Friday, October 23, 2020

Foul Ball?: Baseball at the Movies

As I write this, my Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays are tied after the second game of a COVID-era World Series. Both their championship games so far have been heaven for baseball fans, featuring home runs galore, as well as circus catches, stolen bases, and heroics on the mound. Of course both teams badly want to win, but the Dodgers are seeking redemption for the bruising 2017 World Series in which the Houston Astros (or, as I like to think of them, the Houston Asterisks) launched an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that gave them the essential edge over my hometown boys in blue.

 Baseball has long been considered America’s game, so it’s hardly surprising that it reflects both aspects of the American character: the idealistic and the crass, the dreamer and the schemer. And baseball movies, of course, have also reflected this duality. The 2013 film 42 -- starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as the forward-thinking team owner who made him major league baseball’s first Black player -- is filled with a sense of hope. Two years earlier, Moneyball focused on baseball’s pragmatic side, zeroing in on the 2002 Oakland A’s and their cagey strategy for building a winning team through modern Sabermetric research.

 Back in 1992, A League of Their Own coupled baseball with budding feminism, in telling the story of an all-female professional baseball league that briefly emerged when the men were away fighting World War II. This film, starring Geena Davis as a star player and Tom Hanks as her beleaguered manager, gave us a maxim that still holds true (well, usually): “There’s no crying in baseball.”

 A stadium in a cornfield functioned as a symbol of reconciliation with the past in one of everyone’s favorite baseball movies, 1989’s Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner starred both in that film and in a 1988 flick that captured baseball’s sexy side. Remember Bull Durham? It hilariously pinpoints the way ballplayers are catnip to a minor-league baseball groupie played to a fare-thee-well by a luscious Susan Sarandon.

 Sex and baseball also mix, though more innocently, in the Hollywood rendition of a Broadway musical hit, Damn Yankees (1958). It’s the movie that asks the Faustian question: would you sell your soul to defeat baseball’s most hated team for the American League pennant? The sex angle of course is worked by Gwen Verdon, who – as the tantalizing Lola – is trying to seduce a good Joe on behalf of her boss, the Devil.

 Damn Yankees is marked by an innocent quality that puts it right in line with other Technicolor 1950s musicals. But other baseball films confront more directly the possibility of evil at the ballpark. One is John Sayles’ 1988 account of the Black Sox cheating scandal that marred the 1919 World Series. It’s called Eight Men Out, and it’s not too easy to locate.

 By contrast there’s the sometimes-inspired sometimes-annoying 1984 film rendition of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural. Malamud, whose literary success stemmed from later stories about New York Jewish shopkeepers and scholars, began his career with a strange work blending baseball with Arthurian legend. Robert Redford (who else?) is the heroic but flawed baseball player with the magic bat and the near-fatal wound from long ago. This modern-day King Arthur, the mysterious star of the New York Knights, fends off a corrupt team management while also coming to terms with the women in his life. The filmmakers, desperate to make some sense out of Malamud’s meanderings, changed his ending. The result is lovely to look at, but I balk at finding it meaningful.



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