The Baseball Film
Almost everyone, even if they are not a fan of the game, has a favorite baseball film. The Sandlot, The Bad News Bears, 42, Moneyball, A League of Their Own, Major League, Pride of the Yankees, Damn Yankees, Sugar, Mr. 3000, Cobb, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Rookie, For the Love of the Game, The Battered Bastards of Baseball… this is far from an exhaustive list. There are countless great baseball films, including my personal favorite, The Natural. And just like in The Natural, they usually end with some great championship moment, some amazing crescendo of victory over countless obstacles as the team finally comes together and the hero wins it.
But not all baseball films. Some barely show baseball at all. All baseball movies are somehow about relationships of players and management and owners, and how that works to create the game of baseball, but my father’s favorite baseball film was really just about how people dealt with someone who was dying. My father always listed Bang The Drum Slowly as his favorite baseball film. He told me he saw it in the theater and he knew right away Robert De Niro was going to be a legendary actor, but since this was told to me long after De Niro was a legendary actor, I think we can take it with the necessary grains of salt.
If you aren’t familiar with the film, it was made in 1973 and stars Michael Moriarty and Robert De Nero who respectively play a pitcher and a catcher on a fictional NY major league baseball team. De Niro’s character kinda stinks at baseball, but star pitcher Michael Moriarty finds out that De Niro is dying and so he gets it written in his contract that De Niro has to be on the team, and if Moriarty is sold or traded, De Nero has to go with them, they are a package deal. There’s an interesting side plot how Moriarty’s character also sells insurance, since being a star baseball player is not enough to earn a living. Vincent Gardenia plays the cranky manager and earned an academy award nomination, and Danny Aiello plays the cracking wise troublemaker in what was his feature film debut.
If you haven’t seen it, you should. I haven’t ruined anything for you by that description, in fact, all that happens before you see any real baseball action. Not that there’s much baseball action in this film. It’s more about life and death than it is about baseball. Actually it’s more about labor that it is about baseball, but that’s for another book.
I think it’s telling that my father named this his favorite baseball movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film and I can understand anyone liking it. But while a little maudlin, Bang the Drum Slowly is pretty honest and rough around the edges. It’s a little raw. All its characters are flawed and no one really overcomes anything. It’s just life. There’s no joy in winning, no sorrow is losing. It’s not what most people imagine when the sit down to watch a baseball movie. And yet this was my father’s favorite. We actually had a conversation about why this was his favorite baseball film, when I was making my case for The Natural being the superior film. And this is what he told me:
"Remember that time I let you stay up late to watch the end of game 1 of the ‘88 World Series? The A's were up 4-3 on the Dodgers in the bottom of the 9th. Eckersley, best closer in baseball on the mound, hasn’t given up a home run in months, guy on first, two outs, and Tommy Lasorda calls on Kirk Gibson to pinch hit. Kirk Gibson has two bad legs and can barely walk into the batters box. Vin Scully says, ‘if Gibson hits it on the ground it’s over, he can’t even run to first’. Gibson fouls off a couple of pitches, count goes full. Eckersley throws an outside fastball and Gibson takes an awkward step and muscles it, all arms, over the right field fence. Gibson was pumping his fist faster than his legs and he could barely get around the bases. You and I were so excited that we were screaming at the TV, woke your mom up she thought the house was on fire. We would of woken your brother up too if it were possible. We were jumping up and down, hugging and high fiving and we weren’t even fans of the Dodgers. Now let me ask you, how are you going to make a film with a moment better than that? You can’t. And if you did, no one would believe it anyway."
So that was my dad’s answer to why his favorite baseball film was Bang the Drum Slowly. When I was younger I used to think you could solve the problem of what was the best this or what was the best that. I used to keep lists of my favorite films, favorite songs, favorite books. I would break them down further into genres, to really try to get at what was the best. I think part of it was my competitive spirit was turned on a little too high, but also it might be that I didn’t understand different perspectives lead to different tastes. I mean, sure it’s obvious now, but I’m a cis gendered straight white guy who was good at sports, I was pretty certain the world was either created by me or for me, so it took a while to move on from that.
When I finally did I realized that one short cut to get to know people is getting to know what they love. I remember reading one of Gene Siskel’s obituaries and it mentioned he used to always say to people, "tell me the truest thing you know". That which we love, that which resonates in our hearts and reflects our spirit, those are the truest things we know. And sometimes it’s just a movie about a bunch of grown men running around in their pajamas playing a game. Sometimes it’s a father and son high fiving and hugging and screaming at a TV three thousand miles from where a guy with two bad legs just hit a ball with a bat.
I still don’t think I have figured out the truest thing I know, but weirdly I’ll probably never forget Kirk Gibson’s home run at least in part because of a film made 15 years before he hit it.