There She Is, Myth America
At left is an Ebbets Field Flannels replica of the jacket Robert Redford wore when he played Roy Hobbs, the thirty-five-year-old rookie from nowhere, an item which may prompt postmodernists to question what it means to replicate the frankly fake. The 1984 film The Natural has become a litmus test for baseball savants and film critics. Either it was horrible, a comic-book parody of Bernard Malamud’s excellent 1952 novel; or it was grand and mythopoeic, a tour de force by director Barry Levinson that was vastly superior to the book on which it was based. The battle was pitched anew on Facebook yesterday, with some hating the book and loving the film, others the opposite.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the world who hated the film,” Tara Krieger wrote. “It just felt incredibly overwrought.”
“One thing that kinda bugged me about the movie,” said Ron Bolton,” was Hobbs did two things at the plate – he either hit a home run or he struck out.”
“If you’re looking for realism,” I replied to my friends, “yes. I like the film as fable.”
The Natural was not a movie about baseball, the critics charged. Overly simplistic, they said, it was instead an allegory about the eternal battle between good and evil, between our past and our future, between what could have been and what is. (Sounds like baseball to me.) The film was chock full of allusions to baseball players and events–Babe Ruth, Jim Creighton, Eddie Waitkus–and to classic legends: Faust, King Arthur, the Serpent in the Garden, Prometheus. It gave us a dazzlingly visual ending–the famous homer into the light stanchion that explodes into a brilliant fireworks display. Bull Durham and Field of Dreams touched new sets of nerves about baseball, life, love, and myth, and Moneyball was complicated fun, but for me, The Natural is the long ball of baseball movies.
A League of Their Own was based on the real All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), whose story has grown larger in death than it was during its twelve-year life in 1943-1954. Once a lightweight item for morning talk shows in the early 1980s, the AAGPBL would have retreated into the anonymity of academic theses had it not been for director Penny Marshall and actors Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O’Donnell. The film, released in 1992, was a huge hit and brought renewed attention to the women’s league. As a feminist rallying cause, the film reversed the classic paradigm in which art imitates life; Geena Davis imitating LIFE puts an additional spin on the ball.
A League of Their Own rekindled interest in the AAGPBL and in its players, giving them a well-deserved second chance at honor and fame. But the film’s impact extended further than that. The Women in Baseball exhibit at the Hall of Fame became vastly popular, and today such organizations as Baseball for All (http://www.baseballforall.com/) are taking the next step, empowering girls to play the game and imagine themselves as big leaguers too. As to the whole question of whether a woman could one day play major-league baseball, reasonable people, myself included, believe that a female equivalent to Jackie Robinson will break the gender line.