Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

Diamonds & Dirt & Heading for Home

News item: The Major League Baseball 2021 season begins next week; Opening Day is set for Thursday, April 1. I’m ready. I love baseball.

In fact, in honor of Opening Day and with your kind permission, I’d like to repeat a column I wrote some time ago, about why I enjoy the game. Because, as many others have said before, there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports. The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406. That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball. Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him, or a basketball player who missed six out of every ten shots he took? Not likely. The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed. Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand. You can only play one game at a time. Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future. When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

I love the teamwork of a well-disciplined ball club. I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc. They are, after all, called TEAM sports. And, of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him. But to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful – even graceful – 5-4-3 double play (the ball is hit to the third baseman, who throws it to second for one out, who then throws to first for another out). These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless. And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner trying to score – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates. A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense. Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches. So also in life. Surround yourself with Godly companions and support each other.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day. And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.
  • In a regular season, every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games. It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball. Deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion. Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball. It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences. Each is valuable in its place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have. Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax. Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

Now – Play Ball!

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I went to my first professional baseball game back in about 1968, when our family went to see the Astros take on the Pittsburgh Pirates at the unofficial “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome. (The Astros lost.) Since then, I’ve been able to go to a lot of ballparks, see some amazing baseball venues, and witness some terrific baseball players in action.

Now, I can add “Attend a playoff baseball game at a brand-new stadium” to that list.

Last week, my son Drew got us tickets to the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, to see a National League Championship Game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. (If you don’t keep up with baseball, all of these playoff games are being held at neutral sites – baseball’s version of a corona “bubble.”) This new stadium is next door to the Texas Rangers’ home for the last 25 years, originally known as “The Ballpark in Arlington,” but now known as Globe Life Park. (Yes, the names are confusingly similar.) It’s in the same general area with Six Flags over Texas and the Cowboys’ AT&T stadium, so it will be even more of a major entertainment destination.

Drew & I in front of the new Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Of course, there were no fans allowed to attend any of the pandemic-shortened regular season this year, nor any of the opening rounds of the playoffs, but MLB has chosen to allow the Championship Series and World Series games to be played before 25% capacity crowds. So, wearing masks and observing proper social distancing, we sat above third base and enjoyed the game. The Braves won the game, but the Dodgers went on the win the series and face Tampa in the World Series.

This new stadium has a retractable roof and seats just over 40,000 fans at full capacity. And while it’s not especially pretty to look at on the outside, once you go in, you’re overwhelmed with its size and grandeur. And if you’re a longtime fan of the Rangers and baseball (as I am), you will really appreciate all the little touches that salute great Rangers players and moments.

For example, when you first walk into the main entrance and go across the spacious hallway, immediately in front of you is left center field. All along the concourse to your left and right are beautiful brick archways that remind you of the gorgeous retro-brick at the old ballpark, still standing across the street. And along that brick promenade is a true “Hall of Fame,” with each column honoring a different player who has had his number retired by the team. On one column is #34, Nolan Ryan, with a jersey and his story; over there is another column, honoring #7, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. And here’s a column for #10, Michael Young. It’s a great way of connecting generations.

The salutes don’t stop there. Above one of the concession stands is a giant clock saved from old Arlington Stadium – originally known as Turnpike Stadium – that was the Rangers’ first home when they moved here from Washington, D.C., in 1972.  The big clock has the Rangers’ logo from the 1970s, a baseball wearing a cowboy hat, and the motto, “It’s baseball time in Texas.”

Each of the dimensions to the outfield has a meaning. For example, from home plate down the left field line is 329 feet, honoring Adrian Beltré, the Rangers’ great third baseman who wore #29.  The deepest part of the outfield is 410 feet, saluting Michael Young’s #10; to straightway center is 407’, for Pudge’s #7.

It’s 326’ down the right field line – a tip of the hat to former Rangers manager Johnny Oates, #26, who was their first skipper to take them to the playoffs. And from home plate to the backstop is 42 feet, remembering Jackie Robinson, whose number has been retired from all of baseball.

One of the last times we took our entire family to a Rangers game, it was late July on a Sunday afternoon, and the temperature at game time was 108°. Obviously, when you play in that kind of heat over the course of a season, it wears you down, and the hope is that future Texas teams will not wilt from the scorching summers in Arlington. We’ll see. But for the fans it will certainly be a more enjoyable experience, whether the roof is closed and the A/C running, or if it’s open, to enjoy a pleasant evening under the stars.

I’m looking forward to next spring, to go back to Arlington and once again hear those words, “It’s Baseball Time in Texas!”

Diamonds and Dirt and Heading for Home

(I originally wrote this article in 2013, and thought was worth repeating. Hope you enjoy.)

I love baseball.

ballpark-fireworksI mean, I’ve always enjoyed the game, but in the last few years, I’ve really come to appreciate it on many different levels.  And I’ve come to understand what many others have tried to say before: that there is wisdom we can learn from baseball that translates directly into a well-lived life.

For one thing, I love the more-realistic expectations of baseball, especially compared to other sports.  The best hitter who ever lived (Ted Williams), in the best season he ever had (1941), had a batting average of .406.  That means that six times out of ten when he came up to bat, he FAILED to hit the ball.  Can you imagine a successful wide receiver who dropped six passes out of every ten thrown to him?  Not likely.

The truth is, many of us fail more often than we succeed.  Success in life is measured, though, not by how many times we fail, but by how many times we get back up and keep trying.

Another thing about baseball – you have to focus on the situation at hand.  You can only play one game at a time.  Learn to stay in the moment, and don’t worry too much about the past or the future.  When you make an error, shake it off, and be ready for the next ball hit to you.

Jesus said we should keep our priorities straight – seeking God’s Kingdom above all else – and not to worry too much about tomorrow.  He taught us to pray and ask for our daily bread.  Daily.

Along those same lines, if you have a really bad game – or for that matter, a really good one – always remember, there’s another game tomorrow.  So be ready for it.

I love the teamwork that a well-disciplined ball club shows.  I mean, certainly I understand that teamwork is a part of football, basketball, etc.  They are, after all, called TEAM sports.  And of course I realize that no running back is going to do very well without a good line blocking for him.  But – to me, there is unmatched beauty and elegance in watching an infield execute a beautiful 6-4-3 double play (the ball goes from shortstop to second base to first).  These guys have practiced so long and so effectively together, they make it look easy and effortless.  And I assure you, it is not.

Even something seemingly simple like a fielder hitting the cutoff man, who fires to the catcher, to cut down a runner coming home – such things take mind-numbing hours of work and skill to accomplish.

You have to trust your teammates.  A pitcher has to trust the fielders behind him, to provide good defense.  Fielders have to trust that pitchers will make quality pitches.  So in life.  Surround yourself with Godly companions, and support each other.

Some other principles from baseball that apply to life:

  • Realize that sometimes, the ball just takes a bad hop on you.
  • There’s a time for preparation, and a time for performance.
  • Even the best players will sometimes have an off day.  And even the most average player will sometimes have the game of his life.  (Quick: Name the first Texas Ranger player to hit for the cycle.)
  • Every team is going to win 54 games; every team is going to lose 54 games.  It’s what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
  • Blown calls and bad trades are part of baseball.  You have to learn to deal with it.
  • Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  • Play with passion.  Don’t be afraid to dive for the ball.  It’s okay to get dirt on your uniform.
  • There’s a time to bunt, and a time to swing for the fences.  Each is valuable in its appropriate place.
  • Make the most of the opportunities that you have.  Don’t waste good chances; you don’t know how many you’ll get.
  • The bigger the situation, the more you need to relax.  Too much tension is never good.
  • You can’t steal first.
  • You win some; you lose some; some get rained out.
  • Above all else – the main thing is always to get safely home.

(Oh, and by the way – it was Oddibe McDowell, Ranger center fielder, playing at old Arlington Stadium on July 23, 1985, against the Indians.)