The Baseball Film: A Cultural and Transmedia History
(Rutgers University Press, 2022)
Baseball (the sport, not the movies) has made some strange and memorable forays into my life. While out in Nevada, I lived between the Reno Aces minor league stadium and the university baseball park. We used to collect the balls that would wind up in our parking lot from the university park (Warning–Park At Owner’s Risk) and use them to decorate our apartment, a plate of baseballs, like fake fruit or fancy glass orbs, crowned by the ball my roommate actually caught while at an Aces game. The Aces games provided affordable and convenient entertainment. The stadium was a place to hang with friends knocking back IPAs and colas and indulging in overpriced hot dogs, bags of Cracker Jacks with their anticlimactic prizes, or the less traditional cheesecake popsicles, all while laughing at the ballplayers who always chose Nickelback for their walk-up song. During the seventh inning, an endearingly nightmarish inflatable baseball head would pop up above the scoreboard and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” through a stilted animatronic mouth. (He was particularly garish crouched in the shadows behind the scoreboard while not singing, especially during our first time at an Aces game, when the strange ball-head was a total mystery to us until the seventh inning). The park entertained and inspired us when we met one of the players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and watched her throw the first pitch. Set in a slowly revitalizing industrial zone, the ballpark was grazed by the Truckee River’s crystalline waters, often populated by lazy river inner-tubers in scenes that perfectly represented Reno’s ability to be an industrial idyll. A ballgame could become a physical and an emotional refuge on smoky summer days for those evacuated from their homes in the burning desert. During the off-season, it became a haunted “Slaughterhouse,” which I was never quite daring enough to go into. So, in short, I would say I am a nontraditional baseball fan.
When I read about Aaron Baker’s The Baseball Film: A Cultural and Transmedia History, which Rutgers University Press released in January, I hoped for a read as fun as the movies or an afternoon at the ballpark. But I was also extremely curious. How the heck is this author going to make movies romanticizing white male masculinity at all relevant today? Aaron Baker, a professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University, delivers a book that plays hardball with hardball, taking time to lay out the field and its players, both in Major League Baseball (MLB) and on the screen. The book mainly looks at baseball (both sport and movie) through a sociopolitical lens examining race, gender, sexuality, globalization, and children in baseball, as well as the impact of the business sides of the film, television, and professional ball industries on baseball and its representations on screen. The crux of Baker’s argument stems from baseball’s nickname, the “national pastime,” and the irony that the sport is dominated by white men, thereby excluding most of the nation. Of course, this also makes the arenas of the national pastime a sort of metonymy for the systemic problems faced in the United States political arena.
The Baseball Film is as much about the history of film as it is about the history of Major League Baseball. The book thoroughly covers both the history of baseball in America from the 1860s to the present day and the history of baseball films from the early 20th century to today. While many books cover the history of baseball and much criticism exists of many of the films Baker chooses to exemplify baseball’s history and sociopolitical context, it is difficult to find one that does both at once. Baker’s book successfully weaves together conversations in sports and film to create a critical guidebook that surveys the work done on baseball in both film studies and historical studies of the sport. In short, the book is not so much about covering new ground but about taking a fresh, critical survey of the ground that has been covered (including the most recent scholarship and reporting on baseball in the present moment) in order to solidify the baseball film as its own subgenre that is particularly relevant to interpreting (and potentially confronting) current and historical sociopolitical issues. It is a forward-looking book about a sport and a set of films that often look backwards.
As a film buff, I wanted more Hollywood history than MLB history, and I do think that is an important area for future books to explore, but Baker’s historical lens is essential to his argument. Baker writes, “For sports in Hollywood and especially sports biopics, success depends primarily on determination and effort, not the contextual factors in one’s life.” By linking theory, scholarship, film, and baseball as a business and a sport in both national and international arenas, Baker creates context for the baseball film, which challenges the notion of American individualism. This challenge is the most important act of the book because it transforms over the course of the book into a call-to-action for both progressive storytelling in film and television and more equity and inclusion within the MLB.
Baker points out that one problem with calling baseball “America’s pastime” is that MLB has the oldest, whitest fanbase of the most popular professional sports. While MLB has supported Black Lives Matter by honoring the movement at games and has tried to promote the importance of racial inclusion by screening 42 (2013) for all of their teams when the film came out, they are also compensating for the lack of inclusion within the sport and the barriers disempowering marginalized people in the League. While shows of support or educational opportunities are valuable, the League is also largely controlled by white men, which indicates the much deeper changes that need to happen in Major League Baseball in order to see real shifts in power. Baker cites one particular victory that also represents how much work still must be done: “The 2020 off-season saw the historic hiring of Kim Ng as the general manager of the Florida Marlins; she is the first woman to hold such an executive position in any men’s professional sport. Yet Ng was the only non-White-male hire to a MLB management position in a year when hopes for greater inclusion were high.”1 It’s therefore not surprising that white—and male-centric storytelling dominates baseball films.
Baker uses major shifts in the history of the sport—such as the end of the reserve clause, the integration of MLB with Jackie Robinson, or more recent developments such as the use of sabermetrics—to anchor his baseball history and to examine films that represent those changes. Of course, this means that film is always playing catch up. The films aren’t just nostalgic—they are looking back at the historic moments rather than looking forward to what could be possible for the national pastime. Additionally, while Baker analyzes the groundbreaking nature of movies such as 42 or A League of Their Own (1992), his analysis also reveals how these films are still reflective of systemic issues. 42’s storyline relies on the paternalism of a white savior figure (Harrison Ford) guiding Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). A League of Their Own results in a heteronormative happy ending, in which Geena Davis’s character leaves baseball for married life.
The most active decade on Baker’s list of baseball films is the 1980s (also dominated by classics such as The Natural (1984)), and Baker attributes the white male nostalgia of many of these movies to Reaganism in the conservative political climate. But some films confronted the gluttony and greed of the eighties. Eight Men Out (1988) apparently made the least at the box office out of Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Major League (1989). Baker claims this box office bummer is related to the film’s lack of “empowered masculinity” and therefore lack of heroes. Director John Sayles also lamented the pushback he received for using a complex system of multiple perspectives, which also fights against the idea of individualism and heroism, pushing for a more nuanced and democratic approach to storytelling. More recently, the film Sugar (2008) tackled the American Dream by following a young Dominican man who dreams of playing in the majors, but ends up building a different kind of American Dream in a community outside of baseball.
Looking back at my own baseball memories—enjoying those afternoons and evenings at the ballpark—I feel the same warm and inspired feelings most baseball movies instill in me, even while I want more from those same movies. I don’t mean to romanticize the role of the stadium. In fact, the Aces stadium was built in a blighted neighborhood of Reno where development, while revitalizing the city as a whole, is also displacing homeless populations. This act implies the homeless are neither part of the city community nor its progress. But what is significant about this space that (partially) represents the community, for better and worse, is that it also represents the myriad poignant, inspiring, and provocative stories surrounding one ballpark that go far beyond one lone hero working hard and achieving his dream.
Aaron Baker’s The Baseball Film both expands and collects baseball scholarship on film and history into one small, accessible manual that sets up future scholarship. At the crux of Baker’s argument, the baseball film represents systemic issues in Hollywood as much as it does so in professional baseball and the United States, but, because of this systemic representation, the baseball film and its scholarship and the MLB are primed sites to explore new answers and dialogues regarding our most pressing social issues. Baker writes,
In most sports films dominant masculinity gets reaffirmed not only by how men play 62 percent of the lead roles in Hollywood movies, but also by how they often perform in a utopian narrative typical of American cinema, whereby characters achieve success simply by trying hard and following the rules.
Baker’s closing focuses on MLB’s future and possibilities for becoming a more inclusive sport, but where is the baseball film going? Rather than reinforce current issues, film has the ability to imagine better worlds and in turn challenge us to do better in real life. Looking beyond Hollywood to independent, foreign, or experimental film can also help us find films liberated from the conventions and traditional business of filmmaking.
One recent film that didn’t make it into Baker’s book, Baseball Girl (2019) directed by Choi Yoon-Tae was inspired by baseball’s potential rather than its past. Set in South Korea and following an ambitious girl working towards becoming a professional ballplayer, Baseball Girl may represent a shift from American white-male-driven nostalgic baseball movies to movies that imagine more diverse future possibilities. Baseball Girl appears to have been making the festival circuit in the past couple years, including showing in the US at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2020. And if anybody has found a (legal!) way to watch this allusive movie, I would love to hear from you! In the meantime, I look forward to a future built on the dreams of baseball girls around the world.
- Baker chooses to capitalize “White." He tries to apply Kwame Anthony Appiah’s reasoning that “Black” acknowledges “an identity with a history” to whiteness as well (see page 7 of The Baseball Film for further explanation).