Saturday, April 6, 2024

Review: Baseball: The Movie (2024)

By Noah Gittell

If you are a good-sized baseball fan, you probably love baseball movies. 

You got a little weepy at the "Dad, wanna have a catch?" line in "Field of Dreams." You laughed at "There's no crying in baseball" during "A League of Their Own." You laughed harder at "Candlesticks always make a nice gift. OK? Let's get two!" in "Bull Durham."

You may have even enjoy the silly movie from about 74 years ago, "Kill the Umpire" ... although that may be stretching the point a bit.  

The point is that there is a relatively long tradition of baseball movies in this country, and the total collection has gone through a variety of forms over the years. That makes it an interesting starting point for a good-sized analysis. Film critic and writer Noah Gittell sets out to publish a something of a opinionated history of the subject in his book, "Baseball: The Movie." 

Gittell's goal certainly is worthwhile. He takes on most of the major releases in this class, starting with "The Pride of the Yankees" and running through "Sugar" (a 2008 movie about a fictional pitcher from the Dominican Republic). I suppose you could think of a clothesline, with a series of films hung up for inspection one after another in chronological order, more or less. 

The movies mentioned above come up. So do such films as "The Jackie Robinson Story," "Fear Strikes Out," "Damn Yankees," "Bang the Drum Slowly," "The Natural," "Major League," "Moneyball" and "42." They get a full analysis here, as do some others in passing. There are a few asides along the way, such as this sidebar: "Is 'The Naked Gun' a Baseball Movie? An Investigation."

Gittell obviously put in some time here in collecting information for the book. There are many signs of research that come up along the way. For example, I had never heard that "Moneyball" went through a big rewrite once director Steven Soderbergh fell away from the project. So it's fun to go through the movies and see how they are remembered now. While you might argue about where a particular movie ranks in order of best baseball films based on the words in the essay, most are in the right neighborhood. 

But does the book work? As the car companies say, your mileage may vary. The guess here is that reactions are going to be all over the place. 

Let's start with the obvious: The readers needs to have seen the movies involved. I was doing fine in the first two-thirds of the book, and then I hit a wall of movies I haven't seen. I would guess that plenty of people have viewed "The Sandlot," "Rookie of the Year," "Trouble withe the Curve" and "Fences." I missed them all. So those portions of the book were off little interest to me, and I had to skim through them very quickly. 

Then we get into the matter of approach, and here's where the arguments start. Gittell definitely is on the left side of the political spectrum as these things go. He quotes sports writer Dave Zirin - the most liberal voice in the sports business, or someone at least in the running - a few times during the course of the book. The movies in question are rated through the prism, with frequent questions about how minorities and women are portrayed. That might be a fair enough point in some cases, but sometimes it can feel like the point is pounded into the story with a hammer instead of a keyboard. I can't say I saw a comparison of "Moneyball" to Howard Dean's Presidential campaign coming, but there's one here.

That viewpoint comes out in complaints about what movies are made in the first place. Gittell argues that more movies about Latin players should be made. His list includes a story about a 19th century baseball player from Cuba named Esteban Enrique Bellan, who played in America from 1868 to 1873. That's a little idealistic, since movies are designed for a mass audience .... and such a film might have trouble getting financing. 

Then there's the matter of timing. Some of the movies are set in a particular era. "The Natural" is set in 1939, so it's rather unrealistic to think African Americans would play much of a role of the film. With "A League of Their Own," it would be quite natural to think that some of the women of the 1940s would be torn with the decision of playing ball or raising a family. With "Major League," a movie that has some laughs but is usually too silly to take too seriously, the only good-sized role for a woman is the evil owner who wants the team to stink so she can move it from Cleveland to Miami and make money.

The movies on Jackie Robinson do take some hits about the way that he is portrayed in relation to benevolent white businessmen (mostly Branch Rickey) who give him an opportunity to play in the majors out of the alleged goodness of their hearts. That doesn't give enough credit to Robinson by any standard, and it's more than fair. However, these movies aren't documentaries, and sometimes a movie version of a life story doesn't come out right. After seeing the movie "Ali," I wrote the late critic Roger Ebert and asked if knowing too much about the subject of a film can detract from the enjoyment of it. He wrote back - "I think it can. But remember, no life is a movie." And that's a good way of thinking about it. 

By the way, there's going to be someone out there who will point out that Gittell is charged with an errror in using an incorrect word that came up in the book "Ball Four" about the Yankees' "Peeping Tom" activities. He also makes a mistake in describing in "Bang the Drum Slowly" that the card game called TEGWAR is called "The Excellent Game Without Any Rules" in the text, while it's "The Exciting Game Without Any Rules" in the movie. Baseball fans aren't too forgiving about mistakes; ask someone about Joe Jackson hitting the wrong way in "Field of Dreams." (Speaking of the latter movie, it's interesting that the actual lyric from the song "The Streets or Laredo" contains "Beat the drum slowly" and not 'bang.' I wonder how that happened.)

Gittell does make a good point in saying that baseball movies are on the decline these days. Most of them now come out of faith-based operations, with inspirational stories to tell to a relatively small audience. No doubt the accountants in Hollywood are wondering how well baseball travels in our world these days, although you'd think there would be room for any well-told tale. 

As you may have guessed by now, there are a great many thoughts running around the mind after reading "Baseball: The Movie," many of them political in nature. That means some people will embrace the concepts, while others will reject them. That's the time we live in.

In other words, if Ebert were asked to rate this book, he'd probably stick his thumb sideways.

Three stars

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