I’ve always been a fan of baseball related movies, especially those that featured the actual players and baseball players have appeared in movies and television cameos for almost a century. One of the earliest baseball movies featured the greatest athlete of the era and maybe of all time. It was a silent motion picture starring the bigger than life Babe Ruth himself in his first feature length film entitled “Headin’ Home” which was released in 1920. It would be almost a decade before Ruth appeared in another film and this one was titled “Babe Comes Home” (1927) The baseball scenes were actually shot at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles from the old Pacific Coast League.
Ruth’s next cameo appearance came in the Harold Lloyd silent film entitled “Speedy” (1928) Of course, the most famous film in which Ruth played himself was the “Pride of the Yankees” (1942) a story about the life of Lou Gehrig and featuring such Yankee greats as Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, and Bob Meusel playing themselves in the film that was released only one year after Gehrig’s death in 1941 It is considered the greatest baseball movie ever made and I feel no need to argue that claim. It seems that no matter how many times you watch this film, you are drawn in as if it is the first time. The last film that featured the Bambino really didn’t star Babe Ruth, rather it was a movie about his life entitled “The Babe Ruth Story” which was rush released in 1948 (starring William Bendix as the Babe) while Ruth was still living. (He died in 1948 soon after the film’s release} Ruth did act as a consultant on the film but to no avail. Today, it is generally panned as a low budget loser and while it is a must see for the baseball fan, it doesn’t really merit mentioning in the same breath as the “Pride of the Yankees” In this case, Gehrig clearly comes out on top.
And speaking of the great Lou Gehrig, he appeared in a feature length movie in 1938, the year before he retired from baseball, in a film entitled “Rawhide”. It was a premonition of events to come in that he played himself in the film, having retired from the game of baseball to move west to his sisters farm. As per the western formula, trouble was a brewin’ and Lou Gehrig teams with a fellow local singing lawyer, destined to clean up the beleaguered town of the ever threatening hooligans In this film, his life threatening disease as yet undetected, Gehrig performed many of his own stunts.
In 1937, a series of short stories written by famed sports writer Ring Lardner in 1915 became the catalyst for the film entitled “Alibi Ike” which was released featuring big screen stars Joe E. Brown and Olivia de Havilland. The film is important to baseball historians for the many cameo appearances of real life baseball stars of the era that included Cedric Durst, Bob Meusel and Mike Gazella all of whom played with the 1927 Yankees along with Wally Rehg (1919 Reds), Smead Jolley (White and Red Sox), Don Hurst (Phillies) and sports legend Jim Thorpe ( in a very rare film appearance) along with four lesser known players.
Also in 1937, the film “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” was released, a musical about mobsters that featured musical legends Gene Autry, Cab Calloway and Louis Prima but is also noted by baseball fans as a film in which the Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio plays himself for the first time in a fiction film, this in only his second year in the major leagues. This film is worth watching if just for a glimpse of the tenderfoot DiMaggio playing himself and is worth the price of a DVD.
The great 1949 movie “The Stratton Story” was a non fictional interpretation about the great 6’6” White Sox pitcher who lost his leg (and career) to a hunting accident. Monte is portrayed by the film legend Jimmy Stewart who gave a command performance as the lanky pitcher. It’s a great film, Stewart is fantastic, and it is a film, along with the Pride of the Yankees, that is in my permanent DVD collection and if you have never seen it, don’t wait, go get a copy. Because Stratton is with the White Sox, the most notable ball player portraying himself in this film is Sox manager Jimmy Dykes but there are also appearances by Bill Dickey, Gene Bearden, Mervyn Shea, Ted Lyons, and Luke Appling,
One of the most famous and historically significant baseball players of all time, the great Jackie Robinson, played himself in the feature film “the Jackie Robinson Story” which was released in 1950. It is listed as a biographical film in which Ruby Dee plays the part of Jackie’s wife Rachael. Released during the highly segregated era, a time when black ball players could not even stay in the same hotels as their white counterparts, yet despite the era of the release, the film was a hit at the box office and is another must see film for any baseball fan or historian.
A light hearted film entitled “Angels in the Outfield’ was released in 1951 starring Paul Douglas and Janet Leigh. The featured team, the Pittsburg Pirates, are mired in the basement when an angel decides to help the hapless but lovable manager and team. While not a great film, it is entertaining and worth a watch if for no other reason but for the cameo appearances of Baseball Legends Ty Cobb (his only appearance in a fictional film) and Joe DiMaggio during his last season in the majors.
With the Brooklyn Dodgers move to the west coast in 1958, the team became the darlings of Hollywood. The first feature film to star members of the new Los Angeles team was a film starring Jerry Lewis entitled “The Geisha Boy” (1958). In this film, Dodger stars Gil Hodges, Walt Alston, Carl Erskine and Johnny Roseboro travel to Japan ( based on the many Dodger Japan tours) to play a Japanese team that stars a huge (literally) home run hitter. Of course, Jerry Lewis messes up just about everything in typical Lewis fashion and will tickle the fancy of any Lewis or baseball fan.
In 1962, a film starring Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, fresh from the mystical 1961 season, was released. Entitled “Safe at Home”, it is easy to see why ball players do not make great movie stars. It is basically a terrible film in which the two baseball greats make a mockery out of the acting profession but due to the two featured stars along with Whitey Ford and Ralph Houk, it is still worth a view just for the baseball content. A much better film also released in 1962 features Yankee Stadium with cameo appearances by Mantle, Maris and Berra. It is a fantastic film starring Cary Grant and Doris Day entitled “That Touch of Mink” This is a great movie regardless of the Yankee stars but one in which the ball players lines are limited to reflect their acting talent (or lack of).
It would take a book to discuss every baseball related film so following is a complete list of baseball related fiction and non fiction films that I found on the internet. Even being an avid film buff, I have not seen a great number of these and I actually worked on the sets or supplied equipment for three of the listed films including the Rookie of the Year, A League of Their Own and Cobb. (for some reason, the two Ruth movies are not listed)
Fireman, Save My Child (1932)
Elmer, the Great (1933)
Alibi Ike (1935)
It Happens Every Spring (1949)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Angels in the Outfield (1951)
Damn Yankees (1958)
Safe At Home (1962)
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) — remake of a 1956 television production
The Bad News Bears (1976)
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)
The Bad News Bears Go To Japan (1978)
The Kid From Left Field (1979)
Squeeze Play (1980)
Blue Skies Again (1983)
Tiger Town (1983)
The Natural (1984)
Brewster’s Millions (1985)
The Slugger’s Wife (1985)
Long Gone (made for television, 1987)
Trading Hearts (1987)
Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)
Bull Durham (1988)
Stealing Home (1988)
Field of Dreams (1989)
Major League (1989)
Night Game (1989)
Mr. Destiny (1990)
Talent For The Game (1991)
The Babe (1992)
The Comrades of Summer (1992)
Mr. Baseball (1992)
Rookie of the Year (1993)
The Sandlot (1993)
Angels in the Outfield (1994 remake)
Little Big League (1994)
Major League II (1994)
The Scout (1994)
The Fan (1996)
Major League: Back to the Minors (1998)
For Love of the Game (1999)
Perfect Game (2000)
Angels in the Infield (2000)
Summer Catch (2001)
Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (2002)
Bleacher Bums (2002)
Day of Independence (2003)
Mr. 3000 (2004)
Fever Pitch (2005)
Game 6 (2005)
Bad News Bears (2005) — remake of 1976 original
The Sandlot 2 (2005)
The Benchwarmers (2006)
Everyone’s Hero (2006)
Beer League (2006)
The Sandlot 3 (2007) — aka The Sandlot: Heading Home
The Ball Game (1898)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
The Stratton Story (1949)
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
The Winning Team (1952)
The Pride of St. Louis (1952)
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story (1978)
A Winner Never Quits (1986)
Eight Men Out (1988)
A League of Their Own (1992)
The Babe (1992)
Soul of the Game (1996)
Joe Torre: Curveballs Along The Way (Made for TV) (1997)
61* (made for television, 2001)
The Rookie (2002)
Touching the Game-The Story of the Cape Cod Baseball League (2004)
Hustle (made for television, 2004)
American Pastime (2007)
The Final Season (2007)
Dummy Hoy: A Deaf Hero (2008) directed by David Risotto
Signs of the Time (2008)
BASEBALL AND TELEVISON
While watching a DVD of the early 1950’s, an episode of the first space show called Space Patrol, it was a treat to see Duke Snider promoting Ovaltine in the Brooklyn Dodgers locker room wearing his home Dodgers uniform. Commercials featuring ball players hawking products such as Joe DiMaggio with Mr. Coffee or Jim Palmer selling under ware are (and were) the most common roles of ball players on television. During the early days of television during the 1950’s, there were two notable shows that came out of the New York area that featured Joe DiMaggio. One was the short lived (1950 only) show called the “Joe DiMaggio Show “which was a combination quiz show with Joe DiMaggio giving pointers to future major league hopefuls. In 1951, Joe had another show called “Joe DiMaggio’s Dugout”, another one season wonder. From 1950-57, every young ball player in New York watched “The Happy Felton Knot Hole Gang Show” , a show that featured many of the great baseball stars of the era that roamed the Polo Grounds, Ebbetts Field or Yankee Stadium.
In 1959, the Home Run Derby aired from Los Angels Wrigley Field and featured various big league home run hitters in a contest of skill. The show was cancelled in 1960. Following is a list of the players who appeared during the only season the show aired.
Tom Saffell — pitcher
John Van Ornum – catcher
It was the move of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles when televisions love affair with baseball players really came to an apex. The Dodgers made many appearances on some of the most popular weekly shows of the early 1960’s . . On Sept. 29, 1963 , episode 79 in the fourth season, on the Mister Ed (the talking horse) Show, the “Lip” appeared in “Leo Durocher meets Mister Ed” In this episode, filmed at Dodger Stadium, Mister Ed gives some tips to Durocher, Moose Skowron, Sandy Koufax, Willie Davis and Johnny Roseboro. On April 8, 1965. Leo guest stars again in an episode called “Herman the Rookie” on the popular “Munsters’ show and on April 10, 1963, episode 29 in the first season, on the Beverly Hillbillies in “ the Clampetts and the Dodgers” , Leo made yet another guest appearance. And for Braves fans, who can forget the appearance of Warren Spahn on one of the best war shows on television in a series called “Combat.”
Each and every baseball star having appeared on the silver screen or the small screen until this time had two things in common, all that is except for two stars. First, they made their living and reputation playing baseball, not acting. Second, they were smart enough to know they were better athletes than actors. To my knowledge, there are only two former baseball players that made a bigger name for themselves on the small screen rather than the ball field. The first would be John Beradino who played major league ball from 1939-53 (except for military service).He retired from baseball after a knee injury. A decent ball player who had his first screen appearance in a1955 episode of “the Adventures of Superman” He then appeared in numerous “B” movies but it was his role as Dr. Steve Hardy on the hugely popular soap opera “General Hospital’ , a role he played from the first show in 1963 until he died in 1997, that earned him a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.
But the most famous of all television and silver screen actors who played baseball to little fanfare but left this world a legend would have to be none other than Chuck Connors. Besides playing with the Boston Celtics (1946), he played minor league baseball beginning in 1940 through 1949 for Newport, Norfolk, Mobile, and Montreal. His major league career was much shorter playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 and the Chicago Cubs in 1951. He went to the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL that same season where he played until 1952 yet he appeared in 23 feature films beginning in 1952 but it was his role as Lucas McCain in the television series “The Rifleman” (1958-63) that he is best remembered. It was the longest of the three series that he starred in which included “Branded” (1965-66) and “A Cowboy in Africa” (1967-68).
Due to his fame as a movie and television star, the most famous ex ball player to star in film, his game used bats are one of the most sought after items for Brooklyn Dodger and Cubs collectors. In fact, his bat is one of the most valuable of any bat of any player who played less than five years in the major leagues. (George Halas being another) We have been listing want ads looking for his game used bat for the better part of ten years and in my twenty plus years in business, I had never seen nor heard of a single surviving example, that was until a few months ago when I was finally able to not only see and handle a real Kevin Chuck Conners game bat but actually purchase it as well.
Why so rare? Chuch ordered 9 bats beginning in 1939 but they did not have his new autograph until 8-16-47. From that point on, he ordered 144 signature model bats through 7-2-53. So where did they all go? Why is this the first example I have seen in twenty years? Needless to say, there has to be a few somewhere but this is the first I’ve seen. My bat is a circa 1948-49 Dodger era bat, a script signature model 35” O16 that shows excellent game use. Yes, I have owned far more valuable bats and a few game bats with a far fewer production number but to date, it is one of the rarest bats I’ve ever owned and one of the most valuable common player bats ever made. It is a bat made for the most famous television star and that, in itself, is another story. Being a huge fan of the old 1950’s TV westerns, this bat is a prize to me simply due to his western status. As such, this bat will reside in the new MEARS headquarters in a special spot in our new museum collection along with my fine collection of western guns (1865-1899) and vintage holsters.
It may sound odd to some readers that I would choose to keep a game used bat of a basic baseball nobody given the thousands of bats that I have owned but to me, this bat is more valuable than Lou Gehrig or Jackie Robinson ( sure, for that kind of money, I will wrap it up real nice and ship to you overnight) and it will find a spot of importance between my guns and Troy’s Ali collection so don’t look for it on our for sale sight anytime soon but you are welcome to come see it in person when we move to our rapidly approaching completed building. Given the privileged space, you will probably be expecting to see a Ruth or Cobb. And if you have any spare time soon, catch a few episodes of the Rifleman or watch one of the above listed baseball movies. Start with the older ones and work your way through the list and don’t be surprised if we feature a baseball film festival in our new theater. Until next time,