Learning to Baseball – Discovering Baseball Through Film

Making his B&N debut, with a new feature, welcome Steve Wright

I fell in love with baseball before I had any clue about the game.

Specifically, in the initial stages, it was movies that made the introductions. I wanted to walk like Ricky Vaughn into a packed stadium of fans singing my name, I wanted to be seduced by Susan Sarandon and I wanted to play catch with a father as Ray Kinsella did, or Roy Hobbs with a son in that glorious final scene.

The first two are understandable. What young man doesn’t want to be the hero of his own life or the focus of attention of a mysterious older woman? But catch just wasn’t part of my culture at all and it showed. I even got to the stage where I bought myself a baseball and glove, but lacking a partner I ended up mimicking Hilts spending yet another period in the cooler of solitary confinement.

Baseball is suited to such major human themes and its role in the American psyche seemed to attract artists of quality to write about it. At the time, before the pivotal Fever Pitch, football writing was less prevalent and as a result baseball took on an almost mystical aura for me. The late 80’s was a great time to be discovering the game through film. I had barely seen any actual ball, just bits and pieces of Channel 4s coverage of the ’86 World Series that featured what I now considered to be my Mets. I had seen all the movies though.

I read recently that Wesley Snipes was the highest paid actor of last year but to me he will always be Willie Mays Hayes, although it is only now that I know anything about Mays himself, a giant of New York and San Francisco. Major League was jam packed with corny romance, the old timer trying for one last shot in “the show” leading a ragtag of wannabees and never-will-bees in defiance of a rogue owner. It also had the classic close with “Wild Thing” Vaughn, “a juvenile delinquent in the off season”, walking to the mound to get a crucial out as a full stadium karaoke-d The Troggs.

Field of Dreams had already taken sentimental to a whole new level by the time I discovered Shoeless Joe, the novel that inspired the film, and I’m a sentimental type. The novel is a thing of absolute beauty that gives you a real sense of the history of baseball and its psychological impact. There are great characters in there who care with a deep intensity for the game; it isn’t a matter of life or death, it is simply life itself.

I fell in love with the fictional characters like Moonlight Graham, the doctor whose only major league appearance was one innings in the field with no chance to bat and “wink at the pitcher”, and Eddie Scissons, the oldest living Chicago Cub and his baseball boys. But I was also entranced by the real life boys who crossed over into this magical story with their magnificent nicknames. Who were Three Finger Brown and the double play Cubs; Tinker to Evers to Chance? Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble.  It also introduced me to Chicago’s Black Sox whose story would affect me so deeply it would never leave.

The tale of a group of players who threw a World Series probably shouldn’t be called heroic but they hold an ambiguous place in legend. In Shoeless Joe a man’s love for his fallen hero is enough to drive a devastating rift between him and his angry young son. Maybe Eight Men Out isn’t the tribute that those players really deserved, or maybe it is, but it is certainly entertaining. It’s impossible not to side with the players, especially Joe Jackson himself, Buck Weaver (the fabulous John Cusack, well I think so anyway) and Eddie Cicotte. In the cold light of day though are coach Kid Gleason and college boy Eddie Collins not the true heroes?

As very much an amateur when it comes to this American institution it probably isn’t my place to say, but Joe and Buck have got me firmly by the heartstrings. I’m maybe on safer ground in picking out two of the best baseball movies, The Natural and Bull Durham. Very different in style they pretty much sum everything up. Roy Hobbs only ever played ball on the screen but he is a giant of the game to me, a man to admire in any age. Whilst Crash Davis was surely the role that Kevin Costner became an actor to play, a wonderful picture of a veteran in love with the game but also weary of it.

Oftentimes we see our sporting heroes in the young and athletic but Roy and Crash grew into their worn but wise inspiration. They made their mistakes and lost their way but they couldn’t shake their love for the game. Nuke was giving them the juice but it was Crash pulling the strings, just as Gary Carter had done for the Mets a couple of seasons earlier. Years later I can see in myself elements of that journey through youthful enthusiasm to tired scepticism and increasingly now beyond to peaceful submission and acceptance.

It feels like I came to baseball the wrong way round; philosophy first, game second. It makes more sense for the younger me to be drawn in by the game and as I got older to feel the pull of mystery that W P Kinsella’s imagined J D Salinger describes in the closing pages of Shoeless Joe. Even in my youth I had some sense of the eternal though, I could feel the pain of Joe Jackson whether he ever did or not and I yearned for that one chance to step up to the plate and stare down a pitcher.

Annie Savoy counselled that “the world is made for people who are not cursed with self-awareness” and maybe looking back I can see some truth in her penny philosophy, or at least in an over active imagination masquerading as such. But these are the people who introduced me to the game and they continue to watch it with me now. I cannot think of a better crowd.

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