An Appreciation: The Natural

Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, setting for The Natural

The nature of baseball itself has a dramatic effect on devotees.  The world has many digital-choice realities that dictate how we live.  For those in the Mid-Atlantic about half of the year is spent in short sleeves. The other is spent bundled in some fashion.  The lawn needs a weekly mow seemingly forever, and then it doesn’t for seemingly as long.  The list of polar opposites is long.  Baseball is no different.  The schedule is 27 weeks of 6 games per week.  With an average duration of 3 hours and 4 minutes per game viewing 162 games requires just shy of 500 hours.  Watching a game becomes a part of the evening ritual.  By the end of the season it becomes hard to remember an evening without baseball.  And, then it’s gone.  The huge void creates a bit of disorientation at first.  Daylight Savings Time goes away which compounds the insult.  After the “Hot Stove” talk on MLB TV ends at 8pm here comes the list of (mostly awful) baseball-related movies.  At least one is worthy of attention and a two-hour investment, however, the 1984 gem, “The Natural.”

A great movie can be made without having roots in a great story.  But, that was certainly not the case here.  Bernard Malamud wrote the book in 1952 weaving in layer upon layer of complexity and texture.  Incorporating time-period pieces Malamud tells a tale based upon Arthurian legend.  Hobbs is a Midwestern incarnation of Sir Perceval, one of the King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.  A country boy with great natural athletic gifts Perceval fails to see much beyond his own ambitions.  He stumbles into the Waste Lands and meets the Fisher King.  Old and struggling with infirmities the king’s land similarly struggles with drought.  Perceval watches an odd procession with the king only to realize the next morning that he witnessed the key to curing the old man’s maladies.  By then the king had moved on.  He eventually assists Sir Gawain in finding the Holy Grail, and subsequently healing the Fisher King.  On the larger scale, King Arthur dies after being wounded at the Battle of Camlann.  Arthur had dropped Excalibur to run through his antagonist Mordred with a spear.  His poor decision to drop the magic weapon resulted in his demise.

Malamud hides all of this in plain sight.  Hobbs goes to New York to play for the “Knights.”  The irascible manager is “Pop Fisher.”  Chronically in pain he claims to have “Athlete’s Foot of the hands.”  All he ever wanted was the Holy Grail of a pennant.  Mired in an intractable slump a drought had set in that turned the ball field into a dust bowl and rendered the drinking water unfit.   Hobbs’ first hit, which tore the cover off of the ball, produced an instant rain which lasted three days.  The field bloomed green, the team started winning, and Pop suddenly was healthy.  The old curmudgeon started to sing in the shower.  The bat “Wonderboy,” carved from the lightning-struck tree that killed Roy’s father, was Excalibur in all but name with each having nine letters.

Roy Hobbs’ Excalibur

During the critical early phase of the book Malamud injects Babe Ruth as an aging “Whammer.”  Struck out by the youngster Hobbs the Whammer is relegated to history.  Femme Fatale “Harriet Bird” was an adaptation of Ruth Ann Steinhagen.  After stalking Cubs-then-Phillies’ First Baseman Eddie Waitkus the deranged Steinhagen shot him in a hotel room.  Waitkus recovered relatively quickly.  Hobbs did not.  Some suggest that Malamud based the long 15-year lapse on the German myth Tannhauser.  In that tale the protagonist enters the Mountain of Venus, services the goddess for a year, then leaves only to find the human world had moved on for more than a decade.  Hobbs’ penchant for chasing skirts was a recurring theme throughout the book.  Much like King Arthur’s misplaced attraction to the unfaithful Guinevere and Sir Lancelot’s destructive lusts, Hobbs’ carnal instincts cause nothing but grief.  By the end of the story his self-absorption and inability to see the capacity of his gifts to heal leave him headed for destitution.  It is a story in the finest tradition of Greek Tragedy.

Barry Levinson directed a visually stunning interpretation of the book.  The cinematography was amazing.  The scene of Hobbs striking out The Whammer as the sun set and the bugs flew highlighted against the shadows created an indelible image.  Most of the baseball scenes were filmed in the old War Memorial stadium in Buffalo, New York.  The locals called it “The Rock Pile” with good reason.  The locale for many early American Football League games, seemingly always played in a lake-effect snowstorm, the decrepit stadium captured the feel of old wooden-bleacher parks like Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl.  Also in Buffalo, still-standing All-High Stadium was used as a fill-in for Wrigley Field.  The fields, far from the pool-table quality of modern surfaces were rough and lumpy.  It all blended together to form a tableau of old baseball.

Robert Redford was 48 years-old when the film was shot.  He looked every minute of it when he ran out his triple after knocking the cover off of the ball in Hobbs’ first at-bat.  Still slender he tried his best to mimic Ted Williams down to wearing number 9 and emulating his swing.  No one would have mistaken him for a modern ballplayer.  But, in the loose and frumpy wool uniforms of the time and at a distance it more or less worked.   The cast in general was fantastic.  Wilfred Brimley was the embodiment of Malamud’s Pop Fisher; a good guy being done wrong under the shell and temperament of an angry hard crab.  Richard Farnsworth had spent a lifetime in Western movies, much of it as a stunt double.  He played bench coach Red Blow, Hobbs’ only advocate early in his Knights’ tenure.  Glenn Close plays Iris Gaines the virtuous foil to Kim Basinger’s worldly Memo Paris.  The list goes on.  The cast and acting were terrific.  Contributing to the movie was the pitch-perfect musical score by Randy Newman.

Barry Levinson decided to ditch the angst and pain of the book’s ending.  Instead of Hobbs keeping the money, breaking Wonderboy while trying to hit an antagonist fan with a foul ball injuring Iris instead, and striking out with all its repercussions; Hobbs hits the walk-off.  It was a Ruthian affair into the lights.  Everyone lives happily ever after.  It all went from Greek Tragedy to Fairy Tale in one fell swoop.  Hobbs’ hobbled rounding of the bases has been compared to Kirk Gibson’s improbable game-winner during the 1988 World Series.  But, there is one key difference: Hobbs looks down in the expressionless and joyless manner of depression.  His quest to be the best ever was now over, unrequited, and reduced to a solitary fleeting moment.  It’s just enough salt in the sickly-sweet cookie dough to make it edible.

The movie now over it’s time to check the outside lights.  A Winter Storm is forecast featuring the dreaded “Wintry Mix.”  The Solstice sits more than a month away.  It is a milepost with meaning, but without solace.  Here in the deep darks of the world without baseball there were at least a couple of hours of a baseball story that didn’t include Free Agents and Luxury Taxes.   Bedtime story in hand it’s time for “Lights Out.”

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