After a long slump, can a baseball film take us to the game?

HOLLYWOOD PLAYS BALL

April 12, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

And somewhere there is laughing, and somewhere children shout, but there's no joy in flickville -- mighty Hollywood has struck out.

It's true: The American motion picture industry can re-create battles underwater, on ice or in space; it can re-create the day before yesterday or invent the century after the next. It can put you in a factory, a schoolroom, a Senate chamber or a maximum security prison. But it has never quite put you in a baseball game. In fact, it's not going too far to say there's never been a first-rate baseball picture.

That may change Friday, when "The Babe" opens, with John Goodman as the Bawlamer boy with the barrel chest and the DNA code that read "Born to play ball." Arthur Hiller, a fabled old pro, directed; and since ours is a slightly more truthful age, perhaps it will triumph over the formulaic biopic pieties as represented in an earlier edition, "The Babe Ruth Story," with William Bendix. But maybe not: For nearly 50 years, Hollywood has been cranking out films about baseball, and with but one or two minor exceptions, they aren't worth a gob of tobacco in the chalk lines. Using the number of movies listed under "Baseball" in "The Video Hound's Golden Retriever" (62) and dividing by the number of good baseball films (to be named later), I get an average of .048. Most American League pitchers could hit that if they were forced to bat!

"Bull Durham" you're saying? OK, maybe. It was almost a really good movie, but primarily just a good movie. And surely its great source of strength was that writer-director Ron Shelton was himself an ex-minor leaguer, and was able to bring a freshness and a realism to the project. But let's not forget that the baseball wasn't really the main thrust of the piece; baseball was to "Bull Durham" what World War I was to "A Farewell to Arms," namely a specific and well-imagined background to what was essentially an even more specific and even better-imagined love story.

Then there's "Field of Dreams." I don't know what reporters and headline writers in this town would have done in the past few months without "Field of Dreams" to draw upon as a metaphorical resource, but other than that handy-dandy help, I remain unmoved by one of the silliest baseball movies ever made. It was an orchestration of unearned epiphanies that managed to bumble its way to one grand moment of reconciliation between father and son beyond the pale of mere life and death, suggesting that which many deeper thinkers and pseudo-mystics have claimed to see in baseball: a ritual of renewal. As we learned the game from our fathers, we teach it to our sons, and in that way the generations are connected. Yeah, but . . . ZZZZZZZZZZZ.

In fact, if one surveys the film literature of baseball, one finds as dismal a cacophony as can be imagined. I've mentioned the grim "Babe Ruth Story." It's typical of the Hollywood garbage that passed for sports films in the '30s and '40s and well into the '50s. A shame, because the real Babe Ruth had a cameo part in another loathsome orchestration of pieties, "Pride of the Yankees," with no-field, no-hit Gary Cooper in the title role (he threw like a g--l), and the Babe had such a buoyant, blossoming personality, it's a shame he didn't get to play himself. But no. William Bendix, nobody's idea of a movie star or an athlete, a big soft blowhard without a shred of what must have been the one true Babe's exquisite hand-eye coordination or the spectacular concentration of reflexes nesting behind those mounds of slow-twitch muscles, had the title role. There's no danger in Bendix's Babe, no sense of the guts a hitter had to show going up against tight inside pitching with no helmet.

Few people saw games

They were giants in those days, and no movie caught their gigantism, presumably because no movie had to. Consider that through its inception to the mid-1950s, baseball was not seen by all that many human beings, being restricted merely to the attendance in major league (mostly northeastern) cities. The mass media were radio and graceful sportswriting; there was no television, and certainly no slow-motion replay, with its incredible capacity to penetrate and re-orchestrate the ballet on the field, to study each strained sinew, to follow the rotation of the ball. Thus filmmakers could get away with actors who threw like g--ls, because hardly anybody knew how real major leaguers threw.

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