The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies
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The Natural - 1984

When TriStar Pictures agreed to produce The Natural, many in the movie industry felt it was a mistake. The script, adapted from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, had been kicking around Hollywood for years. Jon Voight, Michael Douglas and Nick Nolte all expressed an interest at one time or another, but no studio was willing to invest in it.

Sports movies are a risky proposition. A few succeed at the box office, but more fail. Also, Malamud’s original story was rather dark with overtones of Homer and Greek mythology. How were you going to sell that to baseball fans? And if a movie about baseball couldn’t even attract baseball fans, well, what was the point?

But in 1983, Robert Redford saw the script. He was looking for an opportunity to work with director Barry Levinson and he knew Levinson had always wanted to make a baseball movie. They took the idea to TriStar, and on the strength of Redford’s name, and Levinson’s success with the film Diner, the studio agreed to do the film.

Still, there were doubts. “Redford goes into The Natural with two strikes against him,” wrote syndicated columnist Ivor Davis. “Baseball, that traditionally iffy film subject, and middle-aged disillusionment and failure in the character.” There was a third potential strike: the 46-year-old Redford trying to pass for a major league ballplayer.

The producers resolved one issue—the disillusionment—by changing the story. In Malamud’s novel, Roy Hobbs is a tragic figure who literally strikes out at the end. In the film, the script by Roger Towne(brother of Oscar-winner Robert Towne) has Hobbs hitting a mammoth home run to win the pennant. As endings go, that’s a little more uplifting.

“The movie’s tone is very different,” producer Mark Johnson said. “Ours is a story about a man who is given a second chance and what he does with it. The book is cynical, ours is hopeful.”

On the other matter—Redford’s credibility as a ballplayer—the producers and writers did not have to do a thing. Redford played a lot of baseball in his youth, and even in his forties he was in good shape, so he was believable as Roy Hobbs. Okay, it was a stretch when he played Hobbs as a teenager, but when he threw the ball, that smooth southpaw motion was a pleasure to watch. And when he picked up a bat as the older Roy, well. . . .

“Robert Redford’s swing is maybe the best acting he’s ever done,” wrote Wilfrid Sheed in the New York Times.

“Redford plays so authentically,you want to sign him up,” wrote Roger Angell in The New Yorker.

The film opens with Hobbs as a boy, playing catch in the fields with his farmer father. One night, lightning splits a tree behind the house and young Roy carves a bat out of the wood. He engraves the name “Wonderboy” on the barrel.

It isn’t long before Roy (now played by Redford) is 19 and riding the train to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. Along the way, he encounters “the Whammer” (Joe Don Baker), a thinly disguised version of Babe Ruth. The scout who found Roy bets sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) that the kid can strike out the Whammer on three pitches. When the train stops, they find an open field and Roy does, indeed, blow three fast balls past the Whammer.

The mysterious Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) watches the contest and the next thing you know, she is sitting with Roy on the train asking, “Have you ever read Homer?” Right away, you get a bad feeling. She has a weird look in her eye and she is dressed entirely in black. You keep waiting for the alarm to go off in Roy’s head, but he is so naive he tells this creepy stranger about his dreams.

“Someday when I walk down the street, people will say:‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was, the best there will ever be in the game,’ ” he says.

Roy doesn’t realize it, but he has just walked into the black widow’s web. In Chicago, Harriet invites him to her hotel room where she shoots him with a silver bullet. It seems Harriet is a deranged woman on a mission to kill “the best” in every sport. She planned to take out the Whammer (she was giving him the eye on the train) but when she saw Roy in action, he became the target instead.

It is a bizarre scene—and not very well explained in the movie—but it is based on a true story. In 1949, a woman named Ruth Ann Steinhagen shot Eddie Waitkus, first baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies, in Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel. Police reports indicate she was a delusional baseball groupie who was infatuated with Waitkus. We’ve seen that stalker syndrome repeated many times.

Harriet Bird is a different story. She appears out of nowhere, shoots the hero and leaps to her death from the hotel window. We’re left wondering: “What was all that about?” It is the weakest part of the movie,but it sets up the real story which is Roy’s comeback.

Like Waitkus, Hobbs survives the shooting. Waitkus returned to baseball the following season and helped the Phillies win the National League pennant. Hobbs isn’t as lucky. He drops out of sight for 16 years. He resurfaces in 1939 as a middle-aged rookie with the New York Knights, a last-place team in the National League.

When Hobbs reports, manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) doesn’t want any part of him.“Mister,” he says, “you don’t start playing ball at your age, you retire.” Hobbs will not discuss his past or why he was away from the game for more than a decade. He was playing outfield for a semi-pro team when a Knights scout saw him and signed him for$500. Fisher puts Hobbs on the bench and ignores him.

Finally, Fisher tires of the lackadaisical play of right fielder Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen). He benches Bailey and sends Hobbs up to hit for him. “Come on, Hobbs,” Fisher says.“Knock the cover off the ball.” Which he does—literally. Hobbs hits the ball so hard, the seams explode and the insides unravel. The outfielders are chasing a tangle of string while the winning runs cross the plate. The legend is born.

Given the chance to perform, Hobbs becomes the best player in baseball.But evil forces are at work. The team owner, the Judge (Robert Prosky), will gain full control of the ball club from Fisher if the Knights fail to win the pennant. It looked like a sure bet until Hobbs came along. Now the team is winning. The Judge offers Hobbs a bribe to tank the rest of the season.Hobbs flatly refuses.

But the Judge and his gambler sidekick Gus (Darren McGavin)have a Plan B. Actually, it’s Plan Double B as in Blonde Bombshell. They introduce Hobbs to Memo Paris (Kim Basinger). Just like with Harriet Bird, Roy ignores the warning signs. Even Pop Fisher, Memo’s uncle, tells Roy,“She’s a jinx.” But it’s too late, Royis smitten. Pretty soon, he is scoring in the bedroom but striking out on the field. He falls into a deep slump and the Knights go into a tailspin.

The team goes to Chicago and his old girlfriend from back home, Iris (Glenn Close) surprises him by coming to the game. The sight of Iris in her shimmering white dress snaps Roy out of his funk. He hits the game-winning home run one day and hits four more homers the next.After the last game, he walks Iris home and tells her the whole story of what happened to him.

“My life didn’t turn out the way I expected,” he says.

“I believe we have two lives,” Iris says. “The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”

Second chances, in other words.

Iris tells Roy she has a16-year-old son whose father lives in New York. Hello, Roy?This is your son, get it? It takes awhile—in fact, Iris has to put it in the form of a note and send it to the dugout—but finally Roy figures it out.

The Knights’ season comes down to the final weekend. They need one win to clinch the pennant. The Judge will do anything to stop them. At a party, Memo puts poison in Roy’s drink and it causes the bullet wound to rupture in his stomach. The doctor tells Roy if he plays again, it could cost him his life. Without Roy, the Knights lose three in a row and it looks like the season is down the drain.

But on the final night, Roy shows up and with the blood seeping through his jersey, he hits a ball that clears the roof and crashes into the stadium lights, setting off a series of explosions, allowing Roy to do his final home run trot through a shower of fireworks.

The Natural is a movie that stays with you,” said actor Tom Selleck. “You think the movie is over when he hits the home run but then it goes to the shot of him playing catch with his son on the farm, and it adds another layer to it. His life has come full circle. Now he’s back where he started as a boy and he’s playing catch with his son. That’s how most people think of baseball—a game that links the generations.”

Chase Utley, the Philadelphia Phillies All-Star second baseman who has been called “The Natural” by some baseball people, loves it as well. “It’s old-school in a lot of ways, but I could relate to what [Hobbs] was going through and how much it meant to finally get a chance to play in the big leagues. He knew he might only have that one season, so when he says, ‘You’ll get the best I’ve got’, you know he means it.

“Some things are exaggerated, obviously, like the part wherehe knocks the cover off the ball and they’re throwingaround a ball of string. But it’s such a good movie, you don’t mind. There’s apart of you that says, ‘That could never happen’, but there’s another part ofyou that says, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ If you’re really into the story, you gowith it.”

Copyright © 2011 by Running Press