Fall Classics

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a preposterously entertaining postseason, with major upsets and wild finishes happening almost every night. As I typed that, Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam, the first in playoff history, to give the Rangers a victory over the Tigers in the ALCS. Even better for MLB’s image (if not the ratings) is the success of small market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers, the latter of which has surged into the National League Championship Series, quieting the yearly calls for an NFL-style salary cap. With that and the cheap-team strategizing of Moneyball still in theaters, I thought I’d highlight two scrappy low-budget baseball movies which deserve more attention (read: a home video release): It Happened in Flatbush (1942) and Big Leaguer (1953).

The recent history of baseball on film is not a particularly inspiring one, with screenwriters as prone to mawkish inspirational cliché as their sports-writing brethren. The established “classics” of the genre,  like the The Natural or Field of Dreams, are unendurable parades of New Age philosophical claptrap, which make Moneyball seem as austere as Bresson in comparison. Michael Lewis’ book about the 2002 Oakland A’s described how the team utilized advanced statistical analysis to massage their low-cost club into the playoffs. It’s the first baseball-themed movie to become a substantial hit since The Rookie in 2002. Which is not to say it’s terribly good. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin take this absorbing, but essentially undramatic, tale of market inefficiencies and pump it up into an inspirational tear-jerker. Brad Pitt gives a finely detailed performance – see the multifarious ways in which he spits out sunflower seeds – but he’s stuck in the iron maiden of the dispiritingly conventional plot, complete with invented family drama and wise cracking sidekick (Jonah Hill). To see how it also gets the history wrong, see Kevin Goldstein’s review at Baseball Prospectus.

The best baseball films seem to be loose and episodic, as unconcerned with structure as an extra inning game. That’s part of the reason I have a fondness for It Happened in Flatbush (1942), a modest, jokey trifle about an unpopular managerial change by the Brooklyn team (the Dodgers were not cooperative with the shoot, even forbidding use of their name). It was directed by Ray McCarey, who like his brilliant brother Leo, started his career as a gag man for Hal Roach, and later worked his way over to Three Stooges shorts. Some of the slap-happiness from the Roach shorts is retained in this squirrely film, in which battle-ax owner Ms. “Mac” Mcavoy (Sara Allgood) hires disgraced former shortstop Frank “Butterfingers” Maguire (Lloyd Nolan), who cost the team the pennant years before, to take over as head coach. The script was loosely based on the 1940 season of the Cleveland Indians, during which the players agitated for manager Oscar Vitt to get canned because of his constant criticisms. It opens with an on-screen title joke that could have come from a Fatty Arbuckle short. Over a shot of crashing breakers, the text reads:

“This story is fictional but anything might happen, and usually does, on a strange island just off the eastern coast of the United States. It’s people are friendly…could even be taken for Americans, but they have a language, customs, and a tradition all their own… the name of this island is–BROOKLYN!”

The movie hums with clashing working class accents and a relatably insane obsessiveness about the game. Maguire was coaching a semi-pro league in a rural nowhere called Clovertown when McAvoy came calling. Maguire rattled off the Dodgers’s schedule with ease, saying, “I haven’t missed a box score in 7 years.” Then there is the depiction of the fan-base, animalistic and near-rabid. After a disputed call at home plate, a particularly aggressive Irish fan tumbles onto the field and decks the ump just because he can (real game footage from Ebbets Field is intercut with studio inserts). When the team has a successful road trip, they are greeted by mobs at the train station eager for a winner. The movie sparks with unbridled passion perhaps because of technical advisor Johnny Butler, who, according to the AFI catalog,  “was a veteran of twenty-three seasons of major league baseball, including two season as shortstop for the Dodgers. According to studio publicity, at the time of the film’s production, he was working as a studio policeman.”

Another laid back baseball movie is Big Leaguer (1953) the directorial debut of Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly). This amiable drama concerns a summer training camp for amateur talent in Florida, put on by the New York Giants. Edward G. Robinson stars as Hans Lobert, the director of the camp and former third-baseman for the team (Lobert was a real player, who hit .274/.337/.366 over 14 seasons for five teams). Unlike It Happened in Flatbush, Big Leaguer was granted full access to the Giants franchise, and was filmed on their actual training camp in Melbourne, FL, and offers cameos by legendary pitcher Carl Hubbell and head scout (and former 2B) Al Campanis. It is airier than Flatbush’s succession of busy interiors, but is granted a hackneyed script, with constant clichéd voice-over by invented sportswriter Brian McLennan (Paul Langton). Not a lot of Aldrich’s acidic personality comes through in his first venture, although the presence of combative male friendship is present, to be fuller fleshed out in his more despairing war films (Attack, The Dirty Dozen).

Aldrich gets a joyous performance out of Edward G. Robinson, who huffs and puffs his way through like an over-agitated uncle, repressing his love of his boys through hoarse-voiced criticisms. There is one shockingly funny sequence in which Richard Jaeckel, who would appear in Aldrich films until the last one in 1981 (…All The Marbles), brushes Robinson back off the plate with a high fastball. Robinson tumbles backwards with the grace of a frozen turkey. He then rages towards the camera, and in extreme close-up his hair is standing on-end, his eyes flared, ready to brawl like a hot-headed 18 year-old. Robinson brings this childishness to bear throughout, even doing a twirling jig to one of the big band tunes the kids play relentlessly.

I prefer both of these raggedly entertaining items to Moneyball’s slick insularity, and wish Pitt had as much space to play (and dance) around as Robinson does in Big Leaguer. Now if only MGM would release the 1953 film in their on-demand “Limited Edition Collection”, or if the Twilight Time label would poach  It Happened in Flatbush from the Fox library for a future DVD, this MLB postseason would truly be one for the ages.

30 Responses Fall Classics
Posted By Heidi : October 11, 2011 12:19 pm

Ahh..the Playoffs. My team didn’t make it, but my childhood team did, the Brewers. I was as shocked as anyone about that. My husband’s Rangers also made it. It could get interesting at my house if they meet for the Big Game! Baseball is a passion at our house, and I am quite thrilled at knowing about two movies I don’t think I have seen before. FOr some reason, Edward G. Robinson and his wild hair seems familiar to me. But, I will keep my eyes open, hoping to come across them soon!
Thanks!

Posted By Heidi : October 11, 2011 12:19 pm

Ahh..the Playoffs. My team didn’t make it, but my childhood team did, the Brewers. I was as shocked as anyone about that. My husband’s Rangers also made it. It could get interesting at my house if they meet for the Big Game! Baseball is a passion at our house, and I am quite thrilled at knowing about two movies I don’t think I have seen before. FOr some reason, Edward G. Robinson and his wild hair seems familiar to me. But, I will keep my eyes open, hoping to come across them soon!
Thanks!

Posted By Jenni : October 11, 2011 1:41 pm

Both sound like fun flicks; I like sports movies to have some fun and not be so serious. I’ll have to try and find these, hopefully via the libraries near me. Hint to TCM to air them? Have to shout out to the St. Louis Cardinals, our family’s team, and their 12-3 trouncing of the Brewers last night!!

Posted By Jenni : October 11, 2011 1:41 pm

Both sound like fun flicks; I like sports movies to have some fun and not be so serious. I’ll have to try and find these, hopefully via the libraries near me. Hint to TCM to air them? Have to shout out to the St. Louis Cardinals, our family’s team, and their 12-3 trouncing of the Brewers last night!!

Posted By DrProcter : October 11, 2011 4:37 pm

Love to see these two, but my all-time fave is “It Happens Every Spring.” College professor Ray Milland invents a substance that makes the horsehide “allergic” to wood, and talks his way onto the St. Louis Cardinals. (The catcher is played by Paul Douglas). Bliss.

Posted By DrProcter : October 11, 2011 4:37 pm

Love to see these two, but my all-time fave is “It Happens Every Spring.” College professor Ray Milland invents a substance that makes the horsehide “allergic” to wood, and talks his way onto the St. Louis Cardinals. (The catcher is played by Paul Douglas). Bliss.

Posted By GeneRasputinHole : October 11, 2011 5:32 pm

along the same lines of “jusr plain fun” baseball films, one I enjoyed was the joe e. brown flick, Alibi Ike. just light and humorous, and practically thrown together, which is, I think, why its so fun.

Posted By GeneRasputinHole : October 11, 2011 5:32 pm

along the same lines of “jusr plain fun” baseball films, one I enjoyed was the joe e. brown flick, Alibi Ike. just light and humorous, and practically thrown together, which is, I think, why its so fun.

Posted By Laurie : October 11, 2011 6:38 pm

These films both sound interesting. I can definitely imagine Edward G. Robinson as a gruff team manager.

By the way, it was Nelson Cruz (not Adrian Beltre) that hit the walk-off grand slam on Monday. Go Rangers!!

Posted By Laurie : October 11, 2011 6:38 pm

These films both sound interesting. I can definitely imagine Edward G. Robinson as a gruff team manager.

By the way, it was Nelson Cruz (not Adrian Beltre) that hit the walk-off grand slam on Monday. Go Rangers!!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 11, 2011 8:00 pm

Thanks for the fix Laurie, I guess I was thinking of Beltre’s three-homer game against the Rays!

And I will definitely look into the Milland and Joe E. Brown movies. Keep the recommendations coming.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 11, 2011 8:00 pm

Thanks for the fix Laurie, I guess I was thinking of Beltre’s three-homer game against the Rays!

And I will definitely look into the Milland and Joe E. Brown movies. Keep the recommendations coming.

Posted By davidkalat : October 11, 2011 10:54 pm

Fantastic post! I agree this post-season has been terrific (I was wondering aloud the other day, “Why can’t all the underdog teams win all the time, and the hateful “good” teams lose all the time?” and my son didn’t catch the intended irony and explained to me very patiently how winning all the time would cancel out underdog-itude).

But I can’t quite agree with your anti-MONEYBALL stance. My wife read the book three times, and I’ll admit I read it twice, so even though I really really really wanted Steven Soderburgh’s meta-textual version to have been made, I was satisfied with the version that did get made–and I agree with Brad Pitt’s comparison to the modestly-scaled approach of 1970s thrillers.

The one aspect of MONEYBALL that didn’t sit well was the anachronistic use of the song “The Show,” which was first recorded seven years after the events of the film, and wasn’t composed by Billy Beane’s daughter. But the dramatization of Billy Beane’s very personal vendetta against major league baseball, and his almost zealous eagerness to embrace a philosophy designed to contradict decades of received MLB wisdom, worked very well in my view.

Posted By davidkalat : October 11, 2011 10:54 pm

Fantastic post! I agree this post-season has been terrific (I was wondering aloud the other day, “Why can’t all the underdog teams win all the time, and the hateful “good” teams lose all the time?” and my son didn’t catch the intended irony and explained to me very patiently how winning all the time would cancel out underdog-itude).

But I can’t quite agree with your anti-MONEYBALL stance. My wife read the book three times, and I’ll admit I read it twice, so even though I really really really wanted Steven Soderburgh’s meta-textual version to have been made, I was satisfied with the version that did get made–and I agree with Brad Pitt’s comparison to the modestly-scaled approach of 1970s thrillers.

The one aspect of MONEYBALL that didn’t sit well was the anachronistic use of the song “The Show,” which was first recorded seven years after the events of the film, and wasn’t composed by Billy Beane’s daughter. But the dramatization of Billy Beane’s very personal vendetta against major league baseball, and his almost zealous eagerness to embrace a philosophy designed to contradict decades of received MLB wisdom, worked very well in my view.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 12, 2011 9:28 am

I thought Moneyball was a good movie, but there wasn’t much baseball in it. There was a lot of discussion about baseball and baseball statistics (which baseball fans love more than any other sports’ fans), but not very much baseball being shown. I also thought that Brad Pitt did a fine job of just being. There was nothing showy at all. It was virtually all nuance because not much more was demanded. Basically, he was just there.

And I love The Natural. Field of Dreams is good, but I prefer Costner’s other baseball classic, Bull Durham. However, my favorite baseball movie of all time is Pride of the Yankees. Not only do you have Gary Cooper playing Lou Gehrig and the adorable Teresa Wright playing his wife, but Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey play themselves. Great movie.

Big Leaguer is an entertaining little movie. I saw it years ago. Good recommendation.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 12, 2011 9:28 am

I thought Moneyball was a good movie, but there wasn’t much baseball in it. There was a lot of discussion about baseball and baseball statistics (which baseball fans love more than any other sports’ fans), but not very much baseball being shown. I also thought that Brad Pitt did a fine job of just being. There was nothing showy at all. It was virtually all nuance because not much more was demanded. Basically, he was just there.

And I love The Natural. Field of Dreams is good, but I prefer Costner’s other baseball classic, Bull Durham. However, my favorite baseball movie of all time is Pride of the Yankees. Not only do you have Gary Cooper playing Lou Gehrig and the adorable Teresa Wright playing his wife, but Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey play themselves. Great movie.

Big Leaguer is an entertaining little movie. I saw it years ago. Good recommendation.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 12, 2011 9:30 am

And my team choked in the final week of the season: the Braves. :(

Posted By dukeroberts : October 12, 2011 9:30 am

And my team choked in the final week of the season: the Braves. :(

Posted By Vincent : October 12, 2011 12:10 pm

It doesn’t help matters for “Moneyball” (book or film) that the Billy Beane A’s, while winning divisions or the wild-card, never beat one of the “evil empires” (Yanks or Bosox) in the postseason, whereas the Tampa Bay Rays — playing in the same division as New York and Boston — have more than held their own against both well-funded foes over the past four years.

BTW, I’m a Nationals fan, just waiting for 2012 and especially 2013, when long-suffering Washington baseball fans may see a pennant race in D.C. for the first time since 1945.

Posted By Vincent : October 12, 2011 12:10 pm

It doesn’t help matters for “Moneyball” (book or film) that the Billy Beane A’s, while winning divisions or the wild-card, never beat one of the “evil empires” (Yanks or Bosox) in the postseason, whereas the Tampa Bay Rays — playing in the same division as New York and Boston — have more than held their own against both well-funded foes over the past four years.

BTW, I’m a Nationals fan, just waiting for 2012 and especially 2013, when long-suffering Washington baseball fans may see a pennant race in D.C. for the first time since 1945.

Posted By Heidi : October 12, 2011 12:26 pm

Dukeroberts..I feel you pain. Luckily my other team is still clawing for it, but if they lose, the Rangers are still in it. So, I have some hope yet.
I love Pride of the Yankees. Gary Cooper does such a great job in that movie! Well, I am not surprised at that of course. But I really am not fond of Costner’s movies, because I really do not like Costner. We watch them of course, but I am not fond of them. I would rather watch Baseball from Ken Burns.

Posted By Heidi : October 12, 2011 12:26 pm

Dukeroberts..I feel you pain. Luckily my other team is still clawing for it, but if they lose, the Rangers are still in it. So, I have some hope yet.
I love Pride of the Yankees. Gary Cooper does such a great job in that movie! Well, I am not surprised at that of course. But I really am not fond of Costner’s movies, because I really do not like Costner. We watch them of course, but I am not fond of them. I would rather watch Baseball from Ken Burns.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 12, 2011 1:13 pm

Vincent – You’ve got it backwards. The Rays and the Red Sox are the greatest success stories of teams using the Moneyball ethos. Both hired Ivy League, stat-oriented GMs (Andrew Friedman and Theo Epstein) after the example GM Sandy Alderson, and then Billy Beane, set in Oakland by hiring Harvard grad Paul DePodesta (whose name was changed to Peter Brand in the film).

David – I also love the book, although it has now become dated in certain respects, especially it’s anti-scout stance, which has proven to be wildly off the mark (their draft that year was pretty terrible). And I have to disagree with Mr. Pitt. There is nothing New Hollywood about the MONEYBALL film aside from its modest budget. It follows the banal inspirational sports drama template to the letter. I would have loved to have seen the Soderbergh version, which intended to hew closely to the process behind the Moneyball idea, and would have ditched the contrived family drama. Plus, Bill James was to appear as an animated character, allegedly. Now THAT would have had the spirit of 1970s experimentation, not what we ended up with.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 12, 2011 1:13 pm

Vincent – You’ve got it backwards. The Rays and the Red Sox are the greatest success stories of teams using the Moneyball ethos. Both hired Ivy League, stat-oriented GMs (Andrew Friedman and Theo Epstein) after the example GM Sandy Alderson, and then Billy Beane, set in Oakland by hiring Harvard grad Paul DePodesta (whose name was changed to Peter Brand in the film).

David – I also love the book, although it has now become dated in certain respects, especially it’s anti-scout stance, which has proven to be wildly off the mark (their draft that year was pretty terrible). And I have to disagree with Mr. Pitt. There is nothing New Hollywood about the MONEYBALL film aside from its modest budget. It follows the banal inspirational sports drama template to the letter. I would have loved to have seen the Soderbergh version, which intended to hew closely to the process behind the Moneyball idea, and would have ditched the contrived family drama. Plus, Bill James was to appear as an animated character, allegedly. Now THAT would have had the spirit of 1970s experimentation, not what we ended up with.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 12, 2011 4:05 pm

Heidi- I have seen Ken Burns’s Baseball a few times myself. I also enjoyed The 10th Inning that I believe he completed and was shown earlier this year. It was great. There was also a docu-miniseries narrated by Alec Baldwin several years ago which was really great. It had “Golden” in the title. The name escapes me because I have always just happened upon it while flipping around. It’s pretty great too.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 12, 2011 4:05 pm

Heidi- I have seen Ken Burns’s Baseball a few times myself. I also enjoyed The 10th Inning that I believe he completed and was shown earlier this year. It was great. There was also a docu-miniseries narrated by Alec Baldwin several years ago which was really great. It had “Golden” in the title. The name escapes me because I have always just happened upon it while flipping around. It’s pretty great too.

Posted By Heidi : October 13, 2011 12:12 pm

Baseball’s GOlden Age from 2008. Yes, it was quite good. I loved the stuff from the 1930′s and 40′s. 10th inning is good too, but I really enjoyed the 1st few Innings. Walter Johnson is my favorite player of all time, and they had moving images of him pitching. I cried. Not embarrassed to say so either! I have that one just about memorized. We haven’t seen Moneyball, I guess we will wait for it on demand.

Posted By Heidi : October 13, 2011 12:12 pm

Baseball’s GOlden Age from 2008. Yes, it was quite good. I loved the stuff from the 1930′s and 40′s. 10th inning is good too, but I really enjoyed the 1st few Innings. Walter Johnson is my favorite player of all time, and they had moving images of him pitching. I cried. Not embarrassed to say so either! I have that one just about memorized. We haven’t seen Moneyball, I guess we will wait for it on demand.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 13, 2011 7:03 pm

Being a Braves fan my all time favorite player is Hank Aaron. My prized possession is my ball autographed by Hank Aaron.

Yeah, you should check out Moneyball. I didn’t mind paying my $7.50 to see it.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 13, 2011 7:03 pm

Being a Braves fan my all time favorite player is Hank Aaron. My prized possession is my ball autographed by Hank Aaron.

Yeah, you should check out Moneyball. I didn’t mind paying my $7.50 to see it.

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