I have been on a bit of a musical kick lately, no doubt due partly to having seen The Book of Mormon performed a couple weeks ago. And so long as I have been in the mood to take in musicals, I figured it was about time that I sit down and watch Damn Yankees!
The film was created in 1958, based on the 1955 Broadway musical Damn Yankees! The protagonist of the tale is a man named Joe Boyd, an older gentleman when the movie begins, and a deeply devoted Washington Senators fan. Unfortunately for Joe, the Senators are not very good. One evening, having witnessed yet another loss by his beloved team, Joe rashly declares that he would sell his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. His declaration is heard by a man called Applegate, who tells Joe that not only can he make this wish happen, he can also arrange for Joe himself to be the team’s hero. All for the low, low price of one soul, of course. Joe, however, manages to arrange an “escape clause,” through which he would be able to exit the contract and return to his current life on September 24th.
This means, however, that Joe must leave his wife, Meg, behind for the duration. While Joe sings his heartfelt goodbye to Meg, Applegate works his magic and transforms Joe into a 22-year-old version of himself, calling him Joe Hardy (in addition to playing baseball, Joe will now be solving mysteries with his brother Frank!) and telling folks that Joe is from Hannibal, Missouri.
Joe and Applegate arrive at the Senators’ next practice, where Joe puts on an impressive show, especially with his bat. Joe is signed to a contract with the team. Meanwhile, sportswriter Gloria Thorpe nicknames him “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo,” and she expresses her determination to bring Joe a lot of publicity.
Joe leads the Senators on a long winning streak and becomes a hero. He misses his wife terribly, however, and finally goes and convinces Meg to take in Joe Hardy as a boarder. Applegate is concerned that this turn of events could ruin his plans, however, so he summons his demonic right-hand girl, Lola. Lola was once known as the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island, until she sold her soul to Applegate for youth and beauty. Applegate orders her to make Joe forget his wife, a task Lola is certain she can carry out. She receives quite a surprise, however, when she discovers that Joe loves his wife so much that he does not fall for Lola’s attempts at seduction.
Coming upon the end of the season, the Senators are on the verge of overtaking the Yankees. The sportswriter Gloria Thorpe, meanwhile, returns from Hannibal, Missouri, where no residents remember anybody named Joe Hardy, and she confronts Applegate about Joe’s real identity. Applegate implies that Joe is actually Shifty McCoy, a corrupt minor leaguer playing under a different name. Word gets out, and headlines erupt, accusing Joe of being Shifty. Joe is now required to meet with the baseball commissioner for a hearing or else get thrown out of baseball. The meeting just happens to fall on September 24th, the day he is scheduled to make his request to switch back to being Joe Boyd.
At the hearing, Meg and her friends arrive as material witnesses, testifying to Joe’s honesty and falsely claiming he grew up with them in Hannibal. The commissioner acquits Joe, but as the celebrations ensue, midnight strikes and Joe realizes he has missed his chance to escape from his deal with Applegate.
We learn that Applegate has planned for the Senators to lose the pennant to the Yankees on the last day of the season, resulting in thousands of heart attacks, nervous breakdowns, and suicides of Senators fans and Yankee-haters all over the country. However, Lola is now firmly on Joe’s side, and she lets Joe know she’s drugged Applegate so that he will sleep through that final game. By the time Applegate wakes up again, the game is well underway. Angry, Applegate turns Lola back to an ugly woman, and the two race to the ball field.
I should probably stop there, in order to avoid spoiling the rest of the story for anyone who has yet to see it. Overall, I found the movie quite amusing, even if a bit cheesy. The combination of baseball and comedy made it worth my while, I felt, and I do like that one doesn’t necessarily have to be a baseball fan in order to be able to appreciate the plot of the film.
At Griffith Stadium on October 4, 1924, Calvin Coolidge became the first United States President to attend a World Series opener. The Giants managed to defeat the hometown Senators in 12 innings that day, with a score of 4-3.
At Fenway Park on August 15, 1916, Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth came out victorious over Walter Johnson and the Senators, 1-0 in 13 innings. Though Johnson managed to keep Boston to four hits over the first twelve innings, he gave up three more hits in the 13th, thus allowing Jack Barry to score the game’s lone run.
Walter Johnson won his first major league game on August 7, 1907. At the age of 19, Johnson led the Senators to a 7-2 victory over the Indians. He would go on to compile a 417-279 (.599) record during his 21-year career, with an ERA of 2.17.
On July 30, 1917, the Tigers collected twenty-one hits en route to a 16-4 rout of Washington. Ty Cobb, Bobby Veach, and Ossie Vitt, who were batting second, third, and fourth in the order, respectively, each came up with a 5-for-5 day at the plate.
Former minor leaguer Bert Shepard began his tryout with the Washington Senators on March 15, 1945 in spite of only having one leg. Shepard had his right leg amputated during World War II after his fighter plane had been shot down on a mission over Germany. Not only did Shepard have a successful tryout, he would go on to pitch one game for the Senators. In the appearance, which took place in August of that year against the Boston Red Sox, Shepard pitched 5⅓ innings of relief, allowing only three hits and one run, striking out his first batter. It made him the first man with an artificial leg to pitch in a major league baseball game.
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.