copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Field of American dreams:
individualist ideology in the U.S. baseball movie
by Tom Robson
“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa, for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. ‘Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,’ you’ll say. ‘It’s only twenty dollars per person.’ They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have, and peace they like…And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And they’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children, and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it will be as if they’ve dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…People will come, Ray…The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
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,
“In ordinary language, myths and dreams are falsehoods—fantasies, fictions, imaginary tales” (195).
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:
“In politics, industry and the media there were men and women, as often of liberal as of conservative persuasion, who saw the necessity, almost as a patriotic duty, to revitalize and refashion a cultural mythology” (196).
Robert Ray takes Sklar a step further, describing this constructed mythology as
“deliberately traditional, a reassertion of the most fundamental beliefs in individualism, ad hoc solutions, and the impermanence of political problems” (31).
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,
"Liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-fair, in one manner or another, fit the chemistry of baseball” (299).
Marshall G. Most and Robert Rudd have a similar perspective, saying,
“Baseball’s proponents believed the game would cultivate in America’s urban youth the same qualities that previous American youth had developed naturally on the frontier: characteristics such as honesty, patience, respect for authority, competitiveness and individualism” (Stars, Stripes, and Diamonds 11-12).
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,
“Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport.”
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,
“The oppressed makes the world…the oppressor conserves it, his language is plenary, intransitive, gestural, theatrical: it is Myth. The language of the former aims at transforming, of the latter at eternalizing” (149).
Myth serves to perpetuate social structures and assumptions; it narratizes ideology.
Writing the formula:
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
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
“a system…of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society” (231).
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 is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig.”
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
“embodie[d] the moral standards, ethics, and popular values that Hollywood creators and the Roosevelt administration sought to exemplify and reinforce for the American audiences during this period of world strife” (43).
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,
“In this country, you can be anything you want to be.”
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:
“Billy: Could you knock two homers?
Gehrig: Two homers? In the World Series?
Billy: But Mr. Gehrig, you said you could do anything if you tried hard enough. That’s what you said.
Gehrig: Yeah. OK. I’ll hit two homers for you, if you hit one for me.”
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,
“Sports…give the greatest recognition to star performance regardless of any gestures they might make to teamwork, fair play, and fan communities” (11).
For Baker, Pride of the Yankees presents an idealized notion of this individual achievement, connecting it to notions of masculinity:
“World War II sports biopics [like Pride of the Yankees] celebrate male heroes for their strength, courage, self-discipline, hard work, and dedication to a cause” (49).
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.
Proving the formula:
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
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,
“This is the story of a boy and his dream, but more than that. This is the story of an American boy, and a dream that is truly American.”
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,
“You know a box score is really democratic, Jackie…it just tells you what kind of ballplayer you were that day.”
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,
“We’re dealing with rights here, the right of any American to play baseball, the American game.”
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:
“I respect your right to petition, but I do question and I will fight any petition that denies any American the right to earn his living in the game that is supposed to represent the democratic principles of sportsmanship and fair play!”
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:
“I know that life in these United States can be mighty tough for people who are a little different than the majority. I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans, but I do know that a democracy works for those who are willing to fight for it, and I do know it’s worth defending. I can’t speak for any 50 million people, no one person can, but I’m certain that I, and other Americans of many races and faiths, have too much invested in our country’s welfare to throw it away, or let it be taken from us.”
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:
“Yes, this is the Jackie Robinson story, but it is not his story alone, not his victory alone. One that each of us shares. A story, a victory, that can only happen in a country that is truly free. A country where every child has the opportunity to become president, or play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
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
“the themes of community contained within baseball’s cultural vision…Baseball films of the 1980s and 1990s offered American audiences a hopeful vision of community” (“Returning to the America” 36) .
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,
“To the extent that the president stands for the nation, and to the extent that a particular president constructs that standing in distinctly masculine terms, then national identity must itself be figured in relation to popular masculine models and narratives of masculine generation of power” (12).
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,
“American cultural values inherent in baseball and themes common to mythology permeate the film. These include hard work, teamwork, the centrality of family, and individual achievement” (21).
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,
“American Cinema consistently found ways to overcome dichotomies. Often, the movies’ reconciliatory pattern concentrated on a single character magically embodying diametrically opposite traits” (58).
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,
“Bump, since the arrival of Hobbs, has become expendable to the Knights. The self-centered Iliadic man finds himself replaced by a man whose interests center on the good of the team” (234).
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,
“I could have broken every record in the book…I could have walked down the street and people would look and say, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The Queen of Diamonds”: A League of Their Own (1992)
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.
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. 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
1. Consider the example of one of the most frequently played highlights from the 2009 Major League Baseball season, the unassisted triple play turned by Philadelphia Phillies infielder Eric Bruntlett on August 23. The triple play, recording three outs on a single play, is of course a rarity, but this event was heralded because Bruntlett required no assistance to achieve the play; he did it on his own. [return to text]
2. This image of the individual alone in the locker room appears in several other baseball films. In Bull Durham the first time we enter the locker room, Nuke LaLoosh is in there without any other players. A League of Their Own actually inverts this trope and features Dottie Henson alone in the locker room at the end of the movie.
3. Rudd and Most’s dramatic overestimation of the importance of community in the baseball film finds an easy explanation. Their essay—and the entire book in which it appears—was originally presented as part of an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Naturally, their argument possesses an extremely pro-baseball ideology agenda.
4. Though released in 1992, I consider A League of Their Own very much a part of the baseball film tradition of the 1980s. Much as George H.W. Bush followed the trajectory of his predecessor in the White House, so A League of Their Own conforms to the categorization of 80s baseball movies.
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