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Play ball!

Tracing baseball movies from ‘Pride of the Yankees’ to ‘Fever Pitch.’ By Erik Lundegaard

When Bobby Thomson hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers and into the 1951 World Series, sportswriter Shirley Povich wrote the following: “The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

When Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate and hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Oakland A’s in the 1988 World Series, broadcaster Jack Buck shouted the following: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”

And that’s the problem with baseball movies. The unbelievable in a game makes you stand up and cheer. The unbelievable in a movie makes you stand up and walk out.

Storytelling is about making life more dramatic; yet if the best of baseball is already too dramatic to be believed, where does that leave storytelling? How does Hollywood dramatize it?

Here’s what they’ve tried.

Hitting a home run for little Timmy in the hospitalInitially they produced biopics where the point wasn’t the baseball so much as the lack of baseball. Something always had to get in the way of playing.

Consider “The Pride of the Yankees” a template. Sure, Lou Gehrig was a great player — 2,130 consecutive games, third-highest slugging percentage of all-time — but Hollywood could care less from slugging percentage. They made his life into a movie because he died of the disease that now bears his name: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. His life, and the subsequent movie starring Gary Cooper, had a classic dramatic arc: rise (Yankee stardom), fall (ALS) and resurrection (“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth”).

Most baseball biopics in the 1940s and ’50s followed suit. In “The Stratton Story,” Monty Stratton, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a solid pitcher for the Chicago White Sox (rise); then his leg is amputated after a hunting accident (fall); but with a wooden leg, he makes a comeback, and pitches well enough to make the minor leagues (resurrection). Same arc for Dizzy Dean in “The Pride of St. Louis” (pitching star/arm injury/radio broadcaster) and Jimmy Piersall in “Fear Strikes Out” (taciturn outfielder/nervous breakdown/recovery).

Celebrity Sightings

Slideshow  26 photos

Celebrity Sightings

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Then feature-film baseball biopics disappeared for decades. They returned in the early 1990s with a couple of mediocre attempts: “The Babe” with John Goodman, and “Cobb” with Tommy Lee Jones. More recently, there was “The Rookie,” a good, quiet film starring Dennis Quaid as Jimmy Morris, a high school science teacher who makes the Tampa Bay Devil Rays squad at the age of 35. But “The Rookie” is in a different category: Less the fall of a titan to mortal status than the rise of a mortal to titan status. It almost belongs with the recent glut of films about fans: “Everyone’s Hero,” “Game 6” and (someone please get Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore off the field already) “Fever Pitch.”

Looking up women’s skirtsWhy did Hollywood abandon the biopic? Jim Bouton is partly to blame (or thank). In 1970, he published his memoir of the 1969 season, “Ball Four,” and it blew the lid off the game, revealing, amid the day-to-day commentary of a guy just trying to fit in, the smallness of management and the stupidity of players. These guys weren’t hitting home runs for little Timmy in the hospital; they were popping “greenies” and trying to look up women’s skirts. Hard to fashion a feel-good biopic around that.

Yet Billy Crystal’s “61*” did just that. The HBO film — not quite a biopic — gives us a warts-and-all account of the 1961 Yankees, and the friendship between Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) as they battle for the single-season home run record. What makes the movie powerful — besides the fact that Crystal, a lifelong Yankee fan, gets every freakin’ detail right — is that Maris’ rise and fall occur simultaneously. The more home runs he piles up (the rise), the more the press and public turn against him (the fall), because he’s not “the right Yankee” to break the mark. Extraordinary pressure is thus created, and that pressure is felt in Pepper’s performance, and in the release we feel when No. 61 flies out and the sparse hometown crowd finally, finally gives the man the standing ovation he deserves.

This shouldn’t need saying but fallibilities make characters more interesting, not less, and great baseball biopics are waiting to be made if studio execs only get off the schneid. You’re telling me you can’t make an interesting movie out of the life of Satchel Paige or Hank Greenberg or Roberto Clemente? Why not ignore the career for the season? Give us Jackie Robinson from the time he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fall of 1945, through the ’46 season with the Montreal Royals, and end the film on April 15, 1947, the day he broke the color barrier. Talk about extraordinary pressure! There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Helping misfits winSo what’s replaced baseball biopics? This formula, mostly: A team of misfits keeps losing; then they find a way to win; then they play for the championship at the end of the season.

This describes everything from “The Bad News Bears” to “Major League” to “Angels in the Outfield,” with films differentiated by: a) how teams start winning, and b) that final game.

How do they start winning? For some, it’s the myth of the one guy. Team sucks, this one guy wanders in the locker room, everything changes. Often he’s associated with magic. Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) has a kind of mystical lightning about him in “The Natural,” while Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter) is the work of the devil in “Damn Yankees!” An annoying little kid with a 100-mph fastball (Thomas Ian Nicholas) turns the hapless Cubs into winners in “Rookie of the Year.” You could even say the turnaround for the Angels in “Angels in the Outfield” is the work of one guy. The big guy. Which seems to me a violation of the 25-man rule.

Other teams begin to win through the myth of teamwork. This rationale is big in movies where the lead character is a selfish S.O.B.: Jack Elliot (Tom Selleck) in “Mr. Baseball” and Stan Ross (Bernie Mac) in “Mr. 3000.” Once the S.O.B. subsumes his gargantuan ego to the group, they start winning. Hollywood, with its above-the-line talent, relates.

Finally there’s the myth of knowledge. The players don’t know what they’re doing wrong, so it’s up to someone, generally an outsider, generally a kid, to set them straight. In 1953’s “The Kid from Left Field,” it’s the batboy, Christie (Billy Chapin), who’s getting tips from his ex-big league dad. By 1994 and “Little Big League,” the studios knew how to pander to kids. Thus Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards), who inherits the Minnesota Twins from his grandfather, is fatherless and turns the Twins around on his own. Daddies? We don’t need no stinkin’ daddies.

The best baseball films tend to combine rationales. The Bears in “The Bad News Bears” need Coach Buttermaker to care enough to impart his knowledge, they need to work together, and they need that one guy, Kelly Leak, to get them over the hump. They get it all. The beauty is it’s still not enough. That’s why the film resonates after 30 years. Read your Roger Kahn: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”

The big game vs. sex with Susan SarandonWhich brings us to the final game of the season. How do you end it with a bang as big as Bobby Thomson’s and still be believable? “The Natural” got away with it by making their home run bigger than any home run could ever be. They made it mythic.

Other films play smallball. Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) wins the big game in “Major League” by majestically calling his shot, a la Babe Ruth, and then bunting in the winning run. Jack Elliot wins the big game in “Mr. Baseball” by selflessly giving up the chance to set a Japanese home run record ... and bunting in the winning run. In “Mr. 3000,” Stan Ross selflessly gives up his chance for his 3,000th hit by — you guessed it — bunting in the winning run. You could call it a theme.

I’ll still go with how my favorite baseball movie, “Bull Durham,” handles the big game. The Durham Bulls start out, typically, as misfit losers, but thanks to the wisdom of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), the arm of Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), and that magical quality where everyone suddenly starts playing well together, they begin to win. And they seem headed for the big game ... when Nuke is called up and Crash is cut loose and he and Annie (Susan Sarandon) spend a glorious sex-filled weekend together before he heads out to find another team where he can quietly set the record for minor league home runs. Afterwards he and Annie talk about their future and, amid quotes from Walt Whitman and Casey Stengel, the summer, the season and the movie ends.

The big game? There is no big game. And for most teams starting their season this week, not to mention most of us, that’s the most believable ending of all.

Erik Lundegaard sees great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us. You can look him up at: