The Natural stands the test of time more than 30 years later

By Paul Ferrante

I remember going to see The Natural in 1984 with my future wife, my college football teammate “Fuzzy” Florio, and his girlfriend. Fuzzy and I also played men’s league softball together, so I figured this would be the perfect double date activity. Besides, I had read Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same title in college as part of an “antihero” unit and was curious to see how Robert Redford would portray the star-crossed Roy Hobbs.

The Natural was released in 1984 and remains one of the top baseball movies to be released.

Actually, I was happy to be seeing any kind of baseball movie, as they had become few and far between in the 1970s-1980s. I mean, besides the politically incorrect Bad News Bears series (loved the first one, hated the other two) all you had was the underrated Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) starring Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro, and the semi-historical and very entertaining The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings with Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones (1976). None of these was a huge box office hit, although the first Bad News Bears movie still turns up frequently on TV.

So anyway, we went to see the movie, and I was mesmerized. Though far from being a film aficionado, it dawned on me pretty quickly that there was a lot going on in this flick that I probably wasn’t getting. It seemed too rich to be just a baseball story. And there were times when I was genuinely moved; I realized that there was a huge emotional component for the audience that the filmmakers had created.

We left the movie theater, and I was both exhilarated and drained. I said something like,

“Wow, what a movie.” But my buddy wasn’t so positive.

“Ah, c’mon, Paulie,” he lamented. “That was ridiculous!”

“What you mean?”

“The guy tears the cover off the ball? And breaks the clock at Wrigley Field? And blows up the light tower at the end? Give me a break!”

“But Fuzzy,” I pleaded, “don’t you see that it’s all an allegory?”

He shook his head. “Don’t start with that English Major BS,” he warned.

“Seriously. It’s a parable, man. The struggle between good and evil. The fallen hero with a chance for redemption.”

“The baseball blew up the whole stadium!” was his retort.

I switched the subject, and we went out for nachos.

In subsequent years I would enjoy many other baseball films, as The Natural seemed to open the floodgates for the genre, and was also the first baseball movie to be mass marketed, as its release coincided with the explosion of memorabilia collecting in the 1980s. But I came to revisit this film (having seen all or parts of it numerous times on TV over the years) recently when I shared the closing “exploding light tower” sequence with my seventh grade class to illustrate how Hollywood tends to change the written word, because the movie bears only a passing resemblance to the novel. I was heartened to hear my students ooh and ahh over the scene, no mean feat since they have been inundated with mind-boggling special effects in movies and video games their entire lives. Sadly, not one of them had ever seen the film.

This led me to sit down with the “director’s cut” DVD and fall in love with The Natural once again. So I decided to write this article, if for any reason to get the theme music out of my head!

The Movie vs. the Novel

Supposedly, when Bernard Malamud, an established novelist, sold the rights to the film (the book was written in the 1950s), he told screenwriter Philip Dusenberry that it didn’t matter if he changed the plot – Malamud wasn’t going to see the movie anyway.

Items from The Natural on display.

Indeed, the baseball film so near and dear to my heart is far from the novel, which led to it getting torched by literary critics and baseball writers such as Roger Angell (and some movie critics, including the late Roger Ebert) who hated to witness what they considered the corruption of fine writing.

Without going “American Literature 101” on you, I’ll just lay out the major differences. First and foremost, the ending was changed. Everyone from director Barry Levinson, screenwriters Dusenberry and Roger Towne, and even Robert Redford, knew they were rolling the dice, but felt that the “Hollywood ending” would go down better with the American public. They were right. Could you imagine Redford striking out to end the game, as Roy Hobbs did in the novel? People would’ve been throwing Milk Duds and Raisinets at the screen.

There were also some characters left out, including the evil dwarf Otto Zipp. Also, in the book Roy wasn’t as sympathetic a character as Redford made him. Remember, Hobbs was no angel – his moment of weakness with the angelic Iris led to a son whom he wouldn’t connect with until later in life, and he was tempted by two other women, one of whom almost killed him. And let’s not forget the bribe to throw the deciding game. Of course, there are many similarities as well. If you have yet to read the book, check it out and make your own judgment.

It’s an Allegory, Fuzzy!

This movie, like the book, is filled with messages and mythology. Want a few? Okay, here goes: Ever read of Sir Perceval and his quest for the Holy Grail? The guy starts out as a simple country kid; then he goes to Camelot to become a knight. (Who does Roy play for? The New York Knights.) But he has to prove himself worthy. Unfortunately, his quest is interrupted by an infatuation with a woman named Blancheflor (Harriet? Memo?).

He encounters the Fisher King (“Pop” Fisher, his manager?) who helps teach him how to be a knight. But he gets carried away with his quest (in the movie he wants to be “the best that ever was”). He’s a classic tragic hero in that his flaws – his weakness for women and his self-centeredness – almost derail his life. And if you’re into symbolism, how can we leave out Roy’s Excaliber – the famed Wonderboy, a custom bat he fashioned from a tree that had been split by lightning?

Making the Film

The Natural was written as a screenplay first by Dusenberry, whose primary profession was advertising, and then reworked by Towne. Levinson, who only had one major work (Diner) to his credit at the time, was chosen to direct the first venture for what would be TriStar Pictures. But the real coup was the acquisition of Redford, at the time a trim 47.

Notoriously picky about his roles as a box office megastar and director, he obviously saw something in the plot that got him interested. As previously stated, baseball films had, since the beginning of movies, been more bad than good, and were considered major financial risks by the 1980s.

Part of this was the logistics of creating realistic stadium settings. Remember, the special effects employed today to portray old-time ballparks, such as when Billy Crystal put together 61* a few years ago, were not in use as of yet. Someone had to research the era (1939 to be exact) ballparks, uniforms, rules, etc. Then they had to find actors who could actually play baseball (which they did) and not look silly. This leads me to what I believe are the four keys to this film’s lasting appeal.

The Cast

Let’s start with the bad guys.

Robert Prosky as The Judge, the Knights’ team owner, was loosely based on Branch Rickey. And while Ricky is rightfully lauded for bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and paving the way for the integration of baseball, he was known to be rather cheap and somewhat calculating.

Darren McGavin as gambler Gus Sands sheds the lovable oaf persona we saw in A Christmas Story to become The Judge’s slimy right hand man.

And Robert Duval is perfect as the condescending sportswriter Max Mercy, to whom Hobbs asks the question that probably every ballplayer is thinking as he does an interview: “Did you ever play baseball?”

Of course, we need to mention the two women who almost destroy our hero. First is the eerily dark Harriet Bird, played by Barbara Hershey. Her MO of luring Hobbs to her hotel room only to blast him with a handgun was actually based on a real-life event. In 1949 a disturbed young woman named Ruth Ann Steinhagen became obsessed with the Phillies’ slick-fielding first baseman Eddie Waitkus. In a case the FBI would refer to as the textbook example of “stalking,” Steinhagen shot Waitkus with a rifle in a hotel room in Chicago. He would gradually recover and return to the Majors, while she would spend time in a mental institution, unlike the fictional Harriet, who jumped to her death from the hotel window after shooting Roy.

The other temptress is the dangerously alluring Memo Paris, played by Kim Basinger, who almost convinces Roy to take The Judge’s bribe and throw the pennant-deciding game. Both women are thoroughly convincing in these roles.

Now for the good guys.

Wilford Brimley as crusty manager Pop Fisher is wonderful as the snake-bit skipper who can’t catch a break, and Richard Farnsworth as bench coach Red Blow, is his personality-opposite sidekick. (Forget that, curiously, both men are sporting bushy mustaches, unheard of in the Majors in 1939.)

A Roy Hobbs baseball card modeled after the 1940 Playball set.

Of course, our hero is played splendidly by Robert Redford, who surprised everyone on the set (they’d brought in real pro players to coach him in hitting, throwing and catching) by cranking balls into the seats during BP with a swing he’d based on his boyhood idol, Ted Williams. Redford is the ultimate golden boy trying to resurrect his career and redeem himself for his past mistakes, among them the abandonment of his first love Iris, played sympathetically by Glenn Close.

When Iris and Roy have their big talk in the hospital before the last game and discuss how their lives went awry, it’s pretty emotional. It seems Redford/Hobbs shares something else with Teddy Ballgame: the desire to hear people say “There goes the best hitter who ever lived” as he walks down the street. So, when the Sundance Kid crushes his walk-off blast, you can’t help but cheer.

One last thing about the characters: none other than Bob Costas considers Joe Don Baker’s characterization of “The Whammer,” who’s obviously Babe Ruth, to be the best portrayal of the Bambino ever on film. If you’ve ever seen the attempts by William Bendix and John Goodman, I think you’ll agree.

Best Supporting Actor: War Memorial Stadium

Affectionately known as “The Rockpile,” War Memorial Stadium was originally constructed as a WPA project in 1937. It was then named Roesch Memorial Stadium, Grover Cleveland Stadium, and Civic Stadium before settling on War Memorial in 1960.

Original capacity was 35,000, but it was later expanded by 11,500. It was, of course, best known as the dumpy first home of the AFL Buffalo Bills, hosting an Eastern Division playoff game between the Bills and Boston Patriots in 1963 and AFL Championship tilts between the Bills and Chargers in 1964 and between the Bills and Chiefs in 1966.

Baseball wise, War Memorial was the home field of the Buffalo Bisons of the International League in the 1960s and again from 1979-1987. Writer Brock Yates captured War Memorial’s ambience when he said, “It looks like whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines.”

When Levinson’s production crew went scouting for ballparks that had a 1930s look for the August 1983 filming sessions, the oldest MLB parks were out of the question due to scheduling. They then canvassed the continental US, as well as Mexico and Puerto Rico, before hitting on War Memorial. It was love at first sight.

Approximately $500,000 was spent in reconditioning the ballpark, which included building a scoreboard in the center field stands and repainting the wooden seats in 1930s hues. About 3,000 people were hired as extras and outfitted in period garb at the princely sum of $3.35 an hour. But the long and crazy hours – not to mention the cold nights in Buffalo – took its toll on the “crowd.” Despite moving the group around to populate the backdrop of the Knights’ exploits, more bodies were needed, so a Buffalo printing company made cardboard cutout people to be placed in the stadium during filming as a means of saving money.

Cardboard cutouts of spectators were used in the movie to help fill the stadium for the baseball scenes. These cutouts have become collectible items.

If you look closely at some of the scenes – especially the black and white “newsreel” scene when Bump Bailey’s ashes are strewn over the stadium by airplane – you’ll notice some people just aren’t moving. (Actually, these cutouts, mounted on heavy cardboard, became collector’s items after the film and were readily available to the public. I bought a twosome through an ad in SCD and still have them today.)

No matter what the scene – whether it’s the poorly attended day game when Hobbs first shows up in the Knights’ dugout, the batting practice when he rockets ball after ball into the stands and they carom off the wooden seats, or the final game where he hits his dramatic homer in the packed stadium – aging, decrepit War Memorial is picture-perfect. I even liked the scene when Hobbs walked down the steep ramps behind the cavernous stands with the weasely Max Mercy. You can see the girders and other structures supporting the grandstand overhead.

The only ballpark scene shot outside War Memorial was the “Wrigley” game where Iris “stands up” for Roy and he proceeds to break the scoreboard clock with a monster shot. This scene was filmed at All High Stadium, also in Buffalo, which was built in 1929 and played host to the city’s high school teams. A brick wall and ivy, as well as painted outfield wall signs and a scoreboard, were erected to mimic the famed confines. Renovated in 2007, All High Stadium has lost those 1930s film additions.

Having watched baseball movies where old time parks were carelessly depicted (featuring plastic seats, for example) it was satisfying for a stadia freak such as me to note the attention to ballpark detail that the creators of this movie exhibited in an era before computer enhancement made it easy to create vintage stadium backdrops (1988’s Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ fine depiction of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, is another example of a filmmaker who got it right.) And so, though Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium is long gone, it lives forever through this film.

Magical Cinematography

To bring his vision of The Natural to the screen, Levinson tapped Caleb Deschanel, at the time a relative newcomer in the industry. But Redford, who had seen some of his work (notably The Right Stuff), pushed for him, and he ended up being the only person interviewed. Especially important to the director was Deschanel’s use of light, which he felt would enrich the scenes far past the standards of the average sports film.

Deschanel understood the imagery and mythology involved in the story and had to devise a way to convey these visually.

I especially enjoyed the scenes that were filmed during what in the industry is called “the magic hour,” the minutes around sundown when a kind of glow falls over the set. One is the carnival scene when Roy is pitching to The Whammer. You have the combatants in the foreground, the carnival all around them, and in the background a steam engine train puffing away. Beautiful.

There was also the scene at the end where the now-recovered Roy is having a catch with his son in a field of wheat as Iris looks on serenely. Another scene that hit me had nothing to do with “the magic hour,” but it was all about lighting: Roy’s visit to The Judge’s office overlooking the stadium, where the owner keeps the blinds drawn purposely, giving the whole thing a creepy feel.

Now, as I’ve said, I’m not a film expert; however, my daughter Carrie is a screenwriter/director with some award winning films to her credit. I asked her to take a close look at The Natural, which she’d seen first as a child, and give me her take on Deschanel’s technique. Carrie’s description of her two favorite scenes reflect a more technical understanding of her craft than I could ever relate, so here’s what she said:
“In the ‘Lady in White’ scene, the lighting and costuming work together to make it a truly beautiful moment, one that is reprised in a sense with the legendary final scene of the film. Roy is at Wrigley Field and needs to do well in this game. In the stands is his former love, though he doesn’t know it. From the beginning of the scene, Iris (Glenn Close) stands out in the crowd. They all wear neutrals, lots of grays and blacks, but she wears a delicate white, and is the only one with a wide-brimmed hat. This hat catches the only sunlight spilling directly into the stands, and illuminates her like a halo. When Iris senses Roy struggling to make it happen, she stands so he can see her, and is fully lit by the yellow sun. He does, and it sparks something in him, causing him to strike a powerful home run that splinters the scoreboard clock, foreshadowing the shattering of the lights that happens in the final scene. Roy tries to find Iris again, but is blinded by the much harder lights of the news cameras. The cinematography and editing help us to sense the same frustration Roy is feeling in not being able to find the woman he thinks is there.

With ‘The Final Home Run,’ everything in this scene converges to make it artistically striking. The editing shows the juxtaposition between the weathered face of Roy Hobbs and the smooth, young face of the pitcher who is staring him down. He’s feeling his age, and he’s down on his luck – but one swing could change it all. The use of sound in the scene mimics what the character Roy could actually be hearing: at first the general din of the crowd, then the exhortations of a few louder fans, and finally the precision of hitting the ball with everything he has and the clarity which comes with that. But what makes this scene truly magical is how it is shot. The ball smashes into the lights, and as Roy rounds the bases and the triumphant score plays, sparks fly like fireworks and the camera easily glides along with the action so we feel the true majesty of the moment. The light brightens the faces of the Knights (while emphasizing the darkness inside the owner’s box) and makes Roy a silhouette, just trying to get around the bases, less of a man and more of a symbol for this struggling team. Redford’s face is casual, concentrating on the task of running, which makes the mythic explosion happening behind him all the more incredible.”

See what I mean about the cinematography, which was nominated for an Academy Award? Check out the film again and you’ll catch these nuances and many more.

Randy Newman’s Music Score

When Levinson suggested songwriter/singer Randy Newman to the production team, it raised some eyebrows. Known for quirky tunes such as “Short People” and “I Love LA,” he hardly seemed the logical choice to score a serious movie such as The Natural. Even Newman had his doubts at first. But Levinson felt that Newman understood storytelling and was capable of writing music of a sweeping American nature.

Newman began his work literally in the room next to where the film and edits were being done. Levinson and his crew could actually hear the songwriter working things out on a piano as they edited the film. There was a ton of pressure on Newman, who knew, as he said later of the music, “It couldn’t be crappy.” He realized that the visual beauty of Deschanel’s cinematography would warrant a broad, rich score.

When Levinson heard through the wall the familiar (later trumpeted) notes of the signature theme repeated numerous times in the film, he was thrilled. Had it not been for the heroic images on screen, says Newman, he never would have gone for the over-the-top orchestral arrangements.

There are so many scenes in the film where the music is key. From the sweet, simple arrangement when young Roy is playing catch with his dad, to the dark, stormy night after the father’s death when the tree from which Wonderboy is born is split by lightning, to the aforementioned scene where Hobbs strikes out The Whammer, to the majestic crescendo that blankets Hobbs as he cruises around the bases after his climactic home run, the musical score of The Natural had more to do with the success of the film than any other baseball movie ever made. Quick: Can you hum the theme from another baseball movie? The answer is no. And which theme is regularly played in baseball parks at all levels and during momentous baseball events? Newman’s theme from The Natural. It triggers emotions as deeply as any movie I’ve ever seen. How it didn’t win the Academy Award is beyond me.

Collectibles

The Natural was really the first baseball film to produce its own line of merchandise, and these pieces can still be found at card shows, antique fairs, and on the Internet.

First and foremost are New York Knights logo items. A search of eBay revealed neat items such as a 1939 wool throwback jacket featuring leather sleeves from Ebbets Field. On the actual EFF website the blue jacket with tan sleeves and Knights patches on front and back (with “Wonderboy” lightning sleeve patch) is labeled their most popular.

If it’s an authentic wool jersey you’re looking for, EFF has them in white home pinstripe or gray road (with 1939 Baseball Centennial and Wonderboy patches on the sleeves). There are replica flannels and cotton blends from other manufacturers, as well as t-shirts. Want an authentic Knights fitted ballcap? EFF has them.

The cover of Life Magazine was one of the props in the movie. Copies of this cover have become collectibles.

An eBay search will also yield Life Magazine covers featuring Hobbs, a movie prop from the scene where Roy becoming a household name; a Roy Hobbs baseball card modeled after the 1940 Playball set; and promo posters in assorted sizes. And, every once in a while, props from the movie and a cardboard cutout or two (I bought mine for around $50 in the late 1980s) surface.

As we can see, The Natural was a film that had to be a total team effort to be successful. Its components blended so well that even more than 30 years later, it still holds up as a landmark baseball movie. u

Collectors can contact Paul Ferrante at baseballjourney@optimum.net. You can also visit his website www.paulferranteauthor.com for information on his writings.

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