A young Jackie playing baseball with other (white) neighborhood children.
Robinson sliding into third base after his first at-bat, showing his superior speed.
Robinson talking to a scout from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Branch Rickey (Minor Watson): “You know a box score is really democratic, Jackie.”
Robinson and his wife Rae (Ruby Dee) on the bus to Florida for spring training. Robinson is centered in the frame, significantly taller than anyone else on the bus, and noticeably darker-skinned than even his wife, making him stand out even more.
Rickey lecturing the Dodgers players who signed the petition to remove Robinson from the team.
Images from The Natural
Hobbs (Robert Redford) leaning in to pitch to the Whammer. Momentarily his head will fall perfectly in line with the setting sun, blocking it out.
The cover that Hobbs has hit off the ball after his first at-bat with the Knights.
The insides of the ball traveling to the outfield.
The printing of Roy Hobbs baseball cards during a mid-film montage detailing Hobbs’s outstanding success.
Newspaper headline from the same montage. Notice Hobbs’s name comes before that of his team.
Close-up of the opposing pitcher for Hobbs’s final at-bat.
Corresponding close-up of Hobbs from the same at-bat.
Hobbs circling the bases after hitting a home run that shattered the stadium lights, creating fireworks.
Less than a decade after Pride of the Yankees formed the mould, Legend Films released The Jackie Robinson Story, chronicling the life and career of another legendary U.S. baseball player. The story of the first African American to break the color line and play for a Major League team fit neatly into the individual hero mold established in reference to Gehrig. While the film, written by Lawrence Taylor and Arthur Mann and directed by Alfred E. Green, lacks the visual excellence of Pride of the Yankees, an examination of the work reveals the ways in which the filmmakers employed the individualist framework to tell their story. Despite the racial difference between the two protagonists, The Jackie Robinson Story simply slides into the formula. In fact, baseball has an overwhelmingly Caucasian history—a racial history that no doubt contributes to the sense of nostalgia among a certain segment of the game’s fan base. But in this film race presents no barrier to an individualist narrative focus. Just as baseball itself survived—thrived, in fact—following the influx of African American, Latin American, South American, and Asian players into the sport, the baseball movie found its formula even more enduring through its ability to successfully integrate all races into its structure.
As with Pride of the Yankees, The Jackie Robinson Story opens with a prologue, this time spoken. The unseen narrator intones,
From the first few frames of the film, the creators squarely position The Jackie Robinson Story as a piece of U.S. propaganda, directly invoking the notion of the American Dream. Thus the success of the single man, Jackie Robinson, who plays himself in the film, stands in for the success of the larger idea of the United States: Robinson reinforces the U.S. myth. The importance of Americana recurs throughout the film, most often out of the mouth of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played by actor Minor Watson), the man who signed Robinson to a professional contract and brought him to the Major Leagues. Rickey frequently connects baseball and its racial integration with the larger concept of “America” and democracy. When he first meets with Robinson Rickey says to him,
The implication of this comment is clear: a box score, a few inches of black ink on grey newsprint with names, abbreviations, and numbers, tells you everything you need to know about a game: wins, losses, and statistics. The box score, by its nature, is color blind and thus democratic. For the character Rickey, the chance to play professional baseball is a right. As he says to Robinson,
Again, the film presents baseball as an uniquely U.S. experience, the pastime as part of national character. When several members of the Dodgers sign a petition saying they refuse to play alongside Robinson, Rickey harangues them in his hotel suite along these same lines:
In many respects the film seems as interested in lionizing Rickey, the older white capitalist out to improve his ballclub, as much as the young black athlete. The importance of America as a construct, so central to Rickey’s character, even finds its way into the film’s musical score. During a scene in the second half of the film, as Robinson leaves the Dodgers clubhouse following a game, three white men approach him and his wife (Ruby Dee) and threaten them, until chased away by two of Robinson’s white teammates.
As the teammates walk the Robinsons to the team bus, the viewer hears the strains of “America the Beautiful.” The song later returns during the final few minutes of the film, as Robinson addresses Congress. There the heroic player makes the following statement, underscored by the patriotic song:
Over the course of this speech Robinson’s focus shifts. At the start of the address Robinson appears to be looking at an unseen Congressman, but slowly his head begins to turn, and by the last few phrases he stares directly into the lens. The effect of this direct address combined with patriotic music solidifies in the audience’s mind the notion of the exceptional Americanism of this story. The moment is given even more impact by the fact that Robinson himself speaks these words. Following this speech the movie closes with a return of voiceover, mirroring its opening moments:
The figure of Robinson naturally looms large over the story. As in Pride of the Yankees, Robinson is frequently the tallest figure in any shot, even among the other players. Of course, Robinson will naturally stick out from his fellow players as the only dark-skinned face in a sea of whiteness.
The film, however, reinforces this image of Robinson as a player of singular importance. The rest of his teammates are barely individuated. Few are ever addressed by name in the film or given specific personal traits. Add in the depersonalizing effect of the baseball uniform, designed to make members of the team blend into each other, and the centered framing of the Classical Hollywood Style, and Robinson clearly stands out from all of those around him. Director Green also establishes this visual uniqueness from Robinson’s first day of spring training for Montreal, a Dodgers minor league affiliate. Robinson wanders from group to group, trying to become involved in a fielding practice drill, but none of his white teammates even acknowledge his presence. From the outset the film positions Robinson, its hero, as a lone man in opposition to a group system that disdains him.
The film’s baseball sequences focus almost exclusively on Robinson, highlighting his blend of exceptional defense, speed running the bases, and power. At one point, after watching a particularly adept piece of fielding, Rickey turns to the team’s manager and says, “No other human being could have made that play.” Visually and textually Robinson is elevated above all of those around him. While the film pays lip service to following the rise of the Dodgers as they pursue the pennant, the film lacks any sort of team celebrations or other collective acts. Only Robinson’s on-field exploits matter. The larger narrative of team success has relevance only insofar as it adds to the story of Jackie’s journey. The narrative prioritization of individual accomplishment at the expense of team success continues in The Jackie Robinson Story from what began in Pride of the Yankees, and such prioritization will dominate the wave of baseball movies from 1984 to 1992.
The Natural (1984)
While a few select films did draw audience attention over the next three and a half decades, the genre did not truly peak until the period between 1984 and 1992. This eight-year span saw the appearance of numerous successful films on the subject, especially The Natural (1984), Bull Durham (1988), Eight Men Out (1988), Major League (1989), Field of Dreams (1989), and A League of Their Own (1992). While scholars like Howard Good find it “surprising, even puzzling” that baseball movies should find such an audience in this period, the reason seems apparent (19). Rudd and Most, however, also seem to overlook the obvious when they ascribe this resurgence to a renewed attachment to
As previously discussed, our conception of baseball has little to do with community and everything to do with individual achievement. The individual nature of achievement is marked in baseball statistics, a sport in which the most coveted records are those of personal success—Roger Maris’s 61 home runs, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams’s .406 batting average. Such a way of keeping records separates it from a notion of community and teamwork. The baseball film’s dynamic presence in the period between 1984 and 1992 should not be connected to an increased interest in community, but to an increased interest in personal success. The truth is, baseball’s resurgence as a film subject can be connected directly to Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Acknowledging the period of time required for the writing, filming, editing, and release of a film, it seems natural that movies respond to larger societal trends at a lag of a few years. Reagan took office in early 1981, and The Natural hit theatres a little more than three years later, six months before Reagan would win the biggest Electoral College landslide in U.S. history. Discussing Hollywood films of the Reagan years, Susan Jeffords writes,
Jeffords asserts that the nation’s re-election of Reagan provided tremendous insight into the people’s cinematic interests. They wanted “spectacular narratives about characters who stand for individualism, liberty, militarism, and a mythic heroism” (16).
In baseball film terms, this mythic heroism is best embodied by the character of Roy Hobbs in Barry Levinson’s film The Natural. As Dickerson notes, The Natural appeared in a period when the United States was looking for a hero (135). Voters selected Reagan as that hero, and filmgoers selected Hobbs. Kevin Thomas Curtin finds connections between The Natural and Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, finding Hobbs an amalgamation of Achilles and Odysseus (225). Stephen C. Wood, J. David Pincus, and J. Nicholas DeBonis also directly connect The Natural to mythology, writing,
While a pleasant thought, do not values two and four—teamwork and individual achievement—contradict each other? How can one piece of mythology support two divergent, possibly mutually exclusive, ends? Ray provides the answer to this question. He says,
Ray uses this analysis to explain the concepts of the outlaw hero and the official hero, but the same approach can also be applied to individualism versus group achievement. Americans simultaneously desire to be recognized for their individual accomplishments, yet relish their ability to perform as part of a team. Baseball provides the perfect reconciliation between these two diametrically opposed perspectives on national identity. Participating in a team sport comprised of individuals, you can have both. The Natural, and many baseball films that follow, put this reconciliation on film, by focusing on the success of a single player—Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs. Through Hobbs we see that the unparalleled success of the individual creates success for the collective.
Again, an analysis of the film reveals a clear prioritization of the individual over the group. Consider the first competitive baseball encounter of the film: not a game between two teams but a contest between two men. On his way to Chicago, Hobbs encounters the Whammer—a thinly veiled fictionalization of Ruth—at a carnival. Hobbs takes to the mound, betting that he can strike out the Whammer on three pitches; if the Whammer hits one of the three pitches, or if one misses the strike zone, Whammer wins. The presentation of the third and final pitch here holds the most interest. Levinson shoots Roy at medium-close range with the sun setting in the background. Roy leans in, getting ready to pitch, and his head falls into perfect alignment with the setting sun; he literally blocks out the sun. Levinson cuts to a shot of the Whammer, pointing with his bat straight out towards the mound (or possibly towards center field, continuing the evocation of Ruth). Roy’s windup occurs in slow-motion with the orange sun lighting Redford into silhouette. The ball leaves Hobbs’s hand and approaches the plate in slow-motion, the Whammer swings in slow-motion, and we can see the look of shock and disgust cross his face as he misses. Levinson designs everything about the filming and editing of this encounter to highlight the personal conflict between these two men, and he also sets up the use of slow-motion that will recur for all of Hobbs’s major baseball events the rest of the film. Immediately after this pitch most of the assembled crowd mobs the mound to praise Roy. He has become a sensation. Shortly after this scene the dangerous Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) even talks to Roy about “Homer who lived ages ago and wrote about heroes and gods, and he would have had it in mind to write about baseball had he seen you out there today.”
Before Hobbs breaks into the lineup, the film’s team, New York Knights, evokes thoughts of the legendarily disastrous 1962 Mets. They could not win, they could not communicate with each other in the field, they ran into each other. Simply put, they played miserable baseball. In the film outfielder Bump Bailey, the “mouthy prima donna” as Pop the manager calls him, leads the team, but Pop eventually pulls him in favor of Hobbs, who literally hits the cover off of the ball in his first at-bat. Curtin writes,
A poetic thought, to be sure, but is it accurate? A close analysis of the film reveals that Hobbs almost never refers to any goals in terms of team success. Early in the film he states his career desires: to break every record in the book, to have people recognize him as he walks down the street, to become the best there ever was. “What else is there?” he asks. These same sentiments appear at the end of the film, when Roy, lamenting the end of his career, says,
Conspicuously absent from this mission statement is any mention of winning a World Series.
Yet Hobbs’s personal performance directly dictates the Knights’ successe. The Natural features several ballgame montages, used as always to progress the narrative while collapsing time. In the first of these montages Levinson shows the Knights struggling mightily on the field—throwing the ball away, getting caught stealing bases, and generally making mistakes—interspersed with shots of Hobbs sitting on the bench in the dugout watching. In the next game montage, after Hobbs has entered the lineup, the same group of players succeeds. Levinson uses newspaper headlines to tell the story of the Knights’ winning streak. We no longer see Hobbs sitting on the bench. Instead, his image recurs throughout the montage in still photos from newspapers and magazines. As the segment progresses we get more images of Hobbs alone, on baseball cards and magazine covers. The implication of this montage is clear: Hobbs creates winners. His individual presence in the lineup turns a team of incompetents into an overnight success. It should be noted that in none of the dramatized Knights games do we see a victory caused by any means other than a Roy Hobbs achievement. Though we may hate the Judge, his words to Roy, “Without you they lost three in a row,” ring painfully true.
Stylistic elements in the film support this elevation of Hobbs to superhero status. As previously mentioned, Levinson’s use of slow-motion serves to separate Hobbs from his surroundings. In Roy’s first batting practice swing with the Knights, the ball seems to slow down as it sails over the wall and approaches the outfield seats. Sound continues at a normal speed, but the ball descends too slowly for realism. Once the ball hits cement it bounces at a normal rate, but for this short segment of film the airborne journey of the ball is highlighted. Levinson takes a similar stylistic approach for Roy’s first official game at-bat. Roy’s walk to the plate appears in slow-motion, and the underscoring slowly filters in—the use of Bordwell’s “movie music.” We hear music, voice of the radio announcer, and sounds of baseball action, but the ambient noise from the crowd—the masses—disappears, even though we see people talking. According to the standard for filming baseball scenes, the camera presents close-ups of the eyes of the players involved, creating identification with the hero. And then Roy Hobbs literally hits the cover off of the ball. Later, when Roy briefly pitches at batting practice, he moves in slow-motion while the rest of the team moves at realistic speed; he stands out. Finally, for the last at-bat of the film, this use of slow-motion comes to the fore. Every actor is shot in extreme close-up. The pitcher’s windup is in slow-motion, as is Roy’s swing. We hear the voice of the announcer in real time, but the journey of the ball off the bat takes its time. Travel is slowed, the “Natural” musical theme returns, and as soon as the ball crashes into the light tower everything explodes into normal time, except Roy’s trip around the basepath. Everything about Roy is slow; everything about the rest of the world is normal. The speed of the filming makes Roy stand out from the crowd. Once he gets around the bases, the rest of the team starts jumping and celebrating with Roy, all now in slow-motion. They assume his speed. He leads them into the mythology books.