CHICAGO – Play ball! The 2016 season is underway, so let’s just crown the Chicago Cub the Champions of the Goat. The Cub has been the subject of several films (Rookie of the Year, that Jim Belushi movie where he was a fan, oh yeah, Taking Care of Business) and the Chicago White Sox have their one major league film nod (Eight Men Out), but both teams suffer from a lack of championships – try one in the last 99 years (2005 White Sox). How to solve such futility? Just experience the five Wild, Weird and “What The F**k?” baseball movies of all time.
Three descriptive words with Ws, all with different and essential meanings. Encapsulating all of them in the following examples will become self evident, as they all have traces lurking in their core cinematic DNA. Baseball movies have had romance (The Natural), metaphor (Moneyball) and triumph (42), but rarely do they capture the “Three Ws” at once!
Alibi Ike (1935)
I have to start with one of the weirdest, an adaptation of Chicago writer Ring Lardner’s Alibi Ike short story. Chicago Cub player Frank X. Farrell (Joe E. Brown) is nicknamed “Alibi Ike,” because he always has excuses for not having a good game – a case of malaria, for example. Interestingly, Brown had two more baseball flicks (Elmer the Great and Fireman Save My Child) and Alibi Ike is considered the “best” of the three, but I just find it vaguely discomforting, and odder than most old timey movies. Joe E. Brown – probably best known as the horny old goat in Some Like it Hot – hams it up in a way that is very bizarre, and it doesn’t help that Fred Mertz of I Love Lucy fame (William Frawley) is the Cub manager.
The Wild – This was the first release film of actress Olivia De Havilland (Gone With the Wind), and she’s STILL ALIVE! The Weird – Joe E. Brown, no contest. The WTF – They played night games at the Cubs home field, 53 years before they actually did.
It Happens Every Spring (1949)
This one is kind of enjoyable, but still has all “Three Ws” going for it. 1940s leading man Ray Milland portrays Vernon K. Simpson, a milquetoast college chemistry professor who, through an accident, invents a serum that when applied to a baseball, allows the doctored orb to repel wood (beats a spit ball, I suppose). Faster than you can say plot hole, the good professor has become “King Kelly,” the latest pitching sensation. Speaking (like the film above) of classic TV sitcom characters, the “Skipper” of Gilligan’s Island, the great Alan Hale Jr., portrays a young college catcher in the film. The leading man, however, is so “out of his league” as a ballplayer, I would nickname him “Fey” Milland.
The Wild – The special effect of the ball missing the bat is mesmerizing. The Weird – The name of the chemical that causes the effect is “methylethylpropylburyl.” The WTF – None of the baseball uniforms worn in the film have team names, only cities, because the baseball commissioner (Happy Chandler) at the time wouldn’t approve using real uniforms because of the “cheating” element of the film. The times, they have a-changed.
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
The baseball movie with “Daddy Issues,” it was based on a memoir by silver age player Jimmy Piersall, who struggled with a mental condition. Pressured initially by his dominant father, young Jimmy becomes a nervous breakdown prospect for the Boston Red Sox. Who better to portray the flop sweater than Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins. Perkins famously couldn’t play ball, and was a lefty while Piersall was a righty, so switching hands made him even more awkward (knowing this before seeing the film makes all the baseball scenes downright uncomfortable). The MVP moment comes during an on-field breakdown, when Perkins the actor transcends Perkins the ballplayer.
The Wild – Any scene between Piersall’s father (Karl Malden) and the ballplayer. The Weird – When Perkins as Piersall climbs the fence during a breakdown. The WTF – The real Jimmy Piersall eventually disowned the film, due to what he felt was the filmmakers taking too many liberties with his story.
The Babe Ruth Story (1948) & The Babe (1992)
These two get combined because WHY CAN’T ANYONE MAKE A DECENT MOVIE ABOUT BABE RUTH? (whew) Not only was he one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived, but he also was one of the greatest living characters of the 20th Century. Yet, TWO MOVIES didn’t even come close to capturing the essence of his greatness, and both of the films are horribly miscast. William Bendix (1948 version) was about as likely a ballplayer as Truman Capote, and John Goodman was just terrible – Babe Ruth was an athlete, not a fat slob! At least the excuse for the 1948 version was that the “lust for life” Babe couldn’t live in that sanitized movie world, but what was the ‘90s version excuse?
The Wild – The first biopic rushed the production so the still-living Babe Ruth could see the final result. He died three weeks after seeing the film (coincidence?). The Weird – Both actors were miserable as ballplayers. This is an element, I would think, that would be CRUCIAL in honestly portraying one of the greatest baseball players in history. The WTF – William Bendix’s Babe Ruth saves a puppy and arrives late to a game, and that’s why he’s suspended. A PUPPY!
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) & The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978)
What is that old saying about ‘you can’t re-heat a soufflé’? I think the most amazing fact of these sequels is that they were made so quickly after the success of the first film in 1976. They also prove that merely having a “formula” – downtrodden adult, mix-and-match kids and Little League baseball – cannot reap creative fortune every time. The magic of the first film, which was captured through a combination of Bill Lancaster’s screenplay and the great director Michael Ritchie, is undefinable. The mistake that these two sequels make is that they try to define it. I did like William Devane in Breaking Training, and Film Autonomy publishers Mike Muniz and John Hoffart will dig that there are some classic 1970s Houston Astros making cameos (as well as the Astrodome stadium). But Tony Curtis in Go to Japan? Fail! (and I love Tony Curtis).
The Wild – Bill Lancaster is Burt Lancaster’s son, and he returned to write Go to Japan, which currently has a ZERO on Rotten Tomatoes. Soufflé flop. The Weird – Watching the original cast grow into awkward teenagers during the sequels. The WTF – Great story, the “Let them play!” chant in Breaking Training appeared later in a bit of major league baseball history. The infamous 2002 All-Star game ended in a tie, because they ran out of pitchers in extra innings. When it was announced, the crowd chanted “LET THEM PLAY!” Art meets life.
BONUS BABY: A tribute to The Bad News Bears (1976)
The 40th Anniversary of this baseball movie classic – arguably one of the greatest diamond gems ever – occurred on April 7th. The magic was in the mix, as mentioned above, but the charm factor was totally provided by the great Walter Matthau, who crushed his role as Morris Buttermaker (what a name), the put-upon coach of the Bears. The “undefinability” were in the elements of the film, and how they all came together, baseball and character-wise. As a child of the 1970s, I can look back not only for the nostalgia of the clothes and kids, but the emotions of growing up during the last days of the Vietnam War, Watergate and Whip Inflation Now, and what affect they had on the atmosphere, which was PERFECTLY captured in this film. The Bad News Bears is an iconic companion to director Michael Ritchie’s other two 1970s classics, The Candidate (1972) and Smile (1975). The three films together can tell you everything you want to know about the “Have a Nice Day” Decade, and life itself.
I’m only doing this to keep the article consistent…The Wild – Seeing a reflection of my 1970s pals in those kid actors. The Weird – Actor Vic Morrow is a standout as the rival coach, only to die four years later on a movie set in the infamous Twilight Zone: The Movie accident. The WTF – My oldest sister’s youngest child is named Michael Ritchie. You can’t make stuff like that up.
All films are available on DVD and through digital download (see providers for availability). Alibi Ike is on Warner Home Video. It Happens Every Spring is on 20th Century Fox Home Video. Fear Strikes Out is on Paramount Home Video. The Babe Ruth Story is on Warner Home Video, The Babe is on Universal Studios Home Entertainment. and The Bad New Bears, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan are on Paramount Home Video.