Images from Field of Dreams
"Shoeless" Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) stands alone in Field of Dreams, a lone individual with no teammates to distract from his story."
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the outfield after first appearing as a ghost. Note the perfectly centered framing of Jackson's eyes—a consistent stylistic element of the U.S. baseball film.
Jackson at the plate.
Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones): “People will come, Ray.”
Mann: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”
Images from A League of Their Own
Just like Hollywood pitched in to provide inspiration during World War II, baseball found new ways to capture notions of Americana. Here is Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) at bat early in the film A League of Their Own, dramatizing the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Dottie and her team celebrating following the victory, with Dottie towering over her teammates, visually stressing the importance of individualism to both the game and the film.
Scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) recruiting the Henson sisters.
The same workout shot from above, emphasizing the possibility of a group focus in this film.
The players at an etiquette class. Note that Dottie is out of sync with most of those around her.
Another etiquette scene. Only Dottie has a striped skirt on, making her immediately jump out to the eye.
Manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) uttering the most famous line of the movie: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Dottie performing an unnecessary split to catch a foul ball, showing off for the crowd and cameras in an attempt to gain attention for the league, and demonstrating her superior athleticism.
A smudged Dottie chewing tobacco with Dugan. Both the dirt and the chaw suggest that Dottie is really "one of the boys," bringing the hyper-masculinity often connected to movies of the Reagan/Bush years.
League executive Ira Loewenstein (David Strathairn) referring to the AAGPBL as a “product.”
The collision, continued.
Kit’s teammates lifting her on their shoulders, allowing her to be larger than her sister for once.
Dottie being left alone in the locker room as teammate Mae Mordabito (Madonna) leaves.
Images from The Pride of the Yankees
Damon Runyan’s opening text scroll, connecting Gehrig to the soldiers fighting in World War II.
Young Lou being excluded from playing ball with the other neighborhood kids.
Illustration of Gehrig (Gary Cooper) as “The Babe Ruth of the Colleges.”
Gehrig’s larger than life shadow.
Gehrig staring at Ruth’s locker on his first trip into the clubhouse.
Gehrig walking off the field for the last time.
by Tom Robson
With the possible exception of Gary Cooper’s famous utterance from The Pride of the Yankees, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” the above speech from Field of Dreams stands as the most memorable passage from any U.S. baseball film. As delivered by James Earl Jones’ booming, soulful bass voice, the “people will come” speech holds a special place in the hearts of millions of baseball fans, poetically proclaiming the romance of the “national pastime.” The majority of this passage tugs at the strings of nostalgia, a powerful force carefully nurtured by baseball executives since the early 20th Century. In Field of Dreams, this speech serves as the catalyst for farmer Ray Kinsella, who has bulldozed his profit-yielding Iowa cornfield to erect a baseball diamond, to refuse to sell his land and allow the field to be destroyed. Kinsella has tracked down Jones’s character Terrence Mann, a famous and reclusive writer in the mold of J.D. Salinger, to show him this field. With the invocation of “children, longing for the past,” the film plays on the desire of adults to return to a simpler time, free of financial obligations and family anxieties, devoid of economic pressures and the hustle of daily life. By constantly evoking “the past,” this speech frames baseball as the reminder of a simpler, less confusing time. When delivered by Jones’ comfortingly authoritative voice, it brings with it a sense of great peace.
Yet a close analysis of this speech reveals a slightly more complex motive and a less obvious agenda. At its core, Terrence Mann’s monologue addresses economic issues. In the context of the script, Mann’s sideline sermon is not intended to make Ray remember baseball’s peacefulness—he already knows this. With this speech Mann presents Ray with an economic path forward, a way to capitalize on his miracle diamond. Ray’s immediate concern is the impending loss of his farm, home, and financial stability, and Mann’s speech confronts this concern. The most trenchant line of the speech is not, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball,” but rather, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” By framing the ballfield as an economic opportunity, Field of Dreams underscores important aspects of U.S. ideology, particularly pertaining to financial issues and systems. The speech points Ray Kinsella toward a path to personal economic success and individual growth. Such an ideological inscription is not unique to Field of Dreams but can be found in a wide variety of successful and popular baseball films, especially throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
Over the course of this paper I intend to show how these movies support dominant U.S. economic and social norms. Furthermore, the surge in successful baseball movies from 1984 to 1992 seems to have a connection to this ideology. Earlier, how did the earliest successful baseball film, 1942’s Pride of the Yankees, inscribe ideology onto a cinematic presentation of the game and why? With that question answered, why did the later influx of baseball movies in the 80s and 90s find such a strong audience? By prioritizing the single man over the collective, these films connect to the inherently individualistic ethos of U.S. life, and baseball serves as a supremely appropriate vehicle to construct, support, and propagate this ideology of individualism.
The years 1930 to 1945, often referred to as the Studio Years, were ones in which Hollywood codified its presentation and production styles, solidifying its method for making movies. It also represented a severely trying time for the country at large. From the Depression in 1929 to the end of World War II in 1945, the nation was confronted with unprecedented historical challenges. In such an uncertain time, Hollywood stepped to the plate, literally and figuratively, to provide moral support. Beyond entertainment, the film industry assumed the sociopolitical task of making Americans feel good about the United States. Put simply, the film industry invested in American mythology.
As Robert Sklar writes of this process,
As Sklar tells us, the Depression caused countless Americans to question the validity of the American Dream. Long-held notions about the value of hard work and the virtue of delayed gratification clashed with the reality of an economic system in total collapse and millions out of work. Facing the rising threat of fascist Europe, especially Hitler and the Nazis, this doubt in the strength of the American way posed a dangerous threat to the nation. Sklar indicates the task set for culture in these times:
Robert Ray takes Sklar a step further, describing this constructed mythology as
The baseball film proved a perfect way to navigate this terrain, as the game of baseball itself had served a very similar purpose in the late-19th Century. Coming out of the Civil War, as the United States transitioned from an agrarian nation to an industrial one, baseball served as a unifying element in national identity. Those uncertain about what this shift in national cultural priorities portended found comfort and stability in this game that seemed to embody most of the basic values of the nation. As Samuel Octavio Regalado writes,
Marshall G. Most and Robert Rudd have a similar perspective, saying,
The item that recurs on all these lists is “individualism.” For all of its promotion as a team sport, baseball is fundamentally a contest between individuals. While nine players stand in the field, the game boils down to a contest between two individuals—the pitcher and the hitter. While others are often involved in plays, the essence of baseball is individual competition. Even mainstream coverage of the game acknowledges this fact. In 2009 Bill Simmons of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine wrote,
While connoisseurs of the game might appreciate the beauty of a well-executed double play, or the selflessness of the sacrifice bunt, baseball and its media associates have consciously chosen to promote solo achievements, whether through the use of the famous 1990s advertising slogan “Chicks dig the long ball,” or through media coverage of astounding feats of individual defensive glory (“Web Gems,” in ESPN parlance). [open endnotes in new window] This emphasis on the individual in baseball fits neatly into the game’s place in U.S. mythology and ideology, for as Roland Barthes tells us, “Statistically, myth is on the right” (148). For Barthes, mythology serves a fundamentally conservative purpose, supporting the dominant, bourgeois value system and power structure. Distinguishing between the left, terming them “the oppressed,” and the right, Barthes writes,
Myth serves to perpetuate social structures and assumptions; it narratizes ideology.
Writing the formula:
The Pride of the Yankees marked a shift for baseball films, as it was the first to be deemed “high quality.” Unlike those that preceded it, this first iconic baseball film used stars—most notably Gary Cooper as Yankee legend Lou Gehrig—and had high production values (Most and Rudd, Stars, Stripes, and Diamonds 29). It received eleven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay, and won the Oscar for best film editing (IMDB). The film also established a narrative style for the baseball film that remains in effect today. Pride of the Yankees adhered closely to the newly-developed Classical Hollywood Style and forged a mold that baseball movies would follow for decades. Almost without exception, every U.S. baseball film to follow Pride of the Yankees adopted the formula, perspective, and aesthetics of the 1942 classic, and in so doing inscribed the ideology of the game permanently on celluloid.
Louis Althusser defines ideology as
Ideology encompasses those assumptions, perspectives, and structures that pervade and propel a culture. For Althusser, the emphasis of ideology is on the culture’s “practico-social function,” and as such is “an organic part of every social totality” (231, 232). Citizens of a given society will take its ideology for granted, for ideology does not function on the conscious level. Rather, it works below the surface, unnoticed by those who follow it. In other words, ideology refers to those values historically constructed as central to the society, those ideas “impose[d] on the vast majority of men” (233).
Pride of the Yankees openly acknowledged its desire to appeal to U.S. notions of patriotism. The film opens with a scroll of text designed to connect the story of Gehrig to the lives of the U.S. soldiers fighting overseas in World War II. This scroll links Gehrig’s diagnosis of and eventual death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or as it would soon become known as in America, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) to the battlefield casualties in Europe and Asia, uniting them both under the umbrella concept of courage and heroism:
This prologue, attributed on screen to popular writer Damon Runyon, who holds no other credited connection with the film, establishes two important aspects of the baseball movie formula. By connecting Gehrig to the soldiers in harm’s way, Runyon firmly cements baseball not just as the national pastime, but as the nationalist pastime. In this construction, love of baseball equates to love of country. The second aspect of the formula established by this prologue holds even more significance, and it will serve as the focal point for much of my discussion for the duration of this paper. The Pride of the Yankees clearly focuses on an individual.
The final words of the scroll, “This is the story of Lou Gehrig,” leave no question as to the center of this tale. The movie is not concerned with the team, or with the city of New York as a whole, but rather with the pride of the Yankees, the All-Star first baseman. The prologue even identifies Gehrig as a “hero,” making him larger than life and helping to construct the mythology of the ideal American man. Gary E. Dickerson identifies this as a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers, who felt Gehrig
Indeed, throughout the film positive images of a hopeful United States recur, especially as seen through the eyes of Lou’s mother, who says early in the film,
If one of the possible representations of ideology can be found in cultural myths, then the myth of the American Dream stands as perhaps the most shining exemplar for U.S. society. The collectively-held ideal of personal achievement despite great odds—pulling oneself up from one’s bootstraps, so to speak—ingrains itself in the minds of young Americans almost from birth. The notion that hard work and determination can generate success guides the life choices of millions and provides inspiration to those down on their luck. The American Dream, however, putatively regarded as one of grit and determination, actually represents an economic dream. At its core, the American Dream tells us that any individual can reach great economic heights—can become a Rockefeller, a Ford, or, indeed, an Obama—despite the circumstances of his birth. It is fundamentally an individual dream; it has no concern with the overall welfare of the populace or even the nation. The trajectory of the single man—and it is usually constructed as a man—achieving his goals takes precedence over any possible communal success. If communal success occurs, so much the better, but the Dream primarily aims to demonstrate the economic achievement of the individual.
From the beginning of the film, director Sam Wood shows Gehrig as a loner in relation to the group. A group of neighborhood boys singles out young Lou. They refuse to let him join their game, and they mock the baseball cards he offers them in exchange for inclusion. These cards, it should be noted, showcase some of the most respected greats in the history of the game, but only Lou is smart enough to recognize their contributions; the others merely dismiss the players as too old. This establishes the story of one man, Lou the loner, in opposition to a group of barely individuated meanies. Lou then showcases his superiority by crushing the first pitch he hits in the game out of their makeshift ballpark and through a neighborhood shop window. The strong individual silences the noisy rabble.
As the narrative progresses, Lou’s personal development always takes precedence over any team activity. The first time the filmmakers show Lou with his minor league team in Hartford, the only thing the viewer sees is Gehrig, not the other players. This is also true of the only on-screen on-field appearance of Gehrig in his college playing years. In fact, in both of these scenes Gehrig is shown practicing, not playing in a competitive game. These scenes exist to show the development of Gehrig’s personal skills, not the state of his group’s success. The film frames Gehrig in the foreground in a tight shot; little visual information about the field beyond Lou’s world exists. We also see this through the newspaper illustration shown in the film, captioned, “Lou Gehrig: The Babe Ruth of the Colleges.” No university affiliation is noted, and the film places Gehrig in the context of one of the biggest legends in the history of U.S. sports, the indomitable “Babe,” who will soon appear on screen.
To emphasize Gehrig’s individual importance, consider the athlete’s first step into the center of group space for any team: the locker room. The clubhouse ostensibly exists as a communal location. It is space where players can bond with each other and plan a collective strategy for the upcoming contest. Yet in Pride of the Yankees, the first time the camera ventures into the locker room, it shows a distinctly different scene. The camera shows Gehrig walking into the clubhouse, but no one else is there. He arrives prior to the rest of the team, and for a few moments the camera shows only Gehrig and rows of empty lockers. He is alone inside the heart of the team. He walks along the bank of lockers, seeing each one individually with its name plate on it—including Ruth’s. The lockers are spaced and the camera placed so that you never see more than a single locker plate at the same time, always emphasizing the single name, as opposed to a collective mass of names. Moments later the door opens and the remainder of the team files into the room, yet none address the rookie. The camera remains focused on Gehrig in the foreground, while the teammates stay in the background of a deep-focus shot. This has the dramaturgical effect of showing the team ignoring Gehrig; it has the ideological effect of ignoring the team in favor of Gehrig.
Gehrig literally stands apart from the crowd throughout the film. Consider his return to his childhood home after his stint in the minors. A crowd has gathered in the Gehrig family’s living room, hotly anticipating the impending Major League debut of the local neighborhood boy. When Gehrig walks through the upstage door and enters the scene, he towers over the assembled mass of men and women. Standing at least six inches above anyone else, Gehrig is made to look literally larger-than-life and heroic.
Aesthetically, the film conforms to Classical Hollywood style. Consider the framing of the image. Throughout the movie, Gehrig almost always appears in the center of the frame, especially for significant emotional moments. At a college dance Gehrig meets the young woman Myra. After a short but pleasant conversation, she leaves him to go and dance with a friend. We see her get out of her chair and walk out of our line of focus and into the background, but the camera stays focused on him. Rather than following the active member of the scene, the filmmaker shows us Gehrig watching her leave. He remains in the center of the screen, totally still.
Later, he tells his mother that he will be going to Hartford (though he neglects to say that he intends to play minor league baseball.) She mistakenly hears him say “Harvard,” believing he will be pursuing an advanced education in engineering. Ecstatic, she pulls Gehrig into an embrace and says, “You’re going to be a great engineer.” As she does this, the camera zooms in, placing his face in extreme close-up with his eyes centered. Gehrig appears in almost every scene of the picture and serves as the link between scenes. Dissolves from one scene to the next frequently utilize the hero’s location on screen to get us from place to place. Throughout the film, director Wood utilizes continuity editing and a traditional shot-countershot approach to two-person scenes. None of the other baseball films discussed in this paper violate this style.
Only one scene in the film seems to deviate from the Classical style. Early in the film, after he has first hit for the Yankee scouts, Gehrig sits at home, working at his desk. The shot is centered, looking at him fairly directly. However, there follows a jarringly strange cut. From this very traditional framing we move to a shot of the same scene from the left. Gehrig now sits in 3/4 profile and the desk lamp takes center in the shot, which comes from a slightly lower angle. Nothing at all motivates this move. In the next scene, however, after learning that his mother has taken ill, Lou crosses to the window to open the shade. Light streams in from the street and creates a hugely noticeable shadow on the wall, seemingly far beyond the traditionally naturalistic aesthetic of the Classical style. This shadow dominates the wall and is literally “larger than life.” This minor violation of the Classical style serves the same agenda—focusing the narrative on Gehrig and crafting him as an outsized, heroic personality.
Among the more famous scenes in Pride of the Yankees is Gehrig’s stellar World Series game where he hits two home runs, fulfilling a promise made to a sick child in the hospital. While speaking with the child prior to the game, Lou says, “Billy, you know there isn’t anything you can’t do if you try hard enough?” A few moments later, the following exchange occurs:
Gehrig of course lives up to his outrageous promise, but consider the circumstances of the feat. When Lou comes to the plate for his last at-bat, the Yankees are poised to take the lead and win the game. They have runners on base and are in the midst of a rally. The opposing pitcher chooses to walk Gehrig intentionally, rather than challenge the dangerous hitter. Our hero, however, knows that a walk will rob little Billy of his promised second home run. So Gehrig swings at a pitch well outside the strike zone. Naturally the ball screams off the bat and over the fence, both winning the game and honoring the promise, but the event lacks logic. Swinging at a pitch that far outside the strike zone has almost no chance of producing a successful outcome; Gehrig was essentially extremely lucky to connect. Simple physics suggests that Gehrig lacked the necessary leverage to be able to power the ball successfully from that location. He swings not out of a desire to help his team win the game (a walk would have placed the team in a very advantageous position) but out of a desire to respect a personal commitment. This swing represents an inherently selfish, individualistic act. In constructing the mythological figure of Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees demonstrates that the promise of one man to one boy supersedes the responsibility of that same man to help his team and thus lift the spirits of an entire city.
Baseball films support the individualist ethos embedded inside U.S. ideology. Despite their treatment of a “team” sport, U.S. baseball films highlight the trials and trajectories of single entities in the context of a group activity; the personal achievements are valued, while the team assumes secondary status. The baseball film mirrors this reality in professional baseball, where, as Aaron Baker writes,
For Baker, Pride of the Yankees presents an idealized notion of this individual achievement, connecting it to notions of masculinity:
The ideology and style cemented onto the baseball film through Pride of the Yankees remained dominant in the genre throughout the twentieth century. Despite shifts in time period, tone, race, gender, or level of play, the formula written by the Gehrig biopic stayed in effect for decades.