Images from Major League

Pitcher Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) shot from behind home plate.

Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) “calling his shot,” invoking Babe Ruth. Notice the extreme low angle of the shot and the pronounced bulge from Taylor’s protective cup, emphasizing his masculinity.

Taylor visiting teammate Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen) in his solarium.

Close-up of Dorn from the same scene. Consider the frivolousness of his shirt as contrasted with the simplicity of Taylor’s.

Images from Bull Durham

Still frame image of children playing stickball, the first image from the film.

Close-up of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) in his first at-bat for the Bulls.

Davis and pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) arguing on the pitcher’s mound.

Davis: “You don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem.”

Laloosh wearing the garter belt given to him by his girlfriend, Annie (Susan Sarandon), emphasizing his femininity in contrast to the more rugged Davis.

Images from Eight Men Out

Children playing stickball in the street at the start of the film.

The start of the bar sequence—"Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) with a woman at a table.

Owner Charles “Commie” Comiskey (Clifton James) talking with sportswriters.

Jackson at bat early in the game.

Pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) pitching. Again, note the low camera angle.

The entire team.

Jackson playing under an assumed name at the end of the film.

Weaver watching Jackson play.

The final freeze-frame image from the film, of Jackson.


Team comedies:
Major League
(1989) and Bull Durham (1988)

Just as race proved no obstacle to using the individualist formula in The Jackie Robinson Story, genre similarly adapts to the needs of the structure. The three films examined so far have all been variations on melodrama, a single hero facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, in a serious movie that reaches an essentially happy ending. The late-80s movies Major League and Bull Durham demonstrate that comedy just as easily fits into the mold crafted by Pride of the Yankees. Despite these two films’ significantly more lighthearted tone, they reflect the same ideology as the more serious fare. They even utilize the same filmic tricks for the same purposes as do their more melodramatic predecessors.

The manipulation of film speed for climactic individual achievement in baseball scenes so important to The Natural also appears in Major League. For the final pitch of the top of the ninth inning, with “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) on the mound, the film speed slows down. As per usual we see close-ups of the eyes of both pitcher and hitter. The fearsome batter spits tobacco juice out of his mouth. As in The Natural, crowd noise fades away as everything focuses on the one-on-one battle. Camera position also highlights the individual importance of this at-bat, as for the first time we watch the pitcher from the catcher’s point of view, rather than a traditional camera angle for a baseball broadcast. By positioning the camera behind home plate and at a low angle, director David S. Ward emphasizes the look on Vaughn’s face as he pitches. He takes us into the rookie pitcher’s head, creating identification with the individual over the team. The low angle also serves to construct Vaughn as larger than life.

Intense close-up of Vaughn’s face during his final showdown. Reverse shot of the fearsome hitter Vaughn is facing.

Ward adopts a similar filmic technique for the bottom of the ninth inning, as Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) strides to the plate with the game on the line. With the speedy Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) on second base, Taylor has a chance to win the game for team and send them to the playoffs. Ward again places the camera at a low angle looking up, making Taylor seem mountainous (and emphasizing the bulge in his crotch created by his protective cup, highlighting his masculinity). This scene also features the most noticeable baseball inaccuracy in all of the films discussed. Taylor does not wear a traditional batting helmet, as the helmet he wears for this at-bat has no protective ear flap. Every other player who bats in the movie has this ear flap, yet for the movie’s most significant moment the lead character does not. Why? Because the ear flap obscures the face. With the flap attached to the helmet, it would prove more difficult to easily see into Taylor’s eyes, and Hollywood style requires eye contact to create identification. Despite threatening to hit a home run—again invoking Babe Ruth’s “called shot”—Taylor bunts the ball. Again the film lapses into slow-motion so we can see Taylor gritting it out in terrible pain as he runs down the first-base line on two perpetually-injured knees. He squints so hard from the pain that his eyes almost close completely, but he beats the throw. Meanwhile, Hayes motors around third and manages to score—an almost physically impossible feat from second base. The Indians win the game and the division playoffs. The team pours onto the field presenting the image of group celebration, but beneath this image of collective victory lies the truth. The Indians won because Jake Taylor had a great idea, because Jake Taylor laid down a perfectly executed bunt, because Willie Hayes ran faster than any baseball player on the planet could possibly run, and because Jake Taylor played through the pain.

Center fielder Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) making a spectacular leaping catch in the final game of the season Taylor injuring his already-aching knees running in the final game.
Taylor in his final at-bat. Notice the lack of a protective earflap on his helmet, enabling a better view of his face and eyes. Taylor gutting through the pain as he sprints toward first base.
The pain increasing as Taylor moves further down the base line. Taylor collapsing in agony after successfully reaching first base safely.

Playing through pain connects directly to the Reagan-era fascination with masculinity and bodies. As Jeffords writes,

“The softened, pampered, and ill-trained male body will become, for the Reagan imaginary, the body of the Carter presidency, the body that was unable to defend its country/its town/its values against outsiders” (32).

Indians third baseman Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), with his pastel clothes, golf clubs, and interior decorating interests (“We’re still working on it, trying to figure out if we want to take this room Oriental or Santa Fe”), represents a soft body. Jake, on the other hand, is the grizzled, hardened, warrior of the Reagan years. Jeffords finds John Rambo the defining film character of Reagan’s Hollywood reflection, and what is Jake Taylor but Rambo on a ball field? He has a sculpted body, he surges forward despite injury, and he always bears the dirt and scars of his battles. He is a warrior, and as Jeffords tells us,

“For Reaganism, the warrior hard body is the American identity” (46).

Crash Davis in Bull Durham similarly embodies the warrior in the U.S. baseball film. As presented by the ruggedly handsome looks and under-inflected acting of Kevin Costner, he contrasts to the softer—and younger—Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Arguing with Annie (Susan Sarandon), Davis exclaims, “What is it you see in this guy? He’s a young, wild, dim, pretty-boy.” Director Ron Shelton aims for us to identify with the aging minor-league veteran. He serves as our connection to baseball’s past, to the traditions of the game; Davis embodies the all-important nostalgia element of the game. He even says to his young protégé at one point,

“You don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem.”

Shelton also employs film style to take us inside his lead character’s head. When Crash steps to the plate for his first at-bat as a Durham Bull the camera follows his approach with a tracking shot rolling backwards. Davis fouls off the first pitch, and the next shot switches to handheld. The camera gets right in Davis’s face. The image is shaky, establishing that the slugging catcher is in his head, thinking too much instead of reacting. Shelton then reinforces this notion through voiceover.

Voiceover throughout the film emphasizes the importance of Davis’s individual efforts. Annie directly tells us,

“Once Nuke started listening to Crash, everything fell into place. He started throwing strikes, and the Bulls started to win.”

Later, after an umpire ejects the catcher from the game, she says, “When Crash got thrown out, the game got out of hand.” These voiceovers directly present the idea that Crash Davis creates success for the Durham Bulls, and that without him they could not win—a construction used in both Pride of the Yankees and The Natural. Also, interestingly enough, once LaLoosh leaves the Bulls to join the Major League ballclub, Shelton denies us any information about the fate of the Bulls. Though just a few scenes earlier we are told that the Bulls were tied for the division lead, this element of the story no longer has any relevance for us. After all, the focus of Bull Durham is on the two individual men—Crash and Nuke—and the woman who loves them both, not on the fate of the baseball team.

Annie: “Once Nuke started listening to Crash, everything fell into place.” Laloosh alone in the locker room after being called up to the major leagues.

“The Queen of Diamonds”:
A League of Their Own

As Howard Good reminds us, “Baseball films are only marginally about baseball” (7). Most baseball movies use the game as a vehicle for delivering stories about personal struggles and victories. In A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema Robert B. Ray suggests that genre overwhelms all other motives behind a film (8-9). Thus, even though Penny Marshall’s 1992 film A League of Their Own approaches baseball from a woman’s perspective, with a woman director and a cast comprised almost entirely of women, the dictates of the baseball film genre overwhelm any other message or agenda. While some scholars have found A League of Their Own to show true communal activity in baseball, an analysis of the film reveals that it conforms to all of the elements of the classical baseball film previously discussed. The film repeatedly reinforces capitalist ideology, from scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) referring to Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) as “the goods” to league executive Ira Loewenstein (David Strathairn), saying that women’s baseball is a “product.” The film adapts the masculinist philosophy of the Reagan years, simply inscribing these traditionally “male” character traits onto the tough-yet-feminine Dottie, who Marshall frequently shows covered in dirt.[4] [open endnotes in new window]

The presentation of the individual in the team context illustrates this conformity to the baseball film genre the most closely. While the movie does feature group shots of the women practicing together, working out in mass formations instead of as individuals, it also includes a scene of Dottie standing out from that formation. Examine the women’s afternoon at charm school. As the entire league receives instruction in the proper way to drink tea, Marshall subtly breaks Dottie away from the group. As the instructor calls out “sip” and “down,” 63 of the 64 women move their cups in perfect time. Dottie, however, sips when instructed to place her cup down, and she places it down while everyone else sips. The camera slowly pans across all four tables, showing the women behaving as one, but we clearly see Dottie violating this collective action. Christened the “Queen of Diamonds” by Loewenstein and called “only the best player in the league” by manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), Dottie literally stands above the rest of the league—like Gehrig, she is always the tallest person in the crowd.

At the heart of A League of Their Own lies a personal conflict between two sisters—Dottie and Kit (Lori Petty). This conflict centers on Kit’s feelings of being somehow less than her sister, of always being trapped in the shadow. She wants to break out on her own and make a name for herself; she wants to be something. She cries to her sister, “I’m nothing here.” The final baseball scene of the film supports this reading of the movie as a clash between two individuals. Kit comes to the plate, and Dottie tells the pitcher to throw nothing but high fastballs, because her sister cannot hit them, a fact established early in the movie. Kit hits the third pitch deep into the outfield and charges around the bases. She runs through the third-base coach’s stop sign and barrels towards her older sister, waiting at home plate to tag her out. Kit collides with Dottie, knocking the ball out of her hand and scoring the winning run. In the end the movie comes down to a one-on-one confrontation featuring physical violence between the two sisters, with Kit finally emerging from the shadows. Her teammates carry her off the field on their shoulders, and for once she towers over her older sister.

The Black Sox Scandal: Eight Men Out (1988)

In the span of eight months, from the fall of 1988 to the spring of 1989, Hollywood released two films addressing one of the most notorious events in baseball history. In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox were suspended from Major League Baseball for life for intentionally losing the World Series. Paid off by gamblers, the eight players were pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams; outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch; infielders Charles “Swede” Risberg, Fred McMullin, Arnold “Chick” Gandil (the leader of the group), and Buck Weaver; and outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Both John Sayles’s 1988 film Eight Men Out and Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 film Field of Dreams confront the ghosts—literally, in Robinson’s case—of perhaps the greatest stain on baseball’s legacy. Of the two, only Eight Men Out truly deals with competitive baseball, and so it is that film on which I will focus here. I save this film for last because it poses the greatest challenge to my theory about individualist conservative ideology and the U.S. baseball movie. Analysis of this film reveals several divergences from the model I have proposed. Most significantly among these divergences is the fact that Eight Men Out shows players trying to lose games, rather than win them, somewhat undercutting its position as a movie about competitive athletics. Still, a close reading of John Sayles’s film reveals the manner in which it still largely adopts the formal and ideological tools of the traditional Hollywood baseball movie.

Of all the films discussed in this article, Eight Men Out strives the hardest to break the individualist mold, especially early in the film. A relatively early sequence of the players at a club passes our attention from player to player with ease. At first the camera rests on Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) at a table asking a woman to read him the newspaper. Buck Weaver (John Cusack) then walks into the frame, pats Jackson on the shoulder, and walks away from the table. The camera follows Weaver as he crosses to the bar, taking a seat among his teammates. Following a cut, the camera positions Hap Felsch in the foreground, with Weaver clearly visible just behind him, engaged in the conversation. This continues the seamless passing of focus from one character to the next. The next cut follows Felsch’s eyeline, switching to two more of the soon-to-be conspirators, before finally cutting away to Chick Gandil conversing with a gambler in a booth.

Buck Weaver (John Cusack) enters the frame, connects with Jackson, and steps away as the camera follows. Weaver in the background as focus seamlessly shifts to Oscar “Hap” Felsch (Charlie Sheen) in the foreground.
The players (and soon-to-be co-conspirators) with whom Felsch and Weaver are speaking. Arnold “Chick” Gandil (Michael Rooker) in a booth talking with a gambler.

Sayles switches between characters with more facility and fluidity than any of the other filmmakers covered by this essay. His camera work reveals a legitimate desire on the director’s part to truly tell the story of eight men out, not merely one. However, dominant style and cinematic structure cannot be so easily subverted.

At an early point in the film, the following trenchant words are spoken:

“No room for prima donnas on this ballclub. Every man for the good of the team.”

This is a laudable idea, and it touches on the lip service paid to the importance of teamwork in the sport. Unfortunately the line emanates from the mouth of Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), the notoriously cheap owner of the White Sox, whose penny-pinching ways created the economic necessity for his players to throw the World Series. Comiskey represents the closest thing to a true villain to be found in Sayles’s film, and having the villain present this almost clichéd opinion undercuts its credibility.

Sayles is also unable to resist the need to prioritize individual stories and players when showing their on-field achievements. Despite the film’s title and Sayles’s early camera virtuosity, the film clearly prizes the story of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) above all others. The film presents Jackson, the most famous of the eight players banned because of the Black Sox Scandal, as the star athlete on this team.  The first sustained baseball action to appear in the film is Jackson’s hitting a triple, slashing the ball deep to the outfield and speeding around the base path with an elegant slide into third. The film does feature an early montage of baseball action underneath a Comiskey voiceover, and this action does feature more team-oriented play, but its duration is shorter. Also, at that point Sayles has yet to truly introduce us to any of the characters; the montage serves much more as a counterpoint to the words spoken by the greedy owner. This later demonstration of Jackson’s superior power and speed raises him to a level above his teammates. By making Jackson the first player whose on-field achievements we recognize, Sayles instructs his audience on how to view his film. From that point on we must understand Jackson as the superstar player, and thus as the pivotal figure in the film. Sayles reinforces this prioritization at the end of the film, reprising this triple while showing Jackson—using an assumed name—playing for an insignificant independent league team. As Jackson stands on third base the film employs the same stylistic element as The Natural and Major League, shifting into slow-motion to highlight his importance while the crowd roars—a roar that seems far larger than the sparse attendance at the game could produce. The final image before the end credits is a freeze frame of Jackson. This final formal element of the film demonstrates Sayles’s inability to escape the formula. As much as he might like to resist its pull, it proves too dominant to escape.

Conclusion: from Washington to Iowa—
George Will and Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams similarly focuses on Jackson above all of the other Black Sox players. In fact, three of the eight banned men do not even appear in the credits of the film. Fred McMullin, Lefty Williams, and Happy Felsch remain absent from the movie. For Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella, Jackson (Ray Liotta) represents a means of reconciling with his father. Through embracing his late father’s favorite individual player, Kinsella finally connects with his estranged parent. Rather than sharing a connection to a team, this bond exists specifically around one man. Yet Field of Dreams more specifically appeals to the nostalgia factor found in these baseball films. Returning to Terrence Mann’s speech that opened this article, Field of Dreams aims to reach its audience of “children, longing for the past.” Of the films discussed in this paper, three open with images of children playing baseball. Many feature a laconically jazzy, almost Copland-esque musical score, designed to evoke sonic images of a simpler United States. This nostalgia for the past blends with the individualist ideology to create an inherently conservative agenda for the U.S. baseball film.

Discussions of most successful or favorite movies for most U.S. sports  enthusiasts quickly boil down to one or two films. For football, The Longest Yard will usually dominate. For hockey, Slap Shot or the more recent Miracle takes the day. Hoosiers inevitably will win a basketball discussion. Football, hockey, and basketball are more difficult to translate to film, because they are far more team-oriented games. A single player cannot control the outcome of a game in those three sports the way an overpowering pitcher or a slugger on a hot streak can dictate the result of a baseball game.

Conservative political commentator George Will has for decades been one of the most ardent and eloquent proponents of the game of baseball. When not arguing in support of the U.S. conservative agenda, especially as related to economics and foreign policy, Will lauds baseball as a fundamentally U.S. sport. Continuing the trend of embracing baseball during and immediately following the Reagan years, Will published his book Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball in 1989. In the book, which profiles four individual baseball personalities (Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Jr., Orel Hershiser, and Tony LaRussa), Will makes his case for why baseball has been so enduring and thus so ingrained in U.S. culture. Will’s argument directly connects to the notions of nostalgia and individualism evoked by the baseball movies discussed in this article. He writes,

“Baseball is both intensely traditional and interestingly progressive. By progressive I mean steadily improving. The traditional side is obvious in baseball’s absorption with its past and its continuities” (293)

When Will says “progressive” or “steadily improving,” he means the mechanics of individual game play; players get stronger, equipment gets better. The “intensely traditional” side refers to the structure of baseball, the apparatus, which remains essentially unchanged since the early twentieth century. As much as the skills may evolve, the system is fixed in place. What could be more appealing to a conservative commentator?

To complete his connection between baseball and the larger notion of “America,” Will uses the sport to argue for what he believes is needed to improve the nation. He says,

“I believe America’s real problem is individual understretch, a tendency of Americans to demand too little of themselves, at their lathes, their desks, their computer terminals. The baseball men I have spent time with while preparing this book demonstrate an admirable seriousness about their capabilities” (322).

By highlighting four exemplary baseball men Will demonstrates the significance of the individual to the game. He then asserts that for the United States to improve, it should strive to be more like baseball, and specifically more like the four heroes of his book. In a way, Will articulates in writing what filmmakers had been framing on celluloid since 1942.

By playing on notions of Americana and reinforcing assumptions about individuality, the U.S. baseball film reinforces and re-inscribes conservative ideology. At its heart this ideology reflects the dominance of the capitalist economic system, one in which the triumph of the individual is prioritized above the success of the collective. Pride of the Yankees laid out the formula in 1942, in an era when notions of Americanism needed to be strengthened for political reasons, and baseball films have followed the pattern ever since. The resurgence of these films during the Reagan years makes perfect sense, as what sport could be more appropriate to the “Me Decade”? Ray tells us that the American Cinema is “one of the most potent ideological tools ever constructed” (55). If the American Cinema is first, then the game of baseball ranks second. Putting the two together creates an ideological monolith that permits no radical deviations and perpetuates its own existence

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