The Baseball Bio-Pic

November 21, 2017

I was at work the other day and the conversation turned to movies. I talked about a recent bio-pic and one of my younger colleagues did not know what that was. I was kind of surprised but then realized, a) not everyone is a movie buff; b) a movie buff might not like bio-pics; c) never assume, and d) kids.

So for those of you out there who don’t know, a bio-pic is simply a TV or film biography. Usually these are “based on” or “inspired by” true facts, with people and date sometimes rearranged to make the story fit. Some sources same the term sprang up in 1947 while others attribute it to the early-to-mid 1950s. Of course, these things were being done before there was a name for it.

There are several baseball bio-pics, obviously (otherwise why would I bring it up here?). The first one might just be the best of the bunch: The Pride of the Yankees, released in 1942 and starring Gary Cooper. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, including Cooper and Teresa Wright for male and female leads, respectively, and Best Writing for an original story (Paul Galico). It won just one, for film editing.

I won’t go into detail here. Rather I would direct you to the excellent book, The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic by Richard Sandomir (Bookshelf Conversation with the author here). The full movie appears below.

The worst of the lot: The Babe Ruth Story, released in 1948 and featuring William Bendix as the Sultan of Swat.

Other movies in the genre, with the real-life person as subject and the actor who played him, arranged chronologically:

  • The Stratton Story (1949), Monty Stratton as portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. Stratton, a star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, accidentally shot himself in the leg and had it amputated. June Allyson, who frequently appeared opposite Stewart, played his wife and Agnes Morehead, who went on to TV fame as Endora on Bewitched, is almost unrecognizable as Ma Stratton. Also features Frank “The Wizard of Oz” Morgan along with several baseball personalities playing themselves.

  • The Winning Team (1950), Grover Cleveland Alexander as portrayed by Ronald Reagan.

  • The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), with Robinson playing himself. Sorry to say, not a great acting choice, but who better to play the player than the player?

  • Fear Strikes Out (1957).¬† Jimmy Piersall portrayed by Anthony Perkins (1957). Like Bendix, Perkins was not the greatest athletic choice and legend has it that Piersall did not like the way the actor played him.

  • It’s Good to be Alive (TV 1974) Roy Campanella as portrayed by Paul Winfield. Here’s a link to the full movie.
  • A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story (TV 1977) with Blythe Danner and Edward Hermann in the title roles, with several other well-known character actors of the era. Here’s a clip.
  • Don’t Look Back; The Satchel Paige Story (TV 1981), as portrayed Lou Gossett Jr., who also appeared as Campanella’s assistant in It’s Good to be Alive. A clip.
  • A Winner Never Quits (TV 1986) One-armed Pete Grey as portrayed by Keith Carradine.
  • Babe Ruth (TV 1991) as portrayed by Stephen Lang. Also not a fantastic performance, as judged by this clip. Pete Rose appeared as Ty Cobb in this one.
  • The Babe (1992) as portrayed by John Goodman. This one is usually considered the second-worst biopic, after Bendix’s turn thanks to a combination of bad acting and writing.

  • Cobb (1994) with Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb.

  • 42 (2013). Jackie Robinson as portrayed by Chadwick Bosman.

There’s also Moneyball (2011), starring Brad Pitt as Oakland As’ general manager Billy Beane, but I hesitate to classify that as a biopic, given its very specific theme. And I hope Art Howe wasn’t as big a jerk as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman made him out to be.

Sarah D. Bunting (Bunting! ha.), a co-host on Extra Hot Great (my favorite podcast) is a hard core baseball fan. She came up with this list of biopics that need to be made.

And there’s always rumors about films in treatment. Moe Berg, anyone? Here’s an item from IMDB about the film adaptation of Nicholas Dawidoff’s wonderful bio, The Catcher Was a Spy, which carries a 2017 date but I haven’t really heard much about it. Paul Rudd plays Berg, which I find a bit of a stretch given¬† Rudd is 5’10” while Berg was 6’1″ and 185 pounds, fairly large for a player in those days. Suspend disbelief. The film also has Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Paul Giammati (son of the late baseball commissioner), Tom Wilkinson, and Mark Strong in key roles. I found this brief clip/trailer for a short film titled The Catcher (2016), which is basically the same story, except from what I see from that and the IMDB entry, it’s more about his time in Japan. And it’s only 19 minutes. The cast features a bunch of actors I’m not familiar with at all, including Keith Edie (who reminds me of a young and glasses-free John Oliver) as Berg. You can actually watch the entire film here. Quickie review. Nicely produced but questionable delivery choices. And Berg was not a “Brooklyn Jew,” as he claims; he was born in Manhattan. Nor does the guy who “plays” Babe Ruth look anything like the slugger. And unless there was an additional time when he took photos of the Tokyo skyline for later use in U.S. air raids, this is unlike anything I’ve read before. More like James Bond meets Japan. Suspend disbelief.

So did I miss any other biopic? Please drop me a line and I’ll update the entry.





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