Each week (or not), Dan McQuade reviews a baseball movie. This week in Cinema Varitek: The 1952 biopic The Winning Team, starring Ronald Reagan, Doris Day and Frank Lovejoy, written by Ted Sherdeman and Seeleg Lester & Merwin Gerard, directed by Lewis Seiler. These reviews usually contain spoilers.
History hasn't been kind to Ronald Reagan. Not as a president, mind you, but as an actor. He's not exactly looked upon by film buffs as a good actor; things like that happen when one of your most famous films is one where you raise a chimp in an attempt to solve the "nature versus nurture" debate.
So who better than a sub-par actor to star in The Winning Team, a 1952 biography of Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the greatest Phillies pitchers of all time. The movie isn't perfectly true to life, but does follow the basic storyline of Alexander's life up to 1926. It, unfortunately, ends before this happens:
Roy H. Masonnof of St. Paul filed a $25,000 lawsuit against him in January 1930, charging him with being a "love pirate."
But no matter; the end of Alexander's life was troubled and probably not really fit for a Hollywood movie in 1952. The Winning Team, incidentally, gets my thumbs-up simply for making up a Hall of Fame plaque for Reagan as Alexander.
The Winning Team loosely follows the life of Grover Cleveland Alexander -- aka Old Pete, Alex the Great, etc. -- from his days as a youngster working on a farm to his triumphant victory in the 1926 World Series. As we see early in the film, Alex was destined to be a ballplayer. When he worked for the phone company, he was already wearing one of those 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates painters' caps.
Alex works for the phone company, but keeps blowing off work (and other commitments, including ones with his fiance) in order to play baseball, his true passion. He ends up pitching against a minor league club -- filling in for a man who's injured because he was kicked by a horse (really) -- tossing a complete game shutout against the professionals in a 1-0 victory. This, of course, causes the manager of the professional Galesburg club to take off his hat and swing at it with a bat.
Although his wife, Aimee (Doris Day), and her father are troubled by Alex's love of baseball, he ends up signing with the same club he shut out in the exhibition game. He's hoping to make enough to put a down payment on a farm in Nebraska for he and Aimee. Tragedy strikes, though, as he's hit in the face with a baseball while going from first to second.
This won't be the last time we see Alex on the ground in this movie.
Next, is one of my favorite shots in the movie, one of Ronald Reagan getting his eyes checked out (he has double vision from the accident).
Alex's baseball career seems over; he gets married to Aimee and resumes working in Nebraska. Suddenly, though, he gets his vision back, has his contract purchased by the Phillies and is back in baseball -- even with the support of his wife!
At the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia in 1911, he pitches a preseason game against the Philadelphia Athletics, who hadn't yet moved to the moon. This leads to the best piece of dialogue in the film:
Woman: "I think it's plain silly to play a preseason game between the Phillies and the Athletics. Connie Mack has a World Champion team, and the poor Phillies haven't been out of the second division since I can remember."
Aimee Alexander: "You mean the Phillies aren't very good?!"
Woman: "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken feathers."
Truly, you can't.
We then get the shot that is in every single baseball movie ever made, the newspaper montage!
Hmm. Perhaps I could get a job at the Philadelphia Post-News.
There's no mention of Alex's self-proclaimed failure in the 1915 World Series, but we do get a couple shots of Alex in World War I, killing the kaiser or something. Alex had been traded to the Cubs as he went off to war, and when he returns he begins to suffer blackouts. This leads to the best scene in the film, memorialized here in animated .gif form.
Wow. He passes out yet still holds on to the ball. Now that's impressive.
A doctor tells Alex he has epilepsy; he then starts drinking heavily, hoping it would relieve his condition. (This, incidentally, is all true.) Here's where the facts start to differ, though, as Alex is kicked out of baseball, and resorts to playing for the House of David traveling team and speaking at carnivals along with Satan. No, really.
On the plus side, he attacks some dude who tells him he never did anything but give baseball a bad name.
Aimee convinces player-manager Rogers Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy) to take Alex on his 1926 squad; suddenly, the rag-tag Cardinals are in the World Series against the mighty Yankees, and the newspaper editorial cartoonists take time out from drawing Boss Tweed (why?! he had been dead for almost 50 years!) to take a shot at Old Pete.
In real life, Alex won Games 2 and 6 of the World Series, then came on in relief in Game 7 with the bases loaded and 2 outs in the seventh. He struck out Tony Lazzeri to end that threat; in the ninth, Babe Ruth was caught stealing with two outs to give the Cardinals the series.
In the movie, there's a madcap dash to the stadium by Aimee -- who, I guess, didn't attend games Alex didn't pitch, as she wasn't a team player -- and Alex ends the game with a strikeout. Despite the game being at Yankee Stadium, the fans go bananas and rush the field in celebration, inexplicably. Oh, and his wife at one point attacks a fan in more hat-related humor!
All in all, it's not so bad of a movie, especially for one from 1952 starring Ronald Reagan. We also get to see an old-timey spelling of Pittsburgh!
Or maybe there was another Forbes Field in Pittsburg, Kansas. Who knows.