Real Baseball: America's Favorite Pastimes
In the beginning of Reservation Road, the camera finds Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) and his son Eddie (Lucas Arno) cheering on the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The scenario is not all that different from what appears in the pages of John Burnham Schwartz's original novel, except that filmmaker Terry George has placed the game in 2004, cutting in actual footage from the Red Sox game that season. To those in the know, the setting marks more than a touching father and son outing. It was in 2004 that the Red Sox finally beat the "Curse of the Bambino," the 86-year-old dry spell during which the team never won a World Series that was legendarily caused by Babe Ruth being sold to the New York Yankees in 1918. In a film about the collision of accident and responsibility, identity and fate, the inside reference to a real team overcoming their ill fortune is an insightful nod to the intertwined narratives of baseball and cinema.
Since its inception, baseball–even more than apple pie and mom–has been mainstay of American film. In 1898, four years after the invention of cinema, inventor and pioneering filmmaker Thomas Edison produced The Ball Game, a short film depicting a meeting between two ball clubs from Reading, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey. The film was shown mostly in peep show booths to people thrilled by the novelty of the new medium, and was thus described in the Edison catalogue:
The Reading's pitcher has just let a Newark batsman walk to first. Our camera is stationed about twenty feet from the bag, and the satisfied grin of the runner is great as he touches first and gets up on his toes for second. Next man cracks first ball pitched for a two-bagger, and races for the base with a wonderful burst of speed. First baseman just misses a put out. Very exciting. Man on the coaching line yells, and umpire runs up and makes decision. Small boy runs past the catcher close to the grand stand, where there is great commotion. A most excellent subject, treated brilliantly.
The initial baseball movies were all documentaries and either captured one isolated moment in a game (such as the 1899 Edison short Casey at the Bat) or were comprised of newsreel footage from a game (like the 1903 The Game of Baseball, which played alongside the excitingly titled featurette Crowd Leaving Athletic Base Ball Grounds). However, the 1906 comic short How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game used a baseball game in a fictional narrative for the first time, and began a subgenre of films in which baseball-obsessed men devised often hilarious ruses to escape from their homes or workplaces to go to a game. Even Georges Méliès made one of these films (Baseball, That's All) that captured the extent of the American fixation with the sport, while an early dramatic short, His Last Game (1909), had a plotline in which an ace pitcher was allowed to be released from prison just long enough to win a game for his team, after which he was executed. Baseball, clearly, was not a matter of life and death–it was much more important than that.
In 1911, the film Baseball Bug, about a store clerk who fantasizes about being a major league pitcher, truly melded the worlds of baseball and movies together for the first time by featuring Chief Bender, the Hall of Fame pitcher then playing for the Philadelphia A's, and two of his teammates, Rube Oldring and Jack Coombs, all playing themselves. The smart idea, using existing stars from one field of entertainment to bolster the appeal of cinema, a new form still finding its feet, was highly successful, and continued to be recycled and re-imagined over the coming decades. It became commonplace for big time ballplayers to appear in movies: most often they would have cameos in dramatic features, but increasingly projects were specially crafted around players with particular star appeal.
The first player who became a star both on the diamond and the silver screen was Babe Ruth. He made his big screen debut in Heading Home (1920), an hour-long feature in which he played a character called George Herman 'Babe' Ruth in a cinematic account of his own underdog's rise to the top. Seven years later, when Ruth was at the very height of his slugging powers, he returned to the screen (this time playing a character called 'Babe' Dugan) playing a talented big hitter who meets and marries his dream girl, but loses her when she leaves him because of all the tobacco he chews. In the film's finale, she comes to the big game, gives him a plug of tobacco, he hits a game-winning grand slam, and then pledges to give up tobacco for good. Ruth's talents on the field prevented him from pursuing a proper onscreen career, however he cropped up in Harold Lloyd's 1928 feature Speedy (yet another flick about a man obsessed by baseball), and in 1932 made a series of five one-reelers for Universal. The quirkiest of these is arguably Fancy Curves [which can be found on YouTube] in which the Babe coaches a sorority team preparing for a challenge game against some frat boys – and then dresses up in drag in the bottom of the 9th inning when the girls can't win it on their own. In 1942, Ruth made his final screen appearance, again playing himself, in Pride of the Yankees, the biopic of Ruth's late, great Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig (played by Gary Cooper).
In 1947, the Los Angeles Dodgers were the first team to break the race barrier when they made Jackie Robinson the first African American to play major league baseball. Charismatic as well as athletically gifted, Robinson followed in Ruth's footsteps by playing himself in the 1950 The Jackie Robinson Story [screenable in its entirety on Google Video], an opportunistic biopic which detailed Robinson's long struggle against racial discrimination and eventual triumph over adversity. The big difference between Robinson and Ruth's autobiographical movies was that Heading Home was made in the silent era and did not require Ruth to learn any lines, while Robinson, who appeared in almost every scene, had to deliver his dialogue convincingly.
Robinson showed surprisingly acting aptitude, but was the last baseball star to top-line a movie. Instead all-time greats like Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle had cameos in the baseball-themed Safe At Home (1962), and Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio briefly appeared in Angels in the Outfield (1951). (DiMaggio famously married Marilyn Monroe three years after this first brush with Hollywood. When the couple split, the humorist Oscar Levant quipped, "It proves no man can be a success in two national pastimes.")
Though the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox team (Eight Men Out) and figures like Ty Cobb (Cobb) and Ruth (The Babe) have all been memorialized on screen in recent times, the most successful baseball films have been much more modern, forward-looking and movie star-driven. At the height of his popularity, Kevin Costner had back-to-back hits with baseball films, Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989), while two other notable successes Major League (1989) and The Sandlot (1993)–both of which spawned two sequels–became successful by tapping into crowd-pleasing humor and nostalgia respectively.
While recent baseball movies have not linked themselves to actual teams or players, Peter and Bobby Farrelly's Fever Pitch proved the exception by also referencing the Red Sox 2004 season. Adapted from British author Nick Hornby's novel about a fanatical soccer fan torn between love and sport, the Farrellys' movie Americanized the concept (as well as an earlier film) by making it about a diehard Boston Red Sox fan (Jimmy Fallon) and his long-suffering girlfriend (Drew Barrymore). Shooting in the fall of 2004, at the very time that John Burnham Schwartz was writing his script for Reservation Road, the movie was filmed at actual Sox games, both at Fenway Park and on the road, and was scripted to end when Boston–predictably, they thought–lost, but the hero got the girl. Reality, however, didn't follow the script. The Red Sox reached the World Series after beating the Yankees (in a unprecedented reversal after being 3-0 down in the best-of-7 series), forcing the Farrelly's to commission ongoing rewrites to catch up with real life. In the end, the Red Sox won the World Series, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, giving the movie a happy ending the directors never could have dreamed of. As the actual ball players celebrated unrestrainedly on the field, millions of TV viewers saw Fallon and Barrymore–both as film characters and baseball fans–joining them in the festivities.