Fact vs. Fiction: An Analysis of Baseball in Films

By David Krell

This article was published in the Fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal.

Baseball is great theatre. Indeed, baseball stories have been fodder for Hollywood since the era of silent films, both dramatic and comedic. But baseball biographies in movies and TV-movies often sacrifice facts to move the story forward at a watchable pace, increase drama, or provide comic relief. For a sport whose patrons guard its history like sentinels protecting a prince, baseball suffers an invasion against the minutiae that make it a glorious game grounded in lore, legend, and literature.

gave up a home run to Jackie Robinson late in 1947. The film The movie 42 brought us the story of Jackie Robinson’s debut in the major leagues, complete with the recreations of much-told stories in Robinson lore: the boycott initiated by southern-bred players on the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey’s “turn the other cheek” meeting with Robinson, and the vicious bench jockeying by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. When compared to historical accounts, 42 portrays these scenes with accuracy. For example, after a Phillies-Dodgers game, Chapman explains that his racially charged verbal abuse of Robinson is nothing new by comparing it to other instances that, in his paradigm, are part of the game.

The Chapman scene parallels the description in Wait Till Next Year by Carl Rowan and Jackie Robinson: “You fellows want Robinson to become a real big leaguer, I suppose. Well, so do we, and we’re treating him just the same as we do any other player on a rival club. When we’re playing exhibitions with the Yanks, DiMaggio is always ‘The Wop,’ and when we meet the Cards, Whitey Kurowsky (sic) is ‘The Polack.’ The phils [sic] ball club rides the devil out of every team it meets. That’s our style of baseball. We hand it out and we expect to take it too.”1

The climactic scene in 42 deviates from history, using dramatic license to amplify the story’s tension. In the movie’s climactic scene, Robinson faces Pittsburgh’s Fritz Ostermueller in a game that could clinch the National League pennant for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although Robinson did hit a game-winning home run off Ostermueller on September 17, it was not the clinching game; the win merely reduced the Dodgers' magic number to two.2

Early in the film, Ostermueller beans Robinson, another exaggeration: Ostermueller hit Robinson with a pitch at a Pirates home game on May 17, 1947, but the ball struck Robinson’s arm, not head.3 (However, Robinson may have prevented a beaning by throwing up his arm.)

Ostermueller is a setup-payoff device in 42, setting up a scene where the hero is defeated, so that a payoff occurs later in the story when he overcomes the opponent. The payoff is Robinson hitting a home run off Ostermuller. Here, the scene not only deviates from history, but from Robinson’s business-as-usual approach to baseball, by depicting Robinson standing in the batter’s box after the climactic home run. This deviation from baseball's unwritten rules of conduct rankled Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, who wrote, “But nowhere in my extensive readings covering six decades of sports fandom do I recall hearing about him clinching the 1947 pennant for the Dodgers with a home run in Pittsburgh. I must have skipped those pages, because that’s what Mr. Helgeland has him doing.... And get this: He has Jackie watching the home run from the batter’s box. In 1947? Unimaginable.”4

In addition, for baseball purists, Ostermueller was left-handed while 42 shows him as right-handed.

Jackie Robinson also features in Soul of the Game, a 1996 HBO television movie focusing on Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson as baseball stands on the verge of integration. In this recreation, the first meeting between Rickey and Robinson at the headquarters of the Brooklyn Dodgers includes a short, portly fellow named Pete, depicted as a Dodgers scout familiar with Robinson’s playing ability but who doesn’t know Robinson personally. Rickey introduces Pete to Robinson, who knows the scout only as a white man in the stands at Negro League games with a stopwatch in his hands.

In the real version of events, Rickey dispatched scouts Tom Greenwade and Clyde Sukeforth to scout Robinson at different times. Both were tall, lanky men, and Sukeforth introduced Robinson to Rickey at the meeting. Sukeforth met Robinson in Chicago, persuaded him to travel to Brooklyn, and recalled the events at a meeting with Rickey in 1950. “You said ‘In Chicago next Friday night, Kansas City Monarchs play in Comiskey Park. I want you to see that game and especially do I want you to see a shortstop named Robinson. I would like for you to see Robinson before the game. There is some doubt as to whether he has a really good arm. I would like for you to speak to Robinson before the game and ask him if he will throw the ball overhand from the hole, his right, in the practice.’

The part of the Cleveland Indians ballpark was played by Milwaukee’s County Stadium in the movie “You told me you had good reports on the fellow. You said you understood he was quite a ball player and if I liked him and if his schedule would permit. You told me that you wanted him to get away from his team and see you without anybody knowing anything about it. There was to be great secrecy, in that I was to avoid any publicity if possible, but if asked was to give my own name.”5

Another HBO production, the TV movie *61 showcases the 1961 chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, including the impact of the chase on Mantle and Maris, the Yankees, and the press. Some events, though, are tightened to move the story. For example, Bob Cerv appears as a Yankee from the beginning of the story, when he was actually peripatetic: on the Kansas City Athletics and the New York Yankees for the 1960 season, drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 1961 expansion draft, then returned to the Yankees in a May 1961 trade.

The story culminates with Maris hitting his 61st home run off Tracy Stallard of the Boston Red Sox while Cerv and Mantle, both injured, watch on television from a hospital room. Though they both suffered injuries that sidelined them during Maris’s historic moment—Cerv had knee surgery and Mantle had an abscessed hip—they did not watch the game together. In a 2001 Hartford Courant article, Cerv said this of the film: “You believed that? I knew Mick was there, but we had private rooms. They had to be a little artistic. They had to make a story. But I’d say 70 percent of the stuff really happened.”6

Babe Ruth’s legend suffered a couple of changes to his biography in The Babe Ruth Story starring William Bendix. Wayne Stewart, a Ruth biographer, writes in Babe Ruth, “For instance, it shows Ruth receiving a $5,000 fine and suspension for missing a game because he took a child’s injured dog to a hospital for an operation—this is sheer fiction. The film even portrayed the home run Ruth dedicated for Johnny Sylvester in 1926 as the ‘Called Shot’ of 1932. In the maudlin death scene, Ruth is operated on by the same surgeon who saved the life of the dog years earlier, and, Ruth, who had a notoriously poor memory, recalls the doctor’s face from almost sixteen years before. The film also inaccurately shows Ruth retiring on the spot just moments after hitting his final three home runs in Pittsburgh, the last of which is actually shown landing in the stands at Yankee Stadium.”7

Major League sacrifices verisimilitude in its portrayal of a fictional Cleveland Indians team winning the American League East pennant in a one-game showdown against the New York Yankees. Using a classic storyline of misfits banding together to defeat a common foe, Major League is entertaining, funny, and uplifting with the championship decided in true Hollywood fashion in the bottom of the ninth inning. There’s one problem. The scenes depicting Indians home games, including the one-game playoff, take place at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Sharp-eyed Major League fans will note the logo for Milwaukee television station WTMJ on the scoreboard. There is, however, an overhead shot of a standing room only crowd at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium to give the audience a dramatic jolt.8 In Major League II, Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards substitutes for Municipal Stadium.9

On July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day to honor the “Iron Horse” after he was sidelined by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the disease that would kill him two years later. Gary Cooper re-creates Gehrig’s speech in The Pride of the Yankees with some refinements here and there. The Cooper version begins, “I have been walking onto ballfields for 16 years, and I’ve never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left—Murderers Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor living and playing with these men on my right—the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.”10

His story was given the Hollywood treatment in the film Gehrig never mentioned the phrases “Bronx Bombers” or “Murderers Row” in his speech. Further, the Cooper version takes liberties by excluding two men who were mentioned by Gehrig: Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees owner who had died six months earlier, and Ed Barrow, “the builder of baseball’s greatest empire,” according to Gehrig.11

One of the best-known lines in film history is Cooper’s last line of the speech, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” The line is lifted verbatim from Gehrig’s speech, where it’s the second sentence. Later in the speech, Gehrig says, “Sure I’m lucky” before mentioning Ruppert, Barrow, and Yankees managers Huggins and McCarthy. Then, he repeats the phrase as he thanks the New York Giants for their gifts and his family for their support.12

Based on the eponymous book by Eliot Asinof, the film Eight Men Out shows the events, controversy, and consequences of the 1919 Chicago White Sox allegedly throwing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds for financial gain. Though acquitted of “conspiracy to defraud the public” in court, eight players suffered a lifetime ban from major league baseball—Eddie Cicotte, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, George “Buck” Weaver, Claude “Lefty” Williams were banned by dint of the omnipotence of the new baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”13

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson hit .375 in the 1919 World Series and .356 in his career. After the “Black Sox” scandal, Jackson played on semi-pro teams. At the end of Eight Men Out, some fans debate whether Jackson is one of the players on the field. Wearing a Hoboken jersey, Jackson runs around the field like a gazelle in a game against Hackensack. Playing the outfield, he snares a ball destined for extra bases, then hits a stand-up triple in his next at-bat.14

Hoboken and Hackensack did not have semipro baseball teams.

In For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner plays Billy Chapel, a forty-ish pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. On the cusp of pitching a perfect game against the New York Yankees, Chapel reviews his life with his girlfriend, Jane, as she prepares to leap across the pond known as the Atlantic Ocean for a job in London. The day after the game, Billy goes to the airport so he can catch a flight to London only to find that Jane delayed her trip because the perfect game consumed her attention.15

In this fictional Tigerverse, the audience quickly learns Billy Chapel’s former pitching prowess; a newspaper headline praises his dominance in Game 1 of the 1984 World Series, though Jack Morris was the real hero of Game 1. Also, to the lament of Tigers fans, no Tigers pitcher has ever pitched a perfect game. (Armando Galarraga came close in 2010, but umpire Jim Joyce ruled that Indians batter Jason Donald beat out a ground ball for an infield hit.)

Bernie Mac stars as Stan Ross in Mr. 3000, the title stemming from Ross ending his career after his 3000th hit so he can use the “Mr. 3000” moniker as a marketing device. Playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, Ross is a fan favorite. His former teammates, however, view him as selfish because he retired during the middle of a playoff race. When the Brewers retire Ross’s number, former teammates Robin Yount and Paul Molitor opt to not attend the ceremony.

The Baseball Hall of Fame realizes that statisticians double counted three hits, thereby leaving Ross with 2997 hits. So, to maintain his marketing power as “Mr. 3000,” Ross returns to the Brewers. After getting two hits, Ross has a chance to achieve the gloried 3000 number for a “second time,” but lays down a sacrifice bunt so the Brewers can get a victory.

IMDB.com points out some continuity flaws, including Ross stating that he played a game against the Houston Astros. During the time referenced, interleague play did not exist during the regular season. There is no evidence to suggest that Ross meant to qualify the game as occurring during spring training. Also, when Ross achieved what was thought to be his 3000th hit, he did it in 1995 at Miller Park. He might have used a time machine because Miller Park opened in 2001.

Though filmmakers take creative license to tighten a storyline, dramatize a moment, or enhance a character, their films are no less appealing for baseball fans. Whether it’s Billy Chapel pitching a perfect game, Gary Cooper embodying the spirit of Lou Gehrig, or Brad Pitt showing Billy Beane defying baseball’s entrenched modus operandi, baseball films show all sides of a sport that has moments of drama and comedy, pathos and joy, and milestones and surprises.

DAVID KRELL is a SABR member who has spoken at SABR’s Annual Convention, Frederick Ivor-Campbell Nineteenth Century Baseball Conference, and Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference. He has also spoken at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, Queens Baseball Convention, and the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. David writes for thesportspost.com and the New York State Bar Association’s "Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law Journal." In addition, he co-edited the NYSBA’s sports law book "In the Arena." David is writing a book about the Brooklyn Dodgers that will be published by McFarland in 2015.