Hey, Hollywood: Not Every Great Baseball Movie Needs a 'Big Game'

Some ideas for films about America's pastime that, unlike 42, don't culminate in miraculous home runs
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dizzy paige.jpg
Legendary pitchers Dizzy Dean, right, and Satchel Paige, who are more than due for their own movie, pictured at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1942 (AP)

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.

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."

Keeping that in mind, I'd like to suggest some great real-life baseball stories that have yet to be filmed, none of them ending with the Big Game. I'll even save Hollywood some time by doing my own casting.

Stepping Up: The Curt Flood Story

How a talented, intelligent, high-strung young man named Curt Flood (played by Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker) finally said "enough" to baseball's reserve clause, which bound a player to one team for life. With the help of head of the Players Association, Marvin Miller (David Straitharin) took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Flood knew he had little chance of winning, but made a hard stand on principle.

It's the story of defeat: Flood not only lost his court case, he also never played baseball again. But it's also the story of wider victory, as the close Supreme Court decision—5-3 against Flood with one abstention—caused the owners to grant concessions, which, within a few years, resulted in the removal of the reserve clause and the players winning their freedom. Denzel Washington could do a brilliant cameo as Jackie Robinson, the only player, retired or active, who came to the trial to support Flood.

Out at Home

This one is about the Jackie Robinson of gay rights, Glenn Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's from 1976 to 1979. He was American pro sports' only openly gay team athlete, who always resisted pressure to hide his sexuality, including turning down a sham marriage that his team wanted to set up for him.

There are two excellent sources to work from: Burke's own autobiography and a superb 2010 documentary, Out. The Glenn Burke Story, by Bay Area filmmakers Doug Harris and Sean Maddison. Though this movie wouldn't end with a big home run, it could feature a high five, one Burke made to his Dodger teammate Dusty Baker—which historians say was the first high five in baseball history.

Diz and Satch

One of the best stories in baseball lore is how two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history—a white man from Arkansas, Dizzy Dean, and a black man from Alabama, Satchel Paige—barnstormed through the West and Midwest during the Depression years with their own teams of "All-Stars." The only thing that might keep this from being a fantastic movie is finding two actors charismatic enough to play Dean and Paige.

Ball Four

Baseball's all-time bestseller, published in 1970, has been waiting more than 40 years for a screen treatment. Jim Bouton was a young, early-1960s Yankees pitcher who won two games in the World Series, blew out his arm, made a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher with an expansion major league team, and then wrote a blockbuster book about the private lives of ballplayers, forever changing the way we look at the game. Imagine Mickey Mantle dropping water balloons out of a hotel window and a dozen other scenes just as hilarious. Jake Gyllenhaal would be a fine choice for Bouton.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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