DESPITE THE enduring popularity they share as national pastimes and the ability they share to stir and satisfy heroic fantasies, the movies and baseball have never quite formed a compatible union. It would be easier to organize a presentable series of theatrical films on the subject of baseball than other major sports, but the baseball player scarcely compares as a cinematic inspiration with the cowboy, the private eye, the femme fatale, the Old Testament prophet, the warlord, the prizefighter, the fugitive from justice, the victim of social injustice or the song-and-dance man.
Every so often baseball has been incorporated into a seemingly incongrouous genre like the Western or the musical. The American Film Institute's catalogue of films made in the '20s reveals that cowboy stars Hoot Gibson and Tom Tyler worked the game into the plots of starring vehicles: "Hit and Run" and "Out of the West" respectively. A source at the Library of Congress has heard of a B Western of the early '30s in which LouGehrig supposedly starred as a ball-playing cowboy and saved the day by beaning the villain with a timely throw. Unfortunately, the title remains obscrued in the mist of memory or heresay.
No baseball retrospective would be complete without "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" or "Damn Yankees." The former, a cheerfully corny, nostalgic musical comedy confection of 1949, starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as a famous keystone combination, O'Brien & Ryan, who doubled as a successful song-and-dance team on the vaudeville circuit in the off-season. "Damn Yankees," filmed in 1958, preserved much of the vitality of the hit Broadway show derived from "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," Douglass Wallop's perceptive comic novel about a frustrated Washington Senators fan who reverses his team's fortunes by entering into a Faustian pact with the Devil.
Baseball was more often a pretext for farce or romantic comedy. At the start of the 1927 season, Babe Ruth himself starred in a First National comedy called "Babe Comes Home." He played Babe Dugan, a baseball star whose addiction to chewing tobacco was the despair of his fiancee, a laundress named Vernie played by Anna Q. Nilsson. Babe tries to swear off the habit, but abstinence appears to plunge him into a batting slump. Tobacco evidently means as much to his prowess as spinach does to Popeye's. Vernie averts disaster by throwing Babe a plug just in time to deliver a game-winning homer.
Ruth starred again a few years later in a feature called "Headin" for Home," and appeared as himself in many films, including the 1928 Harold Lloyd vehicle "Speedy" and the 1942 biographical tearjerker about Lou Gehrig, "Pride of the Yankees," in which Ruth's aging but ruddy visage and convivial personality provide a refreshingly shocking, carnal contrast to Gary Cooper's embarrassingly sentimentalized Gehrig, a figure so naive and virginal that he often resembles the archetypal nincompoop rather than the strong, silent athletic paragon whose memory the filmmakers presumably wanted to honor.
Hollywood's posthumous tribute to Ruth, the 1948 "Babe Ruth Story" with William Bendix in the title role, proved even stickier going than "Pride of the Yankees," despite its far more colorful, outgoing, lovably hedonistic object of hero worship. It was also far less popular, although in retrospect the success of "Pride of the Yankees" can't help but appear a fluke of the times, inspired by such recent memories of Gehrig's playing days and tragic physical decline and also by linking his premature death with the fate of young American fighting men then being cut down in their prime.
Cooper's portrayal of Gehrig followed hard upon his Oscar-winning portrayal of the World War I hero, Sgt. Alvin York; and the legend to "Pride of the Yankees" written by Damon Runyon connects Gehrig explicitly with American men at arms in World War II: "He faced death with that sure calm and fortitude that has been displayed by the thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to us all."
If memory serves, William Bendix gave a much better account of himself in "Kill the Umpire," a 1950 comedy fabricated around the training and tribulations of a professional umpire. I'm not aware that the movies ever focused on this indispensable, abused fixture of the game before or since. When I was growing up and avidly following both the movies and baseball, there seemed to be two kinds of baseball movies. On one hand, there were the biographical melodramas inspired by "Pride of the Yankees: "The Babe Ruth Story," Jackie Robinson as himself in the modest but sincerely appealing "Jackie Robinson Story," Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander in "The Winning Team," Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean in "The Pride of St. Louis" and - the picture that really got me there when I was a moviegoing, ballplaying 7-year-old - James Stewart as Monty Stratton in "The Stratton Story." The other bloc was composed of comic fantasies with a baseball setting - "It Happens Every Spring," "Rhubarb," "Angels in the Outfield" - and situation comedies that evolved from realistic pretexts, like "Kill the Umpire," "The Kid From Left Field" (a Dan Dailey vehicle in which Anne Bancroft had one of her early movie roles) and "The Great American Pastime," a Tom Ewell vehicle about Little League fanaticism.
I haven't seen "The Stratton Story" for at least a dozen years. I'd like to believe its weathered the years better than "Pride of the Yankees," and the last glimpse I had on television was reassuring. The story of a young Texan whose pitching career with the Chicago White Sox ended after two promising seasons when his rifle accidentally discharged during a hunting trip and cost him his leg, "The Stratton Story" never labored under the burdens of idealization that now seem to suffocate "Pride of the Yankees." Monty Stratton was still alive in 1949, and the accident had occurred in 1936. He'd never had the opportunity to mature into one of the baseball immortals, but his misfortune provided a sound basis for inspirational melodrama. Perhaps Stratton's story was dramatically sounder than Gehrig's, since Stratton had been the blundering agent of his own misfortune and was obliged to rehabilitate himself after a tragic accident.
Stewart's performance gave "The Stratton Story" a decisive advantage in emotional range and psychological complexity over "Pride of the Yankees." Stewart was capable of projecting radical, distressing shifts of mood and feeling. When strong emotions were called for, he was always way out of Cooper's acting league, which was often attractive and appealing but rarely overwhelming. Cooper does a touching reading of Gehrig's farewell speech at the close of "Pride of the Yankees," but considering the bashful shrugs, blank looks and dippy smiles (weirdly similar to the expressions of mock-prissy chagrin Johnny Carson occasionally affects) littering the rest of his performance, the eloquent finale seems an incongruous, if welcome, grace note.
When Stewart suffered in "The Straton Story," you felt no hesitation about suffering with him, just as you feel no hesitation when the frustrated family man he portrays in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" explodes in desperate, guilty fury at the family obligations he simultaneously values and resents, since they've tied him to a small-town existence he had hoped to get away from. When Stewart is plunged into bitter despair, you really take the plunge, and when he regains his morale, you feel a comparably intense relief. The character has truly changed before your eyes and come through a physical and psychological ordeal emotionally stronger.
"Pride of the Yankees" and "The Stratton Story" had the same director, Sam Wood, a capable craftsman whose credits ranged from "A Day at the Races" to "King's Row." Their traditions are still apparent in sports biographies like "Brian's Song" and "The Other Side of the Mountain." Obviously, there's a special poignance about the case histories of incurably ill or physically disabled athletes. The fear of affliction is intensified when a strong, active individual is victimized. The inspirational possibilities are also magnified. If it seems especially painful when a gifted athlete proves physically vulnerable, a heroic acceptance of that vulnerability may seem extraordinarily touching.
No one seems to be making baseball fantasies any more, and it's probably just as well. "Damn Yankees" clearly outclassed stuff like "It Happens Every Spring," in which Ray Milland played a nervous chemistry professor who won about 40 games, including the World Series clincher, by treating baseballs with a wood-repellant substance he stumbles upon in the lab. Whenever a batter swings at the prof's pitches, the ball takes an astounding leap or drop. The premise obviously leaves much to be desired. The prof's phenomenal success depends on a gimmick that would, in fact, ruin the game if it were ever permitted, which it never could be. The sense of reality that governed a later Alec Guinness comedy about a misguided chemical genius, "The Man in the White Suit," never quite restrained the writers of "It Happens Every Spring," where neither umpires nor sports reporters get the least bit suspicious and rival pitchers never enjoy the benefits of the balls Milland has been doctoring.
In contrast, "Damn Yankees" exploited a widespread fantasy and did it without violating the rules of the game. The protagonist becomes a power-hitting phenom by seeking satanic assistance, but he doesn't do things to the ball that (1) can't be done and (2) make a mockery of the game itself.
By and large the drama of the game has been incidental to movies about baseball, which derive dramatic interest from conflicts that originate, evolve and climax off the field. "Fear Strikes Out," the absorbing biographical film about Jim Piersall, played by Anthony Perkins, was a rare example of off-field conflicts spilling over into game situations. Piersall's erratic behavior, allegedly provoked by Oedipal resentment of his domineering, fame-hungry father, was expressed on the field. He'd erupt in the middle of a game, disrupting play by throwing a tantrum or literally trying to climb the walls.
The Great American Baseball Film continues to elude Hollywood. In the "60s baseball itself seemed to vanish as a subject for movie storytelling. The only relic of that decade is "Safe at Home," a juvenile heartwarmer of 1961 in which Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris came to the rescue of a Little Leaguer who brashly boasted that he could attract the Yankee stars to a sporting banquet. Whitey Ford and Ralph Houk also did bits. The movie followed in the perfunctory tradition of "The Kid from Cleveland," which employed stars of the Indians' 1948 championship team in a flimsy story about a juvenile delingquent, and films like "It Happened in Flatbush" and "Whistling in Brooklyn," which included walk-ons by illustrious Dodgers.
Baseball movies were never plentiful, but with the exception of the '60s each decade had something worth looking at. In the '70s we've had "Bang the Drum Slowly," "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings" and "The Bad News Bears," none flawless but all worth seeing. "Bingo" was a rousing entertainment which might have evolved into that Great Baseball Film with a little more ambition and preparation. It certainly had a great neglected subject: the professional vicissitudes of black stars in the final decade of segregated baseball. Incidentally, one of the most fascinating entries in the AFI catalogue for the "20s is a film called "As the World Rolls On," in which former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, playing himself, took pity on an undersized kid and introduced him to the finer points of both boxing and baseball. Eventually, the kid goes on to make his mark with the Kansas City Monarchs.
The '20s got Babe Ruth in his own starring vehicle and baseball stories involving Jack Johnson, Hoot Gibson, Wallace Berry, Thomas Meighan, Richard Dix and Buster Keaton (it's one of the games he masters in "College"), among others. The "30s at least had Joe E. Brown in a series of baseball stories, including two, "Alibi Ike" and "Elmer the Great," derived from the literature of Ring Lardner. The "40s brought on the biographical cycle which was sustained respectably through "Fear Strikes Out" in 1957. It has now reemerged in films about Ron LeFlore and Lou Gehrig (actually, this one had more to do with Mrs. Gehrig) made for network television.
Baseball was also the pretext for the initial teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In the 1942 "Woman of the Year" they were brought together on a note of hostility when Tracy, a sports reporter, took umbrage at the suggestion of Hepburn, a political columnist, that professional baseball be suspended for the duration of the war.
There are no baseball movies on the horizon, but the game is unlikely to be overlooked completely, as it was in the "60s. "The Bad News Bears" was a resounding hit, the first movie in years with a baseball subject to make an impression at the box-office. The advantage was quickly squandered by the production of two inferior sequels, of course, but it can be regained. The most promising undeveloped property of recent years was Eliot Asinof's fascinating book about the Chicago Black Sox scandal, "Eight Men Out," which ended up hostage to a dispute between Asinof and producer David Susskind. An unbowdlerized biography of Babe Ruth is now feasible if only the right actor would turn up. At any rate, the game is thriving again, and perhaps that renewed vitality will induce a few talented and sports-wise filmmakers to take a fresh look at the game, its players and its abiding myths. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Top, Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in "Pride of the Yankees," and below, Jimmy Stewart (left) in "The Stratton Story."