Typically when a baseball season is about to start I watch The Natural (1984). When March rolls around and teams enter Spring Training is when I watch it, and a few months ago was no different. Had I known at the time that COVID-19 was going to derail the season, and that owners and players would begin squabbling over billions of dollars and when they will restart the season, I may have waited. It has been frustrating. While the popularity of baseball has waned in recent years, I still find the sport magical. I grew up loving it and The Natural was a major reason for that feeling. Being a Cubs fan is the other, bigger factor, despite their record of losing. When they won it all in 2016 that was euphoric. The film has a similar ending.
I identified with The Natural for a few reasons having to do with the plot. The main character, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), grows up on a farm playing catch with his father and absorbing all the advice given about the sport while tossing the baseball back-and-forth. While we did not live directly on a farm, our little Illinois neighborhood was surrounded by agriculture, and my dad and I played catch often. Roy’s father passes away, and shortly after that a tree in his yard is split by lightning. He then does what any natural baseball player would do and makes a bat out of the lightning struck wood. As a young man, he is drafted by my Cubs, but on the way there is shot by a mysterious woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who is some kind of talent hound. It is only when he admits to her that he plans on being “the best there ever was” that she raises her weapon to him. This, however, would not be the first time he had trouble with women. Though he survives, this act sets his athletic career back a number of years and he does not get another chance in the majors until he was well into his thirties, this time with the fictional New York Knights. No one believes this “old man” would amount to anything until he starts hitting. His bat reignites the struggling team, but ownership has a vested interest in seeing the team lose. The main owner is The Judge (Robert Prosky), and he partners with a notorious gambler named Gus Sands (Darren McGavin) who is trying to fix as many games as possible. By losing, the minority share of the team’s manager, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), will be taken away, making The Judge the sole owner. Roy’s performance presents a challenge to this plan, so Gus arranges for the player to meet Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who begins to distract Roy from his play. What saves Roy from his slump is the appearance of Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), his girlfriend from back on the farm. Not wanting to give up, The Judge enlists the help of Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), a reporter who digs up Roy’s past and finds out that he had been shot. They attempt to poison Roy and this act ends his career and forces him to miss the last few games of the season. But he has one last game in him, and hits one last glorious home run to win the game and the season for his team and manager.
That last home run in The Natural is actually a departure from what happens in the novel by Bernard Malamud on which it is based. In the book, Roy strikes out and it is a lesson in how the desire to win and be the best is not the end all, be all of existence. In the movie, The Judge and Gus are clearly presented as greedy villains, thus making Roy’s moment at the end, blood dripping from his old wound, heroic. Yet there is still tragedy in the film from which he needs to be rescued. Iris is presented as an angelic figure who saves Roy from his worldly ways. When we see her at the game in Chicago that turns his season around, she stands and is wreathed in the rays of the setting sun, allowing Roy to see her. She is also dressed in white. While they had conceived a child before Roy left for the Cubs that he did not know about, their relationship and the subsequent tie to where he came from made it something pure in the sordid world of professional baseball. The film ends with the three of them back in the heavenly setting that is the farm. Of course, this is not the first time a film has borrowed Christian themes to tell a story, but it worked particularly well here.
For now, The Natural may have to suffice for real baseball, which is unfortunate. With that, I am happy to say that it is one of the better baseball films around. The extras seem to know what they are doing on the diamond, and the pitchers (instead of lobbing balls into home plate) have a certain zing to their throws. And like any true sports fan, the film has the dramatic moment at the end. It is a fine movie for most audiences, though there are some suggestive sexual scenes with which you need to be careful. But if you can get through them and it can kindle a love for baseball in the young, so much the better to this reviewer.