This article was written by Ron Backer
This article was published in the Fall 2019 Baseball Research Journal
The true sport of the great movie comedians is baseball. From silent films to sound films, from short films to full-length features, and from black and white films to color movies, cinema comics have often demonstrated that there is much humor to be derived from our national pastime.
While Charlie Chaplin went into the boxing ring in City Lights (1931), the Marx Brothers played football in Horse Feathers (1932), Curly Howard wrestled his opponent to the mat in Grips, Grunts and Groans (1937), and W.C. Fields almost played golf in The Golf Specialist (1930), the true sport of the great movie comedians is baseball. From silent films to sound films, from short films to full-length features, and from black and white films to color movies, the comics of the cinema have often demonstrated that there is much humor to be derived from our national pastime. Here are some examples of the great movie comedians and their take on the game of baseball.
Abbott and Costello
Even though there are no baseball scenes in any of their movies, Abbott and Costello are the movie comedians most associated with baseball. The reason, of course, is their signature routine, “Who’s On First,” which the duo performed for many years for stage, radio, television, and movie audiences. Though the routine is now associated solely with Abbott and Costello, it has its origins in similar wordplay routines that were performed in vaudeville by other comics.
Abbott and Costello started their joint act in burlesque, moved to vaudeville, appeared on Broadway, and then became successful radio comedians, first appearing on shows of others and then starring throughout the 1940s in their own series. Abbott and Costello also appeared in thirty-six movies together, from their first one in 1940 to their last one in 1956, just before the break-up of their act. In the early 1940s, they were among the top box office stars in Hollywood. Their success in the movies and radio transferred to television in the 1950s, where they became one of the alternating hosts of the popular The Colgate Comedy Hour, along with such stars as Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis, and Eddie Cantor. They also had their own television show from 1952 to 1954.1
Abbott and Costello’s big break in show business came in February 1938 when they appeared as guests on the popular Kate Smith radio show. They returned to the show the following month and performed “Who’s On First” before a national audience for the first time. It was a smash hit. The duo became regulars on the Kate Smith program, with their contract requiring them to perform “Who’s on First” on a monthly basis. Eventually, Hollywood beckoned.2
Their first film was One Night in the Tropics (1940), a musical comedy starring Allan Jones and Robert Cummings. While Abbott and Costello only have supporting roles, the film did provide movie audiences with their first chance to see the comedy duo perform “Who’s On First.” In this rare instance, Bud and Lou perform the routine in character, not on stage or in a radio studio. The two are running down a street when they hear a ball game on a car radio, causing them to stop to perform “Who’s On First” for no apparent reason. Surprisingly, the duo never finishes the routine. The movie audience never learns the name of the pitcher, the catcher, the left fielder, the center fielder, or the shortstop.
The most famous film performance of “Who’s On First” occurs in The Naughty Nineties (1945). The movie is a costume picture set on a showboat in the 1890s, giving Abbott and Costello the chance to perform their most famous routine on the riverboat’s stage. This may be the duo’s best performance of “Who’s On First.” Bud and Lou performed the routine differently every time they staged it, and this version seems to contain all of the many variations in the sketch that have been seen over the years. Most importantly, the routine is incredibly funny, so much so that if the movie audience strains to listen, it can actually hear the film crew laughing in the background.
Film of the comedy duo performing “Who’s On First” from The Naughty Nineties plays almost continuously at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It is still one of the museum’s most popular attractions. In 1956, a gold record of Abbott and Costello performing “Who’s On First” was placed on permanent exhibit there.3 It is therefore no wonder that Abbott and Costello are so associated with baseball, even though there are no baseball scenes in any of their movies.
While Abbott and Costello are the movie comedians most associated with baseball, Buster Keaton may be the movie comedian who most loved the game. Keaton is a rare Hollywood star who enjoyed playing baseball, having started the sport at a young age. During breaks between filming, Keaton often arranged baseball games with the crew and the actors. Keaton also organized and appeared in a number of charity baseball games, sometimes with fellow movie comedian Joe E. Brown.4
When not playing baseball, Keaton was one of the most successful comedians of the silent film era, probably second only to Charlie Chaplin in fame. Keaton made his film debut in 1917 and by the early 1920s had his own production unit, producing silent short comedies and then full-length features, many of which are still famous today, including Sherlock, Jr. (1924), about a projectionist who dreams that he is a movie detective and The General (1926), a chase movie set on a locomotive during the Civil War. Keaton became known for his deadpan face and the hats he wore. Acrobat and athlete, Keaton performed all of the stunts in his films and used his knowledge of baseball in several of his movies.
In the film College (1927) Keaton plays a young man with a distinct antipathy towards sports who graduates from high school as the top scholar in his class. He enrolls at Clayton College because the most popular girl in high school enrolls there and in order to impress her, he takes up collegiate sports. At the tryouts for the baseball team, he dons the catcher’s equipment to play third base, a batted ball goes through his legs and another flies right past his head, a thrown ball knocks his glove off, and a base runner sliding into third knocks Keaton to the ground. Batting does not go much better. Keaton hits himself in the head with four bats while taking practice swings, is hit by a pitch in the rear end, and once on base, trips when taking a lead off first when his foot gets caught underneath the bag. Needless to say, he does not make the team.
In The Cameraman (1928), Keaton’s character, who aspires to be a newsreel cameraman, arrives at Yankee Stadium to film a game. Unfortunately, while the Yankees are playing baseball that day, the game is in St. Louis. Keaton ingeniously takes the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. He plays a pantomime game of baseball with himself at a real major league ball park. He steps on the mound, shakes off a sign from the invisible catcher, checks the bases which are apparently loaded, pretends to pick a runner off third, and when he pitches, gets the nonexistent batter to hit into a double play. At bat, Keaton takes a brush back pitch before hitting an inside the park home run, capped off by a head-first slide into the plate.
In One Run Elmer (1935), a sound comedy short but with very little dialogue, Elmer (Keaton) plays in a sandlot baseball game (with a prairie outfield) between the Bear Cats, Elmer’s team, and the Rattlers, his rival’s team, with the winning manager obtaining a date with a pretty young woman. About one-third of the nineteen-minute film concerns the baseball game, which contains a number of amusing moments. When Elmer, playing catcher, is upset with two of the umpire’s calls, he signals the pitcher to throw one high. Elmer deliberately misses the pitch, which knocks down the umpire. Later, Elmer accidentally pitches a popcorn ball to a batter, requiring him and his teammates to collect all the pieces and then push them together, so that the runner can be tagged out at home plate. There is even a repeat of a gag from College, when Elmer, while batting, turns to complain to the umpire and the next pitch hits him in the rear end.
One Run Elmer is filled with fantastic moments, such as a ball being thrown about three feet off of first base and the bag jumping on its own to the first baseman’s foot, Keaton taking a super-sized bat to the plate and knocking down the catcher and the umpire, and Keaton sliding under first base and then making second safely. The baseball game ends with a moment that previously could only be imagined for a cartoon. Elmer inserts two bullets into the barrel of his bat and when he hits, the ball literally explodes off the bat, resulting in a game-winning inside-the-park grand slam, although the play at the plate is close, with Elmer having to drop kick the catcher out of the way so that Elmer can land safely on home plate.
For sports fans, there is a special moment in One Run Elmer. Jim Thorpe, often considered the greatest athlete of the twentieth century, plays the second baseman for the Rattlers. Thorpe was an Olympic gold medalist, a Hall of Fame college and professional football player, and a professional baseball player.5 Thorpe’s sports career ended in 1928. He then went on to appear in about seventy Hollywood films, usually uncredited and having no lines (just as in One Run Elmer) and often in Westerns. Thorpe, with his long hair flowing out of his baseball cap, is easy to spot in One Run Elmer. Thorpe receives one tight shot, as he is the cut-off man on Keaton’s inside-the-park home run that ends the game, providing baseball fans with a rare opportunity to see Jim Thorpe play the game.
Harold Lloyd was another popular silent film comedian with a significant baseball-related scene in one of his movies. The scene occurred in Speedy (1928), the last of his eleven solely silent film features. Although Lloyd appeared in over 150 short silent comedies, it is his feature films which are best remembered today. They also put him in rare company. Lloyd, Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harry Langdon were the only four silent film comedians who made successful and popular feature films during the 1920s. Most other silent film comics, such as Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy, continued to make short subjects during the last decade of the silent era. At the height of his career, Lloyd was one of the most popular and highest-paid stars of his time.6
Lloyd’s usual comic character was an everyman, inept in many ways but determined to succeed, which he always somehow managed to do by the end of a film. Lloyd was famous for his trademark glasses, which he wore in all but the earliest of his films, even when his character was playing football, fighting, or sleeping in bed. Lloyd was also known for the physical stunts he performed, such as climbing a tall building and then hanging from a clock high above the street in Safety Last! (1923).7 In addition to Speedy, Lloyd’s interest in sports can be seen in The Freshman (1925), a college football comedy.
Speedy concerns the title character, a man who cannot seem to hold a job, trying to protect the last horse-drawn streetcar operating in New York City. There are a number of subplots set in and around New York City, including a short segment with Lloyd, as a taxi driver, taking the real Babe Ruth on a terrifyingly fast ride to Yankee Stadium. This may be the best segment in the movie, as Speedy talks to Ruth in the back seat, without looking at the road, causing many near collisions, and the Babe freaking out, yelling directions at Speedy, and even closing his eyes at one point. Even though Speedy is a silent film, there is funny dialogue in the inter-titles. Speedy lauds Ruth’s hitting, saying, “Even when you strike out, you miss ’em close,” to which Babe responds, commenting on Speedy’s driving, “I don’t miss ’em half as close as you do.”
Babe Ruth appeared in ten films in his long film career, silent and talking, shorts and features. He always played himself. Ruth usually gave good performances, but his best may be in Speedy. Ruth’s reactions to Speedy’s reckless driving are hilarious.
Lou Gehrig, far right, sneaks into a scene with Harold Lloyd (left) and Babe Ruth (center), in Lloyd’s Speedy (1928). (AUTHOR’S COLLECTION)
In addition to the very funny car ride on the real streets of New York City, there are shots of Ruth giving out signed baseballs at a real orphanage in midtown Manhattan and a long shot of Yankee Stadium from the Macombs Dam Bridge. After they arrive at the Stadium, Ruth gives Speedy a free ticket to the game, giving Speedy the opportunity to personally see Ruth hit a home run. The home run is archive footage of a home run Ruth hit in the third inning of the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, which the Yankees lost to the Cardinals in seven games.8 Lou Gehrig also makes an appearance in the background as Ruth and Lloyd talk outside Lloyd’s cab in front of the Stadium.
Although Mack Sennett was the most famous producer of silent comedies (Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops, and others), Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy, and others) was not far behind. In the 1920s, however, Charley Chase was probably the most important and popular star at Roach. The comedian with the twitching nose, pursing mouth, and dancing mustache usually portrayed an average guy caught up in ordinary but exasperating situations. Chase appeared in about ninety silent shorts for Roach, plus numerous shorts for other studios, in addition to supervising and directing many other short comedies.
Chase was no longer a star comedian in the sound era, but he still made many appearances in the movies in featured roles. His most famous sound performance is probably as the drunken practical joker in the great Laurel and Hardy feature, Sons of the Desert (1933). In 1937, Chase left Hal Roach studios and began working at Columbia, where he continued appearing in short comedies, as well as directing the films of other comics, such as those of The Three Stooges, often using his real name, Charles Parrott. 9
One of the last films in which Chase appeared was The Heckler (1940), produced just before his death that year at the age of 46. This baseball short commences at a tennis match with the Heckler (Chase) shouting disparaging comments at a tennis player and then laughing aloud at his own jokes. When he causes the tennis star to miss the ball because of his caustic comments, the Heckler shouts his catchphrase, “Boy, can I call them?” At the conclusion of the match, a baseball player with the strange name of “Ole Margarine” is introduced. He is playing for the Green Sox in the upcoming World Series. The Heckler starts to rattle Margarine, causing him to drop the tennis trophy. Once again, the Heckler shouts, “Can I call them?”
The scene switches to the World Series and the Heckler is in fine form again, shouting and laughing loudly, smoking his cigar, and disturbing the fans at the game as well as the players on the field. He is particularly hard on Ole Margarine, causing him to look bad both at bat and in the field, resulting in the Green Sox losing the first game. Some gamblers believe that the Heckler is the main reason for the Sox’s loss and they therefore agree to share some of their winnings with the Heckler if he heckles the Green Sox in the next game. The Green Sox recognize the problem also. They put ice down the Heckler’s pajamas while he is sleeping, causing him to lose his voice. The Heckler tries at the next game, but his taunting of Margarine is unsuccessful, leading to a surprise ending.
As to the film’s humor, the Heckler spouts off lots of silly jokes, such as the moment in which he accidentally hits a fan with a bottle of soda pop and says that it didn’t hurt the fan because it is only a “soft drink,” or when the soft drink starts spraying soda, asking the umpire not to call the game because it’s only a little shower. Then there are the slapstick jokes, such as a piece of sticky candy getting caught on a man’s hair, resulting in a toupee being pulled off, a man ordering an ice cream cone from a vendor and getting it in his face when the Heckler accidentally hits his arm, and Chase grabbing another fan’s straw hat to try to catch a foul ball, resulting in the ball going through the hat and ruining it.
Charley Chase is as obnoxious as anyone can be at a baseball game, but he is consistently amusing. Also, it is hard not to like a movie in which an outfielder gets hit in the head with a fly ball, a staple of baseball comedies.
While there are no real baseball players in the short, The Heckler has a legitimate star athlete in its cast. In real life, Bruce Bennett (Ole Margarine), under his given name Herman Brix, won the silver medal for the shot put in the 1928 Olympic games. Bennett’s early movie career was forgettable, except for an appearance as Tarzan in a movie serial. After The Heckler, Bruce Bennett would go on to have significant supporting roles in major films, such as Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He is remembered today by baseball fans for his role as aging pitcher Saul Hellman in Angels in the Outfield (1951).
Shemp Howard is best remembered today as one of The Three Stooges, rejoining the team in 1947 after his brother Curley Howard suffered a debilitating stroke the year before. Shemp then appeared in seventy-three new comedy shorts as one of the Stooges until his death in 1955. Shemp, however, was a reluctant Stooge. In the 1920s, the original Three Stooges came together, consisting of Moe Howard and Larry Fine along with Shemp, but Shemp left the act in the early 1930s to start a solo career. Curly Howard then took Shemp Howard’s vacated spot in the act. Shemp only returned to The Three Stooges after Curly’s stroke because he believed that Moe and Larry would be out of work if the act were not reconstituted. Shemp intended to return on a temporary basis only, but his association with the Stooges became permanent when Curly never recovered sufficiently to return to the act..
Shemp’s successful solo film career is often overlooked. He appeared in full-length features with W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello, in mainstream movies such as Pittsburgh (1942), starring John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich, and in comedy shorts such as those he did for Vitaphone in the 1930s and for Columbia in the 1940s. In all, Shemp appeared in about fifty feature films, usually in bit parts or supporting roles, and another fifty comedy shorts, usually in supporting roles or as the star, all without any of the other Stooges.10
Shemp Howard’s foray into the comedy of baseball occurred in his Vitaphone period, with the release of Dizzy and Daffy (1934). His co-stars in the comedy short and the only actors with their names above the title were Jerome and Paul Dean, better known to baseball fans as Dizzy and Daffy. The short was produced and released just after the 1934 World Series, in which the Dean brothers led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series win over the Detroit Tigers.
Shemp plays a pitcher named Lefty Howard, who has come down from the big leagues to pitch for the Farmer White Sox in their game against the Shanty Town No Sox. While Lefty talks a big game about his major league career, his near blindness—a particular difficulty for a baseball pitcher—is the cause of his trip to the low minors. In this game, Lefty is also plagued by the world’s worst umpire, “Call ’Em Wrong Jones,” who, in addition to his lack of skill in calling balls and strikes, has a severe stuttering problem.
This sets the scene for a very funny segment with Lefty pitching for the White Sox. It includes Lefty holding out his hand and catching a popup he never sees, eight Farmers’ players surrounding a base runner in a rundown, allowing the base runner to squeeze out between them and almost score, Lefty getting hit in the head with a thrown baseball, and Lefty getting turned around and pitching the ball to second base. (All of that may not seem that funny in print but there are lots of laughs when actually viewing it.) Lefty is eventually removed from the game and Jerome, as he is referred to in the short, goes in as the relief pitcher. Jerome has a much more fluid and practical pitching motion than Lefty, striking out most of the batters he faces. One of Jerome’s pitches is so fast that when the catcher catches it, his mitt starts to smoke.
The St. Louis Cardinals take both Deans up to the majors for the 1934 season and for some reason, they bring Lefty Howard along as their pitching coach. When Dizzy is injured running the bases in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, Lefty goes in to run for him. Unfortunately, Lefty’s base running skills are not much better than his pitching. Daffy comes in to pitch the ninth inning, striking out the side and winning the World Championship for St. Louis.
The Dean Brothers barely appear in Dizzy and Daffy as actors, although each gets a chance to show off his pitching abilities. The revelation of the film is Shemp Howard, who is very funny as the nearly blind Lefty Howard. It is one of his best performances in films. He even gets a chance to give the umpire an eye poke, foreshadowing his later career as one of the Three Stooges.
In his Columbia period, Shemp Howard starred in a remake of the Charley Chase classic The Heckler, titled Mr. Noisy (1946), about a man who heckles a baseball player during the World Series. The remake is almost an exact duplicate of the original, and many people believe that Shemp Howard’s performance in Mr. Noisy is better than the one by Charley Chase in The Heckler. Mr. Noisy was one of the last films in which Shemp appeared before he rejoined The Three Stooges in 1947.
Red Skelton was one of the top comedians on television for over twenty years. His comedy-variety program, aptly named The Red Skelton Show, debuted on NBC on September 30, 1951, moved to CBS two years later, and remained on the air until 1971 when it returned to NBC for a final season. With Skelton’s weekly monologue, pantomime segments, and coterie of sketch characters such as Clem Kaddiddlehopper, a country bumpkin; the Mean Widdle Kid, an impish prankster; and Freddie the Freeloader, a silent tramp, The Red Skelton Show was one of television’s top-rated programs throughout its entire run on CBS. It is also one of the longest-running television variety shows of all time.
Skelton’s television program had its origins in his successful radio show, which debuted in 1941 and continued into the 1950s, meaning that for several years, Skelton had shows on both radio and television. Many of the characters from Skelton’s television show made their debuts on his radio program.11
Red Skelton also had success at the cinema, with roles in over thirty-five films, the most significant ones produced by MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. Skelton provided comic relief in some of those movies and starred in others. In those films, Skelton was known for his impish personality and clown persona. Skelton’s films at MGM included a popular mystery-comedy trilogy that is sometimes known as the “Whistling” series, because of the titles of the three films. In all of the films, Skelton portrays actor Wally Benton, the star of a popular mystery series on the radio, whose detective character, “The Fox,” always solves the crime. The first film in the series, Whistling in the Dark (1941), was one of the best comedy-mysteries of the 1940s.
Near the end of the last film in the series, Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), the police chase Benton to Ebbets Field, believing he is a serial killer known as Constant Reader. In order to escape, Benton disguises himself as the bearded pitcher for the Battling Beavers and then pitches one inning of exhibition baseball against the real Brooklyn Dodgers while at the same time trying to prevent Inspector Holcomb, a police inspector from New York, from becoming the next murder victim of the real Constant Reader.
During the game, Benton tries to throw a ball with a warning message into the field box where Holcomb is sitting, accidentally picking a runner off first base when the first baseman intercepts the ball. He has trouble seeing the signals from the catcher and has to walk almost to home plate to see them. He catches a ball in his long, thick beard for the third out in an inning. When he comes to bat, he takes several very close pitches, one breaking a button on his shirt (which comes open) and another splitting the belt on his pants (which comes loose).12
The scenes with Benton on the field in Whistling in Brooklyn generate the most laughs in the film. Of special interest to baseball fans are the location shooting at Ebbets Field and the real players who appear in the film. As to the latter, Wally Benton is not much of a pitcher and he hits the first three Brooklyn Dodgers he faces. All three batters are played by real Brooklyn Dodgers who, despite appearing in this film, were subsequently elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown: Billy Herman, who was then the second baseman for the Dodgers but who spent most of his career with the Chicago Cubs; Arky Vaughan, who was then the shortstop for the Dodgers but who is best-known for his years with the Pittsburgh Pirates; and Ducky Medwick, who was then the left fielder for the Dodgers but who had most of his success with the St. Louis Cardinals. The catcher is Mickey Owen, still known today for dropping a third strike in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 1941 World Series, leading to a Yankees win over the Dodgers in that Series. Another Hall of Famer, player-manager Leo Durocher, has a few lines.
Known today primarily for her series of popular romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Doris Day started her career in show business as a band singer for several bandleaders, including Les Brown, with whom she recorded her first hit record, “Sentimental Journey,” in 1945. Day moved to the movies and appeared in a number of successful musicals at Warner Bros., beginning with Romance on the High Seas (1948). In the early 1950s, she began appearing in dramatic films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). For baseball fans, she played Aimee Alexander, the wife of famed pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (played by Ronald Reagan), in The Winning Team (1952). Even though there is no indication that Aimee Alexander was an accomplished singer in real life, Day, as Aimee, sings a song in the movie.
In 1959, Day appeared in Pillow Talk, a romantic comedy with Rock Hudson. The film was a huge success, leading to a series of similar romantic comedies with leading men James Garner, Cary Grant, and two more with Hudson. These movies were so popular that Day, in the early 1960s, was often the annual top box office star in Hollywood.
That Touch of Mink (1962) is a typical Doris Day romantic comedy. Wealthy businessman Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) pursues a younger, unemployed woman, Cathy Timberlake (Day). After Cathy indicates an interest in baseball, Philip takes Cathy to see “a local team,”the Yankees, and for reasons never explained, they are allowed to watch the game from the Yankees dugout. That may not have been a good idea on the part of the Yankees, as Cathy constantly berates the home plate umpire, leading to a confrontation between the two of them when the umpire calls a strike on a Yankees batter, which Cathy believes was a ball. When Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris tell the umpire they agree with Cathy, he throws them out of the game. When Cathy asks for additional support from Yogi Berra, he is more judicious, saying, “It’s a perfect strike. The ump was right.” Berra still gets ejected from the game, with the umpire explaining, “I don’t like sarcasm, Berra. You’re out of the game, too.”
The baseball scene in That Touch of Mink was probably more about box office than baseball. There was a time in Hollywood when it was believed that the inclusion of famous athletes in a film translated into higher box office receipts. Mantle and Maris were surely the most famous athletes in America at the time, because of their concurrent pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record the previous year. Other examples just from this article are Babe Ruth, the year after he set the home run record, appearing with Harold Lloyd in Speedy (1928) and the Dean brothers appearing in Dizzy and Daffy (1934) shortly after their Cardinals won the World Series.
The umpire in That Touch of Mink is played by Art Passarella, a character actor who worked primarily in television starting in the 1950s. Interestingly, from 1941-53 (with two years off for military service), Passarella was an American League umpire. He umpired in three World Series and two All Star Games. Throughout his career he ejected twenty-three players, managers, and coaches from games, so ejecting three more from That Touch of Mink was not much of an acting stretch for him.13
Reggie Jackson and Jeanette Charles (as Queen Elizabeth) in Leslie Nielsen’s “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988). (AUTHOR’S COLLECTION)
By far, the funniest baseball sequence ever filmed stars a man who came late to the world of comedy, Leslie Nielsen. For most of his career, Nielsen was known as a serious actor, in film roles such as the spaceship commander in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956) and the ship’s captain in popular disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and on television, particularly as a guest star on many television series, such as The Fugitive, Columbo, and The Streets of San Francisco. Nielsen’s career took an unexpected turn after he received the role of the doctor in comedy classic Airplane! (1980). (“I am serious and don’t call me Shirley.”) Nielsen stood out among the other dramatic actors in the film—Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves—leading to Nielsen starring in Police Squad!, a 1982 television comedy series written and shot in the style of Airplane! Nielsen played Detective Frank Drebin in the series and although the show is now considered a cult classic, only six episodes were produced.
That seemed to be the end of Police Squad! until the makers of Police Squad! and Airplane! decided to revive the character of Lieutenant Frank Drebin for The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988). Late in the film, Drebin gets a tip that during the seventh inning stretch of a game between the California Angels and the Seattle Mariners at Anaheim Stadium, a crime boss is going to have an unnamed, brainwashed baseball player assassinate Queen Elizabeth, who is visiting Los Angeles and attending the game. Drebin is determined to get down on the field and search each of the players for a weapon. To do so, he knocks out the home plate umpire and takes his place on the field.
The big game is announced on television by famed broadcaster Curt Gowdy, along with his color announcers, Jim Palmer, the Hall-of-Fame pitching star of the Baltimore Orioles, All-Star catcher Tim McCarver, and Dick Vitale, Mel Allen, Dick Enberg, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, all played by themselves.
Baseball-related comedy is rife and plentiful in The Naked Gun sequence. As everyone knows, there is a lot of spitting in baseball, but in this game, some even comes from the players’ wives sitting in their special seats. Signals to the base runners come from the dugout via signal flags and a ship’s signal lamp. Queen Elizabeth has to pass a hot dog down her row and even participates in The Wave. At one point, the umpires get a base runner into a rundown! All Mel Allen can do is employ one of his catchphrases, “How about that?”
Drebin makes for an unusual home-plate umpire. When he receives some positive fan reaction to a strike call he makes, he starts making more and more outrageous gestures during his strike calls, including a little bit of a moon walk at one point. At first, Drebin cleans home plate with the traditional brush but later he uses a hand vacuum and then a full size vacuum cleaner.
While all of this is going on, Drebin is searching the players, trying to find a potential murder weapon. At one point, he searches the pitcher and although he finds sandpaper, an electric sander, and a full container of Vaseline, Drebin does not care because there is no hidden weapon. Drebin fails to search the right fielder, however, and when the seventh inning stretch arrives, it turns out that the killer is none other than Reggie Jackson, the Hall of Fame slugger and right fielder who played for the Angels 1982–86. What a neat twist!
The Naked Gun was so successful that Leslie Nielsen reprised his character in two sequels and also starred in several other movies with Airplane-style humor. He is the most recent, but surely not the last, of the great movie comedians with a baseball scene in their films.
In the early 1930s, comedian Joe E. Brown, who once had a tryout with the New York Yankees,14 starred in three baseball movies: Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), and Alibi Ike (1935). Richard Pryor played a baseball player in two films, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), as a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues who hopes to make it to the white major leagues, first by posing as a Cuban and later as an American Indian and Brewster’s Millions (1985), playing a minor league ballplayer who inherits a fortune.
Other screen comedians had brief moments with the game of baseball. In A Night at the Opera (1935), the Marx Brothers substitute sheet music of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for opera music during a performance of Il Travatore and when the orchestra switches to the baseball melody, Chico and Harpo play catch in the orchestra pit. In Zelig (1983), Woody Allen inserts his title character into some archive footage of the Yankees at spring training, which includes some shots of Babe Ruth. Jerry Lewis attends a Dodgers exhibition game in Japan in The Geisha Boy (1958) and riles up the pitcher for the Japanese team, causing Lewis to end up with a baseball in his mouth. Clearly, baseball is not just our national pastime; it is also the pastime of the great movie comedians.
RON BACKER is an attorney who is an avid fan of both movies and baseball. He has written five books on film, the most recent being Baseball Goes to the Movies, published in 2017 by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books. A long-suffering Pirates fan, Ron lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
1 Jim Mulholland, The Abbott and Costello Book, New York, NY: Popular Library, 1977.
2 Jeffrey S. Miller, The Horror Spoofs of Abbott and Costello, Jefferson, NC: Mcfarland & Company, Inc., 2000, pp. 5-12; Cary O’Dell, “ ‘Who’s on First’—Abbott and Costello (Earliest existing radio broadcast version (October 6, 1938),” http://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/WhosOnFirst.pdf.
3 Bill Francis, “Who’s On First Joined the Hall 60 Years Ago,” Baseball Hall of Fame, June 2, 2016, https://baseballhall.org/discover/short-stops/whos-on-first.
4 Rob Edelman, “Buster Keaton, Baseball Player,” The National Pastime, SABR: 2011, https://sabr.org/research/buster-keaton-baseball-player.
5 An outfielder, Thorpe played for four full and two part seasons for the New York Giants. He also played part seasons for the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves. He had a career batting average of .252, with just seven career home runs. Jim Thorpe, Baseball Reference, https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/thorpji01.shtml.
6 “Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius,”American Masters, PBS website, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/harold-lloyd-about-harold-lloyd/647/.
7 Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (Second edition), Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press, 1979, pp. 150-155.
8 Goldstein, Bruce & McGee Scott (2015). Speedy commentary track (DVD). Criterion Collection.
9 Mast, pages 187-190; Charles Parrot aka Charley Chase Filmography, http://theluckycorner.com/crew/chase.html.
10 Filmography, Shemphoward.com, http://www.shemphoward.com/filmography.html.
11 “Lovable Clown Red Skelton Dies,” The Deseret News, September 18, 1997, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=F_RLAAAAIBAJ&sjid=2u0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=6805,971926&dq=red+skelton&hl=en; “Red Skelton, TV and Film’s Quintessential Clown, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1997, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1997-sep-18-mn-33654-story.html.
12 Actually, Benton should have been awarded first base on each of those pitches, because when a pitched ball touches the batter’s uniform, it is the same as if the ball touches the batter’s body, thereby becoming a hit-by-pitch. Major League Baseball Rules; definition of the word “Touch.”
13 Retrosheet, https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/P/Ppassa901.htm.
14 Joe E. Brown and Ralph Hancock. Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1956, 220.