Hollywood Plays the National Pastime. (Reel World)

By Gehring, Wes D. | USA TODAY, May 2003 | Go to article overview
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Hollywood Plays the National Pastime. (Reel World)

Gehring, Wes D., USA TODAY

MY PASSION FOR THE MOVIES has always been what gets me up the hill, from obtaining enough education to teach film at the college level to exploring a myriad of cinema subjects in numerous books. Yet, as my father has always said, it was only a matter of time before my other passion--baseball--would surface in the writing.

I am currently halfway through a contracted-for book on baseball movies, but my focus films are not just any diamonds in the dark. I am keying upon a handful of populist pictures in the tradition of Frank Capra. The first of these, "The Pride of the Yankees" (1942), even had one critic affectionately redubbing the movie with the Capraesque moniker, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Yankee Stadium." As legendary New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel was fond of saying, "You can look it up."

Other watershed works in the populist baseball tradition would range from "The Stratton Story" (1949) and the original "Angels in the Outfield" (1951) to "The Natural" (1984) and "Field of Dreams" (1989). This is a feel-good genre of second chances, underdog victories, grassroots patriotism, and secular humanism. Philosopher Jacques Barzun once observed, "To know the heart and mind of America, one must learn baseball." While obviously an overstatement, a populist primer of the sport speaks volumes about the history of the U.S. and its capacity to endure with dignity.

For instance, one of the signature events in major league baseball history is Lou Gehrig's Yankee Stadium Farewell Address (fittingly held July 4, 1939). Movingly recreated in "The Pride of the Yankees," with quintessential Capra hero Gary Cooper as Gehrig, the celebrated athlete was the first high-profile victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, now known as "Lou Gehrig's disease"). His bravely poignant "luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech has come to be honored with the title, "Baseball's Gettysburg Address."

For Gehrig to be forced out of the game he embraced so passionately (setting a consecutive games played record that lasted 56 years), yet still describe himself as the "luckiest man" is a clinic in humanism--a celebration of the dignity and worth of the individual in the most trying of circumstances. To be able to face death and still lift the human spirit is an amazing accomplishment, as well as demonstrating how Gehrig became a hero to young Americans about to go off to war. Author Ernest Hemingway once attributed his touchstone trait, "grace under pressure," to another Yankee great (Joe DiMaggio), but Gehrig wears it equally well.

"The Stratton Story," with another key Capra actor (Jimmy Stewart) in the title role, opens with a Depression-era farm boy willing to walk 10 miles (one way) after his chores to pitch for a local all-star team. Even after a hunting accident later necessitates the amputation of his right leg, the former Chicago White Sox pitcher stages a successful comeback in the competitive Texas leagues of his home state.

While populist biographies, like "The Pride of the Yankees" and "The Stratton Story," build their feel-good stories upon reality, the fictionalized Capraesque counterparts often draw heavily upon actual players as well.

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