The Natural: Cinema, Fiction, Myth and Reality

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The 2009 baseball season is officially under way, and I marked that fact by watching The Natural this afternoon - which may become an annual tradition. It's probably my favorite sports films of all time, and the final scene is among the best in cinema, always making me pretend something has got stuck in my eye. But the movie operates on so many levels: as a heroic struggle, a tale of redemption and happiness lost and found, and among the most evocative depictions of what makes baseball the game that we love. After the jump, we look at the movie from these various angles, the book from whence it came, and also the players to whom the tag 'The Natural' has been applied over the years. [Warning: here be spoilers for both film and novel!] It's quite long, so get a beverage...

For the Love of the Game

I think I adore the film so much, because no other has come close to capturing the magic of baseball, that can happen at any time. Either team can prevail on a given day, no matter the odds - just ask the Netherlands. Sure, there are chunks here that are difficult to swallow (not least Redford as a teenager, when he was nearer fifty), but in Roy Hobbs, we have a true hero: someone who, despite faults and the pain the game brings him, still loves the sport and believes in its essential goodness. There's never any doubt about his own essential goodness either. He's prepared to risk everything, even his own life, to play one game for his team; seventy years after the film is set, one hopes at least some of today's players would be willing to do the same.

Redford is ideal for the role, though some were unimpressed, Roger Ebert saying, "Why did The Natural have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford?" But he is one of the few actors - in that era or any other - who could bring the multitude of qualities necessary to Hobbs, without rendering the whole thing implausible. As one review put it, "Surely, it must not be easy being, in succession, Rapid Robert Feller, Sir Lancelot, Eddie Waitkus, Captain Marvel, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Casey of Mudville and General Hospital". The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Joe Don Baker standing out in as 'The Whammer', a thinly-disguised portrayal of Babe Ruth, at least the equal of John Goodman's. Glenn Close is also near-perfect (and Oscar-nominated) as Iris; it's a million miles from her downright scary performances in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons.

Mention has to be made of Randy Newman's excellent score, sweeping majestically along behind proceedings, and reaching its climax at the finale, which it accompanies perfectly. But it is likely Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry's script that deserves most credit, even if their adaptation was radically-different from the novel on which it was based. More on that below, but viewing it strictly on its own merits, the story does what is needed beautifully: evoking an earlier, if possibly non-existent, era when most players were more concerned about the game than the rewards to be gained from it. The 25 years that have passed have, if anything, only damaged the place of the sport in the American psyche further, adding even more resonance to the themes it expresses.

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The Natural as mythology

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
    -- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Campbell would be proud. The 'monomyth' described above in his seminal text, on which he theorized all legends are based, is re-enacted almost step-by-step in The Natural. Take, for example, the phase described as 'The Crossing of the First Threshold': "The hero must cross the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not. Often this involves facing a "threshold guardian", an entity that works to keep all within the protective confines of the world but must be encountered in order to enter the new zone of experience." This, almost perfectly, describes Hobbs' arrival - from the dark clubhouse tunnel - in to his team's dugout, and the first encounter with extremely reluctant manager and threshold guardian, Pop Fisher.

Overall, Homer's Odyssey and Arthurian legend are the main touchstones. In the former, the hero leaves on a quest, only to be derailed, largely through bad choices - it takes years for him to recover and achieve his goal. Fortunately, despite the presence of various temptations, the woman he truly loves, is still there for him, and provides crucial help and strength at the most perilous of moments. As for King Arthur, it's most obviously present in the name of the team for whom Hobbs plays: the New York Knights. The overall story most closely resembled Sir Perceval's, but the bat, 'Wonderboy', is also Hobbs' version of Excalibur, with a mythical origin - here, hewn from a tree struck by lightning - and at the end, Hobbs must prevail without its power. [Because you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you...]

The Judge who owns a majority stake in the Knights, but whose position is put at risk by Hobbs, represents the Devil, lurking in the darkness. He wants Hobbs to sell his soul, first for cold, hard cash, and when that overture is rejected, he threatens to ruin Hobbs by reviving his past. Indeed, you could start reading a good chunk of Christian symbolism elsewhere in the story too: the wound in the hero's side; the halo-like appearance afforded to Iris as she watches Hobbs from the stands; possibly even Memo (Kim Basinger) as apocryphal temptress Lilith. All told, it's rare for any movie to have such depth - let alone a mere sports flick.

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Book versus Movie

The greatest difference between the film and Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel, on which it's based, is at the end - and it's quite stunning. Rather than hitting the pennant-winning home-run, Hobbs strikes out, having initially accepted the Judge's offer to throw the contest while in hospital, then changing his mind while play is in progress. After the game, he throws the money back, but it's too late. A newspaper headline that evening points the finger at him as having thrown the game: when asked by a young boy to "Say it ain't so," Hobbs is unable to do so, and breaks down weeping, rather than being reunited with his son. The End. Not quite the ultimate feel-good finale provided by the film, then.

To some extent, these differences are a product of their times, as is every epic myth - they tell the audience what they want to hear. The movie is perhaps the product of a more optimistic era, not one which had emerged, only a few years before, from a brutal, lengthy global conflict. As noted above, the cracks in the facade of baseball as a pastoral pastime, rather than big business, were already becoming hard to ignore, and the movie version offered an affirmation of the old ways. Certainly, the cinematic Hobbs is a good deal more likable than the literary version, who lacks most heroic qualities and is largely driven by lust and selfishness. Amongst other changes: when Hobbs strikes out the Whammer, his last pitch hits the scout in the stomach causing fatal internal bleeding, and Iris in the book is a grandmother.

Of course, the two are different beasts, and comparing them directly is a futile endeavor. Malamud writes about corruption of the innocent, while Barry Levinson is, as we've seen, telling a classic heroic tale. What works on the page is not necessarily what works on the screen, though the scope of the changes here - not least the finale - radically alters the intent in a way far greater than is usually seen in adaptations. Malamud, however, was not unhappy with the result. Even if his cynicism was largely excised from the film version, it enabled him "to be recognized as an American writer," rather than just a Jewish one - a theme in much of his work. So everybody wins: not least lazy sports writers, who now have themselves an easy label to apply to any over-achieving rookie...

The Real-Life 'Naturals'

The original inspiration for the movie was the 1949 shooting in a Chicago hotel, of then Phillies first-baseman Ed Waitkus, by an obsessed teenage fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen. She had become infatuated with Waitkus in his time with the Cubs, but after he was traded to Philadelphia, decided that if she couldn't have him, no-one could. Waitkus survived, but the former All-Star's career was never the same, and he didn't play past the age of 35. Various incidents do have some base in reality: for example, Hobbs' breaking the stadium clock mirrors Bama Rowell of the Boston Braves, who hit a ball off the clock at Ebbets Field in May 1946, showering the field with glass. Bump Bailey running into the outfield wall is eerily prescient of a later incident in 1991 involving Rodney McCray, but was likely inspired by Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser, who was administered last rites after a 1947 crash into the concrete at Ebbets.

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The term 'The Natural' has been used for many players, most frequently since the film came out in 1984. A mere couple of weeks after its release, Bob Costas used it to describe Cubs' second-baseman Ryne Sandberg, for his performance in a June 23rd game against the Cardinals. In that contest, the future Hall of Famer went 5-for-6, drove in seven runs, hit a solo homer in the ninth to tie the game - and then a two-run shot with two out in the bottom of the tenth, tying it up again, as Chicago went on to win 12-11. However, the accuracy involved in many of these uses, when compared to the film, is dubious, mostly because of the age of the player concerned. For example, Will Clark got the tag in his rookie season, but he was 22; Roy Hobbs was 35 when he finally reached the majors. Similarly, Jeff Francoeur was anointed in his rookie season as 'The Natural' on the cover of Sports Illustrated (above), despite being only 21.

Somewhat more credible a candidate is the Yankees' Shane Spencer, who swatted ten home-runs in only 67 at-bats after his 1998 call-up at age 26. However, he first spent eight years in the minors, racking up 3,600 PAs there, so Crash Davis would perhaps be a more accurate nickname for him. Spencer flamed out thereafter, never reaching 100 OPS+ in five seasons, and hitting off-field troubles too - he was charged with drunk-driving and [along with Karim Garcia] assaulting a pizza-delivery guy. Robert Redford is unimpressed... In another parallel with Davis, Spencer is now a minor-league coach, for the Padres' A-ball club.

Rick Ankiel, like Hobbs, was a pitcher who became a hitter. He was runner-up for 2000 NL Rookie of the Year with the Cardinals, but starting the first game of the playoffs, walked four batters and threw five wild pitches in the same inning. Ankiel might as well have been shot; he was toast, and despite struggling for five more years, gave up pitching. Then, on a balmy August night in 2007, he returned to St. Louis - in right-field, natch - making his first major-league game as a position-player at age 28. With two outs in the seventh, he dispatched a 2-1 Doug Brocail pitch into the right-field bleachers "with an effortless swing" for a three-run homer. Cue a standing ovation and a swelling Randy Newman score. Except, the following month, it was revealed Ankiel had received eight shipments of HGH in 2004. Oops. Not so 'natural,' eh? Again: Robert Redford does not approve.

In reality, only four position players have debuted at age 35 or older in the past fifty years, and the results have largely been unimpressive. Billy Williams (36 years, 63 days) went 0-for-12 with the 1969 Seattle Pilots. Hank Izquierdo (36:142) was 7-for-26 with the 1967 Twins. Minnie Mendoza (36:144) went 2-for-16, again with the Twins, in 1970. Finally, there's Bob Thurman, who first appeared in a major-league game, 30 days short of his 38th birthday in 1955 for Cincinnati (though he lied about his age at the time, pretending to be born in 1921). Unlike the trio above, he did at least hit a big-league homer - indeed, did so in his second ever at-bat, though his Reds finished only fifth in the league that season. Still, he's as good a candidate as any - not least for his performance in a game on August 18, 1956 where he hit three homers and a double at the age of 39.

But perhaps the most Natural-like debut of a 'veteran rookie', came on Opening Day last season at Wrigley Field. Kosuke Fukudome became only the second position player in the past fifty years, to have debuted in their thirties and hit a homer on their debut [The other is Oakland catcher Tom Wilson on May 19, 2001, aged 30 years, 151 days]. Admittedly, Fukudome had a long career in Japan before that, and was never shot by a mysterious woman in black (as far as I know). But like Hobbs, he played right-field; he came up, bottom of the ninth, in his first major-league game, facing Eric Gagne with his team down by three and two men on. Fukudome tied things up with a three-run homer. While the Cubs lost in extra innings, that's truly the stuff of legend, and is the kind of moment, of which everyone involved with the game - fans or players - lives to be a part.

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