Obstructed reView: Spring Training
As real baseball comes ever closer to reality (some might argue we havenâ€™t seen that in Kansas City for decades), I find myself getting my fix any way I can. Books, music, every blog known to me, even forcing the 11-yr-old to play catch with me (oh, man, he couldnâ€™t care less, but weâ€™re making headway) or the 14-yr-old to play MLB 2012 (she kicks my butt). The best and most satisfying distraction for me, as always, is movies. Baseball movies are everywhere. Theyâ€™ve been around for well over 100 years and donâ€™t show any signs of slowing down. Iâ€™ve collected my scattered thoughts about a few of my favorites.
Weâ€™ll start with a short-but-awesome section on Negro Leagues movies. The awkward head-nods to the inequity in MLB (before Jackie Robinson and many others started to change the paradigm) given in otherwise good-to-great movies like Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams and A League of Their Own are condescending and inadequate. Several movies and TV shows have tried with varying degrees of success to tell part of the story of this ridiculously multi-league era. Here are my favorites.
The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings had every reason to become a classic sports movie. The cast is stellar (yep, Richard Pryor will make this list twice), the script is freak-you-funny and it moves quickly right up until itâ€™s over (an underrated and valuable commodity in any movie). The movie pays attention to the history of the Negro Leagues. It deals with the social, economic, racist realities of the time and place;Â tackles barnstorming, showboating and plain-good baseball. It strays too long into the clowning aspect of the game at times, giving a warped idea of what the entire league was like, but it is after all a mostly-broad comedy. Characters are clearly based on versions of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, with some nods to ‘Goose’ Tatum and â€˜Cool Papaâ€™ Bell if youâ€™re looking. If you havenâ€™t seen it, this is todayâ€™s big recommendation.
The Soul of the Game is a basic melodrama that might have been great. As it is, the performances by Delroy Lindo as Paige and Mykelti Williamson as Gibson lift the movie from after-school-specialish cautionary history into something undeniably re-watchable. Edward Herrmann and Blair Underwood are also terrific in paper-thin roles as Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.
Iâ€™m mostly ignoring the 80s and 90s in this post. Youâ€™re aware of those movies, and Iâ€™ll get more in-depth on why Iâ€™m skipping them later. Still, Donâ€™t Look Back gets a mention here because of its star and its subject. I havenâ€™t seen this one but Iâ€™d love to. I could afford the 30 bucks it goes for on Amazon, but I just donâ€™t think Iâ€™m at the point of my life where I want to buy a VCR. Still, I will see it. Let me know if you have and what your take on it is. I donâ€™t think Lou Gossett can do much wrong onscreen, so Iâ€™ve been on the lookout for this one for some time.
X-Files episode â€œThe Unnaturalâ€ (that there is the Netflix link) is one of the strongest in the series. Itâ€™s not really about baseball but the mystery unfolds within a story about mythical Negro-League team The Roswell Grays (thatâ€™s a little on-the-nose, yes?). Itâ€™s also a nice story written and directed by David Duchovny with terrific work from Jesse L. Martin and the always-worth-watching M. Emmet Walsh.
The last work Iâ€™ll mention that speaks to the Negro Leagues years is Ken Burnsâ€™ Baseball. This will forever be my favorite documentary. I feel comfortable that while â€œbetterâ€ ones might be made or even be currently extant, I will neverâ€”everâ€”see a documentary (NSFW: Winnebago Man) that I will enjoy more than this 18-hour shortened love-letter to the best sport in the world. The voice-over artists belong in the HoF almost as much as the joyous and inspiring Buck Oâ€™Neil.
Moving on to a more general series of recommendations, Alibi Ike is a short story by Ring Lardner, one of the all-time great sportswriters. Itâ€™s been adapted and filmed and recorded several times, with the most famous version starring comedy great Joe E. Brown (a former acrobat and semi-pro ballplayer, later part-owner of the KC Blues and color-man for the Yankees). Olivia de Havilland and William Frawley lend some star-power to the supporting cast. If you get the chance, itâ€™s a nice look back at the comedic history of the game.
Amazing Grace and Chuck was something of a favorite movie for me when it first came out. I was in the beginning of whatâ€™s turning out to be several decades of wide-eyed innocence and misunderstanding of human nature. Also: Jamie Lee Curtis.
The Bad News Bears (not that one, the good one). It seems odd to me that the original movie is rated PG while the awful remake (Bad News Bears, no â€œTheâ€ this time) is PG-13. Is there any clearer evidence of our ever-more-Puritanical journey over the last 3+ decades? Walter Matthau is a pretty dark hero and the movie isnâ€™t exactly a comfortable watch, full of Â family-friendly comedy. Still, PG seems about right. The director is Michael Ritchie who has a borderline case for the movie-director HoF. His sports-movie resume alone is pretty (NSFW: Kristofferson and Dennehy) stellar; if weâ€™re really voting, heâ€™s got my support for Fletch alone.
Gung Ho: For the purposes of our little conversation here, I am including a few softball movies. The scene of the first game between the American Union Men and their new foreign bosses is a modern Royals fanâ€™s every-day existence. Except the collision at the plate (after all, Kruk never played for the Royals). Itâ€™s not a great movie. Itâ€™s pretty, well, Gung Ho. American can-do attitude meets Japanese efficiency and total emotional paralysis. Politically correct (or, you know, at all correct) itâ€™s not. Still, the softball scene is fun.
Big Leaguer: Any movie with Edward G Robinson gets at least a cursory watch from me. I wonâ€™t stay home from a party or a terrific concert opportunity, but Iâ€™ll happily stay up til the wee hours for the chance to see just about anything he attempted on film.
As I say, Iâ€™m skipping most of the 80s and 90s. I love the big ones from that period, but I find that I write a lot of words about how underappreciated the best films of that time are today. That said, I recently read that a remake of Brewsterâ€™s Millions is in development right now. I was full-on angry about that until I realized that the novel has been made into no fewer than 6 movies since it was published 111 years ago. For me, though, it will be difficult to top the 1985 version, starring HoFers Richard Pryor and John Candy as a starting pitcher and catcher from the Hackensack Bulls who are thrown into a life-and-death spending spree after the death of an unknown rich uncle. As they say: hijinks ensue. (I feel the quick need to break my 80s embargo one more time. Night Game is not a baseball movie, but itâ€™s a movie that has baseball as a flimsy central point of contentionâ€”much like this similarly terrifying assassination flick. Itâ€™s really kind of baseball-JAWS, Roy Scheider and all.)
Fear Strikes Out (but not that one, no matter how many times YouTube tries to suggest it): Much like the throwing motion of one Nuke Laloosh, Anthony Perkinsâ€™ baseball mechanics arenâ€™t, letâ€™s say, good at all. But his performance as Jim Piersall is arresting and effective. Add to that the great Karl Malden and the terrific director Robert Mulligan working on his first feature film and itâ€™s a pretty great flick.
The Stratton Story is James Stewartâ€™s best baseball movie (not much of an accomplishment, really, with the competition being Strategic Air Command where in the opening scenes he is a 47-yr-old 3rd Baseman). His delivery from the mound isnâ€™t much better than olâ€™ Nukeâ€™s, but Monty Stratton only has one leg for most of the movie, so thatâ€™s likely the point. Worth watching certainly for Stewart and his great sometime screen partner, June Allyson.
I wrote recently about our current â€œBronze Ageâ€ of Westerns. I think weâ€™re in a similarly-crowded era for The Baseball Movie. Since the former owner of a baseball team became the President of the United States (seriously, that really happened), weâ€™ve seen a huge uptick in quality hardball flicks.
The Rookie (not that one, the Disney one) is the best dramatized movie tangentially about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that will ever be made. Give me any odds, Iâ€™m taking that bet. By the way, the team found success after dropping part of their name to become just â€œThe Raysâ€. Isnâ€™t it a little worth it to discuss changing our team’s name to â€œThe Roysâ€? Huh? Guys?
Bleacher Boys, possibly best seen in a triple-feature with Henry O and PlayByPlayMen, is a documentary about 5 boys that dreamed of becoming Major-Leaguers but were rendered blind at early ages. Through their radio play-by-play men, they never lost their passion for the game we love.
Battlefield Baseball. This is the future of the sport. Get acclimated.
The Open Road is worth considering. Forget this guy for a bit and concentrate on the supporting cast for a second. Okay, itâ€™s also got Lyle Lovett, but thatâ€™s okay as he is a kind of hypnotically-strange actor.
As you may recall, The Bronx is Burning was a show on ESPN in 2007. It was only a few episodes and is worth revisiting. John Turturro (NSFW: unvarnished talk) and Oliver Platt had uphill battles to be accepted as well-known figures Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. Royals fans will enjoy the always-underrated Max Casella as RHoFer Dick Howser.
Chasing October is a pretty seriously funny portrait of a Cubs fan in total freefall. Devoid of logic but full of great interviews and fun stunts, the movie chronicles one fanâ€™s attempt to will his team to a pennant.
Dummy Hoy: A Deaf Hero is hard movie to find these days. Itâ€™s an interesting story about a ground-breaking pre-modern-era player who is credited with many early changes in the game. If you can find it, youâ€™ll like it.
Diamond in the Dunes is another documentary getting terrific buzz. I canâ€™t track down more than a few scenes, but Iâ€™m dying to watch the full movie. (Home is similarly hard to find, but what I’ve located has me excited to see it. Let me know if you have.)
Game 6 got pretty well ignored when it came out. Itâ€™s less a movie about baseball than about a baseball fan (no, not that one, a more realistic one) having a pretty tough time. It was written by Don Delillo and stars Michael Keaton and Catherine Oâ€™Hara (together again), Bebe Neuwirth and Robert Downey, Jr. Itâ€™s around for rental and is a good way to spend an afternoon.
Knuckleball got a lot of press in the run-up to its limited release last year and if you were lucky enough to see it, you know why. Itâ€™s a terrific, fast-moving documentary as much about the pitch as the pitchers it documents. If you get the chance, you wonâ€™t regret watching this one a few times.
Sugar is my favorite baseball non-documentary of recent years (narrowly edging Moneyball which I really enjoyed and destroying Trouble with the Curve which weâ€™ll agree never happened). Itâ€™s a simple little movie about a familiar story of a young Dominican ball-player signed by the Kansas City Knights and suddenly in over his head. Made by the team that wrote and directed Half Nelson, it didnâ€™t get a wide theatrical release, but itâ€™s readily available on DVD and can be seen on Sundance from time to time.
In addition to all of these recommendations, there are tons of less-interesting modern baseball movies and these promising upcoming flicks: Reunion 108, Â 42 and Three Nights should be out in the coming 18 months. Early reviews are cautious for the first and positive for the others. Canâ€™t come soon enough. In the meantime, let me know what I missed or didnâ€™t have time or space to get to. This is a subject weâ€™ll be returning to with regularity, Iâ€™d think. Get to it.
Iâ€™m going to recommend a little music for the baseball fan in all of you. Dan Bern has been writing terrific folk-casual music for a long time, now. This double-album from last year may be his best. Everyone, please enjoy: Doubleheader.
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