Looking Bad on Paper, Worse on Film: Portrayals of Sports Journalists in Three Classic Baseball Films
Carvalho, John, Kirby, Nicholas, Nine
Where there is baseball, there are sports journalists--a relationship that has evolved as the media and the sport have evolved. In some periods (the 1920s and 1930s, for example), baseball teams and local sports journalists worked together to promote the home team and its games. In other periods (the 1970s, for example), journalists took a more objective approach as baseball culture experienced important transformations.
Baseball players, sports journalists, and even academic scholars have offered their insights into this working relationship. But how is this relationship presented in films? This article will examine three classic baseball films that are set early in the twentieth century and feature journalists as prominent characters--Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Natural (1984), and Eight Men Out (1988)--to see how Hollywood perceived the sportswriters who covered baseball.
Although each film is set during this time period, the films themselves were produced at two different times: The Pride of the Yankees in 1942, and The Natural and Eight Men Out in the 1980s. Thus, a study of these films provides an additional perspective, by reflecting two different views of baseball's Golden Age. The films also present a variety of approaches to journalism, particularly in relation to ethics. But the profession's response to the journalists' behaviors in these films could differ from how audiences might be expected to respond.
Sports journalism suffered a tarnished reputation from its early days as a favorite strategy of yellow journalism newspaper publishers. (1) The popularity of sports in the 1920s presented publishers with an ethical dilemma. As W. P. Beazell, managing editor of the New York World, said, "There is no single classification of news that sells more papers than sports." (2) Sports promoters gladly offered media access, recognizing that media coverage translated into ticket sales, which made sports coverage easier. The ethics of the interplay resembled a business relationship more than a journalist-source relationship. Recognizing the relation of newspaper coverage to healthy gate receipts, baseball club owners paid the travel expenses of the sports journalists who covered their teams. (3)
At many of these newspapers, "old guard" senior editors tried to protect their newspapers from the evils of professional sports, promoting amateur athletics as a wholesome activity for young people. (4) Still, sports journalists faced pressure from several angles--promoters, sources, and even publishers--and they often succumbed. Factor in an organizational flaw--lack of editorial supervision--and the potential for unchecked unethical behavior was clear. Sports editors often enjoyed professional autonomy, with their pages bypassing the copy desk and going directly to the composing room. (5)
The Depression might be expected to cause a decrease in sports coverage, given the depth of the economic crisis. But sports retained its proportion of newspaper page counts, even if loss of advertising caused those newspapers to publish fewer pages. Even to Depression-era newspapers, sporting events like the World Series were an important focus of coverage. (6) Baseball team owners also responded to the challenge of Depression-era economics, through an increased emphasis on public relations. (7)
One valuable reflection of an era's attitudes toward journalists can be found in films from the era that feature journalists. As one author wrote, "The narrative patterns of the journalism film genre are mirrors of, and metaphors for, the relationship between the public and the press, its ruined hopes, desperate wishes, and ambiguous promises." (8) Sports journalists rarely serve as the central characters in films. (Even in the films of this study, the journalists serve as supporting characters.) Only one recent film, 1985's Fever Pitch (as distinguished from the 2005 baseball film of the same title), featured a sports journalist. …