If you possessed a chemical substance that could gain you an edge in the competitive field of your choice -- say, baseball, for instance -- and you knew it could help you obtain large amounts of money and prestige, even for a single season, and you were reasonably sure that nobody could detect what you were using, would you use it? Or would your conscience weigh you down with guilt over your ill-gotten fortune and fame?

Unfortunately, such moral questions are barely touched on in 20th Century Fox's 1949 horsehide fantasy, It Happens Every Spring, but that doesn't diminish its entertainment value.
Yeah, I've got my favorite baseball movies: Bull Durham, Pride of the Yankees, Eight Men Out, Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. And I could name a few more of which I am enamored, but none more so than this ridiculous, highly improbable goof-fest starring Ray Milland as a mild-mannered and low-paid college professor named Vernon Simpson who wants to earn enough money to be able to support his socially superior girlfriend, who just so happens to be the daughter of the college dean. To do so, he takes advantage of a lab accident: Vernon's experiment to create a formula that repels wood is devastated by some timely smashing from a baseball clobbered from the school ballfield adjacent to his lab. As he goes to clean up the mess, he rolls the ball which has fallen into the leftover fluid across the desk, and it skips over a ruler on the desktop. He rolls it again, and it takes great effort to go completely around the ruler.

Since we already know that Prof. Simpson is a baseball nut, it is a logical step for him to pitch the ball a few times to a couple of underachieving players (including the future Skipper from Gilligan's Island, Alan Hale, Jr.) from one of his classes. They can't touch the ball, as it flips and zings and seems to contort reality itself to avoid touching the bat. (It is a marvelous thrill each time this occurs.) Because he wants to marry his girl but is ashamed at his low social status, he runs away and convinces a big league team to take him on (incognito, with the pseudonym of Kelly), and bargains a contract where he promises to win over 30 games, and he only gets paid $1000 a game if he actually wins the game. (The title refers to both romance and baseball; in my world, there is little difference.)

I'll let the movie take it from there, but be warned. The baseball played in the film is horrible. Milland is no pitcher (though his character is supposed to be an adequate enough pitcher without the stuff, which is never named in a "Flubber"-like fashion), and his delivery is so awkward that I doubt he could make it to the plate, let alone throw a no-hitter. And Paul Douglas as Monk, Vernon's roommate and catcher (none of those jokes, please) fares almost as bad in regards to his ballplaying abilities. At least, in the original (and far better) version of Angels in the Outfield, Douglas played the lead character of the manager of a baseball team, so he didn't have to do any ballplaying. Though he does have a good catcher's build (at least, for the times). But the ballplaying in this film is not the point; the fact that no one can touch one of his pitches is... and that they show in spades. Once that awkward pitch floats its way to the plate, and then goes through all of its contortions, Milland's painfully odd style looks like genius, because no one else could ever duplicate it. If only they knew his little secret...

Without ever meaning to, how prescient is this unassuming flick? You could remake this film now with the intent to satirize the painful conflict now brewing in Major League Baseball due to the Barry Bonds steroids scandal (which is only going to get bigger and worse over the next few years). You would also probably have to make the film without the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball, so touchy are its overlords on the subject. It is both the triumph and the downfall of this film that Vernon, who loves baseball so much that he interrupts his classes to listen to radio broadcasts, never really considers the fact that he is cheating on a scale larger than anyone has ever cheated in the history of the game. It actually becomes such a small concern that it disappears from the film until near its end (and that gives away nothing).

Of course, baseball has had spitball-throwing pitchers since the beginning of the game's origins, and I, for one, applaud that fact. It is as ingrained in the sport as the three bases and home plate. And umpires should continue to check every now and then to try and catch one of these would-be despoilers of the National Pastime. How dare they! And Fox should check their vaults every now and then and release films like this on DVD, so that I can watch them without commercial interruptions and with a pristine print. (And don't write me and tell me that it is still available on VHS. VHS is sooooo 1949... like this film...)


EggOfTheDead said…
I was robbed!
Since Sam Raimi is my celebrity boyfriend, I figured I could make it through For Love of the Game even though I typically dislike baseball movies and Kevin Costner (though I confess that the combo ala Bull Durham worked for me.) How great my disappointment when "Game" ended and I realized that - instead of a tolerable sports movie - I'd been suckered into watching a non-comedic, and therefore intolerable, chick flick.
Sam, if you're reading this: I forgive you. Your romantic sensibilities are admirable, but I really was expecting something more macho and less ... gooshy.

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