I have spent a lot of time at home alone over the past few days. Desperate to pass the time I turned to a tried and true pastime — one that I have embraced since childhood. I watched a lot of baseball movies.
Someone once wrote, back before the age of steroids and before the designated hitter made the existence of the American League insignificant, that if a person was going to understand America, that person better understand baseball.
I am of the generation that came of age when there were eight teams in each league and every 9-year-old boy worth a slab of hard bubble gum could recite the starting lineup of every team in either league. There were no nightly telecasts back then, but there were Philco radios and static-filled broadcasts from St. Louis and Chicago and — on clear nights — even New York City.
For emergencies we had the Crackers — but Ponce de Leon Park was not Yankee Stadium and the Southern League was not the Bigs and Bob Montag was not Mickey Mantle — or even Tom Tresh.
We relied on the morning newspapers to provide coverage of the previous night’s game, and I spent the first hour of every summer day poring over the box scores. Then it was out the door for roller-bat or push-up or — when there were enough players available — choosing sides for a game. If no one was out and about on the mill village I could play for hours all by myself. A tennis ball against the chimney provided fielding challenges that Gil McDougal never dreamed of, and I batted about .365 lifetime hitting rocks into the woods adjacent to my backyard with a battered, old, taped-up baseball bat.
But sometimes it would rain back in the 1950s, and on rainy days I could usually satisfy my daily fix by finding a baseball movie on television. I loved watching baseball movies on TV almost as much as I enjoyed pouring over my baseball card collection.
“Pride of the Yankees” was always a favorite and almost made me prefer Lou Gehrig over Babe Ruth. I learned the speech at the end by heart and would stoically announce to the mirror over the living room mantel that, although dying, I considered myself the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
There was another baseball movie about Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was bad to take a drink, and showed him barnstorming with a team called the House of David. All the players wore thick beards. Ronald Reagan played Alexander, who was the only major leaguer, so far, to be named for one president and played by another on the silver screen.
The baseball movie I liked best as a kid was “Fear Strikes Out,” which was the story of Jimmy Piersall, who apparently had a few psychological problems because there was one scene where he tried to climb the backstop to get at a bunch of reporters, and he was played by the same guy who tried to kill Jamie Lee Curtis’ mama in “Psycho.”
Now I told you all of that to tell you this. It didn’t rain last week, but I was laid up inside. There was no baseball to watch or listen to one morning, but while running through the channels with the remote control, I ran across one of the greatest — and most often misquoted — baseball movies. I am speaking of “Field of Dreams‚” and the quote is, “If you build it, ‘he will come‚” — not “they.” And it ain’t Shoeless Joe the voice is talking about — it’s Kevin Costner’s daddy. Oops. I forgot to say spoiler alert.
At any rate, re-watching “Field of Dreams” led, naturally, to viewing “The Natural,” and then I had to watch “Bull Durham” and “Major League,” and before I knew it I had created a Facebook poll, asking my friends to weigh in on their favorite baseball films.
The discussion was quite spirited. “Bull Durham” was the early leader, but, curiously, most of those voters were men, so I couldn’t be sure if they liked the baseball aspect of the movie or the Susan Sarandon aspect. I will say that I admire her aspect more than I admire her politics and my favorite part of the movie was when Crash Davis listed all the things he believed.
“The Natural” had a lot of support, too — as did “The Rookie,” which always tugs at my heart strings a little. There was quite a litany of nominations in my admittedly unscientific poll — “The Sandlot,” “The Bad News Bears,” “A League of Their Own” ... My daughter, Dr. Jamie, who has a short attention span, liked “Who’s on First,” which I had to explain to her was not a movie, but a comedy routine.
And a few people reached back into the black-and-white archives and brought out such gems as “Alibi Ike” and “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Curiously, not a single person mentioned “Damn Yankees,” the ’50s musical about the poor Joe who sold his soul to the devil to help the Washington Senators win the American League pennant.
Quite frankly, all the discussion just whet my appetite for more baseball movies — so with a big screen TV and a month off, maybe I really am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth — even if I don’t know who’s on first.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.