15-18 Story 1: Baseball Movies: Why are they so popular?

 

Synopsis: There are movies about a lot of sports and athletic competitions, but for some reason baseball outnumbers them all. Why is that? And what are the hallmarks of a good baseball movie? We talk to an author and professor of communications, and to a baseball novelist, player and screenwriter about these issues. We’ll also hear about a novel way one guest is seeking to “crowdfund” and cast his upcoming baseball film.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Brother Gerry Molyneaux, Prof. of Communications, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, author of several film biographies including John Sayles: An unauthorized biography of the pioneer filmmaker. Mark Donahue, author of the novel, Last At Bat, screenwriter and life-long baseball player.

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Baseball Movies: Why are they so popular?

Gary Price: The baseball season has been underway for about a month now, and millions of Americans will head to the ballpark this spring and summer to take in the sport that’s been called “America’s pastime.” It also seems to be our favorite pastime when it comes to sports movies. Sure, there are films about basketball, football, golf, track and other sports. But baseball is a game that seems to lend itself to film. We wondered why it’s such a popular film topic, and what it takes to make a really good baseball movie these days. Brother Gerry Molyneaux is a professor of communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia, where he teaches courses in film criticism. He’s also a prolific author who’s written books on Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and John Sayles, director of the baseball film Eight Men Out. He says that baseball, more than other sports, can be the foundation of a great many different film genres…

Br. Gerry Molyneaux: They seem to just fit into that context. Maybe it’s because it’s traditionally America’s pastime and that we can see the other things about our county in that context of that pastime. We’ve had baseball comedies, we’ve had romance. The comedies would be things like Bad News Bears and It Happens Every Spring. Romance would be like Bull Durham. We’ve had movies about business and corruption, Moneyball, The Natural, Eight Men Out. So it has the possibility for you know allowing other narratives.

Price:  One of those narratives is prejudice, and Molyneaux cites the comedies, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and A League of their Own

Molyneaux: I just showed two films this year about prejudice. One is Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars which is why the African-Americans had to form a league of their own. And just in saying that I’m referencing the other film about women trying to break into baseball, and the title of that film, A League of their Own, and getting a chance to show how strong and athletic women are and were.

Price:  There are also popular non-fiction films that tug on the heartstrings, such as The Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper playing the ailing Lou Gehrig, and The Stratton Story, about Monty Stratton, the former Chicago White Sox pitcher who lost his leg in a hunting accident. One of the most popular genres are what Molyneaux calls the baseball business film that shows the good, the bad and the ugly sides of the game…

Molyneaux: The Eight Men Out, Moneyball, even The Natural which is about individuals trying to live up to the American Dream within the context of baseball, the American sport, but finding obstacles to that. There’s Moneyball set in the big city. A lot of tensions in the film, though. Moneyball brings out traditional things, you know, the little guy trying to make it, it really is. Billy Beane in that film is David to the Goliath to the baseball world, of baseball traditions. You know he takes on the whole system.

Price:  Having a good storyline and compelling characters played by talented actors are necessary in any film that wants to be successful. For one man, though, it takes something else to make a really good baseball film…

Mark Donahue: To me, a good baseball movie is one that has good baseball players.

Price:  That’s Mark Donahue, author of the novel, Last At Bat, and screenwriter for the upcoming film based on the book. He’s also a life-long player of the game and was a member of five Men’s Senior Baseball League World Champion teams…

Donahue: A couple of the baseball movies I have seen are pretty bad. There are some really bad baseball movies out there. And typically they’re bad because the characters can’t play ball. And if you have played baseball and you know what it is to swing a bat and how somebody throws, and you see somebody on screen who can’t, to me it ruins the movie. The Lou Gehrig story, the Iron Horse, whatever the name of that movie was, with Gary Cooper. Gary Cooper was an awful athlete and he couldn’t play baseball and for me it ruined that story. The Babe Ruth Story with William Bendix. William Bendix was an awful baseball player and to me when I saw him swing the bat in the first five minutes it ruined the story for me. And there’ve been a number of those. The Babe Ruth Story with John Goodman. Poor John Goodman, he was not a good baseball player. So to me a good baseball movie is one that has good baseball players.

Price:  There are a number of realistic baseball movies that Donahue and Molyneaux say show the game being played as it should be…mainly due to the athletic talents of Kevin Costner and Robert Redford, respectively…

Donahue: I thought the greatest baseball movie of all time was Bull Durham, because it told a story, had a great backstory, had great stars in it. But it was the most realistic baseball film I had ever seen, because mainly Kevin Costner could play baseball and you could tell. He had a great swing, he was a switch hitter, he threw. In that particular movie he was a catcher but he was an infielder and had played minor league baseball. So those kinds of things all connect, I think, to resonate with a large number of people. Doesn’t matter how old you are if you’ve played the game you understand the game. You understand things that other people don’t get.

Molyneaux: I just showed The Natural a couple of weeks ago, and I was really impressed by Redford’s performance. He does know how to swing a bat – he’s got a sweet swing. And he does know how to throw a baseball and follow through on it. He’s got a good arm and knows how to move that ball and follow through. They look like ballplayers.

Price:  Donahue is determined to make his film ring true by having “tryouts” for some of the roles in the film. He tried to find the lead character, Dylan Michael, at various ages in his life, but the usual Hollywood audition strategy didn’t work…

Donahue: We found guys that could really act, they were very good. But they didn’t know how to pick up a bat, or they couldn’t throw, or if they did they weren’t convincing. Maybe they played, you know, a couple years of Little League or something and they just weren’t convincing. So last year, during the Little League World Series on TV I was watching these young men , 11-12 years old, being interviewed on TV, and they were funny and they were self-deprecating, they had that athletic swagger without being arrogant, they were funny, all these things. And I told our director, Jijo Reed, I said “What are doing? Let’s get those guys. They can play Dylan. We can act them up.” And some of them actually have some backgrounds in acting.

Price:  Donahue says that the production team will hold baseball tryouts at various cities around the country this year to come up with just the right players to portray the lead character and his teammates throughout his baseball career. He’s tying the tryouts to an increasingly popular approach to raising money for the film….crowdfunding. Donahue says that films by Spike Lee, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, to name just a few, use crowdfunding to cover pre-production costs and to attract investors. The funding for his new baseball film, though, is being done with a twist…

Donahue: We are creating something called “The Search for Dylan Michael.” If people want to go to our website at last at bat the movie.com, they can see our program laid out. And anybody who donates to our film they not only get some pretty cool gifts, but they also get a pass to one of our tryouts. They can give it to somebody, they can use it themselves. And they can come in and they can try out – and this is a baseball tryout. Our first criteria is “Can you play?” Now if you can play, the second part of this, we’re going to be having casting directors onsite, they will interview the players that we think have the look and the personality that we’re looking for. But we’re not looking for necessarily the best baseball player. We’re looking for a young man or woman who has all the above: they have a good personality, they’re comfortable in front of a camera, they have the right look that we are seeking for that role. We are going to be seeking young woman who play baseball to be opponents or teammates of Dylan when he is growing up.

Price:  Donahue says that the response to the film and the tryouts have been great, and why not? People love baseball – in all its incarnations from novels, to films and, of course, the game itself. It’s something we share as a nation. And that’s another reason Donahue thinks that baseball, more than any other sport, has enjoyed such popularity in the movies over the years…

Donahue: Baseball, in and of itself as a sport, is something everybody can play. You don’t have to be 6’ 10” or weigh 300 pounds. Some of the greatest players, Hank Aaron and others were normal size guys. You know Pete Rose you could go on and on, they’re 5’ 10”, 5’ 11”, they’re everyman. But they have, you know, certain abilities that the rest of us don’t have. But because just about every young boy and woman now, and that’s changed in the last 20 years, has picked up a bat and swung it with varying degrees of success, and because of that, I think we’re all linked to baseball in some way in our childhood. And when baseball comes in the spring it’s a rebirth and you can’t wait to get out on the grass and play again. There’s just something about the game that connects us all together.

Price:  Despite the fact that baseball films run the gamut from romance, to mystery, to business and beyond, Molyneaux says that there is one genre that the game hasn’t cracked…

Molyneaux: A film noir in baseball. One of those 1950’s kind of murder mysteries taking place in that context. They haven’t done that yet. So that’s still open.

Price:  You can find Brother Gerry Molyneux’s “unauthorized” biography of John Sayles online, and find out more about him on La Salle University’s website at Lasalle.edu. To find out more about Mark Donahue, his book and the upcoming film and schedule for tryouts around the country, visit his site at LastAtBattheMovie.com. For information about all of our guests, visit our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

 

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