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Classic Hollywood: Vin Scully makes the call on baseball films

For the longtime Dodgers announcer, believability is key. That's why he liked '42' and Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey. Here's a rundown on other baseball biopics.

April 08, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Gary Cooper, center, during filming of "The Pride of the Yankees" in 1942.
Gary Cooper, center, during filming of "The Pride of the Yankees"… (Associated Press )

Over the decades, films about legendary baseball players have sometimes knocked it out of the park (1942's "The Pride of the Yankees" about Lou Gehrig) or struck out (1948's "The Babe Ruth Story.")

The latest baseball biopic to step up to the plate is "42," opening Friday, which chronicles Jackie Robinson's (Chadwick Boseman) breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 when he took the field as a Brooklyn Dodger.

Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully, 85, who has been with the Dodgers since 1950, knew Robinson and Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. Scully is a fan of "42," which he saw at an early screening.

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Scully was particularly taken with Harrison Ford's crusty turn as Rickey. "I had the privilege of saying to him [Ford] face-to-face that 'you certainly reminded me of Mr. Rickey.'" (Rickey originally hired Scully as an announcer).

Scully thinks believability is the key to a winning baseball biopic, a quality he found in Gary Cooper as Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees" and in Jimmy Stewart's portrayal of one-legged pitcher Monty Stratton in 1949's "The Stratton Story."

Here's a look at some notable (and notorious) baseball biopics.

The grand slam

Released just a year after Gehrig died of ALS at age 37, "The Pride of the Yankees" is considered the grand champion of all baseball biopics thanks to Cooper's indelible performance as the New York Yankees' first baseman. The re-creation of the Iron Horse's farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, is one of cinema's great heart-tuggers. Teresa Wright shines as his wife, and Babe Ruth is a kick playing himself.

Movie magic was involved in making the right-handed Cooper resemble the left-handed Gehrig in close-up scenes. In some, Cooper would hit the ball and run to third base. Those scenes were then reversed in post-production.

PHOTOS: Scenes from '42'

A solid hit

Three years after he broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played himself in the low-budget but compelling 1950 "The Jackie Robinson Story." Directed by Alfred E. Green, the film chronicles his life from his youth playing in the sandlots of Pasadena, his marriage to Rachel (Ruby Dee) to his groundbreaking debut April 15, 1947, with the Dodgers. Robinson earned praise for his earnest performance. MLB Network will air the movie April 13 at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time.

In the zone

Stewart's performance drives "The Stratton Story," an inspiring, well-crafted biopic about a Chicago White Sox pitcher whose career apparently ended after he accidentally shot himself in the leg during a hunting trip in the late 1930s. Stratton wore an artificial leg after his limb was amputated and made a miraculous comeback several years later wearing the prosthetic, playing with the East Texas League. Sam Wood, who directed "Pride of the Yankees," also directed this hit, which won an Oscar for writing, motion picture story. June Allyson played Stratton's wife.

The strikeout

William Bendix was best known as his memorable performance blue-collar worker Chester Riley on radio, feature film and TV's "The Life of Riley." But his finest moments definitely didn't come in the 1948 "The Babe Ruth Story." Though he gave it the old college try, Bendix couldn't escape that he was greatly miscast.

"He was just not believable," agreed Scully. "It was not a good movie."

An ailing Ruth had visited the set during production and managed to attend the New York premiere shortly before his death of cancer at 53.

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The curveball

Before he became ultimate mama's boy Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," Anthony Perkins played troubled player Jimmy Piersall during his years with the Boston Red Sox in 1957's "Fear Strikes Out." The acclaimed film focuses more on his struggle with bipolar disorder and his issues with his demanding father (Karl Malden) than his playing career.

Perkins brings a Marlon Brando-style intensity to his performance and Robert Mulligan earned a Directors Guild of America nomination. "Fear Strikes Out" received good reviews, but Piersall denounced the film, saying it distorted the facts.

susan.king@latimes.com

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