June: The Natural
This month's movie of the month takes a dip into the Hall of Good Enough with The Natural (1984) and baseball movies. I love baseball and I love movies, but I tend to not enjoy baseball movies as they generally abandon good movie making in order to capitalize on a sports story or edit down their baseball action in favor of story and are barely a baseball movie at all. This month gave me a chance to revisit these assumptions I've had about this genre and a few of the selected movies really changed my mind. Maybe not all of them. Trouble with the Curve (2012) is absolute garbage.
The decade of the ‘80’s and into the MLB strike of the ‘94 and ‘95 season were a strange time for the identity of baseball. The game was still lingering as a connection to the past during this time with the soaring values of old baseball cards and soaring sales of new cards at the time (that saturated the market and made them without value) as well as the large number of baseball themed movies that were released. However, there weren’t many superstars of the game capturing the imagination of the country. The Red Sox lost the ‘86 World Series and it took them a decade to work back to relevance. The Yankees went Don Mattingly’s entire career without a pennant. High profile players in the league went through The Pittsburgh Drug Trials over rampant use of cocaine in the league and interest in the Majors soured. During this time, Cecil Fielder was the only player to hit 50 home runs or more in a season by hitting 51 in 1990. To contrast, last season two players hit more home runs (Stanton and Judge) and players are tested for performance enhancing drugs. It was not a very exciting era for real life baseball, but it was a boom time for baseball movies with the likes of A League of Their Own, Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, Major League, The Sandlot, Mr. Baseball, Cobb, Bull Durham, Dazed and Confused, and the Ken Burns Baseball documentary, but my favorite of them all is The Natural. Oddly it was the efforts after the strike to reignite the game that brought excitement to the game, PED backlash from too much excitement, a statistical age of enlightenment and now some of the most captivating competition the game has ever seen.
The Natural just might be the best of all of these movies because it takes a little bit of so many of the great stories in the DNA of baseball history. Like Tarantino making allusions to other movies in his movies, The Natural makes allusions to baseball history and mythology. Here’s a little trip through The Natural to find the baseball references that are hidden, and not so hidden, within.
Roy Hobbs strikes out the Babe Ruth analogue at the state fair to establish himself as a great high school pitching prospect before joining the league: In 1934 a seventeen year old Japanese high school named Eiji Sawamura who struck out Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in the first two innings. He declined to pitch in the MLB and was a founding player in the NPB with the Tokyo Giants. He later fought for Japan against China and The United States and in 1944 he died in battle in the pacific.
Roy Hobbs wants people to refer to him as the “greatest player who ever lived” while walking down the street. Ted Williams was known to say his goal in hitting was for people to say he was “the greatest hitter to ever live” while walking down the street. Robert Redford’s favorite player was Williams and he was excited to wear #9 in honor of The Splended Splinter.
Roy Hobbs’ young pitching career is cut short when he is shot by a stalker who can’t stand to see someone as great as she believes he is wandering the earth with common people. This aspect of the movie is very closely related to one of the first high profile stalking cases in the US where Philadelphia first baseman Eddie Waitkus, nicknamed “The Natural” before the incident, was shot by a woman who was obsessed with him. Waitkus missed about a half of a season due to the injury and joked that he went through over a year in war zones in World War II without a scratch only to come back and get shot by a 19 year old girl. He was an All-Star before the shooting and retired six seasons later, having compiled a respectable career of 1214 hits and a .285 batting average.
Bump Bailey crashes through the outfield wall, accidentally killing himself, opening a spot on the field for Roy Hobbs: Wally Pipp hit in the head and replaced to start Lou Gehrig’s streak. It was a little more than just missing the game because of a headache as is sometimes reported, Pipp was 32 years old, hitting only .230, and had never been much of a power hitter. He had led the league in home runs in 1916 and 1917, but those seasons only 12 and 9 home runs were needed to lead the league and he only hit as many as 11 home runs in a season in the ten seasons that followed.
Roy Hobbs was a fictional player who could both hit and pitch, much like Babe Ruth. Ruth was primarily a pitcher for Boston from 1915 to 1917 and split time as a pitcher and hitter that played the field in 1918 and 1919 before he was traded to the Yankees and was exclusively a hitter until the end of his career. Many years after The Natural came out Rick Ankiel finished second in the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year voting as a pitcher after posting a 3.50 ERA and striking out 194 hitters in 175 innings. That postseason for the Cardinals, Ankiel imploded, pitching 4 innings over three games in the Division Series and the ALCS where he threw 9 wild pitches and gave up 7 earned runs. The next season he had a disastrous 7.13 ERA over six games before being shut down. Before his meltdown he happened to be one of the best hitting pitchers the league had seen in quite a while, hitting .250 and two home runs over 68 at bats so Ankiel recovered from injuries and was back in the majors just a few years later as an outfielder highlighted by his 2008 season where he hit 25 home runs and had a .264 batting average. This season, Shohei Ohtani “The Babe Ruth of Japan” has been a sensational Designated Hitter, hitting 6 home runs and a .289 average (.372 OBP) and a great pitcher with a 3.10 ERA and 61 strikeouts over 49.1 innings before hitting the disabled list with an injury.
Roy Hobbs is an older player joining the league seemingly coming out of nowhere to set the baseball world on fire. This seems to allude to the influx of black players after integration who had made great careers in the Negro Leagues for decades before coming to the Major Leagues. Satchel Paige was a 41 year old rookie in 1948 for the Indians where he had a 2.48 ERA and was later an All Star at the ages of 45 and 46. Fourteen years before he played in the major leagues, he pitched in an estimated 105 games in the calendar year of 1934 and won 104.
Bump Bailey dies on the field early in the season to open up a space in the lineup for Roy Hobbs and receives a funeral on the field before the following game. There has only been one instance in MLB history where a player died on the field due to a hit by pitch when Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a submarine pitch thrown by Carl Mays. This instance was sited for the rule that required helmets for batters, although it was not instituted for thirty years after his death. Christy Mathewson was the greatest pitcher in the league and one of baseball’s biggest stars before he went off to serve in World War I. He was exposed to mustard gas and the injuries he sustained infirmed him to die just six years later at the age of 45. The New York Giants held an elaborate funeral on the field after he died, very much like the service for Bump Bailey.
The Judge is the dark owner of the New York Knights who is gunning for his team to lose so that he can retain control of the team. It seems his name is a reference to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who was the commissioner who presided over the Black Sox scandal, banning 8 players for life, but was also notorious for strong arming teams out of integrating the game. The Judge is also very similar to Charles Comiskey, the owner of the Black Sox, who was cruel to his players and refused to spend any money to make the lives of his players any easier, including his refusal to pay for laundry services.
Gus Sands is the gangster character who tries get Roy Hobbs to take a dive at the end of the season. He is not so subtly based on Arnold Rothstein who was the real gangster who facilitated the Black Sox throwing of the 1919 World Series. Arnold Rothstein is also thinly referenced in a character in The Great Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim.
An injury from the old bullet in Hobbs’ stomach may have caused his slump and looks like bad luck that probably ends career before killing him and sending him to the Gladiator afterlife of a wheat field. Okay, maybe he doesn’t die at the end of the movie and is just playing catch with his kid at the end. This is like Gehrig’s “bad break” loss of timing and coordination that seemed like it was just bad luck before anyone knew he had ALS.
As Hobbs breaks out as a star, he starts to have a relationship with the striking blonde character Memo Paris (which is very much not the name a real person would have) played by Kim Basinger who seems to be some kind of bad luck lady. This sure seems like a reference to the marriage of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, a baseball marriage with a blonde bombshell. This real life marriage was doomed right from the start as Joltin’ Joe didn’t care for Marilyn’s “disdain for bathing” and things got worse from there. The marriage was so bad that after the divorce Joe went to therapy, quit drinking and would meet later in life with Marilyn to read poetry together, and probably drop off some deodorant.
Later in the movie Hobbs is rushed to the hospital from a party for mysterious reasons. It is later learned that it is because of the bullet in his stomach, but this fact is kept away from the public. In 1925 Babe Ruth mysteriously collapsed either from the reason that was reported: eating too many hot dogs and drinking too many soda pops, or the reason that was suspected: VD.
In The final game Hobbs takes the field against the advice of a woman named “Memo,” a gangster, The Judge, and his doctor to hit a game winning home run that blew out the power grid of New York City until all that was left was a wind blown wheat field. This bit is not quite like the poem of Casey at the Bat, the ending where Casey strikes out in his big moment and all the spectators are left to go back to their mud factory in disappointment. This is more like the ending of the book The Natural where literary Roy Hobbs strikes out and risks losing his legacy as the reporter learns Hobbs was paid by the mobster to throw the game.
Actors that could play the game helped with the authenticity of The Natural, as Robert Redford was capable of hitting the ball out of the park where they were shooting and would launch balls in the stands to get the extras on hand excited for shooting. The movie also employed former baseball players to fill out the baseball rosters in the movie to add in authenticity of the game. Director Barry Levinson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel would shoot all of the day scenes during golden hour, just before the sun goes down to get a warm glow in the coloring of the film. At the end of the shooting night on every day of shooting as it would be dark out they would shoot a shot of the final fireworks scene. Well before “You’ve got a Friend in Me,” Randy Newman’s score includes climactic dramatic movements for the action in the games, themes that emphasize Hobbs’ midwestern whimsy, along with pangs hardening back to the darkness of the shooting in his youth. The attention to the reality of the baseball action mixed with stylized lighting and excessive sparks and slow motion for the final home run and the dramatic score make The Natural more than just a baseball movie.
I found a 1920 silent dramatization of the life of Babe Ruth in recent weeks on Amazon Prime that starred the Bambino and seemed to take some liberties with his story and is pretty unwatchable. To skip ahead a few decades of film history, The Pride of the Yankees (1942) is the earliest baseball movie highlighted here and it mostly does a good job of telling the story of Lou Gehrig, even as he had only recently died before the movie came out. Gary Cooper is an incredible likeness for Gehrig, although his motions of playing baseball on screen are incredibly awkward. The best parts of the movie are scenes that use stuntmen (where Gehrig dives over a table to attack a rich kid at Colombia) and the game footage shot at just enough distance and just out of focus to make it connect into the movie without giving away that they are not the actors on the field.
The 1970’s gave us The Bad News Bears (1976) ushered in a series of kids baseball movies in the ‘80’s even though it leads the league in cursing and inappropriate jokes. This was the first time I got around to seeing it and I was struck by the comedic tone of Walter Matthau and his unspoken storyline. Paul Newman has a storyline of being a conman coach in Slap Shot who claims to have gotten a better coaching job at the end of the movie, the viewer can assume it is just a con with no clear exit strategy like his rumor that the team was moving to Florida. In The Bad News Bears, Matthau’s character pretty clearly is the father of of the Tatum O'Neal character although he never has a grand admission and constantly slinks into his nature of being a deadbeat.
The ‘90’s had more baseball movies starring kids for child audiences including Little Big League, Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield. The Sandlot (1993) is the most iconic of the ‘90’s kid baseball movies as it touches on the renewed nostalgia for Babe Ruth (a pretty terrible movie, The Babe, tried to capitalize on Ruth’s story but failed to win over critics and did not involve a talking big), growing up in the ‘50’s and kids coming of age stories set to ‘50’s movies like Stand By Me, minus the dead body and child abuse.
Toward the end of the ‘80’s baseball comedies Major League (1989) and Bull Durham (1988) created an idiotic wit of baseball players, teams, announcers and fans. These are the two movies who have created a language for baseball in the decades that followed. I went to a Pirates game in 2010 where they ended up losing to the Brewers twenty to nothing. It was one of the worst losses in franchise history for a team that had spent two decades with losing records and yet it was some of the best fun I had ever had at a game because of the interactions of the fans in the stands who quoted these movies. There were a lot of calls of “too high” just before the many Brewer home runs landed in the stands, quoting optimistic Indians fans in Major League.
Bull Durham was one of the three major baseball movies from Kevin Costner along with Field of Dreams (1989) and For the Love of the Game (1999). He plays a catcher, a pitcher and a fan in these three movies and they all capture different ways of telling baseball stories. In both of movies where he is a player (Bull Durham and For the Love of the Game), he is a player at the end of his career although the movies are eleven years apart. Bull Durham is much more of a comedy with a romantic story line and For the Love of the Game is a romantic melodrama staged in flashbacks during a veteran pitcher’s perfect game.
Field of Dreams tells the story of a man who moved to Iowa to lie on his wife’s family farm and plays supernatural baseball with the Black Sox who were banned from baseball. It isn’t heaven, it’s Iowa, and it sure sounds like the ball players came through the corn field from hell. They mention that Ty Cobb is back beyond the corn, that they have cravings for cigarettes but haven’t been able to smoke since they died and haven’t played baseball either. Cobb (1994, one of a couple of baseball releases during the ‘94 strike) shows Ty Cobb to have won at shitty person bingo by being a domestic abuser, racist, murderer, attempted rapist and bad driver and he has been chatting it up with the eight men out. Speaking of which, Eight Men Out (1988) doesn’t paint all of the Black Sox as saints, although they are definitely the most exploited parties of the whole scandal. Fun fact about exploited baseball players, they were called the “Black Sox” well before the 1919 World Series because the owner of their team refused to pay to have their uniforms laundered and they were playing in dirty clothes. This was an inspiring factor for these players to get back at the owner of their team by throwing the World Series.
A League of Their Own (1992) came out the year that I really started to notice the game of baseball. I was nine years old and this movie showed how dynamic baseball can be, how cool the uniforms can look, and the friendships that come out of a team. The ladies all play real people and Tom Hanks plays a combination of Hack Wilson and Jimmie Foxx. The movie celebrated an actual exhibit in the Baseball Hall of Fame that is still there today. This is as good of a baseball movie as there has ever been only to end on the real downer of the Madonna song “This Used to be My Playground.” It’s really quite incongruous in sadness compared to the images of the older women playing baseball, making plays, getting into arguments, celebrating and enjoying their time back together.
Ken Burns nine part documentary, Baseball (1994), aired two years later on PBS during the MLB strike of 1994 and the second on the 1940’s highlights some of the real people from A League of Their Own as well as great footage of the women’s league in striking color. This documentary gives a nearly complete account of the history of baseball, practically season by season. It may focus on Boston and New York teams more than any others, and the The Tenth Inning (2010) spends a good chunk of time purely on the ALCS of 2003 and 2004 and although the Yankees and Red Sox both have World Series appearances in those season, the Red Sox in ‘04 are the only of the two teams to convert it into a championship. These two seasons told in a single drama would make a fantastic movie on its own, however it would suffer from the regrettable facial hair of the Red Sox in those years.
While the strike was seemingly killing the game, this documentary was saving it before the strike even ended. It was the culmination of over a decade of baseball movies that leaned heavily on the nostalgia of baseball fandom. It would seem to be a thing of the past, but within a short time, the game bounced back through the celebration of Cal Ripken’s streak, the tradition on villainy of the New York Yankees incredible World Series run and the PED home run explosion of the end of the decade. Thanks to Ken Burns’ Baseball a new era of fans with a longer memory of the history of the game, the history of the integration of the game, the stars, the triumphs and tragedies came back through the turnstiles.
More biographical movies came out after the strike. HBO had two great films in Soul of the Game (1996) that told the story of the great stars of the Negro Leagues and the Dodgers signing of Jackie Robinson (this pairs well with 42 (2013), the story of Jackie Robinson’s rookie season), and the Billy Crystal directed 61*(2001) that tells the story of the 1961 Yankees as roommates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Disney came out with The Rookie (2002) that tells the story of Jim Morris, a Devil Rays pitcher who had a late start in the game after discovering incredible speed on his fastball after coaching his local high school team. There aren’t very many available foreign language baseball movies but Kano (2014) tells the story of a Taiwanese High School team from the ‘30’s that came from obscurity to nearly win the big tournament. Kano is well shot and the baseball action is well done, but a little overly dramatic story and sappy music makes the three hour run time a little difficult to sit through.
Moneyball (2011) was the long awaited adaptation of the book that changed the way teams were built around the league after a change in the director in production. Aaron Sorkin was involved in the script, but it does not quite have the cadence associated with the dialogue he writes. Peter DePodesta’s name is changed for the movie and the new character is played by Jonah Hill earned an Oscar nomination along with Brad Pitt. The direction of the game play is fantastic although sparing. Dramatic lighting is achieved by turning out most of the stadium lights in night scenes, and the climactic Chris Pratt game winning hit is shot with nearly the drama of the final spark filled home run of The Natural.
Game 6 (2005) is nearly a biographic look at the 1986 World Series through the eyes of a fan, Michael Keaton, who anxiously moves through the city on the day his next great play opens as he perseverates over an anticipated scathing review by a notorious theater reviewer. Does that sound familiar? Have you also see Birdman? Instead of impossibly flying out the window after committing career suicide with his play, the Game 6 Keaton impossibly sees the Red Sox Win it all on an easily fielded play at first base by Bill Buckner. Unlike Birdman, Game 6 snaps Keaton out of his hallucination and he has to confront the criticism of his play.
Sugar (2008) is perhaps the most reality based baseball movie of any of these, hailed by Latin players as an expose of the league as it exploited players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Things have gotten better, although the state of the game in this regard is hardly settled as the Atlanta Braves were recently punished for their unethical signings, players were granted free agency, and a former executive was banned from baseball. Sugar is directed by the team that will bring us Captain Marvel into the MCU next year to maybe bring some light to the next Avengers movie.
Trouble With the Curve (2012), however, is hardly a realistic drama about the current state of baseball. It tells the story of a scout who rejects the newfangled ideas of statistical analysis of baseball players because his eyes know the truth about a player even though his vision is failing him. In the end, his daughter finds a future star player who is not on a team, all because she likes the sound of the way his pitches hit the mitt in the parking lot. Their idiot team signs the player based on a showcase comprised of him pitching to a single hitter for a single at bat in an empty stadium. This could only end in complete disaster for everyone involved in their anti-Moneyball approach to scouting. Clint Eastwood would have been better off signing the stool.
Richard Linklater made a pair of related movies around baseball players, Dazed and Confused (1993) and Everybody Wants Some (2016). “Dazed” only touches on the game as one of the younger players sees bullies approaching as the game he is playing in is ending and he needs to make a get away after winning the game. Everybody Wants Some does not actually show any baseball games, but it is heavily rooted in the camaraderie and oddity of baseball teammates. Despite the fact that it takes place before the season even starts, it does have some pretty great baseball in the movie, even if that baseball involves a swinging ax slicing a ball and batting practice antics. Jeff Garlin made a movie in 2012 that similarly steps around the periphery of the game in Dealin’ With Idiots. He is a comedian looking to write a movie about the fellow parents at his kid’s little league game as he struggles with the imposed pressures on the kids to win games and put up with the idiot adults in their lives.
Ken Burns continued his 1994 baseball documentary with The Tenth Inning (2010) where he addressed two more decades of baseball and the tribulations the game went through. This is not as heavy with the game as it deals with the 1994 strike, PED’s and breezes past the second half of the 2000’s. The 2010’s have had a resurgence of baseball documentaries, perhaps because of the creation of the MLB network in the last decade. Knuckleball (2012) is the story of a peculiar pitch mastered by only a few and chronicles the peculiar pitchers that throw it including R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield. No No: A Dockumentary (2014) tells the story of another oddball pitcher, Dock Ellis, known for throwing a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD and for his place in baseball history as an outspoken person of color during a time when the league was still working on integration. Fastball (2016) asks the question of how fast the ball has moved over the last century when it comes out of the hands of the greatest fire ballers. It questions the techniques of measuring the speed of pitches through the years and highlights players like Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan and Aroldis Chapman.
If I were running a studio with the ability to put out multiple baseball themed movies I would certainly have a long wishlist ahead of me. The easiest ask is for an Eleventh Inning from Ken Burns, and luckily he has already said that he wants to make that documentary and that it would open with the near perfect game from Armando Galarraga in 2010 and the botched call from the ump who later apologized. I’m sure that installment would cover the runs by the Royals, Giants, Astros, and Cubs but I would hope it would cover the Pirates breaking their losing season streak that started in the early ‘90’s, the Orioles empty stadium game during the Baltimore unrest at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the play from players like Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.
I would hope for that Yankees/Red Sox movie that spans both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. It would have to open on footage of the histories of both franchises including the sale of Babe Ruth, fights between Lou Piniella and Carlton Fisk, the fight where Bill Lee dislocated his shoulder, Bucky Dent, and so many others. It would be such a long opening sequence that the opening title wouldn’t hit the screen for ten or fifteen minutes.
Stephen King has had an explosion of adaptations of his works in feature length releases and prestige TV shows in the last couple of years so it’s only fitting that this high profile Red Sox fan should have a baseball story hit the screens. I don’t know much about his story The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, but I do know his novella Blockade Billy about a 1920’s or ‘30’s catcher who is seemingly supernatural in his violence on the field. Blockade Billy has a dark backstory befitting the era that he comes from where dark rural crimes might not have been reported on and criminals could assume new lives. Let’s do it, let’s get a Blockade Billy movie. This has to be the easiest ask on the wishlist with all of the King properties theses days.
There would have to be biographical movies of Hank Aaron, a dry comedy about Ichiro and the most Natural-like story: Josh Hamilton. Hamilton is one of the closest analogues to Roy Hobbs that there is in baseball. The year he was drafted, 1999, there was debate on whether he would be taken as a hitter or pitcher as a high schooler hitting monster home runs and throwing a high 90’s fastball. Hamilton was taken first overall by the Rays as a hitter and the Marlins took pitcher Josh Beckett with the next pick. Beckett debuted in 2001 and went on to win the World Series with the Marlins in 2003 and the Red Sox in 2007.
Between 1999 and 2007 Hamilton had a much more challenging time in his life. He had the skills to succeed, a freakish man, size 19 shoes, able to hop the fences around the fields he would train on in a single bound, injuries derailed his career. Not sure what to do with his newfound free time as he healed, Hamilton would hang out in tattoo parlors resulting in visible tattoos down both sleeves of his arms, but also resulting in hanging out in a new crowd. With these people Hamilton experimented and ultimately became addicted to various substances and his time away from baseball due to injury became time away from baseball due to season long suspension due to failed drug tests. He did not play professional baseball for the three seasons of 2003 to 2005 and came back the next year in single A.
During the off-season before the 2007 season, the Reds selected Hamilton in the Rule 5 Draft, a draft to give players who have been in the minors a long time a chance at the majors if they change organizations. In his rookie season with the Reds he hit 19 home runs in 90 games and proved that he could succeed in the majors while staying sober. The next season he was traded to the Rangers and he went on to lead the AL with an incredible 130 RBI. That season he shattered the Home Run Derby record for a round with 28 home runs in Yankee Stadium in an electric performance. In 2010 he was the AL MVP and lead the Rangers to AL pendants that year and the next. Hamilton only played nine seasons in the league, his last two seasons were marred by injury and a public relapse in a bar, but he will be remembered for his World Series appearances, his MVP, 200 career home runs, his magical night in Yankee Stadium at the Home Run Derby, and the score music for The Natural that would play at Rangers home games when he would hit home runs.
Letterboxd Review of The Natural
Ranked List of Baseball Movies
Next Month: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.