By Sarah D. Bunting
Baseball movies don't tend to do great business outside of baseball fans, and sometimes that's because the movie in question isn't very good (see: my oft-repeated, multi-chapter rant on fundamental game errors in The Scout). Other times, the film isn't marketed correctly, focusing more on the "baseball" than the "movie" and not emphasizing the universal appeal of some of the game's great stories and characters.
We've had a decent run recently, though -- Moneyball and 42 came out better than I expected, and were received well -- and it's made me hopeful that we can revisit some of the game's greats (or interesting also-rans) at the multiplex.
And if the whole Batman thing doesn't work out, Ben Affleck has a Red-Sox-related fallback.
The Player: Yankee centerfielder and one-time Mr. Marilyn Monroe (and Mr. Coffee!) "Joltin' Joe" is Exhibit A for the idea of going out on top; he retired before he could start to suck in the field. Unfortunately, Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life left the distinct impression that DiMag sucked off the field -- cheap, abusive, a crappy father and braggart who leveraged his fame for every inch -- and watching a prick hoard promotional items for two hours is a tough sell. But I've got a way around that.
The Actor: I like Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos for this one; certainly he's got practice making a self-aggrandizing short fuse relatable. The second option, Martin Starr of Party Down, is a biiiit of a stretch, but the concept of the film itself could make Starr more palatable...
The Picture: … because I see Joltin' Joe as a road-trip flick featuring all three DiMaggio brothers. One of them is driving the others to some kind of fan reunion event; two hours of fraternal scuffling and teasing ensue. Here's where Starr comes in: James Franco is a natural choice to play Vince DiMaggio. Throw in his Freaks & Geeks castmates Samm Levine as Dom DiMaggio and Starr as the Clipper, and it's a reunion of an entirely different sort (and a guaranteed loyal fan base). Imperioli's a better choice from an acting standpoint, but isn't as tall; still, you can match him with Franco and Levine just as easily. Whoever ends up in the roles, this is the best way to take a fresh look at Joe DiMaggio's life without having to teach an actor that unique swing -- or rehash the old Marilyn stories for the umpteenth time.
IT AIN'T SO
The Player: Shoeless Joe Jackson requires no introduction … except that most of what we think we know about Jackson, and his involvement in the Black Sox scandal, is probably wrong. The release of Eliot Asinof's "research" notes on Eight Men Out a few years ago made it clear that he made up characters from whole cloth, didn't interview most of the key figures, relied on press accounts of the 1920 trial (during which press wasn't permitted in the courtroom) instead of trial transcripts, and simply ignored evidence suggesting Jackson didn't do anything -- didn't meet with the gamblers, didn't muff plays, didn't really do anything except take $5,000 from Lefty Williams after the fact. The only version of the story better than Asinof's is the truth.
The Actor: Patrick Fischler, perhaps best known for his Joey Bishop turn as Jimmy Barrett on Mad Men. A little costume padding under some voluminous mid-century clothing, and he's middle-aged Jackson behind the counter at his liquor store.
The Picture: A historical thriller a la JFK, but with the central figure still alive and aiding in the search for truth, and substantially less pretzelling of coincidence into fact.
The Player: Jimmy Piersall, inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2010, is remembered today for losing his mind during the 1952 season and spending some time in a psychiatric institution, after a series of increasingly distressing incidents that began with Piersall brawling with Billy Martin (not that anyone would have found that abnormal except in retrospect, actually), and culminated in Piersall spanking a teammate's four-year-old. Piersall remembered feeling extremely paranoid at training camp in January of 1952; the next thing he remembers is waking up in a state hospital in Massachusetts. In … August. In the interim, he'd had electroconvulsive therapy. But he played productively for another 13 years (with occasional forays back into treatment) before moving on to front-office and broadcasting jobs.
You may remember his one hundredth home run, which he hit for the Mets off Dallas Green and celebrated by running the bases backward. This and other sanitized versions of his struggle with mental illness are memorialized in Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony "Norman Bates" Perkins in a flick based on Piersall's memoir released while Piersall was still active.
The Actor: Ben Affleck bears an uncanny resemblance to Piersall, and while the window for portraying Piersall's playing days has probably closed, it's still a solid choice. For one thing, Affleck is a noted Red Sox fan who could likely be convinced at least to look at a script. For another thing…
The Picture: … Piersall did not stop clashing with people after moving into non-uniformed aspects of the game. One of my favorite motifs in Mike Shropshire's rollicking account of the early Texas Rangers organization, Seasons In Hell, is his ongoing beef with Piersall, specifically Shropshire going on the offensive with Piersall by ordering him to keep his voice down in the press lounge because "people are trying to drink in here!" (Meanwhile, a Star-Telegram reporter standing behind Piersall has quietly picked up a knife from the buffet "just in case.") Piersall's life after his active playing days could more than fill two hours, and since Piersall has disavowed Fear Strikes Out, why not roll out an updated take on the man? (Who is still alive, and could theoretically be talked by impressionist documentarian Errol Morris into commenting at length on the parts of FSO he didn't care for.)
The Player: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych took baseball and pop culture by storm in the summer of 1976. He threw back balls he claimed still had "hits in" them. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Big Bird. He drove a cheap car and wore his curly hair long and tore his rotator cuff and fell out of baseball.
The Actor: The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg is a good match for Fidrych in face and hair, but shooting him to look tall enough (he's five-foot-seven; The Bird was six-foot-three) could prove a challenge, and the casting Plan B, Michael Cera of Arrested Development, isn't much bigger (five-foot-nine). But if The Bronx Is Burning could make John Turturro look as short as Billy Martin, you have to think it's doable. And Cera is also an interesting idea because …
The Picture: … he starred in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a film based on a graphic-novel series and directed by Simon Pegg collaborator Edgar Wright. The sensibility of Scott Pilgrim, the bold fight FX and videogame aesthetic, is perfect for a 33 Short Films About Mark Fidrych-type collage of scenes from Fidrych's top-speed journey to fame, and a decline that was agonizing to everyone except himself.
MR. MACK'S MEN
The Player: It's not his play anyone remembers (he retired as a catcher in 1896), it's Connie Mack's (too) long tenure as the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, during which he continued to wear a suit in the dugout instead of a uniform, as well as his $100,000 infield, his deaconish handling of problem players like George Waddell, and the napping in the dugout as the 1940s wore on.
The Actor(s): Babe's James Cromwell is the obvious choice to play Mack as an older man, Benedict "Sherlock" Cumberbatch the younger version (although it sometimes seems as though the Tall Tactician sprang fully aged from the head of Abner Doubleday).
The Picture: I had the misfortune of becoming a baseball fan at the end of a September, so all I had to keep me going until leaves and the boys returned in the spring was my father's very long shelf of baseball books -- including the Fireside compendium, which dated from his childhood and gave me the impression that Mack and Pie Traynor and Christy Mathewson were still household names. Not so, and it's a bit of a shame; John McGraw in particular had a snarky wit that still translates over a century later. Since it's Mack we're here to put on celluloid, though, why not tell the story of the 1905 Fall Classic, the first best-of-seven World Series, won in four games by McGraw's Giants. It's a showcase for deadball-era strategy, for Mack's managerial style and for other forgotten stars of the time (Joe McGinnity, "Turkey" Mike Donlin) that could use a Mack dugout snooze in the '40s as the "dream" framework for a flashback plot.
SLIDE, KELLY, SLIDE
The Player: Michael "King" Kelly, matinee-idol handsome, invented strategies like the hook slide (as memorialized in the popular song "Slide, Kelly, Slide" -- and does anyone else feel as though we're poorer as a culture for not having as many baseball novelty singles as we used to? That "Say Hey" song was darn catchy) and the hit-and-run. He's also the reason half those rules about not catching fly balls with your hat or bunting 913 pitches for harmless fouls exist; you read those and you think, "Who would try to do that?" Well, Kelly did, and thanks to his clever wriggling-through of every rulebook loophole, most of them were closed. Couldn't get out of his own way, though; he drank himself out of baseball at 35 and died of pneumonia at 36.
The Actor: Joaquin Phoenix has a believably period face and wouldn't need a stunt mustache. He'd make Kelly's vaudeville "career," during which Kelly frequently butchered "Casey at the Bat," pathetic without letting it tip into maudlin.
The Picture: A story about a nineteenth-century ballplayer drinking himself to death is an engraved invitation to sink into overwritten dialect and bathos; I'd like to see Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry team up again to take a crack at it, preserving the romantic, fond elements of Kelly's story without drowning it, as they did with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
(Photo illustrations by Neil Robinson)
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Sarah D. Bunting is the East Coast Editor at Previously.TV. She has written for New York, Glamour, MSNBC.com, NPR.org and Yahoo!, and despairs of the Mets at TomatoNation.com.