- The Baseball Film in Postwar America: A Critical Study, 1948–1962 by Ron Briley
Roy Hobbs, Ray Kinsella, and Dottie Hinson are some of the more memorable characters for most baseball fans and moviegoers who enjoyed the boom of Hollywood baseball films such as The Natural (1984), Field of Dreams (1989), and A League of Their Own (1992) between the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Audiences are likely not nearly as familiar with the characters (or films) of Hollywood’s original obsession with baseball between 1948 and 1962, what Ron Briley terms “the postwar baseball film genre” (p. 3). A preparatory school teacher and author of several baseball books, Briley acknowledges a personal interest in this time period and genre that produced over twenty baseball-themed pictures.
Growing up with white privilege and working-class hardships, Briley was well attuned to the paradoxes of the so-called postwar liberal consensus, which sought social cohesion through anti-Communism and capitalist economic expansion. While baseball films championed American innocence and nostalgia for a supposedly simpler (whiter) time, he argues the genre expressed the contradictions and insecurities of postwar American culture. Although the films may have exposed the ambiguities of the time period, he brilliantly demonstrates how they offered conservative solutions that would not assuage societal tensions.
Followed by an insightful preface and succinct introduction, Briley organizes the book into twelve chapters analyzing fourteen films. Strategic Air Command (1955) and Jim Thorpe: All-American (1951) admittedly feature baseball much less prominently but are included for their thematic alignment. Save chapter 8, each section focuses centrally on one movie. Each chapter is relatively short, cogently structured, and flows well. Routinely, Briley offers concise socio-historical contexts of the film; pertinent baseball and film history; critical biographical information of key actors and characters; cinematic critiques and reviews from the period; the film’s box office reception; and finally, nuanced evaluation through an impressive array of primary and secondary sources including scholarly works, popular texts, and Hollywood documents. He proffers some inter-textual and literary analysis but minimal feminist, racial, transnational, or Cold War theoretical approaches. [End Page 332] While essentially arranged in chronological order, certain themes emerge and overlap as the book progresses.
Chapter 1 establishes the early postwar mythology of an innocent America as well as the formula of the oft-repeated biography film (biopic) through The Babe Ruth Story (1948). Chapters 2 and 3 address gender insecurities and changing gender relations in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) and the reaffirmation of threatened white American manhood and gender order in the biopic The Stratton Story (1949).
Increasing ambivalence surrounding race relations frame the fourth and fifth chapters, featuring biopics The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and Jim Thorpe. Both gloss over or ignore inconvenient truths of racism in each man’s life in favor of promoting sport as a vehicle for social mobility and assimilation. Chapters 6 and 7 invoke social class tensions and the crisis of a white masculinity grappling with domesticity, consumerism, and corporate cooperation through biopics of Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team (1952) and the story of Dizzy Dean in The Pride of St. Louis (1952).
Chapters 8 through 10 consider responses to national insecurity, loss of control, and Cold War fears such as the perceived threat of homosexuality. The former chapter emphasizes religion and supernatural intervention as possible solutions in a trio of unconventional baseball films, It Happens Every Spring (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), and Rhubarb (1951). Strategic Air Command subdues baseball’s primacy and reasserts a potentially fledgling belief in American militarism in chapter 9, while in chapter 10, Fear Strikes Out (1957) overshadows systemic responses to unemployment and poverty by highlighting Jimmy Piersall’s individual rehabilitation. Chapter 11 examines the musical Damn Yankees (1958) and concerns regarding suburbia, gender roles, and the sexuality of the independent woman. The weakest chapter is also the last, which returns to the fading American consensus with Safe at Home! (1962...