And, it's not as if things changed overnight with Jackie Robinson. Baseball movies made after Robinson's entry could hardly be expected to show us African-Americans.
I remember one of the narrators in that great retrospective HBO special "When It Was a Game." The narrator, reflecting on his youth, expressed shame that he never "noticed" the game's segregation and that he never "objected." We watch the old black and white baseball movies today and we probably have to remind ourselves, with considerable effort, that we are admiring an abomination: segregated (or at least color-conscious) baseball.
The spirit and tone of post-WWII America
There is a charming old baseball movie that I got familiar with on network TV as a child. This is an airy, happy, fun-filled movie: traits associated with that most relieved time in U.S. history, immediately following World War II. I'm talking about "It Happens Every Spring." In case you think the title is suggestive, you're right. We hear the title song accompanied by drawings of animals frolicking amorously in springtime.
Baseball fans in that age had an intimate relationship with their favorite team. So if you were to make a major scientific breakthrough, how might you apply it? Well, you might wonder if it could help your favorite baseball team! The interests of humanity could wait. This premise builds the charm of "It Happens Every Spring."
We meet an absent-minded professor from the days before Fred MacMurray. The professor in this movie seems more genuine than in the absurd Walt Disney productions of the 1960s. The actor is Ray Milland. Del Sarlette of Morris told me once that the actor seemed too old for the role. Milland's love interest in the movie, played by Jean Peters, seems too young for him, if you look at the age of the actors. Oh, suspend credulity. That's what Hollywood expects us to do all the time.
Again, understand the war background
There is a defense for the selection of the somewhat up-in-years Milland. His character in the movie has had his life's ambitions delayed by service in WWII. Excuse permitted. Think of what Ted Williams did in WWII.
Jean Peters plays Debbie Greenleaf while Milland's character is named Professor Vernon K. Simpson.
The professor teaches chemistry at a Midwestern college that seems much like our UMM in Morris. This is a Midwestern-centric movie. As such it's a nice contrast to all the New York City-based fare. The moviemakers had no aversion to the Midwestern motif which might be seen as less marketable. Maybe they saw the Midwestern setting as endearing in the context of immediate post-WWII America. Amber waves of grain. From sea to shining sea. War is over.
Enter America's pastime. A baseball practice outside the campus building results in a ball coming through the window, shattering the elaborate set of beakers. Various components collect in the lab sink. The ball comes in contact. Simpson retrieves the ball. Hey, the baseball is repelled by wooden objects! Despite the phenomenal possibilities of such a substance, where do Simpson's thoughts gravitate? Of course: trying to win baseball games! This innocent premise gives the movie much of its endearing quality.
Simpson realizes he can be an unhittable big league pitcher. What objective could possibly be more important than this? The masses of (almost exclusively white) baseball fans had practically a symbiotic relationship with their favorite team. They didn't care how much those players got paid. Talk about contracts would have been base and unacceptable. Actually all players back then signed the same three-page contract, and they had no leverage at all until after ten years.
People just loved their favorite team.
Simpson experiments with the help of the college baseball players. A dab of this mysterious solution, hidden in his glove, helps Simpson apply this miraculous attribute. He takes on a new identity: "Kelly" Simpson. His team is the St. Cloud Cardinals. In those days, "a trip west" meant to St. Louis or Chicago. Many of the old baseball movies have train travel scenes and the camaraderie that accompanies them. California had the Pacific Coast League which was technically minor league but had very high-caliber players. Plane travel finally connected the whole country, and not even Lloyd Nolan could keep the Dodgers from leaving Brooklyn and Ebbets Field.
I have an elderly friend in Morris who attended a game at Ebbets Field when he was in the service. He said it was a "dump." Doesn't surprise me. The Polo Grounds were probably likewise. But these were New York City landmarks, worthy of our fascination. The fact that the Dodgers and Giants left NYC indicated it was no bed of roses playing there. The Senators left Washington D.C. to become our Minnesota Twins.
Douglas complements Milland
Paul Douglas is an important actor in "It Happens Every Spring." He's the catcher, named Monk Lanigan, and he really nails the role. His character is important because he's assigned to "keep an eye on" this mysterious new player, Simpson.
Despite the far-fetched premise of the movie, the situations really do seem genuine. Milland projects a serious, believable air as professor-turned-pitcher, not like the silly cliche of a character a la Fred MacMurray. MacMurray wasn't to be faulted - he did the role as instructed. Funny thing about the 1960s Disney movies: as I re-watch them as an adult, I find them quite lacking, whereas as a kid I rather enjoyed them.
It's too bad MacMurray had to play a bad guy character in "The Caine Mutiny."
It is important to note that Valentine Davies, who wrote "It Happens Every Spring," also gave us "Miracle on 34th Street." Davies had an innate gift for giving us such soothing "soft" movies. The Christmas "34th" movie is close to reaching the saturation point in holidaytime TV. Other movies flirting with the same kind of problem are "The Karate Kid" and "Happy Gilmore." But it's a testament to their quality.
"It Happens Every Spring" really doesn't appear much anymore on TV. That's a shame. The movie did well at the box office when it was current. The director was Lloyd Bacon.
"Kelly Simpson" is able to pitch the Cardinals to the World Series.
Major League Baseball stayed distant from the movie because it had to do with cheating. Oh my, but just consider the can of worms that came along for baseball with PEDs, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds etc. Baseball could have easily gone along with "It Happens Every Spring," as merely an escapist fantasy.
Simpson has his two goals: to make enough money to wed Deborah, and to help the Cardinals win the pennant. But which is more important? Rimshot.
Simpson has to disappear as a professor to assume his new role with the Cardinals. Deborah is clueless about this. She wonders if he joined the mob.
Paul Douglas as Monk Lanigan gets most of of the funniest lines and best scenes. He tries Vernon's formula as a hair tonic.
Context of the times lifts movie
An online reviewer says "much of what occurs is able to happen because it came from a time when there were no multi-million dollar athletes, no wall-to-wall TV coverage on ESPN and no cynical sports analysts to dissect every play."
Amen and hallelujah. Of course, players weren't rewarded very well, and sports medicine hadn't advanced far. No "pitch count" yet. Scores of young pitchers threw out their arms in the old days. Today these teams have too much of an investment in their young pitchers. A pitcher might be removed from a game when he's 5-6 outs from completing a no-hitter.
In the world of today, Vernon would not be able to hide his identity. You can nitpick the movie. Go ahead, but its basic essence, reflecting the euphoric air of post-WWII America, is 100 percent endearing. Hats off to "It Happens Every Spring." Valentine Davies, you hit it out of the park. Maybe it would be best if this movie is never re-made.