Monday, November 4, 2013

Just A Bit Outside: A Response to Rolling Stone's Baseball Movie Survey

Now that the 2013 baseball season is over, what is left for baseball fans is the Hot Stove League: four months of arguments about who will win/should have won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, the December free agent signings, and some light betting on whether Alex Rodriguez will be mugged for his wallet by a pair of hookers, or killed in his sleep by a squad of black-hooded Yankee teammates. So in the interests of having more baseball to discuss, I thought I would post this Rolling Stone survey of rockers naming their favorite baseball movies.

If the Rolling Stone editors had also surveyed jazzers, of course, they might have come up with a much better list. But they didn't. So, as a public service, I'll get the party started and list a few of my own. I'd like to hear other people's recommendations, too (it's going to be a long, cold winter).

Keeping in mind that as much as I love movies, I personally have never seen one that was as good as a live baseball game. Filmmakers seem hell-bent on adding to the game's mythology without ever getting under the game's surface, although some have tried, like the recent Moneyball (2011).

It's November. A baseball movie might help to fill the void until March. I was surprised by some of the ones selected in Rolling Stone's survey by Alice Cooper, George Thorogood, etc., and even learned of a couple I'd never heard of. All the usual suspects are there, like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and The Natural, but I was surprised at some of the ones that were missing, ones I would have added to the list. I'm going to start the ball rolling with comedies--not just because I think humor is the ingredient most sorely missing in baseball movies, which I do--but because as Joe Garagiola wisely said, baseball is a funny game.

1. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)-- One of my all-time faves. James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor in one of the best film roles of his career, this is an important film as well as a hilariously funny one. It is a fictionalized story of a group of Negro League players who split off from their abusive team owner and form their own successful barnstorming team. Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell would have appreciated it, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson, too. Satchel Paige probably did see it, and had a good laugh.

2. Major League (1989) -- When short-relief pitcher Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn comes in from the bullpen, to the sounds of a stadium full of Cleveland Indians fans chanting the Troggs' signature tune, it perfectly captures that key moment in a baseball game when the ace "stopper" is brought in to save the game, in a way no other film has ever managed. And when Bob Uecker as the archetypal "homer" radio announcer, calls Wild Thing's pitch "just a bit outside," it is baseball play-by-play like you could only see there in the front row, listening to ESPN radio and looking up at the press box.

3. A League of Their Own (1992) -- Like Bingo Long, another important film because it documents some of the fascinating story of the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League that sprang up in 1943, when baseball owners saw all their players marching off to WWII. Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna--actors who all seem to fare better playing for laughs than tears--camp it up, though Hanks' line as manager Jimmy Dugan beats them all: " Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There's no crying! THERE'S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!"

There is, of course, LOTS of crying in baseball. Every game has a winner and a loser. If you think the St. Louis Cardinals toasted the glories of sport and sang cheerfully on the flight home a few days ago, while the Red Sox celebrated, well... Knowing how to lose, knowing how to shrug it off and say "We'll get 'em tomorrow," is at the center of the sport.

The final scene of another great baseball comedy, The Bad News Bears, ends with one of the most authentic sentiments ever uttered in a baseball movie. The Yankees, managed by Roy Turner (played brilliantly by Vic Morrow) have defeated the Bears, led by their ace pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer, a girl (played more brilliantly by Tatum O'Neal) and managed by down-and-out Morris Buttermaker (played most brilliantly of all by Walter Matthau), by a single run, in a southern California Little League championship game--despite the Bears' magnificent come-from-behind surge. The Yankees have teased, bullied, connived and cheated to achieve their victory, but the facts are, the Yankees have won and the Bears have lost. 

After the Yankees receive their enormous trophy with a meek apology for their lousy sportsmanship, and the Bears receive theirs (a humiliatingly small consolation prize) Vic Morrow "graciously" leads his victorious boys in the time-honored, unicorns-and-rainbows self-esteem sugar-coating that Little League sponsors, child psychologists and heavily-medicated stage mothers all require in order to buffer themselves (and the kids, they believe) against the realities of life.

The Bears players all stare and listen patiently while the Yankees chant their insulting condescension:

"Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate? Bears, Bears, yay-y-y-y!"

And then, Tanner Boyle, a small but defiantly pugnacious Bears player, shouts back at them:

"Hey Yankees... you can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass!"


Jeff Fitzgerald said...

I believe some mention should be made of Billy Crystal's criminally underrated 61*. Though made by a lifelong Yankee fan, it's not sentimental in its portrayal of the way Roger Maris was treated in New York as he broke Babe Ruth's hallowed record. Thomas Jane is a better Mickey Mantle than Mickey was, and Barry Pepper brings a depth to Maris we never got to see before.

Also, I have a personal fondness for Cobb, which features Tommy Lee Jones as the aging "wretched old prick" Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Jones is excellent, as usual, but the film brings some measure of understanding to the events that made Cobb who he was. And, for us Jazz aficionados, be sure to look out for a spot-on impersonation of Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

Carl L. Hager said...

Jeff, thanks for the recommendations on 61* and Cobb. Over the years I have tended to avoid baseball movies until recommended by a reliable source (watching an actor swing a bat or throw a ball is normally more painful to endure than the movie is worth), so as it happens I haven't seen either one of these. But your brief but cogent reviews here have piqued my interest. I know Maris' record-breaking accomplishment was given roughly the same treatment as Hank Aaron's. Jones as Cobb almost has to be good, and an "appearance" by Louis Prima/Keely Smith cinches it. Many thanks.

By the way, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings is streaming free on Netflix right now.

Carl L. Hager said...

P.S., Jeff -- In all the excitement over this movie's baseball content, I failed to mention the contemporaneous and very satisfying traditional jazz soundtrack for The Bingo Long Traveling All-stars and Motor Kings. It's the real thing for a very real movie--a sweet score done for the kind of film-making that doesn't happen now in the age of political correctness.