s hopes and dreams. Much more fun was the subject matter of 1988’s other baseball movie, Bull Durham, with its focus on sexy fans who’ll do just about anything to show their loyalty to their favorite minor-league team.  

In recent years,  the heroics of Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black player, were highlighted in 2013’s lively tribute film, 42. But our cynical era is perhaps best represented by 2011’s Moneyball, a hit movie based on the real-life story of how the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, used computer-generated analysis to build himself a champion ballclub.  It’s a provocative subject, and the film was nominated for six Oscars. But I admit I for one feel machinations in the front office are ultimately less interesting than exploits on  the field. 

Go Blue!

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