The Winning Team: Fact and Fiction in Celluloid Biographies

This article was written by Rob Edelman

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 26, 2006)


Narrative films are not factual films — even when they purport to divulge the true-life stories of real people. Whether their subjects are sports figures,show business personalities, or world leaders, such movies often are rife with misinforma­tion. But unless their function is to propagandize, they are not purposefully fashioned to toss the viewer curveballs and spitballs. They exist as entertainments, not as historical records.

The Winning Team (1952), a Hollywood biography of Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, is a case study in skewing the facts in a baseball biography. In the film, which was produced by Warner Bros. and released two years after Alexander’s death, Ronald Reagan is cast as Alex the Great and Doris Day plays his wife, Aimee.

In 1952, Reagan was 41 years old. His career as a big-screen leading man was on the downside. By far his best roles came during the previous decade; two years later, he began hosting the dramatic anthol­ogy series General Electric Theater on television. Day, meanwhile, was a rising actress and singing star. At the time she was earning notoriety for playing cheery, idealized all-American girls: the type of young woman a clear-minded male would fall for, and proudly bring home to mother. This precisely is her role in The Winning Team.

Reagan’s and Day’s respective status within the Hollywood star hierarchy explains why, even though the scenario ostensibly centers on the plight and fate of Grover Cleveland Alexander, Day is billed above Reagan. In fact, in a review of the film published in the May 28, 1952, Variety, the motion picture trade publication, it is noted that “Doris Day, on whose name rests the film’s chief marquee draw, contributes a sincere, moving portrayal of Alexander’s wife.” Even though The Winning Team is not a musical, and Aimee Alexander was not known for her singing abil­ity, Day’s vocal talents are worked into the script; in a Doris Day film, viewers anticipated hearing her sing. And so her Aimee performs a perky Christmas tune, “Ol’ Saint Nicholas,” and absentmindedly vocalizes a few bars of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” while doing household chores.

Moreover, the title The Winning Team — the film was called The Big League and Alexander, The Big Leaguer while in production — does not refer to the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, or St. Louis Cardinals, Alexander’s major league affiliations. It represents the union of Grover and Aimee Alexander. In its advertising the following blurbs were employed to market the film: “When all America called him Alex the Great, they were really throwing kisses at her!”; and “They’ ll win your heart too! This hero who won fame the second time — this blue-eyed girl whose love helped turn jeers to cheers! The true story and truly wonderful story of Grover Cleveland Alexander.”

In its re-release trailer, The Winning Team was her­alded as “the warmest, most wonderful, most human story ever told — the true story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the woman who shared all the adven­tures of his fabulous career.” Aimee Alexander was described as “the strength behind (Alex’s) every pitch. She was the light in his darkest hours. Hers was the love that gave him the courage to win his greatest vic­tories.”

As the film opens, a point that was emphasized in its marketing campaign is reaffirmed as the viewer is informed that The Winning Team is “the True Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander:’ A number of real-life individuals are worked into the script: Bill Killifer (James Millican), Alexander’s catcher with the Philadelphia Phillies; Phillies catcher-manager Red Dooin (Billy Wayne); famed umpire Bill Klem (Pat Flaherty); and a pair of Hall of Famers, Rogers Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy) and Joe McCarthy (Hugh Sanders). Several then-current major leaguers appear in the film: Bob Lemon (who plays St. Louis Cardinals hurler Jesse Haines); Gerry Priddy; Peanuts Lowrey; Catfish Metkovich; Irv Noren; Hank Sauer; Al Zarilla; and Gene Mauch. Yet ultimately, thefilm’s content and thrust are reflections of the input of one of the film’s technical advisors: Mrs. Grover Cleveland Alexander (who earns screen credit in this capacity with Priddy and Arnold “Jigger” Statz).

In the film (whose screenplay is credited to Merwin Gerard, Seeleg Lester, and Ted Sherdeman), Aimee is the girlfriend and eventual wife of Alex, a small-town Nebraska telephone linesman-turned-big league pitching star. Initially, Aimee does not support Alex’s love of sports. He yearns to toss baseballs, but she wants him to pitch hay instead, preferring that he remain home and become a farmer. Even after Alex makes the majors, Aimee admits that she is jealous of her husband’s love of the sport, but she supports him when she realizes he will be devastated if he does not play ball.

While serving in World War I, Alex is knocked dizzy after an explosion. Upon returning to the majors, he falls ill in the locker room and then, in a Hollywood touch, passes out on the mound. A doctor implores him to give up baseball; he informs no one about his unnamed illness (which actually was epilepsy), and begins drinking to escape his troubles. He eventually becomes an alcoholic, at which point he is abandoned by Aimee. Alex, now out of professional baseball, becomes a disheveled drifter and “stum­bling has-been” who pitches for a semi-pro House of David team and pathetically recounts his heroics in amusement hall sideshows. Aimee rescues him upon learning the details of Alex’s illness. He signs with the St. Louis Cardinals and regains his stardom. The story concludes with Alex pitching triumphantly in the 1926 World Series, striking out New York Yankee second sacker Tony Lazzeri at a key juncture.

Beyond its plot, The Winning Team is not so much a story of baseball in the 1910s and ’20s as a reflec­tion of the era in which it was made: the America of post-World War II, the America of 1952. At its core, it is the tale of a talented but flawed hero and his noble, pre-feminist, girl-next-door wife. Perhaps within the framework of the story Aimee does not support her beloved’s desire to play baseball because, as a woman, she is oblivious to the appeal of athletics. (In On Moonlight Bay [1951], Day plays an adoles­cent tomboy who disregards her passion for baseball once she dons her first party dress and goes on her first date.)

As the scenario develops, Aimee may go through several transformations, but she ultimately is supportive of Alex: the stereotypical good woman behind the respectable but imperfect man. She is the type of woman who would be thanked by her husband at a testimonial. He might conclude his remarks with a heartfelt sentiment such as “If it wasn’t for her love and support, I would not be standing here tonight.”

In The Winning Team, the viewer accesses the facts of Alexander’s life as presented on-screen. As he faces his obstacles and crises, several questions arise. How accurately does the scenario mirror the reality of Grover Cleveland Alexander? How much is exagger­ated? What has been omitted?

One of the unwritten laws in Hollywood is that movies must have smiley-face endings. A romantic but uneventful courtship does not translate into good drama or comedy, so a young man and woman will squabble and face assorted obstacles throughout a scenario. Even though the chances of their enjoying

a happy union are almost nil, given the differences in their personalities, they lovingly embrace at the finale. Such is the case in The Winning Team. Aimee joins Alex after his World Series heroics, and the implica­tion is that the pair lived happily ever after.

Such is the Hollywood biopic fantasy. The facts of Aimee’s and Alex’s life are something else altogether.

Grover Cleveland Alexander lived for 20 years after his 1930 major league swan song. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938. But as Jan Finkel notes in his SABR Baseball Biography Project article on Alexander, “The last two decades of Alexander’s life are the picture of a man spinning out of control with nobody able to stop the free-fall.”

Aimee and Alex were no “winning team.” They did not enjoy marital bliss, as they divorced in 1929, remarried two years later and divorced again in 1941. Alexander spent much of those final two decades in solitude, grappling with poverty, ill health, and other assorted sorrows.

After being released by the Phillies early in the 1930 season, the 43-year-old hurler was signed by the Dallas Steers of the Texas League. Almost immedi­ately, he was suspended for breaking training. “Maybe I’ve had enough,” he told the Associated Press on July 16. “One thing I can say, I’ve given more to baseball than it’s given me. I’ve never been a ‘goody-goody’ boy, but I stayed in there and pitched.” But he did not stay in and pitch for the Steers. Following a brief reinstatement, he was released on July 21. After pitching a game for the Galesburg Independents, for whom he had played two decades earlier, Alex was signed and quickly cut loose by the American Association Toledo Mud Hens. Then in September he was jailed in Grand Island, Nebraska, for driving while drunk and leaving the scene of an auto accident.

In 1931, Alex the Great first became affiliated with the House of David team, for whom he managed and pitched. However, in February 1932, Grantland Rice reported that the 45-year-old hurler was “preparing for a comeback with the Chicago Cubs.” This return to the majors did not materialize. That August, New York Times columnist John Kieran wrote of Alexander,”The old campaigner …was turned loose to wander hither and yon and the roads were not smooth. Picking up a few dollars for pitching wher­ever he could,he probably got up dreaming of other days and fell asleep in some tank town bullpen and woke up to find his chin covered with whiskers and his arm covered with moss.” Kieran also reported that Alex could not recall the details of his 1926 World Series heroics.

In 1940, Alexander was hired as gatekeeper at a Detroit racetrack. His new employer was Clarence Lehr, president of the Detroit Racing Association. Back in 1911, Alexander and Lehr were Philadelphia Phillies rookies. Alex made the club. Lehr, an infielder, did not. After quitting baseball, he attended the University of Michigan and became a lawyer. A report of the hiring, released by the Associated Press, ended with the observation that “a modest job perhaps means more today to the 53-year-old Alexander than memories of glory.”

Alex’s racetrack career was short-lived. The Associated Press reported that, in February 1941, he placed an ad in “a national baseball paper” seeking a job “as manager, coach or in any other capacity in which my experience and knowledge of the game will prove valuable.” His fondness for alcohol had long been acknowledged throughout the baseball world, and no offers were forthcoming. By the following month he had begun a three-week stay in a Bronx, New York, veterans hospital.

Then on July 26, a small item in the New York Times reported that Alexander, “once one of the star pitchers of organized baseball,” had been discovered by one of New York’s Finest “on the sidewalk at Sixth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street, cut about the left eye.” He was rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where he remained for six days. The Times noted that Alex “recently has been appearing in a sideshow in a West Forty-second Street amusement hall. A New York morning paper has been raising a fund for his benefit.” According to the United Press, the Hall of Famer was “suffering from alcoholism”and also had “been found on the street in bad con­dition” twice before: in Evanston, Indiana, in August 1936,and in early 1937 in Springfield, Illinois.

In April 1943, Alex was interviewed in Cincinnati, at a game between the Reds and Cardinals. He was just another fan in the stands — and he was unem­ployed.”Right now I’m looking for a job, of course,” he declared. “I’d like to hook up with some team as a coach, but if I can’t land that I want to get some war work.I’ve tried several places around Cincinnati, but my age is against me.”

It was not without irony that in October 1946 — 20 years after starring in the World Series — Alexander was stricken with a mild heart attack after leaving St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park, where the Cardinals had just won the fall classic.

Such was the tenor of his life after his major league heroics.

Alex’s cheerless presence at one final World Series was noted in the media. The Philadelphia Phillies played the New York Yankees in the 1950 fall classic and, in the October 7, 1950, New York Times, sports­ writer Louis Effrat reported Alex in attendance at Yankee Stadium.After describing his on-field accomplishments in the 1926 Series, Effrat wrote that the ex-hero “was lost in the crowd … [and] stood by obscurely in the back of the mezzanine.” The scribe noted that an old-time sportswriter recognized Alexander and invited him into the press box, where he spent the rest of the game reminiscing about the “old days.” Effrat concluded by noting,”Baseball may have forgotten Grover Cleveland Alexander, but he had not forgotten baseball.”

About a month later, the newspapers were filled with reports of Alexander’s death. He had returned to his home in St. Paul, Nebraska, where he died of a heart attack. The extensive press coverage reported that the Hall of Famer was living in a rooming house and that he was divorced from his wife.

When The Winning Team went into production, Grover Cleveland Alexander no longer was living; the events and relationships in the film were filtered through the perceptions and agendas of wife Aimee. In his review of the film, published in the June 21, 1952 New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther ques­tioned the veracity of the screenplay and concluded, with a note of sarcasm, “Most reassuring, however, is the fact that a technical advisor on this film was Mrs. Grover Cleveland Alexander. After all, she should know.”

In a second piece, published the following day, Crowther added, ”And the story here is that his salva­tion — his ascendance to pitching heights, such as his great feat in the 1926 World Series — was to be cred­ited entirely to his wife. A likely story!”

Prior to the film’s release, Aimee Alexander insisted that the screenwriters “stuck quite close to the truth, juggling facts only for story and dramatic effects.” Her observation applies to the depiction of Alexander toiling for the House of David team and in amusement hall sideshows before his exploits in the 1926 World Series. Such episodes are fashioned to represent “problems” to be overcome before the happy-ever-after finale, rather than as manifestations of the troubles that plagued Alex until his death.

Aimee’s comment also fits the triumphant manner in which the film ends. It is implied that Alex’s cel­ebrated strikeout of Tony Lazzeri was the final play in the deciding series game — when in fact it ended the seventh inning. Additionally, while promoting The Winning Team, Aimee admitted that she was not present during her husband’s heroics. She fig­ured that the game would be called because of rain, and remained in her hotel room. Yet on screen, she breathlessly arrives at Yankee Stadium. As he winds up, Alex looks in her direction and Aimee blows him a kiss.

Another example of artistic license involves a sequence in which Alex sympathizes with a strug­gling rookie who will be sent to the minors if he fails in his next at-bat. The pitcher grooves a pitch, and the batter’s subsequent hit keeps him in the majors. The rookie is none other than Rogers Hornsby, and the implication is that Hornsby owed his Hall of Fame career to Alex’s generosity. Total Baseball describes Hornsby as having “a royal disdain for the opin­ions and feelings of everybody he ever met,” yet this ”brusque, blunt, hypercritical, dictatorial, moody, and argumentative” baseball legend is portrayed in The Winning Team as an all-around nice guy.

A baseball fan who wishes to learn the true story of Grover Cleveland Alexander might peruse his clip­ping file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame library or read about him in a well-researched history book. The Winning Team is nothing more than an enter­tainment, the story of a famous ballplayer told from the perspective of his wife. It may be placed within the context of the popular culture of the early 1950s, from a point of view of the manner in which men, women, and American ball-playing heroes are portrayed on screen.

It is not the definitive word on its subject.

ROB EDELMAN is the author of Great Baseball Films and Baseball on the Web. He teaches film history at the University at Albany (SUNY) and offers film commentary on WA MC (Northeast) Public Radio.

 

Sources

Books

Edelman, Rob. Great Baseball Films. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1994.

Articles

”Alex Named Pilot of House of David:’ Washington Post, April 5, 1931. ”Alexander, Found Here, Fired by Toledo Club.” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 6, 1930.

”Alexander Found in Bronx Hospital after Job Appeal.” Washington Post, March 21, 1941.

”Alexander Gets Release: Veteran Pitcher Let Go by Dallas Steers for Failing to Keep in Shape.” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1930.

”Alexander Held on Rum Charge after Accident.” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 25, 1930.

“Alexander Is Stricken: Cards’ 1926 Series Hero Suffers Heart Attack after Game.” New York Times, October 16, 1946.

”Alexander Is Dead; Noted Pitcher, 63.” New York Times, November 5, 1950.

”Alexander, Once The Great, Waits Derision on Fate: Yearns for Glory of Past, Careless of Future.” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 17, 1930.

”Alexander Seeking Job: Former Pitching Star Wants to Return to Baseball as Coach.” New York Times, April 22, 1943.

”Alexander Signed to Pitch for Dallas.” New York Times, June 20, 1930. Brog. “The Winning Team.” Variety, May 28, 1952.

Crowther, Bosley. “Ladies and Sports: Two New Films Elevate the Fairer Sex.” New York Times, June 22, 1952.

“‘The Winning Team,’ Story about Grover Cleveland Alexander, Arrives at the Mayfair.” New York Times. June 21, 1952.

Effrat, Louis. “Old Pete Standee; Sic Transit Gloria: Alexander, Unrecognized by Fans, Finally Gets Seat, Recalls Days as Phil.” New York Times, October 7, 1950.

“Forgotten Phil Buddy Gives Alexander Job.” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 15, 1940.

Kieran, John. “Sports of the Times: The Old Age of Alexander the Great.” New York Times, August 27, 1932.

“Old Pitcher Is Injured: Grover Cleveland Alexander Is Sent to Bellevue.” New York Times, July 26, 1941.

Rice, Grantland. “The Sportlight:’ Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1932. Walsh, Jack. ”Alexander’s Wife Missed Big Moment.” Washington Post, April 15, 1952.

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