Stream On: No joy in Mudville*—‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ and ‘Eight Men Out’
Everybody knows everybody’s dying. That’s why people are as good as they are.
Whatever baseball’s origins, there’s no doubting that today it’s the American summer sport. And movies about and around the game have been made since 1898, it serving as a useful backdrop and metaphor for teamwork and cooperation.
One of my favorite movies shows a New York baseball team (although it could be any sports team) hit by a terminal diagnosis, and another is a cautionary tale about professional sports meeting organized crime.
“Oh, bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, And play the dead march as you carry me along; Put bunches of roses all over my coffin, Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.” (The Streets of Laredo)
Adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name, Bang the Drum Slowly is the story of “the way a doomed man may spend his last best year on earth, [and] how a quarrelsome group of raucous individualists is welded into an effective combat outfit.” (Charles Poore book review, The New York Times)
A bromance that’s dry, funny and still poignant, Bang the Drum Slowly stars Robert De Niro (The Godfather Part II, Heat), then a relative newcomer, as Bruce Pearson, a catcher of limited intellect and ability on the fictional New York Mammoths major league baseball team, who has been given a diagnosis of terminal Hodgkins Disease. Sardonic star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), a sophisticate who has written a book and sells insurance on the side, finds himself sympathetic when he learns of his roommate’s diagnosis. “He’s almost too dumb to play a joke on. And now he’s been played the biggest joke of all.” Being his away roommate, Henry is Bruce’s only teammate who knows, having accompanied him to the Mayo Clinic, and then on a side trip to visit Bruce’s parents in Georgia, where Bruce quietly burns his scrapbook and photos in the night.
When they get to camp, Henry learns that Bruce’s already tenuous position is threatened by a new hot-shot catcher, and takes measures to protect his new friend. In the hotel, the manager calls Henry, saying he’s found a mark for a game of TEGWAR. Henry says, okay; he’s bringing Bruce. The manager replies “Bruce Pearson?” with a scowl. Henry warns him, “From now on, I won’t play without him.”
TEGWAR is a game the players use to fleece civilians. It stands for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules; it takes a quick mind to fake convincingly, and becomes a satisfying metaphor for the hand Bruce has been dealt—and for Henry’s changing stories with which he hopes to fend off their suspicious manager (Vincent Gardenia). Bruce becomes adept under Henry’s tutelage, and it mirrors the larger story—until Bruce’s time is up.
After a troubling but inconsequential episode in the night, Henry shares Bruce’s story with two teammates who have the team doctor’s number. When they warm to Bruce, the former butt of everyone’s jokes, the unhappy Bruce says, “Probably everybody would be nice to you if they knew you were dyin’.”
Henry tells him, “Everybody knows everybody’s dying. That’s why people are as good as they are.”
New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey wrote that the book had “one of the loveliest last lines in American literature,” which is also the memorable last line of the movie, from Henry’s voice-over epilogue.
Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate led by Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner, A Serious Man).
In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were considered among the greatest baseball teams ever assembled; however, the team’s stingy owner, Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), gives little inclination to reward his players for a spectacular season.
Gamblers “Sleepy” Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Billy Maharg get wind of the players’ discontent, asking shady player Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) to convince a select group of Sox—including star knuckleball pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Straithairn, Wiseguy), who led the majors with a 29–7 win–loss record and an earned run average of 1.82—that they could earn more money by playing badly and throwing the series than they could earn by winning the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
A number of players, including Gandil, Swede Risberg, and Lefty Williams, go along with the scheme. The spiritual center of Field of Dreams, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), an illiterate and the team’s hitting star, is also invited, but is depicted as not bright nor even entirely sure of what is going on. Buck Weaver (John Cusack), meanwhile, insists that he is a winner and wants nothing to do with the fix.
Chicago journalists Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton become suspicious, and rookie pitcher Dickie Kerr, not in on the scam, wins Game 3, making the gamblers and his teammates uncomfortable, before the fat lady sings and the jig is up.
*Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888)
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