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February 28, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Oscar Gambles

by Christina Kahrl

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So, last night was Oscar time, and no doubt many of you watched intently. Maybe it's because we're in the opening weeks of spring training, and maybe it's because we've come up short on the great baseball movie front for several years now, but my mind immediately turned to the films we'd like to see, not the ones that are getting made.

We already know that the concept of doing a movie about Mike Kekich, Fritz Peterson, and baseball's most infamous challenge trade is a concept already associated with names like Affleck and Damon—not Johnny—in an attempt to try and beat the story into shape. Somehow, I expect there won't be a lot of baseball in what's supposed to be a baseball movie—not least because Kekich's career didn't have a lot longer to go by the time the two men swapped wives and lives. To my way of thinking, that's exactly what I don't want from a sports movie—a film short on actual sports, because without that, why shoot it?

Keeping that standard in mind, that we want sports in our sports, here's a quick top 10 list of the baseball movies I'd like to see get made:

10. Jane Leavy's Squeeze Play. What's wrong with a romantic comedy where, beyond the question of how a woman in the locker room adapts to life around the game, we find that the love that lasts is for the game itself? Yes, there would almost certainly have to be a lot of early shock-value nudity, but that's part of capturing the protagonist's initial discomfort in what will necessarily be an adult comedy—and c'mon, after Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I think the market can cope. I doubt we'd see the Nationals cooperate in what's supposed to be the story of covering a 119-loss Washington ballclub, but more's the pity—Leavy's story is a valentine to the sport and to a dying brand of journalism, as well as an artifact of a period when women in the locker room were fairly thinly spread. Cast it into some fictional past from the '80s, featuring a fictional ballclub, keep the core messages, and it still works, because the humor and the message endure.

9. Jim Thorpe's arrival as perhaps the first mass-media international sports celebrity a century ago. Admittedly, this isn't truly a baseball-only story, but at a time when those of us of a certain age are busily reminding ourselves of the multi-sport greatness (or adequacy) we saw from Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, I can't help but think that there's a movie to be made of the American Indian who for generations afterward was considered by some to be the greatest athlete in American history. He wasn't a great pro baseball player, but between playing for Pop Warner's 1912 college football champs at Carlisle, dominating at the 1912 Olympics (winning gold in the pentathlon and decathlon), and then making it to the major leagues playing for John McGraw's Giants in 1913, he almost instantly became the world's first international sports celebrity. He would go on to play pro football, but if anything, that became a symptom of his increasing desperation to make a buck, as he would later wind up broke and alcoholic, struggling to hold down jobs digging ditches or graves. Treat it as a story of fleeting fame, and of escape from reservation life at a time when that was far from easy... there are a lot of places you can take the story, but nobody's done anything with Jim Thorpe's life since Burt Lancaster played Thorpe in Jim Thorpe—All-American 60 years ago, and somehow, that doesn't seem quite right.

8. The 1890s Orioles. A big part of what I loved about John Sayles' Eight Men Out is its compelling portrayal of on-field action, which was in no small part a product of Sayles' pointedly trying to make sure that he cast actors who could play the game. So I'll admit, I'd love to see a movie made about the '90s Orioles made for the sheer spectacle of watching the practice of “inside baseball” taken to a degree that some historians wonder if even the Orioles themselves could have lived up to. Me, I'll settle for seeing something that gives us live-action homages to the careers of Hugh Jennings, Wee Willie Keeler, John McGraw, and the rest tearing around the diamond, intimidating umps and opponents, and basically challenging us to recognize the same game we know and love today. Add in the drama of folding up the team a year after stripping it of several stars plus Ned Hanlon to stock the Dodgers, and you've got an allegory of the perils of being too good for the rest of the league.

7. Give 'Em the Bird: The Semi-True Life and Times of the San Diego Chicken. This isn't something to take remotely seriously as subject matter, so rather than make this into a prosaic retelling of the life of Ted Giannoulas, this is more the sort of thing where we want to see an over-the-top comic spin, taking something sort of silly—mascots as in-game entertainment—and bizarrely winding up with one particular mascot becoming a national celebrity. Admittedly, it was the '70s, when strange and wonderful and ridiculous things were possible, but why not take the material and head all the way into the territory of farce? Everybody but Don Schulze was laughing most of the time, true, but there's something about an era's zeitgeist that the Chicken seems to symbolize, so I say go over the top.

6. Roberto Clemente's life and death. Let's go where David Maraniss' outstanding biography has already taken us, and recognize a tremendous player who also happened to be an admirable human being. If this gives us the opportunity to show off something we never see any more—Pirates pennants—as well as an athlete who risked and lost everything because of his compassion, there's nothing wrong with that. If some of the other tragedies on this list are a matter of self-destructive waste, this is one where the tragedy was in our losing a player who truly fulfilled the expectations so often projected onto players. Wherever you might be on whether or not athletes are role models or should be, it's worth talking about a man who took the proposition seriously.

5. Sticking with the Steel City, how about a movie about the Pittsburgh cocaine scandals of the 1980s? This deserves to be treated as a story reflecting a major cultural change in our society, and who was victimized by it. The sensibilities of the '70s, when recreational use and abuse of cocaine came with next to no social stigma, leading up to the active prosecution and suspension of ballplayers for cocaine use in the '80s, makes for a fascinating moment in cultural history. The drug trials themselves were symbolic of the way much of the war on drugs has been waged: no matter who does the crime, it's usually the nobodies who end up doing the time. We'd get courtroom drama, a reasonable discussion of situational ethics and changing normative pressures, and an important reminder that the game's original drug scandal wasn't necessarily handled with the sort of adaptiveness we wanted this time around either.

4. Veeck As in Wreck. You'll want to use the title, if not stick with the book itself, but this is a great American story. Whether or not you want to cast this as the little guy going up against the corporate stooges and the unimaginative plutocrats who were to become known as the Lords of the Game, a biopic on Veeck would make for a nice reminder that innovation isn't antithetical to the great game, it's just frowned upon. Between Veeck's brands of in-game and live-action entertainment—not just Disco Demolition or the legendary attempt to acquire the Phillies and integrate them five years before Jackie Robinson, but also Eddie Gaedel and “Grandstand Manager's Day”—there's plenty of hijinks, wrapping with the sad conclusion that the days of the free-wheeling owner/operator were doomed to history's dustbin before Veeck was ready to be consigned to it.

3. Pete Rose. To make a point of distinguishing this from the next film idea, I wonder if this isn't something that deserves something less documentary or prosaic in its treatment, and instead needs to be an extended conversation between the Rose and the Devil in a Price Hill dive bar over shots of Jack, on whether or not Rose was cheated in their bargain, or whether Rose's failures are indeed entirely self-inflicted and beyond redemption. Perhaps a two-man drama featuring a lying Hit King and the King of Lies would be more Mamet than Seventh Seal, giving us something on the subject beyond the squalor that will stick with us.

2. Billyball. If Rose's story is one of self-destruction and willfully misleading a forgiving public in a quest for unearned martyrdom, Billy Martin's story is one part Goodfellas, another part Raging Bull, and a whole bunch of 61* besides. The themes border on operatic when it comes to one man's gifts balanced against his complete incapacity to succeed anywhere or at anything for long. Sex? Maybe it's sort of missing from the rest of this slate of stories, but we've got that here in spades, because unlikely enough as it may seem in retrospect, Martin was a ladies' man. Violence? There's no part of the Martin story that wouldn't be punctuated with fighting or bullying, from his rough East Bay youth to the Copa to his later run-ins, inside the ballpark and out.

All of that makes for easy camera-chewing action, but the way this movie works as something more than just a story of dissolution is that it would have to capture Martin's skill as a terrifying motivator and his relentlessly aggressive feats as a tactician. If you don't get that in there, you can't adequately explain why Martin keeps getting opportunity after opportunity—it has to be a baseball movie, and not just Caligula in cleats.

1. Jackie Robinson. I don't care whether Spike Lee ever gets this off the ground or if someone else takes the ball and runs with it. I also don't care if this is a story about 1947 alone, or his entire career. It could even widen the scope to talk about why Jackie and not someone else. My hope is that it would focus on the overt racism he had to fight against within the industry and especially on the diamond, while giving due credit to those who lined up with him. But most of all, there is no more important figure in American sports history, ever, let alone the 20th century. This needed doing a decade ago, but the story is still there, waiting to be done.

With all of that said, those are just my ideas—what about yours? What stories would you like to see produced?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Mike Cuccaro

I've been hearing for a long time that Bill Murray had plans to develop and star in a "Veeck as in Wreck" film. Haven't heard much lately that's concrete, though.

Feb 28, 2011 07:15 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Yep, I've heard the same things, since they're not especially secret, but here again, I find it frustrating that it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Feb 28, 2011 08:55 AM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

There was a fair bit about this in Slouching Towards Fargo, an enjoyable book about the mid-Nineties St. Paul Saints when Darryl Strawberry and Jack Morris played for them. The author, Neal Karlen, was initially sent by Rolling Stone to do a hatchet job on Bill Murray, who was part of the Saints' ownership group and who had an option on the Veeck story. At one point it was listed on IMDB as in development, but like many a prospect, it failed to develop.

Feb 28, 2011 09:40 AM
 
Roger Thornhill

I've always thought the Carlisle football team would be a great subject for one of those Disney, overcoming adversity football movies. I mean, Native American kids taken from their families and sent to a school whose goal is to Westernize them win the college football national championship, led by a future Olympian. You can't beat that.

Feb 28, 2011 07:22 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Indeed. They've made a Francis Ouimet movie, for god's sakes, and if people are going to make inspirational golf movies, what's next, inspirational gardening dramas?

Feb 28, 2011 08:59 AM
 
wizstan

Kind of a twist on your billy ball idea, and maybe a lens through which to make that story, how about the "Nine Old Men" of the 1948 Oakland Oaks? The team that got Casey Stengel to NY. The beginning of the Billy Martin story, and the end of the road for Ernie Lombardi.

Feb 28, 2011 08:16 AM
rating: 0
 
Lassaller

Thank you for the Jackie Robinson plug. It's long overdue and if done intelligently, it's a lock for an Oscar nomination.

Feb 28, 2011 08:38 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Not that there aren't reasonable alternatives to make up a short list of all-sports all-time greats, we're talking about the significant most significant athlete in American history, and the single most important moment in sports in this country. An honest depiction, that captures Robinson's ability to endure the attention and combat racism within the game, rather than pretend such things weren't absolutely necessary, is long since overdue.

Feb 28, 2011 09:05 AM
 
Lou Doench

Someone needs to make a movie out of Joe Posnanski's "The Soul of Baseball". I also think you could make a great movie about players in one of the short season leagues, just drafted players getting their feet wet.

Feb 28, 2011 09:14 AM
rating: 0
 
jhardman

Great article - really enjoyed reading it. The script is still being written for the inevitable Josh Hamilton movie, but it's one that will be made down the road. Hopefully it's not the next big baseball movie and some of your ideas come to fruition.

Feb 28, 2011 09:29 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Almost a lock, but I guess it has been reported to death. I suppose it could be worse, we could see the Jim Morris movie get made, oh... wait, too late.

Feb 28, 2011 09:56 AM
 
VDracul

Movies that should get made
1. Branch Rickey: moneyball before the name
2. Last of the Monsters: the Albert Belle Story (horror sports spoof)
3. A big time movie about the Negro Leagues and how the players lived.
4. The Steroid Era: documentary series that portrays all sides (dreaming I know)
5. Marvin Miller and the MLBPA's ascent to becoming the most powerful union in America.

Feb 28, 2011 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
cfinberg

Per your #7, I present W.P. Kinsella's "Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross." Not that it was comedy from what I remember, but a bit of a Men In Black III twist on MLB mascots would probably put fannies in seats. Not, of course, that we'd want to sit through the Pixar-polished product.

Feb 28, 2011 11:48 AM
rating: 0
 
mbrignall

I think Mark the Bird would make a dynamite film. My guess is that there is a pretty dark underbelly of that story that is totally at odds with the public persona of the time.
Alternately, and staying with the Tigers in the 70s theme, Disco Demolition Night would be pretty fun, too.

Feb 28, 2011 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
jgrout

Could an honest Jackie Robinson movie... one that included his political views... be made in today's Hollywood? I doubt it.

Feb 28, 2011 14:53 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I guess I don't see it as a problem--as an outspoken independent, Robinson was principled yet adaptive in his opinions and his political commitments, but consistently devoted to issues that should transcend party (such as civil rights).

Feb 28, 2011 15:06 PM
 
devine

Once upon a time, when I was a young book editor, I tried to talk one of my baseball-book authors into writing the great Branch Rickey book - an exploration of everything he did to revolutionize the game. He didn't take me up on it; I moved on to another line of work, and I still wonder why no one has written that book.

Feb 28, 2011 15:42 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Lowenfish's 2009 biography of Rickey got outstanding reviews, but is still on my "to read" list:

http://www.amazon.com/Branch-Rickey-Baseballs-Ferocious-Gentleman/dp/0803224532/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1298938348&sr=8-1

Feb 28, 2011 16:13 PM
 
bbienk01

Probably impossible in the current political climate (although maybe Wisconsin changes things), but I'd love to see a Curt Flood biopic.

Feb 28, 2011 17:35 PM
rating: 0
 
slimandslam

The Curt Flood movie + the 1890's Orioles movie = ...

the Oakland A's under Charlie Finley. Start it at the move west from Kansas City, and end it with the mass exodus at the dawn of free agency (with a coda in 1979 in front of 653 fans. Great personalities, outlandish stunts, three World Championships (with the manager basically resigning in protest in the middle of one of them), and conflict that both reflect the particular personalities involved and were reflective of the times they lived (and played) in.

Plus, a mule.

Feb 28, 2011 18:15 PM
rating: 2
 
Hickjim

Christina, try to make time to read the Lowenfish book but I can imagine that someone who has to deal with writing all the time, you have many things on the "to read" list...luckily for me, I don't have to deal with writing all the time and get to spend my down time reading certain select items particularly the 2011 Baseball Prospectus.

Feb 28, 2011 19:03 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Speaking of which, my own copies showed up on my doorstep this very afternoon, and kudos to Steven and company for a handsome volume indeed.

Feb 28, 2011 22:27 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

Great article, Christina.
I did a recent piece on Jackie, touched with the reflections brought up in Larry Tye's "Satchel", and I definitely think the Jackie was "the one" for a few reasons beyond his baseball playing abilities, as good as they were. Upon thinking out the article, I did have one thought that, once it came to me, I was surprised I had not heard it before:
"...considering Branch Rickey’s well-renowned Christian faith, I would be shocked if Rickey was not thinking about the Jews in their desert period between Egyptian slavery and entering the Land of Milk and Honey forty years later as he went about choosing the subject for his great experiment. As the story goes, the Jews could not enter Israel until each and every last person who lived as a slave had died in the desert, such that Israel would be a land of Free Jews, instead of Freed Slaves. Similarly, the Major Leagues could only be integrated by a player whose life was not steeped in the degradations of the Negro Leagues, so that Black Major Leaguers would be real ball players and not those with the chip of Jim Crow on their shoulders."
From: http://section203.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/re-thinking-jackie-robinson/

Feb 28, 2011 19:50 PM
rating: 0
 
jmyovino

Go with the Negro League idea but spin it off of Rickwood Field in Birmingham AL. Its still there (oldest park in American) and would make great location. Run the story up to 1948 when the Black Barons won the Negro League Championship with a 17 year old centerfielder named Willie Mays.

Feb 28, 2011 20:32 PM
rating: 1
 
iorg34

I think someone should write a sweeping panaroma of many seemingly unrelated interesting baseball stories and link them together a la Magnolia. Without the rain of frogs.

Feb 28, 2011 21:23 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

It's still on my To-See list, but a movie about a young Dominican pitcher trying to make it to the major leagues called "Sugar" came out a few years ago that looked pretty good. It looks like it spends a lot of time exploring the cultural adjustments Latin player have to make when they start their pro careers.

Mar 03, 2011 22:12 PM
rating: 0
 
BarryR

I always thought there was an interesting movie in Orlando Cepeda. The son of a famous player in Puerto Rico, a celebrated rookie in SF - being loved by the fans more than Mays because he was their first SF star. Early stardom, then the arrival of McCovey, the trade to StL and the MVP. The injuries limiting his career and then the post career story is a great second act, with the arrest, humiliation, imprisonment. The third act is redemption and the Hall of Fame.

Mar 04, 2011 10:30 AM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

1996 brought us the wonderful "Fargo".
2012 brought us the terrific "Argo".
2028 should bring us "CarGo".

Feb 25, 2013 07:46 AM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

We need movies/biopic treatments of:
Reggie
Hank Aaron
Marvin Miller

Feb 25, 2013 07:47 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Reggie & Hank, yes (Reggie would be wonderful fun)... not sure if a Marvin Miller biopic would really work; might be better if it was a Curt Flood movie.

Feb 25, 2013 08:06 AM
 
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