Of Black Sox, Ball Yards, and Monty Stratton: Chicago Baseball Movies
This article was published in the 2015 The National Pastime.
Once upon a time, A.J. Liebling, consummate Manhattanite and writer for The New Yorker, dubbed Chicago America’s Second City.1 But in relation to New York-centric baseball movies, this AAA-league rating is extremely generous. Across the decades, baseball films with Chicago references have been relatively scarce. For every on-screen image of Wrigley Field, there are scores set inside or just outside Yankee Stadium. For any one Hollywood biopic highlighting a Chicago player—The Stratton Story, from 1949, comes to mind—a dozen chart the lives of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and especially Babe Ruth.
The majority of Chicago-set baseball films have included (and occasionally showcased) the Cubs. Among them are Joe E. Brown’s Elmer, the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935), the Grover Cleveland Alexander biopic The Winning Team (1952), the Dizzy Dean biopic The Pride of St. Louis (1952), and the family comedy-fantasy Rookie of the Year (1993). Sometimes, a fictional Chicago club is depicted. One example is Boulevardier from the Bronx (1936), an eight-minute Warner Bros. cartoon featuring the exploits of the Chicago Giants, whose star pitcher—a rooster—is named Dizzy Dan. (At the time, Dizzy Dean still was pitching in St. Louis; he did not join the Cubs until 1938.)
The town’s other big league nine has not been completely shut out onscreen. But it should surprise no one that two of the highest-profile Chisox films spotlight the Black Sox Scandal, and are worth comparing because they offer vastly different points of view. Eight Men Out (1988), based on the Eliot Asinof book, is one movie about baseball history that does not glorify its subjects. The Sox are portrayed in ensemble style as a rowdy, hard-playing bunch, easily the best major league team of the era. As depicted by director-writer John Sayles, however, they are also victims, oppressed as much by jowly Charles “The Old Roman” Comiskey (Clifton James), the team’s penny-pinching owner, as by underworld kingpin Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner).
Meanwhile, Field of Dreams (1989), adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s novel, deals with the Black Sox from a wholly different perspective. Field of Dreams is the It’s a Wonderful Life of baseball movies, a wistful fantasy about love, hope, and the timelessness of the game. Here, the defamed ballplayers are restored to their glory when their spirits come to play in an eternal, pastoral ball field. Their sins are not dramatized and, consequently, an idealized vision of American innocence is recaptured.
Eight Men Out is deeply cynical. At one point, Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) observes: “I always figured it was talent made a man big, you know. ... I mean, we’re the guys they come to see. Without us, there ain’t a ballgame … but look at who’s holding the money and look at who’s facing a jail cell. Talent don’t mean nothing.” A heckler yells at Shoeless Joe: “Hey, Jackson! Can you spell ‘cat’?” Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) retorts: “Hey, Mister! Can you spell ‘shit’?”
In the nostalgia-tinged Field of Dreams, however, Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) utters “Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money” and “I used to love traveling on the trains from town to town. The hotels ... brass spittoons in the lobbies, brass beds in the rooms. It was the crowd, rising to their feet when the ball was hit deep. Shoot, I’d play for nothing!”
Various non-baseball films also reference the scandal. In The Godfather: Part II (1974), gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) declares: “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, filmed four times (in 1926, 1949, 1974, and 2013) and as a 2000 made-for-TV movie, includes the character Meyer Wolfsheim, said to have fixed the series and clearly based on Rothstein. In the 1926 film, the character is named “Charles Wolf.” In the 1949 version, he is “Myron Lupus.”
The disparate depictions of real-life ballplayers in Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams serve to emphasize that films featuring real-life individuals offer the subjective views of their creators. They also usually present skewed representations of history. Sometimes, inaccuracies result from sloppy scholarship; more often, they exist to keep the storyline lean and comprehensible.2 Both are the case in The Stratton Story, a biopic about White Sox hurler Monty Stratton.
The real Stratton, a Texas farm boy, was in 1937–38 a promising major league pitcher. But in November 1938, while target-shooting on his mother’s farm, he shot at a rabbit and his revolver accidently discharged while returning it to its holster. The bullet severed the femoral artery in his right leg, gangrene soon set in, and the leg was amputated above the knee.3
Though Stratton played for the Pale Hose in the 1930s—specific years and dates are not cited in the screenplay—The Stratton Story, made in 1949, is more a reflection of post-World War II America. Douglas Morrow, who earned an Academy Award for the film’s story and scripted it with Guy Trosper, had attended a game at the Sawtelle Soldiers Home, a Southern California facility for disabled GIs. “Seeing the armless and legless spectators, Morrow had the desire to find a film story that would give them hope,” wrote film industry reporter-biographer Bob Thomas. “He thought the story should be divorced from the war. Then he remembered Monte [sic] Stratton.”4
Stratton is played in the film by James Stewart. The ex-big leaguer was the film’s technical advisor and coached Stewart on the art of pitching. He noted that the actor “did a great job playing me, in a picture which I figure was about as true to life as they could make it.”5 Despite this hype, however, The Stratton Story is loaded with misinformation. In an effort to ensure narrative clarity, none of Stratton’s siblings are present onscreen and only two of the five seasons he spent in Chicago are represented. The hurler played in the minors in Omaha and Galveston (in 1934) and St. Paul (1935), yet only Omaha is cited in the script.
Other changes are historical revisions designed to make the scenario more acceptable to viewers. In the film, Stratton shoots himself with a hunting rifle rather than a revolver. The film ends with his return to the sport in a Houston exhibition pitting the “Southern All-Stars” and “Western All-Stars,” but he really did so in a White Sox-Cubs charity game, held in Comiskey Park, organized to raise money for him.
Other “facts” also reflect the 1940s rather than 1930s. One example: Stratton’s comeback game took place in 1939. In the film, his mound opponent is Gene Bearden, who did not pitch in the majors until 1947. The last batter he faces is Johnny Lindell, whose first big league appearance was a one-game looksee in 1941. Still others are even less explicable. When Stratton is recalled from the minors, a Clark Gable-Lana Turner film, Honky Tonk, is screening in a movie theatre. The film was released in 1941, three years after Stratton threw his last major league pitch.
Perhaps the most egregious error involves Stratton’s major league debut on June 2, 1934. This was his lone big league appearance that season, coming against the Detroit Tigers, and Stratton surrendered four hits and two runs in 3 1/3 innings. Stratton entered the game with two outs in the sixth inning, relieving Phil Gallivan. Hank Greenberg had just walked and promptly stole second on Stratton. Jo-Jo White then lined out to left field.6
In The Stratton Story, the hurler comes in to pitch in relief against the New York Yankees. “Dickey, DiMaggio, Gehrig. You can’t power past them, kid,” Barney Wile (Frank Morgan), Stratton’s fictional onscreen mentor, advises the hurler. “If you’re gonna get by,” Wile adds, “you gotta out-think ‘em, cross ‘em up, give ‘em what they don’t expect.” (According to the Chicago Tribune, the real-life Wile was “Jockie Tate, a former Texas leaguer, who always had a blank contract handy in case something good suddenly turned up.”7)
Wile’s advice may be sound, but what follows is pure fiction. The first batter Stratton faces is Bill Dickey (appearing as himself). The Bombers’ backstop homers on Stratton’s first pitch. (Stratton allowed no round-trippers in his actual debut.) Also included in the sequence is stock footage of Joe DiMaggio belting a dinger and circling the bases. There is a catch, however: The Yankee Clipper did not debut in the majors until 1936.
So Monty Stratton’s real debut was not nearly as disastrous as depicted in The Stratton Story. The question is: Why rewrite history? Simply put, having Stratton face Hall of Famer Dickey and the New York nine is more dramatically potent than having him pitch to Jo-Jo White.
The Yankees’ success also allowed for some repartee that surely would have delighted George Steinbrenner. Stratton tells his wife, “Honey, do you know there’s a tailor in Chicago that gives a suit of clothes away to any ballplayer that hits the scoreboard in center field? As of yesterday the New York Yankees are the best-dressed team in baseball.”
In June 1948, during the film’s pre-production, Roy Rowland—assigned to direct The Stratton Story—shot footage of the White Sox at Comiskey Park. By the time filming began, Sam Wood had replaced Rowland. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Gregory Peck would be playing Stratton while Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio producing the film, hyped Van Johnson for the part. But in the end, Stewart got the role.
The studio also reported that 72 pro ballplayers appeared onscreen. Many were at one point or another affiliated with Chicago teams; the list begins with Merv Shea, Hank Sauer, Peanuts Lowrey, Catfish Metkovich, Gene Mauch, Tuck Stainback, Lou Novikoff, Bobby Sturgeon, Steve Mesner, Lou Stringer, Red Kress, Al Zarilla, and Gus Zernial. Most significantly, Jimmy Dykes, who became the Sox player-manager fifteen games into the 1934 season and helmed the team into the 1946 campaign, appears as himself. Of Stratton’s teammates, Ted Lyons has the most screen time, but the real Lyons is not in the film. Instead, he is played by actor Bruce Cowling.8 Legend has it that Ronald Reagan, who three years later played Pete Alexander in The Winning Team, desperately wanted the Stratton role. But he was under contract with Warner Bros., which refused to lend him to MGM.9
Across the years, other real-life Chicago ballplayers have appeared onscreen. The Giants-White Sox Tour (1914) is the first notable feature-length documentary to spotlight big leaguers. Variety, the motion picture trade publication, described it as a “long reeled picture of the baseball players’ trip around the world the past winter… with here and there snatches of a baseball game played between the natives and the teams in foreign countries. The well-known ballplayers who went along are shown individually at different times, with Germany Schaefer always in the foreground whenever the camera was working…”10 (Schaefer had played for the Chicago Orphans [aka the Cubs] in 1901 and 1902.)
Some onscreen Chicago ballplayers are more obscure: Frank Shellenback, Ray French, and Smead Jolley had small roles in Alibi Ike; Shellenback also appeared in Joe E. Brown’s Fireman, Save My Child (1932). Others are Hall of Famers; Ernie Banks has appeared in over a dozen feature films, television movies, and television series. (He was billed as “Steamer Fan” in Pastime , a baseball film, and played a cabbie in a 1985 Hill Street Blues episode.) A highlight reel of other Cooperstown inductees with Chicago connections begins with Rube Waddell, who pitched for the Chicago Orphans in 1901 and appeared as himself in the documentary shorts Rube Waddell and the Champions Playing Ball with the Boston Team (1902) and Game of Base Ball (1903); Leo Durocher, who managed the Cubs from 1966–72 and was seen in Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), The Errand Boy (1961), and such TV series as Mister Ed, The Munsters, and The Beverly Hillbillies; and Frank Thomas, who played The Rookie in Mr. Baseball (1992).11
Some films have actually featured the ballparks themselves. In this regard, Wrigley Field far outweighs Old Comiskey Park and its successor as onscreen locations or references. (Wrigley Field Chicago should not be confused with Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, built in 1925. Besides serving as a Pacific Coast League park, it was a playground for exhibition games featuring Tinseltown celebs. Countless films and TV shows were shot there, from the Babe Ruth feature Babe Comes Home  through “The Mighty Casey,” a 1960 Twilight Zone episode, the Home Run Derby TV show, and “Herman the Rookie,” a 1965 installment of The Munsters.)12
An infinitesimal number of films feature on-location images of Old Comiskey. But one—a non-baseball film—is extra-special. Only the Lonely (1991) includes a sequence shot not long after the 1990 season, just prior to the park’s demolition. The hero is a Chicago cop (John Candy) who shares his first date with the woman he is courting by taking her to Old Comiskey, where they share an on-field picnic.
The then-new ball yard briefly appears, but the focus is on the soon-to-disappear park, which is paid homage via the line, “Boy, it’s a shame they’re gonna tear this all down.” The sequence reportedly was filmed on a Friday, with the demolition beginning the following week. Jacolyn J. Baker, an Only the Lonely location manager, described it as “a special night,” adding: “Everybody knew that this was going to be the last time anybody would be in Comiskey Park… In between takes, people were playing catch on the field. You felt that this was about to be taken away. It was really special.”13
Wrigley Field’s iconic status has more than occasionally been celebrated onscreen. The Chicago location of While You Were Sleeping (1995), a Sandra Bullock-Bill Pullman romantic comedy-drama, is established via a series of city landmarks. One, of course, is The Friendly Confines, as much a symbol of its town as Yankee Stadium is to New York. In Sleepless in Seattle (1993), baseball is a byword for romance, a loving family, and bliss. As the film opens, Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks), a Chicago architect, has just lost his wife to cancer. As Sam mourns the loss of his beloved, there is a split-second flashback to a memory of a happier time as he, his late wife, and their young son pose outside Wrigley Field.
The first onscreen image in The Break-Up (2006) is a long shot of Wrigley during a game. The second is the red-and-white Wrigley sign. Die-hard Cubs fan Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn) is in the stands, and he rests his face in his hands in agony as a fly ball drops between three Cubs fielders. His pal Johnny O (Jon Favreau), who is garbed in White Sox regalia, laughs hysterically.
One of the more celebrated Wrigley references occurs in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), in which the title character (Matthew Broderick), a high school senior, cons most of the world into thinking he is deathly ill so that he can skip school. Ferris is joined by his girlfriend and best pal and the trio spends a day enjoying Chicago’s amenities. How could the afternoon pass without a Wrigley visit?
Ferris’ main nemesis is Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the pompous school dean determined to bust him. Rooney happens to be inside a pizza parlor and beside a TV set on which the Cubs contest is being broadcast. The home nine are in the field, the inimitable voice of Harry Caray notes that Lee Smith is on the mound, and the unnamed batter hits a long foul ball into the leftfield stands. Who do you suppose nabs it? None other than Ferris Bueller! But Rooney is oblivious. He asks the score and is told “nothing-nothing.” His doltishness is ever-apparent by his next question: “Who’s winning?” The not-amused pizza man tells him, “The Bears.”
Not all screen characters seeing a live Cubs game actually do so inside the park. About Last Night… (1986), a romantic drama based on David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is framed by softball games in Grant Park during successive summers in which Danny (Rob Lowe), the hero, and Debbie (Demi Moore), the heroine, meet and then become reacquainted after breaking up. In between, they watch a Cubs game not from Wrigley but from a nearby rooftop, where they can be alone. About Last Night… also features a peek into what some women might discuss at ballgames. Debbie and her pal Joan (Elizabeth Perkins) are chatting, and Debbie observes: “That second baseman’s got a really nice ass.” To which Joan responds: “I refuse to go out with a man whose ass is smaller than mine.”
In Hardball (2001), aimless Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves) finds direction in coaching pre-teen Little Leaguers from the Cabrini-Green housing project. At one point, Conor escorts the kids to a Cubs game. The boys are close enough to the field to attract the attention of what then was a premier Cubbie. “Yo, check it out,” one of the boys yells to his pals. “That’s Sammy Sosa over there … right there.” Alas, another boy points out that it is not Sammy, and the Sosa spotter is dissed by his pals. But then he spots the real Sosa, garbed in a warm-up jacket and wielding a bat. Quickly, the kids grab Sammy’s attention. He smiles, kisses his fingers, moves them to his heart, and shoots them a “V” for victory. The music swells on the soundtrack, and the boys are in baseball heaven.
Not only is The Blues Brothers (1980) among the higher-profile Chicago-set films of recent decades, it also features a baseball reference that is the equivalent of a grand-slam homer. At one point, the brothers Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) elude the police but are not trouble-free; Jake points out to Elwood, “Those cops have your name, your address …” But not to worry. As Elwood explains: “They don’t got my address. I falsified my renewal. I put down 1060 West Addison.”
Surely, those cops are not real Chicagoans; if they were, they would not need Elwood Blues to tell them: “1060 West Addison. That’s Wrigley Field.”
ROB EDELMAN teaches film history at the University at Albany. He authored "Great Baseball Films" and "Baseball on the Web," and, with his wife Audrey Kupferberg, "Meet the Mertzes," a double biography of "I Love Lucy’s" Vivian Vance and famed baseball fan William Frawley. A frequent contributor to "Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game," he has written articles on baseball and pop culture for many publications.
- 1. J. Weintraub, “Why They Call It the Second City,” Chicago Reader, July 29, 1993.
- 2. Rob Edelman, “The Winning Team: Fact and Fiction in Celluloid Biographies,” The National Pastime, Number 26, 2006.
- 3. “Stratton’s Leg Amputated Above Knee,” Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1938.
- 4. Bob Thomas, “Hollywood Highlights.” Spokane Daily Chronicle, February 24, 1948.
- 5. “Monty Stratton, 70, Pitcher Who Inspired Movie, Is Dead,” The New York Times, September 30, 1982.
- 6. www.retrosheet.org.
- 7. Irving Vaughan, “Plowboy to Mound Ace Is Story of Stratton’s Career,” Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1938.
- 8. Patricia King Hanson, Executive Editor, American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States, Feature Films, 1941–1950, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1999.
- 9. “Monty Stratton, 70, Pitcher Who Inspired Movie, Is Dead,” The New York Times, September 30, 1982.
- 10. Rob Edelman, “The Baseball Film to 1920,” Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Volume 1, Number 1, 2007.
- 11. www.imdb.com.
- 12. www.wikipedia.org.
- 13. Michael Corcoran, Arnie Bernstein, Hollywood on Lake Michigan, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013.