In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. And color, merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another’s.
I don’t know how it is that I’d never heard of this movie before, but I stumbled upon it at the library last week, and I’m glad I did. Based on a true story, The Perfect Game is about a group of boys from Monterrey, Mexico who became the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series in 1957.
The movie begins when César Faz moves to Monterrey, Mexico after being let go by the St. Louis Cardinals from his job as a clubhouse attendant. César seems content to drink the rest of his life away, but then he meets a boy named Ángel Macías, a wannabe pitcher who is crazy about baseball. Ángel convinces César to first play catch with him, then later convinces him to help recruit and coach Monterrey’s first-ever Little League team.
The Monterrey Industrials become an impressive team, and before long, they find themselves traveling to Texas to play on the competitive stage. Upon their arrival in the United States, they are met with racism, a language barrier, and visa troubles. Even though they are physically smaller than any of the American teams, the Industrials pull off a series of victories that endear them to the media and to fans. With some outside help and support from a sports reporter, a groundskeeper, friends and family back home, and some other unexpected sources, the team wins its way to the Little League World Series championship game.
I could go into more detail about the plot, but with this particular film, I feel more inclined to discuss what I like about it. Throughout the movie, the boys who make up the Monterrey Industrials are complete reverent about baseball. They consider it to be a gift from God himself, and when Ángel stumbles upon the first real baseball he’s ever held, he is convinced it was dropped from the sky by God. Ángel, who has a rough relationship with his father, is even willing to put up with his father’s shame in order to pursue his passion for the game.
In spite of how his career with the St. Louis Cardinals ended, César Faz also continues to show a love for the game. Twice he accidentally stands up a girl who has invited him for dinner. César is deeply interested in the girl, but he gets so caught up in coaching the team that he constantly loses track of time.
Beyond baseball, and sometimes even on the diamond, the movie tackles the issue of racism in the United States, against Hispanics and African-Americans both. It also highlights the kindness of people, even in the midst of a turbulent time. We see everyone from a diner waitress to the Secretary of State stepping in on this team’s behalf to help them on their journey through Little League baseball.
Overall, the movie has moments that are just so real. We see struggles with alcoholism, a strained father-son relationship, a death in a family, a clash of cultural differences, a love interest, harsh working conditions, and the juxtaposition of leading a practical life versus chasing one’s passions. I wouldn’t call The Perfect Game the best baseball movie I’ve seen (I hesitate to go that far with any movie, really), but it ranks pretty high on the list.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, Effa Louise Manley co-owned the Newark Eagles baseball franchise in the Negro leagues (alongside her husband, Abe Manley) from 1935 to 1946. After her husband’s death, she then became sole owner of the team through 1948. She was also a noted activist, active in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as treasurer of the Newark chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Effa Manley was born on March 27, 1897 in Philadelphia (some sources cite her birth year as 1900). Her actual racial background also remains a mystery — some speculate that she was of mixed race while others believe she was a white woman who could pass as black. Manley herself seemed to enjoy the confusion generated by her ethnic background. She graduated from Penn Central High School in 1916, completing vocational training in cooking, oral expression, and sewing. Following high school, she moved to New York City.
In New York, Manley could often be found at Yankee Stadium, taking in ballgames. “Babe Ruth made a baseball fan of me,” Manley reportedly said. “I used to go to Yankee Stadium just to see him come to bat.” At a World Series game in 1932, Manley met her future husband, Abe. The couple married in 1935, and he involved her in the operation of his own club, the Newark Eagles in New Jersey.
As co-owner of the Eagles, Manley didn’t fit into the traditional 1930s homemaker mold for women. She managed day-to-day business operations for the team, handled contracts and travel schedules, and she proved particularly talented at marketing. She developed a number of promotions that advanced the Civil Rights Movement as well as a variety of other causes and benefits. Under Manley’s leadership, the Eagles invited soldiers during World War II to Eagles games for free. They also hosted benefits for various causes, including the Harlem Fight for Freedom Committee and the Newark Community Hospital. Within the Negro Leagues, Manley worked to improve conditions for players in the entire league. She advocated for better scheduling, better pay, and better accommodations. Under Manley, the Newark Eagles traveled in an air-conditioned bus, a rare luxury in the Negro Leagues.
During Manley’s time with the team, the Eagles won the Negro League World Series in 1946. Among the Eagles players during Manley’s ownership were future MLB stars such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don Newcombe.
Following integration of Major League Baseball, attendance at Eagles games plummeted, from 120,000 in 1946 to 57,000 in 1948. Like many other Negro League teams, Newark found itself unable to continue generating profits. Even after selling the club to a group of investors in 1948, Manley continued to stay involved in baseball. She co-authored a book on black baseball with Leon Hardwick, and she donated a scrapbook of her years with Newark to the Baseball Hall of Fame. She also wrote letters lobbying for Negro leaguers to be admitted into Cooperstown.
Effa Manley died of a heart attack on April 16, 1981. She was buried in Culver City at the Holy Cross Cemetery. She was the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s. In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such. Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game. Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.
The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes. In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite. Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.
Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound. As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit. This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.
This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league. The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country. Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball. We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League. The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal. (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)
At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball. Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965. The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years. Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years. Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball. After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.
In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others. Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles. One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.
In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller. Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around. He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”
By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning. Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade. This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.
I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball. In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason. Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity). But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.
Here’s a good, and important, infographic from the Huffington Post that takes a look at the racial makeup of Major League Baseball. Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in 1947, but as the graphic points out, that didn’t change the economic barriers to playing baseball. And, let’s be honest, this is an expensive sport. On the other hand, Robinson’s debut into the majors did also open the doors for Latinos in the MLB, and given the talent it has introduced, this is definitely a great thing.
But when he (Willie Mays) was in California, whites refused to sell him a house in their community. They loved his talent, but they didn’t want him for a neighbor.
Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.