Fear Strikes Out (1957)

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I can’t think of another actor more apt to play this version of Jimmy Piersall’s story than Anthony Perkins. History reflects a more multifaceted even complicated individual.  By other accounts Piersall could be a real cut-up; here the story is very singular-minded in how it portrays its protagonist. It’s played for the drama which it no doubt was but you get to wondering if Piersall had written the script it might have turned out to be more of a comedy.

Robert Mulligan’s film suggests there are arguably the two most important people in Piersall’s life. The first is his father (Karl Malden) who from an early age instills his boy with the onus of making it to the big leagues. That’s the goal and his father watches proudly as his boy becomes a high school star while never letting his son rest on his laurels or let down his guard. He must be constantly vigilant, continually thinking ahead, all in an effort to land a contract with the Red Sox.

He starts out in the minor leagues and there he meets a pretty nurse, the relatively unknown Norma Moore playing the ingenue and his first wife Mary. She makes him deliriously happy and vice versa as they begin to build a life together.

But the conflict at the core of the biopic is Piersall’s own bouts with undiagnosed nervous breakdowns which would be now categorized as bipolar disorder. Put in the context of the era where mental disorders were more often than not left stigmatized and misunderstood, this is actually a fairly fearless film for taking on such source material. But, of course, much of the credit must begin with Piersall himself for being willing to acknowledge it all, to begin with.

Particularly foundational to this film is Jimmy’s ongoing relationship with his father. The scenario happens so often it seems like a cinematic trope but sadly it’s also very close to the truth. It occurs between a parent and their child when they get so vicariously invested and demanding and controlling of their child’s life that they heap so much pressure on them that it becomes nearly an unbearable weight to succeed. Compounded by the fact that these parents are usually trying to realize their own failed talent and never seem to find it within themselves to give their children a pat on the back or a word of encouragement.

You get the sense it was a vicious cycle. Their father never did it for them and so they wind up having a hard time showing any amount of their affection to their kids. It’s something, in this case, that must be earned on the ballfield or in Brian Wilson’s case earned with how many hit records he churned out and composed. Maybe it’s why a parent a la LaVar Ball seems to cherish the spotlight, commanding the media’s attention even more than his boy. Whatever the outcome is, it never seems enough.

It’s purely a testament to Karl Malden’s quality as an actor that he makes Piersall’s father into a nuanced man who is not a holy terror. In fact, even when he doesn’t say it outright we know full well he is proud of his son and he even loves him. He’s not a bad man by any means. That doesn’t make measuring up to his standards any less daunting or his behavior any less damaging.

Though tender and tortured in the everyday moments, Perkins performance on the ballfield feels artificial but you can hardly blame him for lacking the posture or the swagger of a ballplayer where hitting and fielding come as second nature. He looks too much like he’s playing at it — he’s too wooden — not like he’s actually played it his entire life.

Almost uncannily it seems that I find myself at certain movies only after the subjects are gone. Piersall was still a young man in the midst of a baseball career when his story and the subsequent film was made. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 87.

Whether this story is completely true or sensationalized, there’s still an essence of something meaningful here. That we should not be ashamed of our fears and we cannot live life in pursuit of what will earn us the affection of others. It will only succeed in running us into the ground.

That’s why the moment at the end of the film is so fitting, showing Piersall playing a lazy game of catch with his dad. There’s no agenda. No pressure. You simply get the joy of throwing that ball rhythmically again and again perfectly in sync with the person across from you. I’ve done it many a time with my own father and I permanently retired from the game after being little league champions in middle school. Still, I love baseball for those very simple pleasures that it offers.

3.5/5 Stars

The Stratton Story (1949)

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If you’ve never heard of the baseball player Monty Stratton, you’re not alone. In my days of wanting to be a ballplayer myself, I knew quite a bit about baseball Hall of Famers going back to the genesis of the game. But Stratton was not a Hall of Famer like Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb, George Sisler or Rogers Hornsby or even the members of the Bronx Bombers including Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio. Though famed Yankee Bill Dickey does makes a cameo in this one.

Stratton was not in the same category as these men and there is a reason for that. Tragedy struck his life. Interestingly enough, Hollywood looked to make a movie out of it calling on the talents of Jimmy Stewart as well as director Sam Wood. It’s Wood’s association with the picture which causes me to surmise it was meant to be another Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Wood taking up duties again and one All-American in Gary Cooper being traded out for another in Jimmy Stewart.

No disrespect to Monty Stratton or anything that he went through but at face value, his story is hardly that of Lou Gehrig. Still, maybe that’s the point and we can learn something from that. Generalizing and putting all baseball biopics together is in error and in this case, it feels callous. This is a film that makes Monty Stratton’s story into his own and it’s at times winsome in its simplicity and still equally moving.

Watching this picture anchored by James Stewart in another everyman role is as charming as ever. Equally enjoyable is Frank Morgan or even the budding romance with June Allyson coming to fruition within its frames. His brusque mother (Agnes Moorehead) who only knows the tough life of a farm woman even has her affectionate side; you simply need to get to know her. Also, having an old pro like Jimmy Dyke playing the big league manager is yet another touch of authenticity that might be easily overlooked in the modern day.

Through and through, this is Stewart and Allyson’s film as we watch Monty make a name for himself going from being an indefatigable farm boy with a cannon to the minors in Omaha, and finally to the big leagues where dreams are made. Equally important to his career trajectory is the parallel story of how a potentially disastrous first date turned into a lifelong romance with his girl Ethel.

She sees him through a great deal both the highs like the birth of their son to the lows, a fatal event that will change Stratton’s life forever. It’s in this portion where we could criticize the film for stalling but it does rightfully so as Stewart must make a decision whether or not he’s going to fight back to regain his life.

Eventually, he does, going further than any naysayer might give him credit for. Then again, you get the sense that Monty Stratton was the kind of ballplayer that most folks found it in their heart to cheer for. Part of that appeal is Stewart’s typical geniality certainly but the man he was portraying had to be fairly special too.

The spectator in the movie theater might remark Gable and Turner are better kissers on screen but I’d truthfully rather watch Stewart and Allyson. They’re more my type of people.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have liked Monty Stratton too. He seemed like a humble fellow who lived his life with everyday dignity. They don’t always make them like that now. The same could be said for this movie.

The film closes with the prototypical “The End” credit but that really was not quite right. Because Monty Stratton was still pitching and had a long life ahead of him just waiting to be lived. That’s the power of this story. It recognizes a man who did not let circumstance deter him from continuing to live a full life.

Stratton died on September 29th, 1982 and within that time he made a second comeback to baseball, moved back to Texas to start a farm team, and was deeply invested in his community until his final days both in promoting Little League and attending his local church.

3.5/5 Stars

Bull Durham (1988)

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Bull Durham is actually a fairly religious film. The only catch is the fact that the religion in question is baseball with its multitude of superstitions, curses, annual rituals, and rites of passage performed daily by all those playing in the games or sitting in the bleachers cheering on their club. There’s even a shrine set up to late-great Yankee backstop Thurman Munson. The other religious sects, namely Christians and adherents to voodoo, are shown as real airheads but really everyone in this film is a bit of a laugh.

I personally found the contemporary comedy Major Leagues (1989) a fairly nasty sports film but what sets Bull Durham apart is that good sense of fun while still truly finding the joy in baseball. Because it truly is a joy. I will stand by that as a lifelong lover of the game even if I hung up my spikes in middle school.

There are still very few feelings so exhilarating as throwing a baseball and hearing the crack (or ping) of the bat as the ball goes soaring into the outfield for a base hit. Or that great moment when you make that diving catch or get that winning hit and everyone cheers you on. Whenever the ball comes down the pipe in slo-mo and it feels like you can crush it to kingdom come. I experienced each of these wonderful sensations at least once in my middling career as a kid.

But most of the time, the experience is made up of a lot of strikeouts, errors, getting hit by pitches, and that’s just as much a part of the game as all those previously mentioned aspects. In such a way, it seems like baseball has always been wrapped up in the human experience and that what allows it connect all people.

This film, in particular, is a bit of a love triangle. Baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is annually immersed in the baseball culture of the Single-A, Minor League team The Durham Bulls. Each season she takes a young player under her wing, teaching them about the game, and holding court with them until they move on.

Her latest protege is the big strapping, bubbleheaded, heat-throwing pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Though Nuke has a big league arm he also can’t throw a strike. It’s the veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who is brought in by the management to refine their young talent. They meet in a local bar for the first time only to almost get into a fist fight until Crash cooly asserts, “You couldn’t hit water if you were falling in it!” And it’s true. But under the tutelage of Anne and the wry experience of Crash, Nuke turns into something. Someone who actually has a chance at “The Show.”

Crash was there once for 21 days but he never had the talent of this young kid. So he must watch others move on to their big chance as he stays behind and grinds out his career away from the scrutiny of the bright lights and big contracts. And it’s in Bull Durham where something becomes increasingly clear.

We so often think of sports as glamorous shows of skill by superstars with million dollar paychecks which is in one sense true. But for every one of those stories, there are probably a thousand more who will never be known. No one cares if Crash winds up with the most career home runs in Single-A, except Anne that is. He ends up scrounging around for another job. Maybe a catcher for a different club or a small time management position. In fact, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the Annies and the Crashes because their whole life is baseball and yet in sporting terms, they’re past their prime. Thankfully they can have each other to dance through life together.

Bull Durham has it’s profane moments, it’s slow patches, and some good ones too but it’s the goods ones that usually stand out and the very fact that this film genuinely seems to care about baseball — but that does not mean there’s simply reverence — there’s enough respect to show the inane stuff too. It’s treated as American’s Pastime. But even that past time had the “Clown Prince of Baseball” (Max Patkin) who is also fittingly featured in this one.

Some of the best moments happen on the diamond with our two ballplayers giving themselves mental pep talks whether it’s predicting the next pitch in the batter’s box or going through the signs. When they’re gathered around the mound not to talk strategy but to discuss what wedding present they should get for their newly hitched teammate. And of course, every time Nuke shakes off one of his catcher’s signals, Crash proceeds to tell the opposing hitter what’s coming as payback. That’s when baseball is fun. Because it is a game. When you lose sight of that it ceases to evoke the same pleasures.

3.5/5 Stars

42 (2013)

e3a98-42_film_posterStarring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, this biopic chronicles the life of Jackie Robinson, the extraordinary man and athlete who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  

The film opens and Robinson is playing for the all-black Kansas City Monarchs because the big leagues are still segregated and prejudice still reigns supreme. However, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers has ideas of his own. He sends a scout to offer Robinson a contract that Robinson accepts and he finds himself with the Montreal Dodgers. After the good news Robinson proposes to his girlfriend Rachel and they get married soon after. The two of them head down to spring training, and with the help of a black journalist Wendell Smith, Robinson begins to settle in. 

Despite being the only black man on an all-white squad, his athletic ability and speed lead to a successful season. Although there is some initial backlash it seems like Rickey’s “noble experiment” might be working. The next spring training in Panama opens and the real trouble begins. The Dodger squad signs a petition vowing not to play with a black man. Then, to add insult to injury Leo Durocher is prohibited from managing. 

It is a rough start to Robinson’s career in the big leagues, and soon it becomes obvious that this is just the beginning. Discrimination is rampant. Robinson is taunted, beaned, spiked, and threatened with death. But in agreement with Rickey, Robinson vows not to fight back. Instead, he beats his adversary on the field. This mindset, along with the support of his wife, and several teammates, lead Jackie to success. He took home the Rookie of the Year and the Dodgers, in turn, won the pennant. 

Fittingly, the film closes with postscripts that describe number 42’s impact on the game. It seems that some have said that from a film standpoint it is unexciting or unremarkable storytelling and that well night might be true, but with a story as good and important as this, I don’t think it matters that much. Fans, including me don’t care. This film is meaningful, because although I knew a lot about Robinson’s life, I never really thought about people like Ralph Branca or Ben Chapman in this light. They are more than just statistics in a baseball almanac. They were men who played a part in this story, whether good or bad. I have always considered Jackie Robinson one of my greatest heroes, not only because I am a Dodger fan but because he was a remarkable man and this movie simply reinforced that notion. Here’s to you number 42.
 
3.5/5 Stars