Lights, Cameras, Play Ball

It’s become a running gag in my house if we’re watching a baseball film or a film with baseball in it. There’s a scene with a couple of actors tossing a ball, or an actor swinging a bat, or an actor prancing to first base. Then Jane will turn to me and say, “Well?”

She’s heard the rant before and expects to hear it again in those moments: “These guys are ridiculous! They’ll gain or drop 50 pounds to prepare for a role, they’ll starve themselves, gorge themselves, go the gym three times a day, go through fake boot camp for the war picture, they’ll do their own stunts, but they can’t learn how to throw a freakin’ baseball?”

I love baseball films, even the bad ones (well, maybe except for The Slugger’s Wife – that one’s like having your eyes gouged out with teaspoons), because there’s a part of me that loves to get angry with the miscast actors in these films. It fulfills some sick need to feel superior as an athlete, to feel like Willie Mays compared to some egg-head actor weaned on Willie Shakespeare.

This is nothing against actors. Some good friends are actors, and some can actually play ball (I’m looking at you, Mike Fisher and Jeff Kelly; and you, Brent Glenn, although your basketball skills impress me more). Others simply can’t (I won’t name names, because some of them confuse tenacity with ability) and the sensible ones among these won’t.

So anyway, I’ve hastily put together this list (in advance of opening day) of the worst movie baseball players, miscast sissies who never learned to step and throw, or catch the ball in the web, or swing through the ball. Feel free to weigh in with your own candidates for induction into this Hall of Lame.

Anthony Perkins

This is a no-brainer, because Perkins is widely (and correctly) believed to be the wimpiest, least believable movie baseball player of all time. He played Jimmy Piersall (an excellent player who struggled with bipolar disorder) in Fear Strikes Out, a movie that I’ve probably seen half a dozen times, each time hoping to see some improvement in Perkins’ game (which is a definition of insanity, I believe – repeating a pattern and hoping for different results. Seriously, this movie has driven me crazy). So, what? Perkins can wield a butcher knife in drag, but he can’t toss a baseball? If he’d used the same overhand motion he used while stabbing Janet Leigh in Psycho, he’d have been a little more believable as a ballplayer in Fear Strikes Out. Madonna was a more authentic ballplayer in A League of Their Own. A lot more.

Ray Milland

He’s a British-born actor playing a college-professor who becomes the game’s best pitcher because of a secret formula he invents that causes a baseball to dodge a wooden bat. The problem is, the actor had to wind up and throw, and he looked like a four-year-old throwing with the wrong arm. But Milland’s performance as a ballplayer in It Happens Every Spring is almost forgivable, because he wasn’t supposed to be a ballplayer, just a guy who was cheating. Nonetheless, Milland was more believable as the disabled asshole patriarch in Frogs.

William Bendix

He played a wholly unathletic Bambino in The Babe Ruth Story, which came out the same year the Babe died, and I really believe the cancer-ridden, dying Babe would have looked better playing ball than Bendix. The funniest thing to me was seeing the 42-year-old Bendix play the 19-year-old Babe, and the goofy Three Stooges effect when young Babe throws the baseball back through a baseball-sized hole in Brother Matthias’ office window. Oh yeah, and Bendix arrogantly pointing to centerfield when dramatizing the called shot.

Ray Liotta

He batted right-handed (and didn’t look good doing it) as the left-handed swinging Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams, and his wise-cracking New Jersey accent doesn’t quite work, seeing as how Jackson was illiterate and from South Carolina.

Dwier Brown

Who the hell is he? He’s the guy who plays John Kinsella, ghostly father of Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner), in Field of Dreams. John’s supposed to be a catcher, come back to life on the diamond Ray built in an Iowa cornfield. His only baseball scene is a few seconds at the end of the film, when he plays catch with Ray. My cat has a better throwing motion than Brown. Bad ballplayers (like Liotta and Brown) stand out more in a good film. And I’ll bet this is more copy than Dwier Brown has received for any role in his movie career.

James Read

Here’s a perfect example of the bad ballplayer standing out in a good film. He plays Lefty Williams in Eight Men Out (definitely one of the best baseball films), one of the ‘Black Sox’ who helped throw the 1919 World Series. Read is very authentic if he’s playing a right-hander trying to throw lefty. He looks awful, like he’s trying to throw the World Series or something.

Gary Cooper

This hurts me to say it, because I love Pride of the Yankees, Gary Cooper and Lou Gehrig (he was my dad’s favorite player, and this was Dad’s favorite baseball film, and it’s one of mine, but still …). Cooper could single-handedly defeat the German army in World War I (Sergeant York), and gun down Frank Miller’s gang (High Noon), but he couldn’t fake being a left-handed hitter, so they filmed the hitting scenes in reverse. Didn’t help, because Cooper couldn’t fake being any kind of hitter.

Some Others

John Goodman was just way too fat to play the young Babe Ruth in The Babe; Edward Herrmann as Lou Gehrig … really? FDR as the Iron Horse?; Wretched-swinging Michael O’Keefe chases Roger Maris’ record and Rebecca De Mornay in The Slugger’s Wife, and chased moviegoers out of the theaters in droves.

I’ve left plenty out, some on purpose. If you read this and have an opinion, share it. Whose on-screen baseball shenanigans have offended you?

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3 thoughts on “Lights, Cameras, Play Ball

  1. I think you’ve nailed ’em. But off the top of my head …

    I seem to remember wincing watching Bernic Mac swing in “Mr. 3000.”

    Jimmy Stewart’s wind-up wasn’t exactly Major League in “The Stratton Story.”

    The longer the Bad News Bears movies lasted, the less Jackie Earle Haley seemed like a baseball superstar.

    The cast of “Damn Yankees.”

  2. How about the super pumped ‘roid players of modern era? It’s like watching a pair of steaks try to skewer themselves. And in a way you could call it acting.

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