There are a handful of images that people tend to use when they romanticize America: mom, apple pie, baseball, John Wayne… If you mention these icons in the right context, suddenly your imagery is dominated by a bright blue sky and a large flag blowing in the wind while the "Star-Spangled Banner" plays in the background. It's almost automatic; generations of jingoism and patriotism have made that so.
Thinking about this patriotic imagery recently, I was struck with a question I didn't seem to know the answer to: did John Wayne ever make a baseball-themed movie? We all know about Gary Cooper and The Pride of the Yankees – did the Duke ever do something similar?
It turns out he did. In 1955, Wayne starred in a thirty-minute episode of the "Screen Director's Playhouse" called "Rookie of the Year." The show was directed by John Ford, a friend of Wayne's, and also featured the Duke's son, Patrick Wayne, in a small-but-key role. It was the 48-year-old Wayne's first foray into television and is said to have been done as a favor to his son.
When I first found out about this episode, I scrounged the internet for a copy of it, managing to find a copy on YouTube. The video is no longer there, so there's sadly no chance in embedding it here (here's a two-minute clip). However, I did make sure to watch it before it disappeared.
Wayne plays Mike Cronin, a down-on-his-luck sports reporter in small-town New York, who is trying to get back into the big city's graces. After seeing Yankees' superstar rookie Lyn Goodhue (Patrick Wayne) play for the first time, Cronin thinks he has his story. Goodhue has a distinctive bat-flip that reminds Cronin of Buck Garrison, a disgraced former star long-ago kicked out of baseball for throwing a game (think Shoeless Joe Jackson, of course). Cronin decides to investigate this, traveling to Goodhue's home town and confronting the father (Ward Bond) before heading to Yankee Stadium to finally bust open the story. But will Cronin be able to go ruin Goodhue's good name once he meets the nice young man behind the story?
The episode is entertaining, if not groundbreaking. It's a simple struggle that Cronin deals with, but we shouldn't expect much from mid-fifties television. The cast is great, with Ward Bond and James Gleason (as Cronin's beat-writer friend) giving solid performances. Wayne, however, was a bit weak at times. The television format did not do much to flatter the Duke. Of course, Wayne was never famous for his acting chops, so that's hardly a strike against it. I hoped for more ambiance around 1950s Yankee Stadium, but that was clearly not in the budget. Cronin getting a chance to see an older Buck Garrison play on a small-town field was a nice touch, though (it reminded me of the beginning of Field of Dreams, when Ray tells of his dad seeing a 60-year-old Shoeless Joe playing in random leagues around the south). I can only imagine how the older men who could still remember Shoeless Joe play at the time must have felt.
Wayne also played a small role in a similar John Ford/Patrick Wayne vehicle, cameoing as an umpire in 1962's "Flashing Spikes." I have not had a chance to watch that yet. If you're interested in John Wayne at all, or would care to see the seemingly biggest intersection between two of America's most enduring icons, keep an eye on Turner Classic Movies or the eBay shelves for "Rookie of the Year".