For decades, Hollywood has had two unwritten rules regarding films about baseball. The first: Baseball movies don't make money. The second: Keep making baseball movies. "If baseball movies don't sell tickets," Ron Shelton, writer and director of Bull Durham, the greatest of all sports films, once told me, "then why do they keep making them?"
Good question—I don't know the answer. But I do know that in the wake of the box-office success of Moneyball and now 42, Hollywood producers will be pursuing baseball movie ideas more aggressively than ever.
What should they make? Recently SBNation's Rob Neyer asked a celebrated group of baseball fans—and me—to contribute ideas for the next great baseball movie. Bill James pitched a movie about Cap Anson, the 19th century player/manager who invented the first professional baseball league. Bob Costas called for a biopic of Barry Bonds ("It's a more complex story than just the great ballplayer turned superhuman by steroids"). Brian Kenny, host of NBC Sports Radio's "The Brian Kenny Show," suggested dramatizing the life of Leo Durocher, the man who played with Ruth and Gehrig on the Yankees, was captain of the great St. Louis Cardinal Gashouse Gang teams of the 1930s, and managed both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.
Great ideas, all. My proposal was for a film on Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians and later the Chicago White Sox: the greatest showman in baseball history. His accomplishments include sending Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf, to bat for his team, coming up with promotional ideas such as Ladies Day, and integrating the American League by signing Larry Doby to the Indians. Bill Murray has said that he's been itching for years to play Veeck on the screen. My other dream film would be a biopic of Effa Manley, the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the owner of the Brooklyn Eagles, who won one of the last Negro League World Series in 1946.
Ron Shelton put it to me this way: "The 'Big Game' theme in baseball movies is bullshit. In real life there's always a game tomorrow."
The problem with both of these stories, though, is that they don't feature Hollywood's standard ending for baseball movies: the Big Game, usually won with a home run. Sadly, 42 showcased this trope, finishing with Jackie Robinson winning the 1947 pennant for the Brooklyn Dodgers with a home run at the expense of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's not only bad history—it never happened—but Robinson's story hardly needed it to sustain our interest.
The home-run-that-wins-the-big-game cliché has ruined more than one great baseball tale. Probably the most respected of baseball novels, Barnard Malamud's The Natural, was turned into a 1984 Robert Redford film that is faithful to the story in virtually every respect but one: the ending. The point to the book is that character is fate. The central character, Roy Hobbs, has a fatal character flaw that nearly ends his major league career; having learned nothing from his tragedy, he fails again and strikes out. Failure in baseball is a metaphor for failure in life.
In the film version of The Natural, Redford's Roy hits a home run so monumental it smashes the lights on the stadium roof. It's as if a film on Custer's Last Stand was made with Custer winning at the Battle of Little Bighorn.