From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Play Ball! Week
Bang the Drum Slowly

Baseball has the potential for drama more than any other sport, I personally believe. In football, if you have a lead, you can run out the clock on your opponent. To a lesser degree this is also true in basketball. In baseball though, there is no running out the clock. You still have to get those last three outs to end a game. And as a result, the team that is behind values every last opportunity. Every swing is a chance to claw your way back into the game. Every moment is precious.

Baseball has also seen this adage extended into the real world amongst its own. There is the very dramatic story of Lou Gehrig, later immortalized in the film Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper playing Gehrig (a film I hope to feature later this week, if I can get my hands on a copy). Less well known is the story of Willard Hershberger, to date the only player to have committed suicide during the season (view stats and a brief bio here). Hershberger's story was told in an exceptional piece in Sports Illustrated by Frank Deford I believe, titled "The Razor's Edge".

Along the lines of Gehrig, there was a fictional story of doomed ballplayer turned into film in 1973 titled Bang the Drum Slowly. The film starred a very young Robert Deniro as catcher Bruce Pearson, a player for the fictional New York Mammoths (who in blazes came up with that name?). Pearson we learn at the start has been diagnosed with some mysterious disease that has put Pearson in the last innings of his life. The only person he trusts to tell is the star pitcher of the Mammoths Henry "Arthur" Wiggen (Law & Order's Michael Moriarity, looking very strange to me with actual hair on his head).

Wiggen and Pearson both keep Pearson's secret from the rest of the team. They don't want it to become another target for the many barbs team members throw Pearson's way. Pearson gets a lot of grief from the team because the simple fact is he's not too bright at all (think Forrest Gump, without the fortune cookie style comments on life). He also is a marginal talent at best. And it looks very likely that Pearson will not even make the team out of Spring Training, due to the arrival of a stud catching prospect with the incredibly contrived name of Piney Woods. Through a sequence of events, Pearson makes the team, is shephered through the season by his new friend Wiggen, and eventually becomes a rallying point for everyone. Cue weepy music, and tug heartstrings.

If I sound cynical about the film, I think it's only because this film is so horribly dated. There are so many 70's film staples that are just awful by today's standards scattered through the film. The music is hideous, the camera work is pretty lame overall, except when they resort to stock footage from actual games. There are some classic 70's/early 80's actors in here, including Danny Aiello in a small role as the first baseman Horse (I am not making this up), and Vincent Gardenia as team manager Dutch. There's some non-sensical subplots surrounding Wiggen and his sideline selling life insurance to other players (?!?!), and ultimately that comes full circle when the time comes that Pearson wants to change his beneficiary on his policy to a Madame he's fallen in love with.

The screenplay is adapted by Mark Harris from his novel. I can only gather from his entry on that Hollywood recognized his limitations as a screenwriter, as his only other credit is for a TV movie in 1980. And that is one of the biggest problems I have with this movie. It feels like one of those TV "Disease of the Week" movies that get run during sweeps week, or appear to be staples on Lifetime.

In fact the only thing that surprised me or affected me at all about the film comes very late in the story. The big secret of Pearson's disease eventually leaks out and finds its way to all members of the team. But what he has is never mentioned until a meeting late in the season with Wiggen and the team's upper management. It's in this meeting that one of the upper management types mentions that it was named for the man who discovered it: Thomas Hodgkin.

It blew my mind to think that what we now know to be the most treatable form of cancer, and the one with the highest survival rate, was just 30 years ago spoken of in the same hushed tones that today we speak of HIV with in TV and movies. It's something of a wonder to consider just how far we've advanced medically in such a relatively short period of time, that today Mario Lemieux plays professional hockey not 2 years after he was diagnosed and treated for Hodgkin's.

In any case, as a baseball movie, this one is pretty weak. It's almost trying to be a poor man's Brian's Song, and doesn't even come close to achieving that level of quality. It's amusing as an opportunity to see a very young Deniro doing his thing before he became a caricature of himself as an actor, and to see the traits that work so poorly for Michael Moriarity as he tries to play a baseball player, but worked in his favor as District Attorney Ben Stone on Law and Order.

Tonight: Field of Dreams