This article was written by Rob Edelman
This article was published in the Spring 2015 Baseball Research Journal
Even the most obscure films with obvious baseball themes are readily accessible to researchers. However, seeking out films in which baseball is referenced but does not play a central role in the storyline is more problematic. So compiling a definitive list of non-baseball-themed films which cite the sport is, in a word, impractical. Even today, in our Internet/information age, there is no source for such information.
Even the most obscure films with obvious baseball themes are readily accessible to researchers. However, seeking out films in which baseball is referenced but does not play a central role in the storyline is more problematic. So compiling a definitive list of non-baseball-themed films which cite the sport is, in a word, impractical. Even today, in our Internet/information age, there is no source for such information.Back in the mid-1990s, I published Great Baseball Films (Citadel Press), which charts the manner in which the sport has been depicted onscreen from the late 1890s to early 1990s. Twenty years ago as today, even the most obscure films with obvious baseball themes were readily accessible to researchers. However, seeking out films in which baseball is referenced but does not play a central role in the storyline is more problematic. So compiling a definitive list of non-baseball-themed films which cite the sport is, in a word, impractical. Even today, in our Internet/information age, there is no source for such information.
Nonetheless, while researching Great Baseball Films, it became apparent that some of the most revealing baseball sequences exist in non-sports films.[fn]Among the many examples cited in Great Baseball Films are: College (1927); Speedy (1928); The Cameraman (1928); Up the River (1930); A Night at the Opera (1935); Black Legion (1936); Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937); Brother Rat (1938); Brother Rat and a Baby (1940); Remember the Day (1941); Meet John Doe (1941); Woman of the Year (1942); The Talk of the Town (1942); Larceny, Inc. (1942); Hitler’s Children (1943); Whistling in Brooklyn (1943); Guadalcanal Diary (1943); Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944); The Naughty Nineties (1945); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Deadline at Dawn (1946); Boys’ Ranch (1946); A Foreign Affair (1948); Sunset Boulevard (1950); About Face (1952); Strategic Air Command (1955); Three Stripes in the Sun (1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Escapade in Japan (1957); The Geisha Boy (1958); Experiment in Terror (1962); The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962); Boys’ Night Out (1962); That Touch of Mink (1962); The Family Jewels (1965); Ship of Fools (1965); The Odd Couple (1968); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Chapter Two (1979); The Chosen (1982); Cannery Row (1982); Max Dugan Returns (1983); Zelig (1983); Under Fire (1983); A Soldier’s Story (1984); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); Protocol (1984); Birdy (1984); Gung Ho (1986); Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986); About Last Night… (1986); Brighton Beach Memoirs (1987); Radio Days (1987); Ironweed (1987); Funny Farm (1988); Big (1988); Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988); Rain Man (1988); Parenthood (1989); Hook (1991); City Slickers (1991); Bad Lieutenant (1992); Simple Men (1992); Dave (1993); Sleepless in Seattle (1993) …[/fn] Since the book’s publication, countless additional examples have come to the fore.
Take, for example, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). The title character is Tom Rath (Gregory Peck), a harried suburbanite and World War II veteran who commutes into Manhattan every workday. One day, while passing time on the train, Tom’s mind wanders and he recalls an incident from a decade earlier—and a world away from mid-1950s America—in which he killed a young German soldier. Then in an instant, he is thrust back into the reality of 1956 when the man sitting next to him grimly declares, “There’s no use trying. I just can’t get used to it.”
“Used to what?” Tom asks.
His fellow commuter responds: “The idea of the Brooklyn Dodgers as world champions.”
The world had indeed changed in the decade since the end of the war.[fn]Even though The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit references the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was cited in “New York Mets in the Movies,” a paper presented in 2012 at the 50th anniversary New York Mets conference at Hofstra University. Non-baseball films with Mets-related sequences and references include: Alice in the Cities (1974); The Wiz (1978); Do the Right Thing (1989); 3 Men and a Little Lady (1990); Mo’ Better Blues (1990); Jungle Fever (1991); Men in Black (1997); Frequency (2000); Small Time Crooks (2000); Kate & Leopold (2001); Two Weeks Notice (2002); Old Dogs (2009); and Friends With Benefits (2011). A version of this paper may be found at: http://sabr.org/latest/edelman-new-york-mets-movies.[/fn]
Then there is On Moonlight Bay (1951), a nostalgia-filled romance that mirrors the role of women in American society during a bygone era. The year is 1917 and Marjorie Winfield (Doris Day) is a teenaged tomboy who can swing a bat as well as any male. However, one look at William Sherman (Gordon MacRae), the handsome boy next door, and Marjorie readily exchanges her mud-stained baseball flannels for the frilly pink party dress she will wear on their first date. As she prepares for the date, Marjorie’s mother (Rosemary DeCamp) advises her to “try not to walk like a first baseman,” and her father (Leon Ames) quips, “I hope he doesn’t try to dance with her. He’s liable to get spiked.”
As they converse, William, a University of Indiana senior, describes his college experience as “a farce. All the fellas are interested in is playing football and baseball…”
“What’s wrong with baseball?” Marjorie asks.
William responds: “Baseball! It’s the national insanity. At a time like this, when civilization is crumbling beneath our feet, our generation is playing baseball…”
Who is the now-smitten Marjorie to disagree? For after all, the man is always right.
Before their date ends, Marjorie already is changing her worldview. At one point William asks her to dance, but she hesitates. “Oh, I guess I thought you were a southpaw,” she says, but she quickly catches herself and declares, “I mean left-handed.”
As the evening concludes and they kiss goodnight, Marjorie’s white-gloved left hand pushes aside forever the cap and ball that are resting on the table behind her. She and William are now courting, and her father is worried about her because, as he explains, “Marjorie is young and inexperienced. All she knows about men is their batting averages.”
Quips Stella (Mary Wickes), the family housekeeper: “In case you’re interested, this one’s batting a thousand.”
Unquestionably, mere mentions of baseball abound in the most unusual non-baseball situations. For example, in one brief scene in Grease (1978), the Rydell High School athletic coach (Sid Caesar) attempts to explain the finer points of sports to Danny Zuko (John Travolta). This sequence will fascinate anyone who is captivated by the image of Travolta garbed in a Rydell jersey and awkwardly swinging a baseball bat. But there is no baseball-related cultural context here. What most fascinates is the presence of a larger context, which exists in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and On Moonlight Bay: films featuring baseball sequences that reflect on the eras in which they were made.
Some non-baseball films cite real-baseball scandals. For example, two Jewish gangsters—one fictional and one real—are featured and referenced in The Godfather: Part II (1974). At one point, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) declares, “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919.” Others cite memorable in-season games. In One, Two, Three (1961), C.R. McNamara (James Cagney), a Coca-Cola executive who heads to West Germany to promote his product, reports, “On Sunday, August 13, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs number 44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with—real shifty.” And “real shifty” does not refer to any Senators hurler who might consider hitting Maris with a pitch rather than challenging him with a fastball down the middle.
Brooklyn-born Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the hero of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), starts out as a 90-pound weakling. The time is World War II, and the borough is introduced onscreen with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background and some kids playing baseball in a street: an image that links the sport to mom’s apple pie Americanism. As the plot unfolds, Rogers is transformed into the muscular title character and, upon waking up after winning out in contemporary action-movie fashion over the megalomaniacal villain, he finds himself in a room. A Dodgers game is being broadcast on a radio. “Just an absolutely gorgeous day here at Ebbets Field,” the play-by-play man declares. He reports that the Dodgers are battling the Phillies; the game is tied 4–4; the home team is at bat with the bases loaded; and the hitter smashes a drive into the outfield. “Three runs’ll score,” the broadcaster adds. “Durocher’s gonna wave them in… Pete Reiser with an inside-the-park grand slam… What a game we have here today, folks.”
Only there’s a problem: Rogers has performed his heroics during World War II, yet this game was played pre-Pearl Harbor, in May 1941. How does he know this? Because he was in the stands that day. Something is amiss… and this knowledge on Rogers’ part further propels the plot. And here is where “real” mixes with “reel.” On May 26, 1941, Louis Effrat noted in the New York Times that, a month earlier, Reiser was hit by a pitch thrown by Philadelphia Phillies hurler Ike Pearson and ended up hospitalized, with his career—and his life—imperiled. But Reiser survived and, as Effrat reported, “At Ebbets Field yesterday, Reiser faced Pearson for the first time since the accident on April 23, faced him in a situation that couldn’t have been more dramatic if it were part of a Hollywood scenario.” Effrat added that the score was tied at four and the bases were loaded when Reiser strode to the plate. “Was he frightened?” Effrat wondered. “Did he flinch? The result, more than anything else, answers these questions…” as Pistol Pete belted a 3-and-1 pitch against the center-field screen, ending up with an inside-the-park dinger. The fictional Steve Rogers was one of the 12,941 fans on hand that day—and one can see how Effrat’s reportage might have inspired the screenwriters of Captain America: The First Avenger.[fn]Louis Effrat. “Dodgers Stage Rally in Sixth to Triumph Over Phillies,” New York Times, May 26, 1941, 25.[/fn]
Other sequences spotlight iconic baseball moments. Predictably, in the Boston-centric Good Will Hunting (1997), Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) explains to Will Hunting (Matt Damon) that, on October 21, 1975, he knew that he had met the woman of his dreams. Why? Because that was Game 6 of the World Series. “Biggest game in Red Sox history,” he declares, because this was the one in which Carlton Fisk belted his now-legendary dinger. Maguire adds that he and his friends had slept on the sidewalk all night to cop tickets. However, before the game, he was sitting in a bar and “in walks this girl.” He soon reveals that he never made it to the game and was not present to experience first-hand a slice of Red Sox lore. But Maguire has no regrets because the woman was such a “stunner”—as well as his future wife.
Hall of Famers are cited onscreen in a range of ways. Whip It (2009) features a roller derby player who nicknames herself “Babe Ruthless.” There is comic irony in the following dialogue from Father’s Day (1997). Here, Jack Lawrence (Billy Crystal) tells Dale Putley (Robin Williams): “You’re a tragic hero. You’re Lou Gehrig.” Putley’s one-word response is: “Who?” Lawrence tells him, “Lou Gehrig. Everybody knows Lou Gehrig. The baseball player. He died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” The still clueless Putley’s rejoinder is “Wow, what are the odds on that?”
The central character in Ace in the Hole (1951), also known as The Big Carnival, is Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a New York newspaperman who’s been sentenced to media oblivion in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While complaining to one of his new paper’s unhip employees, Tatum observes that in the American Southwest there is “No Yogi Berra. What do you know about Yogi Berra, Miss Deverich?” “Yogi?” she responds. “Why, it’s a sort of religion, isn’t it?” In a Ruthian swing for the fences, Tatum retorts, “You bet it is—a belief in the New York Yankees.” Meanwhile, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), made almost six decades after Ace in the Hole, also references the beloved Berra. This serves to mirror his longevity on the American scene.
From the following dialogue in French Connection II (1975), one can guess the age of “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), a New York narcotics cop who is working in Marseilles and conversing with French Inspector Henri Barthelemy (Bernard Fresson):
Doyle: “You know, I had a tryout with the Yankees. You know what the Yankees are?”
Barthelemy: “Yes. As in ‘Yankee go home.’”
Doyle: “Yeah. NO! No, uh…uh…no, the Yankee baseball…baseball team. Yeah, I had a tryout with them and…they sent me down to the…the minors. And the…problem was that…there was a fuckin’ kid there, and he was…the fastest bastard, he was fuckin’ FAST. And he…he played shortstop at the time, and he…he could hit the ball a fuckin’ ton. A fuckin’ TON! You know what ‘fuck’ means?”
Doyle: “Yeah. Well, I was in spring training…and I saw this kid…and I just immediately took the test for cops. That kid was Mickey Mantle. You know who Mickey Mantle was?
Barthelemy: “No, I can’t say that I know.”
Doyle: “You don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Huh? How about Willie Mays? Say hey! Willie Mays! The mighty Willie Mays! See?”
Moments later, the subject returns to baseball.
Doyle: “Well, and…Whitey Ford. Goddamn. You know who Whitey Ford was?…He was a dandy little southpaw. That’s what we called him. He was a dandy little southpaw.”
Doyle: “Yeah. He was a lefty.”
Barthelemy: “You mean a communist?”
Doyle: “No, he was a Republican. But he was somethin’, I tell you. He was somethin’…”
A throwaway line in On the Waterfront (1954) links the year in which the film was released to the haplessness of one major league team at this moment in time. At one point, a downtrodden dockworker notes that his beat-up windbreaker is “more full of holes than the Pittsburgh infield.” But there is another line in On the Waterfront that resonates. In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has been subpoenaed to appear before a waterfront crime commission and is conflicted as to whether he should testify against union hooligan Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry explains to Father Barry (Karl Malden) that Friendly “used to take me to the ballgames when I was a kid.” Father Barry responds: “Ballgames. Don’t break my heart. I wouldn’t care if he gave you a life pass to the Polo Grounds…You’ve got some other brothers, and they’re getting’ the short hand while your Johnny’s gettin’ mustard on his face at the Polo Grounds.”
In the early 1950s, the “life pass to the Polo Grounds” reference was appropriate for a New York City-area scenario. When On the Waterfront was scripted, who knew that, in just a few years, the Giants would abandon Coogan’s Bluff for San Francisco and a “life pass to the Polo Grounds” would be meaningless—and worthless?
Similar references are found in another mid-1950s New York City-centric film: Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Here, slimy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) tells the secretary of ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), “Don’t try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. I happen to know it belongs to the Dodgers.”
Later on, Falco tells Hunsecker: “I won’t get Kello,” referring to a thuggish NYPD lieutenant. “Not for a lifetime pass to the Polo Grounds.” Baseball citations permeate Sweet Smell of Success. As he argues with Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), the boyfriend of his kid sister (Susan Harrison), Hunsecker observes, “Well, son, it looks like we may have to call this game on account of darkness.”
In referencing his sister, Hunsecker notes: “If Sidney ever gets anywhere near Susie, I’d take a baseball bat and break it over his head.”
The latter lines are obvious examples of how baseball is occasionally employed in a manner that has nothing to do with athletics. In some, baseball is akin to fate—and poetry. In Grand Canyon (1991), Mack (Kevin Kline), an entertainment industry accountant, recalls an incident in which he was almost run over by a bus but was grabbed by a stranger and yanked to safety. He explains, “I thanked this stranger, this woman in a baseball cap, but I was pretty much in a daze. When I thanked her, she said, ‘My pleasure.’ I didn’t notice till the last moment that the cap was from the Pittsburgh Pirates, my favorite team since I was a kid. I never got over the idea that I should have thanked that woman more, talked to her awhile, something.”
Then he adds, “How come she was wearing a Pirates cap? I just wondered, later on, was she for real, you know? Was that a real person or was that something else, you know, sent from somewhere else, to grab me back from that curb?”
Then again, with Hunsecker’s threat to Falco in mind, endless films feature baseballs and baseball bats as weapons. One of the characters in Inglourious Basterds (2009) is a Jewish GI who relishes killing Nazis by smashing their skulls with bats. (This is contrasted with the stereotype of the Jew as brainy rather than brawny, which is explored in Liberty Heights (1999) via the following bit of dialogue: “There are very few Jewish ballplayers. You’ll never hear, ‘Ground ball to short. Flo Ziegfeld moves to his right, scoops it to Leonard Bernstein at second, who fires to first. George Gershwin stretches. Double play.’ It’s not gonna happen.”)
In The Gambler (1974), a character known as Hips (Paul Sorvino) warns Axel Freed (James Caan), a literature professor and gambling addict, that the “only thing that’s standing between your skull and a baseball bat is my word.”
Stand By Me (1986) features boys playing “Mailbox Baseball,” in which they smash mailboxes with a bat from a moving car. Then in The Client (1994), a young boy (Brad Renfro) disparages the behavior of alcohol-abusing fathers by noting that “they come home wasted and beat on you and your mother so bad that you gotta hit ’em in the face with a baseball bat!”
In Manhattan (1979), Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), making conversation at a party, observes, “Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey?…We should go down there, get some guys together, y’know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.” In Blackboard Jungle (1955), Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), an idealistic teacher, takes a job in a tough inner-city New York high school. As he finishes writing his name on the blackboard, an unidentified student hurls a baseball at the board, smashing it and partially obliterating Dadier’s name. But the teacher has the final word. “Whoever threw that,” Dadier says, “you’ll never pitch for the Yanks, boy.”
Not all such perpetrators are male. In Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) observes, “I’m worried about my little friend Evelyn. She said her husband, Ed, would just be sitting around watching his sports on TV…and she has an urge to hit him in the head with a baseball bat.”
In Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), Harry Deever (Charles Halton), referring to the wife of David Smith (Robert Montgomery), declares, “I guess she’s changed some, huh?”
David responds, “Well, she’s…changed a little.”
Harry chimes in, “She once chased a dogcatcher half a mile with a baseball bat,” and David quips, “Well, she hasn’t changed as much as you think.”
The potential of baseball bats as weapons is further alluded to in Mississippi Burning (1988). Here, two FBI agents arrive in the title locale to investigate the disappearance of some civil rights activists, and one of them (Gene Hackman) describes a baseball game as “the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.” But the sport is connected to the worst kind of violence in Clear and Present Danger (1994). One of the villains is Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandoval), a wealthy Colombian drug lord who shamelessly brags about his omnipotence while hitting baseballs from a pitching machine in a room in his hacienda. Not surprisingly, Escobedo’s bat eventually is transformed into a weapon, which he menacingly wields against a man who has betrayed him.
Occasionally, a bit of introspection accompanies the violence. In The Untouchables (1987), Al Capone (Robert De Niro) observes: “What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork…Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field…what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But…I get nowhere unless the team wins.”
Following these words, Capone beats one of his hoods to death with a baseball bat.
Thankfully, not all “poetic” baseball references are accompanied by aggression. An extra-special baseball homage occurs at the opening of Woody Allen’s aforementioned Manhattan. With Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on the soundtrack, Allen opens the film with a visual homage to the title New York City borough. You see ever-so-brief shots of the Empire State Building, the United Nations, unidentified skyscrapers, apartment houses, restaurants, bridges, crowds, traffic, ferries, Washington Square, the Guggenheim Museum, the Plaza Hotel, Central Park, Broadway, Lincoln Center, the Radio City Music Hall, and Times Square. The next-to-last shot, which lingers, is Yankee Stadium—which of course isn’t even located in the borough of Manhattan. (The final image consists of fireworks over the mid-Manhattan skyline.) Another, similar Yankee Stadium shot is found in Serpico (1973). When honest cop Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) affirms that he will not play ball—no pun intended—with his corrupt fellow police officers, the scene is played on a hill that offers a panoramic view of The House That Ruth Built.
One of the highlights of the musical The West Point Story (1950) is a “Brooklyn” production number. Of course, one of the first lines is: “They know my shield from Ebbets Field to Cheyenne…” Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) features Ginger Rogers as a Brooklyn native who grew up near Ebbets Field and quips: “Foul balls used to light in my backyard” before sighing “Dem lovely Bums.” The opening sequence in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) features loudmouthed Brooklyn Dodgers fans and brawling players at Ebbets Field. New York baseball is touched upon in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Here, a father (Dustin Hoffman) who hails from Brooklyn tells his son (Justin Henry) about his childhood: “We listened to the radio… We didn’t have diet soda. We had egg creams… We didn’t have the Mets, but we had the Brooklyn Dodgers. And we had the Polo Grounds. And we had Ebbets Field. Oh boy, those were the days.”
But not all movie references glorify New York nines. The Chicago location of While You Were Sleeping (1995) is established via a series of city landmarks. One, of course, is Wrigley Field, which is as much a symbol of the town as Yankee Stadium is a monument to New York. The New York teams are not the only teams that are admired. In Boys Town (1938), Freddie Fuller (Frankie Thomas), one of the residents of the title home for juvenile boys, is showing off the facilities to Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), a hoodlum-in-training.
Freddie says, “There’s our baseball field…last year one of our players was drafted by the St. Louis Browns.”
Whitey responds: “Well, I like the Yankees”… and Freddie’s rejoinder is, “You would!”
In so many films, baseball serves as a metaphor for healthy, thoughtful parenting and parent-child bonding. In Stolen Summer (2002), Joe O’Malley (Aidan Quinn), the father of a second-grader, wisely observes, “Baseball should be the only thing on an eight-year-old boy’s mind.” In Critic’s Choice (1963), theater critic Parker Ballantine (Bob Hope) comically wrecks his back during a father-son game. While the sequence is played for laughs, the depiction of a post-World War II suburbia in which fathers toss horsehides to sons and parents cheer on their boys at Little League games is ever-present.
Baseball sequences also reflect on social interaction between children. In The Happy Years (1950), set in the 1890s, young Dink Stover (Dean Stockwell), an athletically inept prep-school student, is subjected to bullying. Upon entering a ballgame as a pinch hitter, Dink first hesitates while approaching home plate and then awkwardly holds the bat. The first pitch sails over his head and he falls to the ground, but his teammates taunt him. “Why didn’t you let it hit ya?” one of them yells. “You’d have been on base. That’s as good as a hit.” The next pitch is a called strike. It’s also a hit-and-run play, and the runner on base is thrown out.
A chorus of voices rings out at Dink: “What’s the matter with you?” “Go on home to your mother.” “Can’t you play ball?” Next, Dink is stationed in the outfield. After dropping an easy fly ball, he is chased off the field by all his teammates. He ends up locking himself in his dorm room, donning a catcher’s mask for protection and grabbing a bat, which he will employ as a weapon if the boys so much as touch him. In The Happy Years (which, given the film’s scenario, is a purposefully ironic title), Dink’s treatment is harsh and graceless. Still, his travails are depicted as a ritual of boyhood. In this regard, the film reflects the era in which it was made, rather than more contemporary attitudes toward bullying.
Other screen references mirror the manner in which baseball terminology has transcended the sport and become part of the culture. In Crash (2004), Flanagan (William Fichtner), an aide to the Los Angeles district attorney, tells Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle), “Actually, we were thinking of you until we saw that. It’s your brother’s file. Twenty-something years old and already three felonies. ‘Three Strikes’ Law, the kid’s going away for life for stealing a car. Christ, that’s a shitty law.”
The following bit of action and dialogue is found in Judge Dredd (1995):
Mean Machine: “You got three strikes, lawman!” (The title character attacks Mean, but Mean blocks the blow with his mechanical arm.)
Mean Machine: “Strike one! He-he-he…”
(Dredd strikes back and, again, Mean blocks the blow.)
Mean Machine: “Strike two!”
(Dredd smashes a bar on Mean’s head: a blow that would crack a human skull but leaves no impression on Mean.)
Mean Machine: “Strike three. You’re out, lawman!”
Other references, which are clever attempts to incorporate baseball into casual conversation, are reflections of how the sport has become engrained in American culture. In Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), set just after the turn of the 20th century, seventeen-year-old Esther Smith (Judy Garland) offers some advice to her lawyer-father (Leon Ames):
“Papa, if losing a case depresses you so, why don’t you quit practicing law and go into another line of business?”
“That’s a good idea,” he says. “Starting tomorrow, I intend to play first base for the Baltimore Orioles.”
In Back to Bataan (1945), Americans and Filipinos are battling the Japanese at the title locale. During the heat of combat, Col. Joseph Madden (John Wayne) calls to a fellow GI (Paul Fix), “Hey, Bindle…How’s your pitchin’ arm?” Bindle then heaves a grenade at the enemy, and it’s the equivalent of a 100-mph strike. In Vital Signs (1990), a doctor (Jimmy Smits) observes, regarding the hazards faced by third-year medical students, “Third year is like being a rookie pitcher called on to pitch the seventh game of the World Series… blindfolded.” In The Odd Couple II (1998), Brucey (Jonathan Silverman), the son of Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), tells his father, “Mom was married three times. You were married one time, and then never again for 30 years. Hers were too many, yours were not enough. So tell me…What is it about marriage that frightens everybody so much?”
Oscar answers, “I don’t know, Brucey. It’s like baseball: Either you can play or you can’t play. Your mother could play; I couldn’t play. Trouble with your mother was she kept getting traded all the time.”
Examples of how baseball terminology has entered the culture are endless. One example: In Ziegfeld Girl (1941), wannabe stage performer Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland) casually observes, “This is Annie’s night out, so I’m pinch-hitting for her.” Plenty of these have sexual connotations. In That Hagen Girl (1947), a guy named Dewey Koons (Conrad Janis) hits on a gal named Sharon Bailey (Jean Porter) by asking her, “How ’bout it? C’mon, let’s hit the high spots.” Bailey is not impressed. “Why don’t you go somewhere and catch yourself, you foul ball!” she says.
In Follow the Fleet (1936), Kitty Collins (Lucille Ball) asks a sailor who is trying to pick her up, “Tell me, little boy, did you get a whistle or baseball bat with that suit?”
A decade later, Ball spoke similar dialogue in The Dark Corner (1946). Here, her character is Kathleen Stewart. After her boss makes a pass at her, Kathleen responds, “I haven’t worked for you very long, Mr. Galt, but I know when you’re pitching a curve at me—and I always carry a catcher’s mitt.”
A defensive Mr. Galt replies, “No offense. A guy’s gotta try to score, doesn’t he?”
Kathleen’s response is: “Not in my league.”
And then in Storm Warning (1951), Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) is propositioned by her boss. “I thought…we could have a quiet dinner together,” he tells her. “Just you and me. There’s a cute French restaurant in Riverport.” But Marsha will have none of it.
“Look, Cliff,” she responds, “don’t ya ever give up? You made a pitch in Baltimore, a wrong play in Mobile, and you fouled out in Atlanta. Cliff, in any league, three strikes is out.”
Not all such baseball references are put-downs. In Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Rika (Patsy Kensit) are having fun between the sheets. At one point, Riggs observes, “I think it’s time for the seventh-inning stretch.” After a pause, he explains, “That’s a baseball expression.”
“I know,” Rika says. “But we’re only up to the fourth inning.”
To which Riggs replies, “Batter up!”
The phrase “getting to first base” has come to refer to kissing—or, the initial stage of romantic or sexual intimacy—and it has been written into endless scripts. In Lost in a Harem (1944), an Abbott and Costello farce, the Abbott character chides Costello by telling him, “Oh, come on, you wouldn’t get to first base with a beautiful girl like that.”
In more recent decades, with the demise of the Hollywood Production Code, onscreen language has become more graphic—and raunchier. In 1941 (1979), United States Army Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) observes, “No man has ever gotten to first base with her on the ground. But get her up in a plane, she’ll bat your balls right out of the park.”
Other films simply offer snapshots of Hollywood at a moment in time: Who the popular stars were, and how baseball was woven into the social fabric of the era. In Hollywood Hobbies (1939), a one-reel short, two females take a “movie guide tour” through Tinseltown. After spying on a number of celebrities at work and play, they end up at a “big movie baseball game” (filmed on location at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles) whose participants are celluloid royalty.[fn]http://www.imdb.com.[/fn] Truman Bradley, then a popular radio broadcaster, announces from the press box and describes the charity event as “the world’s screwiest baseball game” pitting the “Comedians” against the “Leading Men.” Attending the game are James Stewart, George Murphy, Cesar Romero, Joan Davis, Spencer Tracy, Virginia Bruce, Tyrone Power, Jane Withers, and James Cagney and his mother. The managers are Joe E. Brown and Harry Ritz. The players include Buddy Ebsen (wearing a “Sauk Center” jersey and NY cap); John Boles; Buster Keaton (described as “that frozen-faced comic”); and Milton Berle (“Hippity-hop with the hat of a cop, it’s Milton Berle to play shortstop”). Mary Pickford throws out the first pitch. The Ritz Brothers (presumably minus Harry) are the umpires. Arthur “Dagwood” Lake joins Bradley in the press box, and “crooner” Dick Powell swings a bat and belts a dinger.
All these baseball-in-non-baseball-film citations are a tiny sampling of the films I’ve researched or stumbled upon over the years.[fn]Plenty of other non-baseball films may be added to those cited here. Air Force (1943), Battleground (1949), Lafayette Escadrille (1958), and We Were Soldiers (2002) link American GIs and baseball. Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and War of the Worlds (2005) emphasize father-son baseball connections, while It Could Happen to You (1994) spotlights the importance of adults employing baseball as a tool for mentoring youngsters. Smoke (1995) and its follow-up, Blue in the Face (1995), wax nostalgic about the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers and mirror the manner in which the sport is linked to civic pride and identity. The Big Picture (1989) underscores the fact that baseball heroes are among the most recognizable figures in American history. The Lady Vanishes (1938) and The Miniver Story (1950) connect Brits and baseball. The talents of women ballplayers are emphasized in Cass Timberlane (1947). Baseball card collecting and collectors are referenced in Girl 6 (1996) and Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School (2005). The list goes on …[/fn] Such citations keep appearing onscreen to the present day.
Two examples: Baseball bats are a constant presence in Neighbors (2014); they are in the hands of some raucous frat boys, and they are not being used in a spirited intramural sporting contest. In Fading Gigolo (2013), a character named Murray (Woody Allen) teaches youngsters how to hit baseballs. It is no coincidence that Murray, who is Caucasian and Jewish, lives with an African-American woman, and the kids he is mentoring are her kids. One of the themes in Fading Gigolo is the importance of assimilating into the American melting pot 21st-century-style. Here, the baseball connection is employed to reflect the notion that all Americans, regardless of race or religion, can play—and love—our National Pastime.
Note: A version of this paper was presented at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, held at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in 2014.
ROB EDELMAN teaches film history at the University at Albany and offers film commentary on WAMC (Northeast) Public Radio. His books include “Great Baseball Films” and “Baseball on the Web” (which Amazon.com cited as a Top 10 Internet book), and he is a frequent contributor to “Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game.” His writing also may be found in “NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture,” “Total Baseball,” “The Total Baseball Catalog,” “Baseball and American Culture: Across the Diamond,” and “Baseball in the Classroom: Teaching America’s National Pastime.” With Audrey Kupferberg, he has coauthored “Matthau: A Life” and “Meet the Mertzes,” a double biography of I Love Lucy’s Vivian Vance and super baseball fan William Frawley. Read more SABR articles by Rob by clicking here.