“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything,
it’s just beautiful to watch.”
it’s just beautiful to watch.”
—Woody Allen in Zelig (1983)
There have been many films made in Hollywood that have baseball as its central theme. There are, of course, the best-known Hollywood films, including Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), The Natural (1984), Eight Men Out (1988), Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989).
Then there is The Phenom (2016), which I recently viewed on Netflix, a little gem of a movie about the relationship between a father and a son and how this negatively affects the son’s mental abilities as a pitcher. It is filled with psychological insights. Such were generally absent from the older films that I have seen over the years like Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Babe Ruth Story (1948), The Stratton Story (1949) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
Psychology was present, however, in Fear Strikes Out (1957), based on the life story of Jimmy Piersall [born 1929], who when the movie was made was playing for the Boston Red Sox. (The role of Jimmy Piersall was played by Anthony Perkins.) Piersall’s erratic behavior on the field during the 1952 season was later diagnosed as a mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder. He received treatment and returned to the game in time for the 1953 season. The relationship between father and son is an important part of the movie; Karl Malden plays John Piersall, Jimmy’s father.
You can view the various lists of all baseball films [here], [here] and [here], which number almost 300 films. The field is uneven, no doubt. If you are a die-hard baseball fan, however, you will enjoy them, just for the ballpark scenes, such as the one blow showing Roy Hobbs hitting ball after ball into the bleachers with his home-made bat. Hobbs calls the bat “Wonderboy,” which has a bolt of lightening carved into the barrel.
It is true that one of the appeals of sports, which includes baseball, is that it doesn’t require meaning outside of its domain. It is what it is. Sports is entertainment, and as such its chief purpose is enjoyment, viewing the athletic abilities and exploits of professional athletes. Some people like baseball, some don’t. Some people like films about baseball; some don’t. This does not say anything about a person other than his personal preferences or tastes in entertainment.
To a large degree, baseball films of a certain vintage told the story of America, as it ought to be, in an idealized form, by addressing issues of race, ethnicity, class and national identity, among others. This was thought necessary as a means to bind the nation together through measures that were overtly less political and less nationalistic. Watching a game or a film idealization of a team sport can provide the distraction necessary from what is viewed as bleak around us. It has a good purpose, even if it seems corny or cheesy today.
Baseball has been a constant in America; and there have been hundreds of films about baseball since the first one, Mike Donlin’s Right Off The Bat, in 1915, one of the 25 silent films produced between 1915 and 1928. Sadly, there is no extant copy of this film, but 10 baseball films from this period have survived. For various reasons, including intentional destruction, many such films are considered lost. The oldest surviving film is Shut Out in the Ninth, which dates to 1917.
This is extraordinary, considering that this is higher than the survival rate for all silent films (around 25 percent), which were all produced during what is called the nitrate era (approx 1890 to the early 1950s) for their use of nitrate film stock (i.e., nitrocellulose). Nitrate film, however, is prone to decomposition but also to catching on fire and causing explosions due to its chemical instability. As a result, there have been a number of fires, including the famous one, in 1927, at Montreal’s Laurier Palace Theatre.
In the early 1950s, nitrate film was replaced by cellulose triacetate or “safety film.” Older films that were not destroyed, either for economic or safety reasons, were transferred to safety film. Such is the reason that we can watch old films today, including some of the baseball films made before 1950. Some conclude that nitrate films have aesthetic qualities lacking in modern 35mm films. Yet, its showing today requires taking exceptional safety precautions and only three venues in the U.S. are so equipped.
Baseball no longer has the same unifying appeal it once did, yet it has helped lead to social changes in America in a way that politics could not. Roger Kahn, who followed the Brooklyn Dodgers as a sports writer, in 1952 and 1953, after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947, writes in The Boys of Summer (1972): “By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing. But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.”