I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers…. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.
—W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe
Baseball movies don’t make money. Sports movies in general don’t, though sports themselves, merchandized up the ying-yang, cross-collateralized in virtually every area of American life and institutionalized as an unofficial national religion, do. That baseball movies are almost never about baseball is either beside the point or precisely the point. It’s a judgment call.
Baseball in the movies dates back almost as long as movies themselves. How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game was made in 1906, two years before D.W. Griffith started directing. Buster Keaton included a prehistoric version of the game, played with tree trunk and boulder, in The Three Ages (1923). Joe E. Brown starred in two Thirties baseball pictures, Elmer the Great and Alibi Ike (after Ring Lardner), while in John Ford’s Up the River (1930) escaped con Spencer Tracy broke back into Sing Sing to help his prison team win a game.
Hollywood officially got serious about baseball in 1942 with Pride of the Yankees. A biography of Lou Gehrig, the great New York first baseman who died the previous year after 17 seasons and 2,130 consecutive games, this Samuel Goldwyn prestige picture featured Gary Cooper (fresh from Sergeant York) backed by such diamond legends as Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey. It copped ten Oscar nominations and set the mold for baseball biopics: The Babe Ruth Story (with William Bendix; 1948), The Stratton Story (James Stewart as pitcher Monty Stratton, who returned to the game after losing a leg; 1949), Pride of St. Louis (Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean; 1952) and The Winning Team (also 1952; featuring Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander).
Few of these are interesting films. Neither is Pride of the Yankees as far as the baseball parts of it go. What’s striking (no pun intended) about the Gehrig movie is its steady undercurrent of morbidity. Partly this speaks to a fixation on Gehrig’s recent, untimely demise; when Gehrig is accidentally beaned while running the basepath following his first major league at-bat, the rookie pleads to stay in the game and his manager jokes, “Are we gonna have to kill you to get you out of here?” The air of fatalism is reinforced by the script’s none-too-subtle but provocative attention to the ways Gehrig’s domineering mother shaped and frustrated his life; Herman J. Mankiewicz worked on the screenplay, and this, coupled with the low-angle production design and perhaps the presence of a few ghosts from another RKO production the preceding year, tends to recast this biopic as a disquieting sunlight variation on Citizen Kane.