America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.–Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams
In the big inning, God created baseball. Or perhaps it was Loki, patron of athletics and other tricks; the origins are shrouded in antiquity. There is also debate about which mortal first received the divine inspiration. Abner Doubleday often gets credit, though some historians claim the game was played in England in the 1700s. What is known is that, in 1845, a team called the New York Knickerbockers adopted the rules of the game we know as baseball. In New Jersey that summer, they played the first organized baseball game, and America acquired its own pantheon.
The mythology of baseball is almost as old as the team. America’s great gray poet, Walt Whitman, wrote about the sport as a young reporter in 1846 and later was quoted as saying, “I see great things in baseball…the American game.” In 1888, Ernest Thayer penned “Casey at the Bat,” the tragic tale of a mighty hero whose weapon fails him at the critical moment. But the real-life stories of players were no less compelling: the pathos of Lou Gehrig, the power of Babe Ruth, the fortitude of Jackie Robinson. Baseball developed its own lingo, its own culture. Ethnic differences in Brooklyn in the 1950s sometimes seemed less divisive than Dodgers-Giants loyalties.
It was inevitable that great writers would see parallels between the quest for the pennant and the Quest for the Holy Grail, just as it was inevitable that Hollywood screenwriters would churn out bio-pics about the tragic greats and comedies about pranksters and pratfalls. Over the past 20 years, several excellent films and television shows have emerged, from Ken Burns’ epic documentary Baseball to the moving drama Eight Men Out to the antic underdog comedy Major League. But screenwriters also turned to the literature of the sport for inspiration as well as to the sport itself, creating tales of the human condition in which baseball is the key metaphor.
The Natural, based on Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name, tells the story of Roy Hobbs — a talented pitcher nearly destroyed by a violent woman during his first trip away from home for a tryout. Many years later, he resurfaces as a slugger, using a bat he carved in his youth from the bark of a tree struck by lightning. Hobbes seemingly can’t lose; he brings his last-place team, the Knights, into playoff contention, and begins a reconciliation with the childhood sweetheart he abandoned after his dreams went awry.
But he makes powerful enemies and dangerous friends, including men and women who love the game not for itself but as a means to profit and power. Knowing that his time may be short, Hobbs must decide what he stands for and how much the game really means to him. His quest has implications for others — the coach who will lose his team if he loses the pennant, the woman who loves him and the one who wants to possess him, the son he never knew he had. The imagery of the struggle uses unsubtle symbolism. When Hobbs catches a glimpse of his onetime beloved Iris, who is dressed in gauzy white like an angel, he smashes a home run into the stadium clock and “stops time.” When Hobbs meets The Judge, the nefarious team owner explains that he prefers to sit in the dark, calling light “infernal”; Hobbs retorts that the only thing he knows about the dark is that you can’t see in it.
Where Malamud opts for a tragic ending in the tradition of tales of fallen knights, director Barry Levinson chooses instead the iconography of American triumph — a display of fireworks over a stadium, and the redemption of the hero who retires to play catch with his son. A superb cast, including Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, Glenn Close as his faithful sweetheart, Kim Basinger and Barbara Hershey as the mysterious seductresses, Wilford Brimley as the crotchety coach, Robert Duvall as the prying reporter and Robert Prosky as the team owner, create characters who are vivid and sympathetic despite the fact that they’re archetypes instead of believable people.
Bull Durham, the first of Kevin Costner’s triptych of men-and-baseball movies, has characters and icons of a very different sort, yet they also draw on the myths of the sport. Costner plays Crash Davis, a veteran minor league catcher who is ordered to smooth the rough edges of rising star pitcher Nuke LaLoosh. Early in their summer with the Durham Bulls, longtime team groupie Annie Savoy contemplates an affair with one man or the other, assuring them both that no man sleeping with her has ever had less than a stellar season.
Crash takes himself out of the running, proclaiming that he doesn’t believe in such manipulation. He believes, among other things, in the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that there should be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf, and in “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” Naturally Annie is smitten, but she commits herself to Nuke, convincing him that listening to poetry in bed and wearing women’s underwear when he pitches will help his concentration.
To Crash, the way Nuke pays more attention to cars, girls and money than to the sport is a heresy — his problem isn’t that Nuke doesn’t respect himself but that Nuke doesn’t respect the game. The two elders initiate the rookie into the Church of Baseball, as Annie calls her religion: “I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan,” she explains ruefully. Crash, the devoted disciple, has been rewarded for his belief with a mere 21 days in the big show. But faith and baseball are bigger than any one man. As Nuke moves up in the sports world and Crash moves on, they both experience the pure joy of being in the game.
Tim Robbins’ rough, sometimes animalistic Nuke more than meets his match in Susan Sarandon’s wistful, passionate Annie, but this is Costner’s movie. He loves the sport with a purity unmatched even by the woman who loves the players; he understands that if the sport demands celibacy, continence, the sacrifice of ego, then that’s what a player owes. In the end he allows himself to share his heart with Annie as well as baseball, but it’s sort of like marrying a missionary; they both know their first passions and their first obligations. Unlike many sports movies where boys have to prove that they’ve become men by giving up their baseball dreams, Bull Durham insists that boys become better men if they keep the faith.
Costner’s next ball-pic, Field of Dreams, goes a step further; it posits baseball as the glue that holds families and indeed America together. Ray Kinsella, a hapless hippie who owns a farm in Iowa, hears a voice one day in his cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Though he’s not sure he completely understands or even that he completely believes, Kinsella convinces his wife Annie that he must plow under their crop and build a baseball diamond, because if he does, his father’s hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, will get to come back and play ball. Jackson, who was disgraced in the Black Sox scandal of 1919, represents to Ray all the failures he associates with his own father. He builds the field and, sure enough, the Chicago Black Sox arrive, along with a team of dead all-stars of years ago.
But Ray’s compulsions are just beginning. Again he hears the voice, “Ease his pain,” and comes to understand that he must track down embittered writer Terence Mann to take him to a baseball game. Terry, who was “the East Coast distributor of ‘involved’ [before] they killed Martin, and Bobby, and they elected Tricky Dick twice,” thinks, at first, that Ray is a lunatic, but he agrees to go to Fenway Park. There they both receive a strange message, “Go the distance,” which takes them in search of a small-town doctor who once played a single inning in the majors. Ray observes that some men would consider it a tragedy to have come so close to their dream and not touch it, but the humanitarian ghost of Dr. Archibald Graham corrects him: “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
No sooner do Ray and Terry head back to Iowa than they encounter a young Archie Graham by the road, looking for a baseball league that hasn’t existed for decades. Taking the younger version of Archie with them, they arrive in Iowa to find Annie trying to hold off the creditors foreclosing on the farm. “People will come,” Terence Mann assures the couple, envisioning a parade of cars descending on Iowa to recapture the magical moments when baseball represented family, freedom and the future. A minor miracle redeems the farm. Then Ray experiences a personal redemption he didn’t dare to wish for: his father appears, asking whether he’s in heaven, the place where dreams come true. Ray looks around, seeing the field where Shoeless Joe has been playing, where his wife and daughter stand, and agrees, “Maybe this is heaven.” And people come.
More than one critic has commented on a cornfield as being a very appropriate setting for a movie this corny, and some find it downright reactionary — rejecting the real political struggles of the 60s for a fantasy America of baseball, small towns and hot dogs in the stands. Despite the fact that the reclusive writer has been changed from J.D. Salinger in the source novel Shoeless Joe to a fictional social activist played by James Earl Jones, and that the racist Ty Cobb is rejected as a possible player for the field of dreams because none of the others “could stand the son of a bitch when he was alive,” this is certainly a nostalgic view of an era when wives were helpmeets, children cleaved to their parents and social activism remained at the level of P.T.A. debates.
Still, the shared fantasy of baseball as social glue is extremely powerful. When this movie played in theaters, men walked out weeping over the final scene where Ray and his father toss a ball in the twilight as hundreds of cars descend on the newly restored field in the farm. If Bull Durham contains the early testaments of the Church of Baseball, Field of Dreams provides its messianic text.
Costner made a third baseball movie, For Love of the Game, which isn’t nearly as ambitious, nor as successful. It tells the story of Billy Chapel, a successful but aging baseball player, who’s about to lose his beloved Jane Aubrey to a job overseas and about to lose his pitching job on the Detroit Tigers, because the new owners don’t feel they need him. As he pitches the last game of the season, he must make decisions that will alter the course of his life: whether to accept the trade or quit the game, whether to pursue Jane or let her slip away to her own life. As the innings slip by, with the weight of his frustration behind every pitch, Billy does not let a single batter reach base. He is on the verge of finding the Golden Fleece for pitchers; he is on the verge of pitching a perfect game.
But there is no perfection on this imperfect playing field. Jane and Billy have nice chemistry and witty dialogue — when she protests that she needs a regular guy, “not the guy in the Old Spice commercials,” he retorts that it was Right Guard, leading her to groan that she was being metaphorical. She resents the kids who own him on baseball cards, resents not being able to fly in the medivac helicopter with him, and deeply resents that the team trainer is more important to him than she is. Billy wants her and the game, but realizes that he could lose both of them if he can’t let go of the sport that has defined his life. More a soap opera than a serious reflection on the mythology of baseball, For Love of the Game is nonetheless worth noting because it closes the baseball-movie arc of Kevin Costner, the man most closely associated with the big game on the big screen.
It’s not just Americans who love baseball, of course; the sport is played with passion in Japan, in Mexico, and possibly in outer space. The X-Files‘ finest hour was a baseball episode called “The Unnatural,” based loosely on the extraordinary career of a Negro League batter who was once considered likely to become the “first black Negro man of color in the American League,” in the words of a white announcer. In the X-Files twist, however, batter Josh Exley has a bigger problem than racism in his quest to play ball. He is an alien.
Agent Fox Mulder, conspiracy theorist and sarcastic skeptic of most received wisdom, sees a newspaper photo of the baseball player standing next to a known alien bounty hunter and begins to research the Roswell Grays, calling on the brother of a onetime acquaintance who insists that he recite from memory Mickey Mantle’s 1947 home run statistics before he’ll tell the story. Arthur Dales scornfully informs Mulder that if he understood baseball, he could understand the government-alien conspiracy and everything else. Baseball, he claims, keeps you forever young.
Dales recalls sitting beside Exley on the Grays bus, working as the player’s bodyguard after a Klan attack, only to see the reflection of an alien face in the window. Mulder makes “E.T. steal home” jokes, but Dales insists that all the great players — Ruth, DiMaggio, Mays, Koufax, — were aliens, who never fit into this world until they stepped on the grass. So the baseball greats had something in common with the disenfranchised African-Americans who were often treated like aliens in their own country. Dales discovered that the real Josh Exley died as a child, and that “Ex” flubbed games when scouts came around, because he couldn’t afford any publicity. As a team member, though, Exley got to live in the Church of Baseball, singing the gospel with his teammates: “We’ll all be together in that land.”
Exley was killed by the alien bounty hunter, who hid behind the disguise of a Klansman. Yet the Roswell Gray kept his human face till the end and died as Josh Exley, who hit the elusive number 61 on the last night of his life. “I got a brother in that land…I got a sister in that land,” the gospel music plays as Mulder contemplates the story. He summons his partner Dana Scully to a park to show her how to hit a baseball. “Not a bad piece of ash,” he comments to the bat as he presses his hips into hers to show her the correct stance. The baseballs fly off into the night, becoming stars in the sky.
For many X-Files fans, the appeal of this episode is manifest in that last scene: Mulder and Scully hit a home run in the park together after dark, woo hoo! But more importantly, this is the first episode in years to show Mulder as someone capable of feeling great passion for something other than alien conspiracies. Baseball fanatics may not get the same ridicule as Trekkies or X-Philes, but they’re all members of pop culture faiths, with their own idealistic images of the world as it could be. To see Fox Mulder, the quintessential alien-hunting geek, in love with America’s pastime gives both him and the sport humanity and universality. One doesn’t usually perceive sports and utopianism as connected, yet here they are.
The Rookie, the Church of Baseball offering for the summer of 2002, has the charm of being based on a true story, though its opening is more reminiscent of The Milagro Beanfield War than Pride of the Yankees. In a small town in Texas, two nuns invest in a misguided scheme to find oil beneath the barren soil; their priest advises them to pray to St. Rita, the patron of impossible dreams, and sure enough the con man who hatched the scheme sinks a well and finds a gusher. Years later, when the wells have run dry, a boy named Jimmy Morris is dragged to the same small town by his father, who has been sent there by the military. After a tour of duty in Vietnam leaves him scarred, Jimmy settles down in Big Lake and buries his baseball dreams to teach high school.
But in a desperate bid to motivate the slacking school team, Jim makes a bet with his players: if they can win the district championship, he’ll try out for a major-league organization. Moving from worst place to first, with some help — locals who conjure grass from the dry soil, for instance — the team makes it to the state championships and forces Jim to pay up, even though he has diapers to change and toddlers to feed on the day of the tryout. To the shock of all, Jim can throw an incredible fastball, and gets an offer from a minor-league team that could eventually send him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But to get there, if it’s even possible, he will have to leave his wife and his own son behind.
Though based on a real story, The Rookie incorporates more baseball cliches than any of the films mentioned above…the estranged father, the adoring children, the rush of the fastball and the grace of the swing…and that’s part of its charm. Jim Morris as played by Dennis Quaid is the genuine article — not a fiction like Crash Davis, but a real person who achieved his baseball dreams. Despite the nuns and St. Rita, there aren’t metaphors about finding God or the truth out there, only a pure love for the game in and of itself. The family values don’t have the reactionary aspect of Field of Dreams; Jim’s wife Lorri has real frustrations and fears, and his kids long for an ordinary father, not a hero. And Jim suffers as the old man of an organization made for youngsters, with little hope of actually moving up despite his phenomenal arm and his work ethic. Yet in the end, the opportunity to stand on the center mound of a major league ballpark, in front of his family, friends and students, more than compensates for all his sacrifices.
Jim Morris isn’t Everyman in the same sense as Ray Kinsella, for most of us will never have the talent nor opportunity to realize major-league dreams. Yet for most fans the simple pleasure rests in sitting on the sidelines, eating a hot dog, looking back across the years to when our parents sat in the stadiums with the same young hopes and enthusiasms, through war and peace, famine and plenty. Baseball may or may not not have originated in the United States, but its Grail-like mythology of struggle and redemption alongside greed, scandal and failure is peculiarly American. These films are our Arthurian quests.
The Natural (1984)
Bull Durham (1988)
Field of Dreams (1989)
For Love of the Game (1999)
The X-Files, “The Unnatural” (1999)
The Rookie (2002)