Baseball's Fading Dreams

Article excerpt

WHEN SPEAKER of the House Newt Gingrich suggested that the baseball strike might be resolved by all parties sitting down to watch "Field of Dreams," he was enunciating more than the postmodern problem of fusing fact with fiction, art with reality. He wasn't merely evincing the typical misguided optimism that suggests labor-management conflicts can be resolved with a wistful look at some halcyon period or at the "larger good." Rather, he brought to the forefront the way that Americans valorize the sport of baseball, especially within the rest of popular culture, the cinema in particular.

There is much discourse these days about the good old days when baseball "was a game." While it is true that baseball, like all sports, now is part of the enormously burgeoning, billion-dollar entertainment industry, with some unsavory, overpaid players and even less savory and hyperbloated owners, the game never was separate from commerce, Still, it is instructive to look at the movies' image of baseball. Like biblical narratives, the story of the sport and its heroes seems to be resuscitated and retold periodically, in part as a measure of where we are as a people.

Gary Cooper's portrayal of Lou Gehrig in the 1942 "Pride of the Yankees" was a wonderful emblem of a nation restoring itself and about to become the leading power of the world. The stalwart, yet self-effacing, Cooper in the role of the Iron Horse of Baseball is a veritable repository of American cultural icons from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway. A somewhat updated image appeared in William Bendix's portrayal of Babe Ruth in the 1948 "Babe Ruth Story," with a self-sacrificing and very domesticated Bambino the hero of a prudent postwar suburban culture. The film may be a far cry from the 1993 John Goodman vehicle "Babe." though this latter-day Ruth, for all his boozing and philandering, still is a way of offering baseball as the symbol of home and community.

A similar agenda is at the heart of "Field of Dreams," the Reagan-era motion picture that uses baseball as an image of a golden, half-remembered past. In the movie, as historian James Combs notes, all generational and ideological conflicts are erased as the Black Sox redeem themselves since history serves merely personal ends.

The 1984 adaptation of Bernard Malamud's The Natural did some major revamping of the book's hero to preserve the screen persona of the film's star, Robert Redford. Instead of the novel's venal coward. viewers get a retelling of the Arthurian legend, with the slugger's bat nicknamed Excalibur, its lightning-flash insignia the team's magic talisman, even a death-and-resurrection motif. French horns announce the title character's home runs, which are treated as apocalyptic, history-stopping events. Few motion pictures have so refused problematizing the hero or suggesting that baseball is anything else than the last great embodiment of mythic belief, far outstripping religion and politics. …