Our Game

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard and rebuilt, and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game; it’s a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      —James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams

 

BaseballSport has long been America’s informal religion.  The sacred spaces reserved for sport―cool green fields hidden in the bowels of Pittsburgh and Chicago―are hallowed ground, America’s cathedrals, where the gray monotonies of mortal limits are forgotten and each moment is eternal.  But it is Baseball, above all, that stands with the cowboy, the railroad, the log cabin, or the Lincoln Memorial as an American motif.  Symbolic of youth and summer, of fathers and sons, of a simpler rural past, baseball has become synonymous with our American roots.  Like the Western, it infuses our national nostalgia.

Baseball came into its own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the same urban-industrial wave that spawned the Western.  Buried among factories, warehouses, and truck depots, the baseball park has been a pastoral oasis, a wedge of green removed from the dreary squalor of urban life.  With its slow, unclocked pace, rational structure, and revered rituals, baseball is set apart from the muddled complexities of modern life. 

The heat of the game should not be confused with the aura that emanates at a distance.  The one is immediate and tangible, a noisy hubbub; the other is gossamer, still, and timeless, a wistful reverie.  “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again,” wrote Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, “and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and the evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”1  The slow pace and green expanse, each man responsible for his own plot of ground, suggest the clean serenity of an older, agrarian America, a pastoral balance between wilderness and civilization.

Yet the nostalgia arises less from a game played in nineteenth-century pastures than from our childhood memories.  “The game of baseball has always been linked in my mind with the mystic texture of childhood,” wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin, “with the sounds and smells of summer nights and with the memories of my father.”2  The  theme of fathers and sons infuses baseball films and fiction, the best of which have a transcendent, near-mythic aura.

Until Samuel Goldwyn’s Pride of the Yankees (1942), baseball films were invariably “B” pictures, rarely venturing outside comedy, farce, or light melodrama.  It was Goldwyn’s biography of Lou Gehrig that launched the serious baseball drama.  The films of the forties and fifties touted the American success mythology, the belief that any honest, hard-working young man can begin as a newsboy or poor farmer and become president of the United States—or a great ball player.  The films depicted unsophisticated heroes, rural rubes who overcome physical handicaps, poverty, racism, or delinquency, often with the support of an unquestioning wife.

The nostalgic appeal benefited from the great transformation of American culture that fell roughly between 1890 and 1920.  With the shift from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial society, the Puritan work ethic was overshadowed by a greater emphasis on social mobility and rugged, rags-to-riches individualism.  The nineteenth-century heroes of production (statesmen, inventors, industrial leaders) were displaced by twentieth-century heroes of consumption (mass-media celebrities).  As a more complex and systematized society confined success increasingly to bureaucracies, feelings of individual powerlessness were assuaged by heroes who leapt to fame and fortune outside of the system.  In the first half of the century, such success themes as the advantage of the “school of hard knocks” over formal education, the character-building nature of poverty, and the emphasis on natural over acquired talents, were especially suited to those disadvantaged by the new urban-industrial conditions.  Baseball reached into every class and region, binding them together in common loyalties and rituals, a kind of secular church embodying the myth of the melting pot.

The new image of success found perfect expression with the emergence of the sports superhero in the 1920s—men like George Herman “Babe” Ruth, William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey, Harold “Red” Grange, Robert T. “Bobby” Jones, and William T. “Big Bill” Tilden.  “The greatest thing about this country,” wrote Babe Ruth in his autobiography, “is the wonderful fact that it doesn’t matter which side of the tracks you were born on.”  The changing image within baseball itself was evident in the rise of Ruth over Ty Cobb as the reigning hero.  Cobb was calculated and scientific, using the bunt, the placement, the steal, and trying for safe hits rather than long ones.  For those who idolized Ruth and Gehrig, the home run, more than strategy, became the ideal.  The home run symbolized a sudden break out of workaday frustrations through sheer power, inborn talent, and a willingness to risk it all on one shot.  Ruth, in fact, was a boisterous carouser who spent every cent he made, while Cobb was a loner who carefully invested his money.  The rise of the sports hero in the twenties, exemplified by Ruth and his home-run style, brought a new romantic sensibility to the game.3

“Monty Stratton,” says the narrator at the end of The Stratton Story (1949), “stands as an inspiration to all of us, living proof of what a man can do if he has the courage and the determination to refuse to admit defeat.”  Although young Stratton is a poor farmer supporting his mother, he devotes all his spare time to pitching practice and walks miles to play in the only available games.  As a major league pitcher he loses a leg but strives toward his ultimate comeback with an artificial limb.  In The Winning Team (1952), pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan) rises from hayseed farmer to the major leagues, only to develop an eyesight problem that is misinterpreted as drunkenness.  After sinking to the level of answering baseball questions at a carnival, he overcomes his handicap, makes his comeback, and pitches the deciding game of the World Series.  In The Pride of St. Louis (1952), we find Jerome Herman “Dizzy” Dean pitching barefoot in the Ozarks in 1928, with cows grazing in the outfield.  He grew up picking cotton, rarely attending school, rejecting alcohol and tobacco, and has an immediately disarming personality that combines childlike innocence with bad grammar.  Dean takes the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series but eventually destroys his arm and has to quit pitching.  Overcoming his disappointment and the temptations of alcohol and gambling, he emerges a successful sportscaster. 

There is a pervasive sentimental romanticism to the baseball films of the forties and fifties―the supportive wife, the humble, democratic hero with a heart of gold, and the inevitable crippled boy who walks from his hospital bed when his hero hits the promised home run.  The heroes are modest, shy, self-conscious, almost bumbling folk figures; thus the choice of such Capra stars as James Stewart and Gary Cooper, embodying the American ideals of democracy, egalitarianism, optimism, agrarianism, and sanctity of family.  But the stories lack the mythic associations, the underlying archetypes one finds in such later films as The Natural or Field of Dreams.4

By the 1980s the best baseball films had an aura of elegiac nostalgia, focused on mythic figures, pastoral fantasy, and fathers and sons.  Three films in particular, Field of Dreams, The Natural, and Bull Durham, not only represent the best of the genre but fall on a continuum across fundamental dualities: the ideal and the real, the sacred and the profane, the temporal and the eternal. 

The Natural (1984) was an entirely new kind of baseball movie and the quintessential nostalgia film.  When Bernard Malamud published the novel in 1952 it marked a turning point in the history of American sports fiction.  As Michael Oriard notes in Dreaming of Heroes, Malamud was the first American novelist to recognize that “the character of the hero, and the relationship of country and city, youth and age, masculinity and femininity in American sport are explicitly mythic concerns,” that sport is “the most important and quite possibly the sole repository for myth in American society today.”5

The Natural is the tale of a golden youth, born to be “the best there ever was” but shot down by a dark lady on the eve of his professional debut, resurfacing years later for one season of glory.  As the film opens with the middle-aged Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) sprawled on a railway station bench, the wail of an approaching steam whistle, massive driving wheels moving across the screen, one feels immediately that the film will be nostalgic.  Flash back to a hill covered with golden grain, sloping up gently to clumps of soft trees against a dawn sky.  The music is pastoral, pensive.  A boy runs in slow motion, catches a ball in his mitt and falls out of sight into the tall grain.  Cut to the father, playing catch, teaching him to pitch in a setting of barns, chickens, plows, and windmills, always under a dawn sky.  “You got a gift, Roy.  But it’s not enough.  You gotta develop yourself.  Rely too much on your own gift and you’ll fail.”  Cut to Roy looking from the farmhouse porch as his father slumps to the ground in a fatal heart attack.  That night, lightning flashes, illuminating the baseball pennants in his room, and a bolt strikes a large tree, splitting the trunk wide open in a mighty fireball.  Cut to the boy chopping the wood in the light of day and fashioning a bat from it.  The music becomes heroic.  On the bat, he carves a lightning bolt and “Wonderboy,” the hero’s Excalibur.   

One scene later he is eighteen and about to depart for his major league debut.  On a hill against the dawn sky, he and his girl, Iris, share the rush of anticipation.  On the train is the “Whammer,” a champion batter bearing a close resemblance to Babe Ruth.  When the train stops by an old-fashioned carnival, the Whammer gives a batting exhibition and challenges the young Roy to pitch to him.  He of course strikes out.  A mysterious dark lady compares Roy to Sir Lancelot jousting with Sir Gawain.  “Have you ever read Homer?” she asks.

“Homer?” he laughs.  “The only homer I know has four bases in it.” 

“Homer lived ages ago,” she says, “and wrote about heroes and gods; and he would have had it in mind to write about baseball had he seen you out there today.” 

“You know what?  Someday I’m gonna break every record in the book; I know I got it in me.” 

“And what will you hope to accomplish?”

“When I walk down the street, people’ll look at me and say ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was!’” 

“Is that all?”

“Well, what else is there?”

 Luring him to a hotel room that night, she shoots him with a silver bullet. 

The rest of the film takes place sixteen years later when he has apparently healed sufficiently to present himself to the manager of the Knights, a last-place major-league ball club.  “We don’t need no middle-aged rookies,” says the manager, and Roy spends months on the bench.  When finally allowed to bat, using his childhood Wonderboy, he literally knocks the cover off the ball.  The outfielder picks up a handful of thread.  He bats the team into first place but then falls for another dark lady, goes into a batting slump, and the team begins to slip.  But when Iris surfaces from the past, rising in the stands with the sun shining through her broad-brimmed hat like a halo, he senses her presence and swats a homer.

Iris has a teenaged son who “needs his father.”  “Sure,” replies Roy.  “A father makes all the difference.”  In the end, of course, the boy turns out to be his son.  When he discovers this, in the middle of the championship game, he cracks the winning hit, shattering the stadium lights in a great shower of flashes and sparks that rain down over the entire field to the cresdcendo of Randy Newman’s Coplandesque score .  The victory destroys the scheme of the evil “Judge,” who had tried to get Roy to throw the game.  It is Roy’s last game because his stomach, bleeding through his uniform as he comes to bat, is almost gone from years of carrying the silver bullet.  As the last sparks from the exploding lights descend, we see the ball still climbing into the night, then dropping into a field of golden grain, where it is caught by his son.  He is back on the old farm, playing catch with his son, while Iris looks on against the dawn sky.

Malamud’s Natural, too innocent to survive modern-day evils―the dark ladies, soulless sportswriters, evil judges, and their racketeer henchmen―belongs with the fallen heroes and antiheroes of twentieth-century novels.6  In the movie version, however, the hero does not succumb to the dark women, the city, or lost youth but maintains his saving contact with Iris, the angel of light, and his pastoral roots.  He remains “natural.”  So the basic conflict of the film, the boundless potential of youthful innocence versus the fall into the real world of adult limits, finds the ultimate nostalgic resolution: the hero can go home again.  The conflict that The Natural resolves in favor of nostalgia is actually one of idealism versus realism.  The two extremes of this dichotomy are represented by two baseball films that appeared almost simultaneously, Field of Dreams (1989) and Bull Durham (1988).

In Field of Dreams, based on W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, Kevin Costner plays Ray, an Iowa farmer haunted by memories of his dead father, a minor league player.  Ray had known his father only as a frustrated factory worker who dreamed of making his son into the ball player he could never be.  As a rebellious teenager, Ray had refused even to play catch with him.  At seventeen he had “said something awful” and left home, returning only for his father’s funeral.  (The father’s early death is common in baseball films.)

After attending college at Berkeley in the sixties, Ray marries and buys a farm in Iowa, his wife’s home state.  No sooner has he planted his corn than he is compelled by a voice (“If you build it, he will come”) to plow under a large section and build a baseball field.  The completed diamond is a radiant green, surrounded by an expanse of tall cornstalks that stretches out to rolling tree-lined hills and a deep blue sky, the colors almost cartoon-like in richness.  Winter falls on the field, and summer returns again. 

Then one cricket-filled night Ray’s daughter announces, “Daddy, there’s a man out there on your lawn.”  The great Shoeless Joe Jackson (who died in 1951) is seen kneeling on the diamond as though in a cathedral, picking blades of grass, his luminous white uniform casting a long shadow in the eerie moonlight.  Ray introduces himself, and there is a sound of hickory bats tapping together as Joe pulls them from a bag and inspects them.

“I’d wake up at night,” says Joe, “the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet—the thrill of the grass.”  (Ray pitches to him; there is a crack as the bat meets the hard ball, which drops against a black sky into the distant cornfield.)  “Man, I just love this game!  I’dve played for food money.  It was the game.  The sounds, the smells.  Didya ever hold a ball or a glove to your face?  I used to love travelin’ on the trains from town to town.  The hotel—brass spitoons in the lobby, brass beds in the rooms.  There was the crowd, rising to their feet when the ball was hit deep.  Shit.  I’da played for nothin’.”

“Is this heaven?” he shouts before fading into the cornfield.  “No, it’s Iowa,” says Ray.  Later Joe reemerges with seven others, cautiously testing the ground, stirring up summer insects.  As in The Natural, the sky always suggests a blend of dawn and dusk.  They begin playing, to the accompaniment of baseball chatter and jazzy music from the twenties.  As evening falls and the team drifts back into the tall cornstalks, the white farmhouse with its lighted windows sits under a purple sky, where orange clouds reflect the last glow of twilight. 

Ray is led by the voice to seek out a reclusive writer suggestive of J. D. Salinger, and the two are then led to a wistful old country doctor named Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster) who, though deceased, is encountered in what seems the misty night of some earlier time.  He had played one game in the majors but had never gotten to bat.  That moment, says Doc Graham,

was like coming this close to your dreams and then watching them rush past you like a stranger in the night.  At the time you don’t think much of it.  You know we just don’t recognize the most significant moments in our lives when they happen.  Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days.  I didn’t realize—that was the only day.

Doc gets his chance to play with the others on Ray’s field―but as a boy, picked up hitchhiking by Ray and the writer on their way back to Iowa.  But the boy’s diamond debut is interrupted when he spots Ray’s little daughter in trouble.  As he steps from the field, he transforms to the old doctor with his black bag and prevents her choking on a hot dog.  Unable to go back, but happy to have had his moment, he fades away among the cornstalks. 

Ray’s brother-in-law wants to buy out the bankrupt farm.  The little daughter objects, suggesting that “people will come” to see the ball players.  The writer (James Earl Jones) agrees: 

They’ll come to Iowa, for reasons they can’t even fathom, and they’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.  They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. . . .  They’ll walk out to the bleachers, sit in shirt-sleeves, on a perfect afternoon; and they’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes; and they’ll watch the game; and it will be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

“Ray, when the bank opens in the morning, they’ll foreclose,” says the brother-in-law. 

“People will come, Ray,” says the writer. 

“You’re broke, Ray.”

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.” 

At the end, Ray finds his father standing on the diamond in his old baseball uniform.  “My God,” Ray says. “I only saw him years later when he was worn down by life.  Look at him.  He’s got his whole life ahead of him and I’m not even a glint in his eye.”  Yet there is an unspoken recognition and the film ends with the two playing catch under the dusky sky.  In the distance, moving up the road toward the diamond, is a long line of headlights, zigzagging out across the landscape to a far horizon.7

Field of Dreams paints a magical world beyond space and time, a benevolent universe immune to the practical constrictions of adult life.  “I’ve just done something totally illogical,” says Ray after building his field.  “That’s just what I like about it,” says his wife, who fits the supportive tomboyish image of the earlier films.  Set in the idealized imagery of Middle America, Field of Dreams distills the mythos of baseball to its purest essence. 

On the realist/idealist continuum, baseball films crowd the idealist pole with a disproportionate number of fantasies, musicals, and heroic legends.  The idealism had always been inherent in baseball itself, a game unlimited by space or time.  Unlike football, the game could theoretically go on forever; and since the fence was never a part of the rules, the field extends to infinity.  It is a game of individualists facing events alone, performing serially rather than in unison.  There is a changeless symmetry to baseball and a detached, insulated mood, like a nostalgic reverie, the competition contained and emasculated by a pervasive benevolence. 

Set in a time when professional sport was still a game and not an industry, the films pander to the longing for a pastoral childhood where life’s gritty conflicts are safely contained within the solicitous world of the father, projecting that longing onto images of America’s agrarian youth.  The pastoral imagery also abounds in baseball literature: the crack of the bat, a sound “clear, clean, woodsmanlike”; the “immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white”; “the chatter of infielders, bright as bird chirps”; “the sweet attenuations of late summer afternoons.”  Baseball writing is deeply sensate: the ball, “that perfect object for a man’s hand,” is “so smooth that sensuousness awakens at the touch.”  And there is the sound of it smacking into the pocket of a well-worn glove; and the smell of leather, of varnish on a Louisville Slugger; and of grass upon your hands and knees.  The game turns on minute detail, a step covertly taken to the left here, a batter choking up just an inch there, along with the small gestures, the tiny rituals that must be observed: the shortstop must kick the dirt and the umpire must brush the plate with his whisk broom.8

In Baseball the Beautiful, Marvin Cohen reprises James Earl Jones:

Baseball goes on, essentially unaltered, though the nation itself goes through violent historical upheavals and the times are always changing. . . .  The world’s cataclysms come about, and subside.  But every summer is played the same eternal baseball game.  We can time our lives to its peaceful eternity.  We can trust to its repose and security.  It’s always going on.9 

“It’s our game, the American game,” wrote Walt Whitman.  “It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”

One of the few exceptions to the genre’s idealism is Bull Durham, a film closer to the realist end of the spectrum.  In Bull Durham, baseball is a context for survival in a complex world of overwhelming limitations.  If Field of Dreams imagines a transcendence of mortal limits, Bull Durham holds that such states of mind are flights of self-deception.  “I believe in the church of baseball,” says Annie Savoy, the minor-league club’s resident nymphomaniac.  She’d “tried all the major religions” but “it just didn’t work out.”  Baseball, on the other hand, “is never boring, which makes it like sex.”  The story involves an aging catcher, appropriately named Crash Davis (Kevin Costner again), a fallen figure in a fallen world, the minor leagues.  Amid bar fights, public fornication, and general amorality, augmented by the hollow electric sound of a stadium organ, the one positive image in the film is the big leagues, or “the show,” as they call it.  Crash was once there for 21 days, “the twenty-one greatest days of my life,” he says, “the ball parks are like cathedrals.”  But like Annie’s religions, they just didn’t work out for Crash. 

Crash is hired to shape up an ignorant, cocky pitcher with a wild arm—“a million dollar arm and a five cent head,” says Crash, who calls him “Meat.”  But even though Meat eventually makes it to the majors, his real measure of success is his “Porsche 911 with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt.”  His move to the majors, moreover, results in Crash losing his job.  Moving on to another team, Crash eventually breaks the minor-league home run record but feels it a dubious honor.  Baseball’s Bible, the Sporting News, never mentions it.  He soon quits the game and drops by to see Annie, having no particular plan except to maybe do some coaching somewhere.  “Full many a flower is born,” quotes Annie in her closing monologue, “to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

The mood of Bull Durham is closer to that of films about football than baseball.  The archetypal football film is North Dallas Forty (1979), which opens with an aging player (Nick Nolte) lying in his Jockey shorts on a bloody pillow amid a plethora of pills and beer bottles, barely able to get out of bed with his accumulated injuries.  He is on his way down, a modern Sisyphus who continues to play because “it’s the only thing I know how to do.”  The film depicts a violent masculine world of drugs, sex, money, wild parties, and night games mired in mud, where women are mere objects, competition is everything, and the “only way to survive is the pills and the shots.”

Unlike most football films (such as Semi-Tough, The Longest Yard, and Number One), which depict a profane, world-weary existence, baseball movies are almost always positive, if not transcendent, projecting an innocent world now lost.  Among the early films are many light comedies, Disney-like fantasies, and musicals―Angels in the Outfield (1951), It Happens Every Spring (1949), Rhubarb (1951), Take Me Out To the Ballgame (1949), Damn Yankees (1958).  Even those few baseball films that depict a jaded society usually include some compensating note of promise, if not idealism.  The same contrast colors baseball and football fiction.  As critic Kevin Kerrane notes, football fiction “directs our attention to the world of experience rather than innocence,” often taking the form of an “apprenticeship novel dealing with the problem of learning how to live without romantic illusions.  The resolute anti-idealism of football fiction is crystallized in its characteristic image of man as a fallen creature in a finite universe.”  The baseball novel “affirms the transcendent possibilities of illusion” while the football novel “confronts the obstinacy of reality.”  Baseball is an optimistic game while football is more pessimistic, tougher, more familiar with injustice.  “Baseball is fathers and sons,” wrote Donald Hall, “football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”10

Like football films, Bull Durham appeals to the realist in its emphasis on experience over innocence, while Field of Dreams is food for the idealist.  The fact that the critics who liked Bull Durham disliked Field of Dreams and vice-versa highlights the fundamental nature of the dichotomy.  While the realists call Field of Dreams “manipulative,” “batty,” “daft,” and “pointless,” complaining that eternal children like Roy Hobbs and Ray Kinsella are not workable models for life, the idealists answer that they are less models than motifs—a healing kind of background music in a disenchanted world.  Art, wrote Wallace Stevens, is “imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality,” the attempt to restore meaning, to remythologize.11

The idealist pole carries the archetypes and myths, the sources of human meaning, the imagination of human ends.  The realist pole is purely instrumental, critiquing, providing, at best, means to those ends.  At the extreme, the idealist becomes the eternal child who never loses innocence, never accepts mortal limits, and who, like Roy Hobbs, must be “the best there ever was.”  The downside can be failure, for lack of boundaries defining a self, to find a viable identity in a limited world of real human beings.  The realist represents the loss of innocence—the acceptance of limits, mortality, and adult responsibilities in an imperfect world. 

Once again, the polarity seems to parallel extraversion and introversion—those whose fulfillment comes from sensate outer experiences as such and those who look more into themselves for the meaning of that experience, or in terms of film, those who wish to be entertained and those who want to be moved.  Of course there are no pure types.  But to the degree that a film violates its real-world setting, the extravert may feel manipulated, while the introvert, coming to the same experience in search of inner meaning, can compartmentalize, bracketing the unreal as a kind of poetic license.

The same dichotomy applies to nostalgia itself.  Realist psychologists who declare that “we need to help our clients learn to live in the present and let go of nostalgic sentimentality for a past that never really existed” need to understand that the past is who we are, and that nostalgia a quest for an overarching essence, a thread of meaning and continuity in our journey across the panorama of that past.  If images emerge purified, they are less illusion than abstraction.  Seen from the air, the blanket of green forest lacks the dead trees and rotting wood, yet the larger meaning lies in such flight.  In this sense, the essence of baseball transcends the errors and slumps, the money and scandals.  Reviewing the movie Moneyball (2011), one critic wrote: “It’s no Field of Dreams or The Natural, no thrill-of-the-grass, stand-up-and-cheer heartwarmer celebrating the impossible triumph of the underdog.  It’s too smart for that.”  We are often too “smart”―too sensible for metaphor, too literal for the larger context, too entangled in ephemera, too jaded to reflect on the timeless, let alone to indulge in nostalgia.12 

 

dana-fradon-scoreboard-of-realists-against-idealists-the-realists-score-each-in-new-yorker-cartoon 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

1.   A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind,” in Peter H. Gordon, Diamonds Are Forever: Artists and Writers on Baseball (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1987), p. 142.

2.   Doris Kearns Goodwin, “From Father with Love,” in Gordon, ed., Diamonds Are Forever, p. 144.

3.   Benjamin G. Rader, “Compensatory Sport Heroes: Ruth, Grange, and Dempsey,” Journal of Popular Culture 16 (Spring 1983): 12-14.  See also Leverett T. Smith, Jr., The American Dream and the National Game (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975), pp. 123-24, 127-28, 190-207; and David Quentin Voigt, American Baseball, Vol. II: From the Commissioners to Continental Expansion (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), pp. 13-16.  The new phenomenon was partly the result of skillful promotion as sports became increasingly commercial, along with a new ball-manufacturing technique that enabled the batter to hit it farther.

4.   What was often retained in subsequent films was the notion of baseball as a lesson in life.  Earlier, this meant sport as a builder of character in boys—a kind of Teddy Roosevelt, Boy Scout, inspirational, muscular Christianity, which included sport as a teacher of hard work, self-sacrifice, competitive drive, and respect for authority.  Although there is some of this in The Bad News Bears (1976) and Aunt Mary (1979), the larger message of these and other films is a rejection of myopic competition in favor of a broader human perspective.  The Bad News Bears lose the championship because the coach, shamed by the cutthroat parental spectacle, lets the perennial benchwarmers play the last inning.  In Aunt Mary, Jean Stapleton plays a wheelchair-bound Baltimore Orioles fan, lovable and feisty, who coaches neighborhood kids in the fundamentals of baseball and life.  In Million Dollar Infield (1982), a group of men facing individual midlife crises escape the outside world and fulfill their fantasies on a softball team.  After suffering domestic problems, job sacrifices, and escape from social and financial ruin, the four main characters emerge as lesser softball players but better human beings.  Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) depicts a squabbling team drawn together by the catcher’s impending death from Hodgkins Disease.  In Bull Durham (1988) a wild, egotistical minor league pitching prospect gains some human perspective from a has-been catcher.  And in Eight Men Out (1988) White Sox players who threw the 1919 World Series learn the meaning of man’s tragic flaw.

5.   Michael Oriard, Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982), pp. 211-12.

6.   Oriard, Dreaming of Heroes, pp. 211-20; Wiley Lee Umphlett, The Sporting Myth and the American Experience (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1975), pp. 156-68.

7.   An irony is that the farmhouse and ball field in the quaint little town of Dyersville in northeastern Iowa where the film was made became a lucrative tourist attraction, with souvenir shops, ghost players who emerged from the cornfield, and hundreds of visitors a day who could rent equipment and play on the diamond.

8.   W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe, and Gail Mazur, “Spring Training in the Grapefruit League” quoted in Gordon, Diamonds Are Forever; Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger, eds., Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions, and Voodoo from a Native American Rite ( Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1980), pp. 241-42; Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 56.

9.   Marvin Cohen, Baseball the Beautiful: Decoding the Diamond (New York: Links Books, 1970), p. 120. 

10. Kevin Kerrane, “Reality 35, Illusion 3: Notes on the Football Imagination in Contemporary Fiction,” Journal of Popular Culture 8 (Fall 1974): 438, 441; Donald Hall, “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,” quoted in Gordon, Diamonds Are Forever, p. 143.

11. Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1951), p. 36.

12. Irene Rosenberg-Javors, “Nostalgia for a Perfect World,” Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association 7 (September 22, 2004): 51; Carol Cling, “‘Moneyball’ About More Than Money, Baseball,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, September 23, 2011.

The cartoon is by Dana Fradon, New Yorker, June 28, 1976.

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