ME AND “THE NATURAL” (1984) – GARRY ARMSTRONG

“God, I LOVE baseball.”

It’s a line that comes up near the end of Robert Redford’s 1984 film, “The Natural.” Redford’s “Roy Hobbs” character is reflecting on the odd turns his life has taken, but he is still playing baseball, still chasing his dream. It’s a wistful, melancholy reflection because the protagonist has lost many productive years because of a bizarre and almost fatal incident.

As many of you know, I’m a life-long baseball fan with roots dating back to the late 1940’s and the Boys of Summer, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I’ve always loved baseball!  It’s had an almost hypnotic grip on me. I fantasize about baseball the way some men day-dream about a tryst with a beautiful woman. There are only a handful of really good baseball movies. Hollywood, for some reason, hasn’t been able to get a grip on baseball. The short list of good baseball movies includes “The Natural”, “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”, “Major League” (The original), “42”, “Cobb”, “A League of Their Own” and one or two I’ve forgotten.

“The Natural” and “Field of Dreams” top my list.  Some baseball purists, including a couple of Boston sports writers I know, claim those films are too hokey and sentimental. I disagree. Both films carry the lyricism of baseball. They are “print the legend” movies about America’s national pastime. Pro football is great but baseball is special, part of the fabric of our American dream.

My favorite memories, then and now, are of baseball games played during hot summer afternoons. They are languid, not long. Each at bat is drama unto itself. What will the pitcher throw? Can the batter hit the 100 mph fastball? It’s really a chess match between two teams, managers trying to out-scheme each other. I still stand and gasp when great defensive plays are made. This year’s Boston Red Sox have several gifted young players. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogerts, Jackie Bradley, Jr, and Andrew Benentendi are capable of highlight reel plays in the blur of a second. It’s a joy to watch them play.

Field of Dreams – the Ghostfield

The long-maligned Chicago Cubs were the talk of the Nation last year when they won their first World Series in over a century. Everyone felt good for the Cubbies and their fans. It didn’t really matter that your team was on the outside looking in. Real baseball fans have a special bond. Our political leaders might take note.

The New York Yankees have their own core of talented young players.  Mother of mercy, did I just say that?  Never in the wide, wide world of sports did I think I’d watch and appreciate the dreaded Yankees. Applaud “The Pinstripes”?  Family and old friends would gasp in disbelief. The “Baby Bombers” include Aaron Judge, a giant of a young slugger who is setting the baseball world on its ear. Judge, 6’7″ or 6′ 8″ is a muscled Paul Bunyon who appears on the verge of becoming a legend as a rookie. He’s already surpassed Joe DiMaggio’s record for home runs by a rookie and we’re just past the midway mark of the season.  Aaron Judge has the looks and personality of one of those old “Wheaties” Breakfast of Champions heroes. I tune into Yankee games just to catch Judge at bat. His home runs are routinely Ruthian.  You have to be a genuine baseball fan to appreciate Aaron Judge in a Yankee uniform. He appears to be (so far) this generation’s new superstar without the baggage of arrogance or rumors of drugs.

The new generation of Yankees and Red Sox promises to fire up their long rivalry, hopefully with appreciation rather than spiteful dislike.

The Yanks visit Fenway Park in a few days for a four-game series. It promises to be exciting and fun for all. It certainly will get me away from our national political angst.

All of which brings me back to “The Natural.” I’m 75 and still have boyish dreams. Yes, some are X-rated. Men are pigs. No argument. However, most of my dreams are about baseball. I’m Roy Hobbs who is a composite of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and (for me), Duke Snider.

Robert Redford admits he copied Ted Williams’ batting stance, even his uniform number 9. Redford’s grace on the base paths and in the outfield remind me of my hero, Duke Snider. There’s a sense of grace to his movements, even the way he swings his shoulders as he runs. I shamelessly copied those movements when I played baseball as a not-very-gifted youth and adult.

If I could have one genie wish, it would be to morph as Roy Hobbs in his prime. I think now, more than ever, America needs Roy Hobbs to hit a walk off home run and send us home with unbounded happiness.

Garry’s Baseball Movie Picks

Summer will come. It’s already officially well into springtime. To me, this means baseball. Red Sox doing pretty well, so far. What could be better?

You guessed it. Baseball and movies, and especially movies about baseball that combine my two favorite pastimes. Put them together and I’m in heaven! I know it’s all subjective so here is my list of favorite baseball movies plus a few anecdotes.

FIELD OF DREAMS  — Perhaps the perfect film for a life-long baseball fan with memories of baseball “when the grass was green” and they had just 8 teams in each major league. For many years, I had the lineups of ALL the teams committed to memory. James Earl Jones’ monologue about baseball says it all for me and why it remains so dear to my heart.

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THE NATURAL — Robert Redford‘s Roy Hobbs is a sanitized version of the dark Bernard Malamud novel. But Redford who played college ball looks very natural (a welcome change from the awkward Hollywood baseball movies of the past) as the lefty hitter and southpaw pitcher. Hobbs is the reel version of real life baseball player, Eddie Waitkus who I remember from long ago. Redford has said he modelled his stance and swing after Boston Red Sox legend, Ted Williams. “Teddy Ballgame” who didn’t have an affinity for the media, took a liking to me and shared his feeling about movies in general. #9 liked John Wayne movies. So did I. We swapped anecdotes about time spent with “The Duke”. Asked about Redford’s Roy Hobbs, Williams said, “He’ll do”. I still get goose bumps every time Hobbs literally knocks out the stadium lights with his game winning hits.

Cover of "Bull Durham"

BULL DURHAM — Could easily be my number one baseball movie. It’s real, funny and well done. I spent time with our local Triple A team and can tell you “Bull Durham” is right on the mark, smack down to the clichés, the clichés notebook, the bus trips, the small town ball parks and the parallel lives of players ascending and descending as they focus on reaching “the show”. Kevin “Crash Davis” Costner was never better as the career minor league catcher who nurtures brash “wild thing” pitching prospect, Tim Robbins. And, yes, there are real life Susan Sarandons who also “nurture” players. You could look it up!!

PRIDE OF THE YANKEES — Yes, even if you’re not a Yankee fan, there is no way you cannot admire Lou Gehrig — the player and the man. And, there’s no way you cannot appreciate Gary Cooper’s performance as he breathes life into the baseball legend. Coop was a natural right-hander and they needed some photographic “magic” to transform him into the lefty hitting Gehrig. But Cooper captured Gehrig’s professional and private mannerisms. Ted Williams, who remembered Gehrig, said Gary Cooper got it “just right”. The closing scene of Coop/Gehrig walking into the dugout and into the darkening tunnel — is a classic.

MAJOR LEAGUE — Funny and endearing. Reminds me of Casey Stengel and his original lovable, bumbling “Amazin Mets”. The outcasts who become heroes never gets old. I still remember interviews with “The Ol’ Perfesser” extolling the ‘virtues’ of his hapless players like “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry and “Choo Choo” Coleman who would become the character types for the “Major League” comic baseball heroes. Art imitates life.

THE BAD NEWS BEARS — The original with Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal. This is another one that never gets old. It’s the Little League version of “Major League”. It resonates with me because of my hapless days as a kid playing on the street and in pickup games on local fields. I couldn’t hit and couldn’t field. But my imitation of my hero “Duke” Snider at the plate was pretty good.

61*  — Billy Crystal’s HBO movie and homage to his beloved N.Y. Yankees and their memorable 1961 season with the Mantle-Maris chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record. Again, I had the good fortune to interview Mantle and Maris — just a year later when the draining physical and mental effects of that legendary year were still very obvious.

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THE BOYS OF SUMMER — TV documentary of the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers of the 40’s and 50’s. It peaks with the “Bums” finally winning the World Series in 1955 after many, many years of losing to their nemesis, The Yankees. These were the heroes of my youth. The “Duke”, Campy, Pee Wee, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges and all the rest. I lived and died with victories and defeats. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, a piece of me died. *One of the two biggest personal moments in my professional life was meeting my baseball hero, “Duke” Snider. He was in the twilight of his career but still had that sweet swing and classic jog. “The Boys of Summer” keeps my childhood memories alive.

BASEBALL  — Ken Burns multi-segment documentary on baseball. A historical TREASURE looking at the game from its birth, the parallel social environment as the game changed and evolved across decades and a century. It also arrived on the scene amid a baseball strike. Perfect timing for distraught fans!!

(*John Wayne was the other professional/personal highlight that tops a well-remembered list.)