As the boys of summer hit the diamonds, our thoughts naturally drift towards America’s favorite pastime as projected on the silver screen. In the 1980s, a particularly strong decade for baseball films, standouts were Bull Durham (1988) and Eight Men Out (1988); even The Natural (1984) and Field of Dreams (1989) were not half bad, though a tad overly sentimental.
A decade earlier, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) used the sport as a backdrop while pals Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarty dealt with terminal illness. In the 1940s, a trip to Yankee Stadium served as the first date Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy ever had on screen, with Tracy explaining the rules to an otherwise worldly Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942). In 1945, Abbott and Costello captured their famous "Who's on First?" routine on celluloid in The Naughty Nineties. Then there are the biopics, which include The Babe Ruth Story (1948), starring William Bendix as the legendary slugger, and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), starring Jackie Robinson as Jackie Robinson. Neither were very good.
Our focus here is a small, random selection of movies from the 1940s and 1950s—two musicals and three dramas, including one of the best baseball movies ever made. Here’s our list.
Angels in the Outfield (1951)
Screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, director Clarence Brown and star Paul Douglas deftly avoid sentimental slop with this story of the jerky manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (the great Douglas) who takes heat for the team’s losing streak. He begins hearing voices promising to help the team win if he would only dial back the belligerence. Meanwhile, a young Pirates fan prays for the team’s success and begins seeing angels among the players on the field. This was reportedly President Eisenhower’s favorite film while in office.
Damn Yankees! (1958)
Originally a 1955 Broadway musical, the show—about a fan of the Washington Senators making a deal with the devil so he can see his team win the pennant—was adapted for the movies with much of the original cast in place. Chief among them were Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, though Stephen Douglass, as Joe Hardy, was replaced by the bankable Tab Hunter. Another element of the stage show failed to make the cut—the bumps and grinds Verdon performed during her “A Little Brains” number, deemed too racy for movie audiences.
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
This is the true story of Jimmy Piersall, a Boston Red Sox outfielder driven bonkers by his desire to please his demanding dad. Anthony Perkins plays the electro-shocked player, Karl Malden plays the father, and the real Jimmy Piersall thought the film so distorted that he wanted nothing to do with it. Originally a television movie starring Tab Hunter, the film was produced by Alan J. Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” New York Yankee Lou Gehrig famously stated as he made his final appearance with his team in 1939. The film biography of Gehrig stars Gary Cooper as the first baseman who succumbs to a debilitating and ultimately fatal nerve disease, which today bears his name. As Cooper’s baseball skills were sadly lacking—he had, in fact, never played the game before—Lefty O’Doul, the San Francisco-born pitcher-turned-manager, was brought in to coach the actor. Another challenge was presenting Cooper, who was right-handed, as the left-handed Gehrig. To solve that problem, Cooper went ahead and threw with his right hand, uniform lettering was reversed, batters who scored a hit ran to third base, and the film was flopped in post-production. Released just 17 months after Gehrig’s death, The Pride of the Yankees remains one of the best baseball biopics and one of the best sports movies ever made.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Gene Kelly wanted to do a movie about the early days of baseball, thus Take Me Out to the Ball Game was created. Set in the years 1909 to 1911, the Busby Berkeley-directed musical stars Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin in a tale about a team called the Wolves. They cautiously await the arrival of their new owner, K.C. Higgins, who turns out to be a real tomato (Williams) with a head for the game. Berkeley planned a swimming number for Williams; Kelly vetoed the idea, making this that rare Esther Williams picture in which she doesn’t hit the water.