The movie "42," the fine and generally well-received big screen production about Jackie Robinson, the legendary Brooklyn Dodger who broke Major League Baseball’s unspoken color line in 1947, has proven that an intelligent and entertaining-filmed depiction of a ballplayer’s life can find a mass audience.
Despite some of its flaws and weaknesses, "42" was a noble effort in portraying a historic American figure like Robinson.
Baseball, perhaps more than any other U.S. sport, provides the kind of stories that make Hollywood salivate: tales of poverty, struggle, sudden wealth, overcoming hardship, racism, sacrifice, upward social mobility, heroism, tragedy and redemption -- not to mention such cinematic staples as plenty of sex, violence, drugs and alcohol.
Indeed, the story of baseball is the story of 19th and 20th century American history.
Yet, overall, Hollywood has largely failed to mine this incredibly rich vein and translate it into movie magic, which is a shame given the wealth of material available.
Here's a list of some, but certainly not all, baseball personalities whose lives deserve the full Hollywood cinematic treatment.
The Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the greatest and most celebrated figure in the game’s history has had at least two films made based on his life -- the tepid “Babe Ruth Story” from 1948 (starring William Bendix) and the even lamer “The Babe” from 1992 (with John Goodman).
It's utterly incredible that a smart, deep and moving story about George Herman Ruth has never been made.
The Babe’s life story is so rich in cinematic potential that one could make a dozen different movies about him -- the grim, Dickensian childhood in hardscrabble turn-of-the-century Baltimore; the years in a bleak orphanage; the harassment he faced for his perceived ignorance and homely appearance; the emergence of the game’s biggest home run hitting star and national icon as a New York Yankee; the continuous flouting of the rules and wild nightlife during the Jazz Age; the endless drinking and carousing; the sad end of his career, when he was discarded by the Yanks; the feud with Lou Gehrig; and, of course, his tragic death by cancer at the too-young age of 53.
Babe’s cohort in the Yankees’ fabled Murderers Row, Lou Gehrig also received a hagiographic movie called "Pride of the Yankees" -- the 1942 film starring the stiff and monotone Gary Cooper. While the film was well-meaning, but rather inaccurate and overly reverent, the real Lou Gehrig was a more complex character than what was depicted on celluloid.
Lou grew up in deep poverty to German immigrants in early 20th century Manhattan. He was stigmatized by his fellow classmates at Columbia for his humble origins. Once he joined the Yankees, the prodigious power hitter found himself at odds with Ruth, who represented the polar opposite of Lou’s sober, restrained and spendthrift lifestyle.
Babe and Lou hardly spoke to each other for years, and only reconciled after the Iron Horse was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Lou’s famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, and his agonizing death, were simply tailor-made for Hollywood -- and a much improved version of the Gary Cooper entry would be most welcome.
The third member of the Yankees pantheon of immortals, Joe DiMaggio’s life would make for a dazzling movie. Consider all the elements: the poor son of Italian immigrants in San Francisco who didn’t want to follow in his father’s profession as a fisherman; the young Yankee slugger who did the impossible by making fans forget about Ruth and Gehrig; and the incredible 1941 season when he hit safely in an astounding 56 games in a row.
And that’s just for starters.
Joe’s ties to mobsters, his general surliness and stinginess, and his feuds with various peers balance the more appealing characteristics, while never really eclipsing them. His brief and tempestuous marriage to film starlet Marilyn Monroe alone could inspire a film unto itself.
Such a movie extravaganza could also focus on how Joe spent the last half-century of his life in virtual solitude -- unable to cope with retirement, reluctant to marry anyone after the death of his beloved Marilyn, and forced to play the lonesome role of “living legend” until death.
HBO has produced two works on the Mick – Billy Crystal’s “61” movie as well as an excellent documentary on his sad, tragic life. But Hollywood has never made a film about the poor boy from Commerce, Okla., who conquered New York and the world in the 1950s and 1960s.
Mickey’s biography offers everything a Hollywood blockbuster could ever hope for – handsome, all-American country boy scarred by his childhood poverty and the fear that he would die young of disease that decimated many of his male relatives, including the father whom he loved and feared.
With his goofy, endearing smile and aw-shucks Huckleberry Finn countenance, he was seduced by the big city that nearly swallowed him up with its bars, loose women, nightclubs and other perks of sudden and enormous fame. The man-child who neglected his family, caroused endlessly and never really grew up until it was too late. The prodigious slugger whose popularity with the public never waned, but who was miserable inside of the glass bubble of fame that he didn’t want and even resented.
Mickey’s tale was like that of a Greek tragedy, where the hero’s hubris and excesses ultimately cost him his life – but with a brief moment of redemption just before the terrible, crushing end.
Reportedly, a film has been in the pipeline about the life of the Red Sox slugger whose life was shattered by a 90-mile-an-hour fastball that struck him in the face when he was only 22.
Destined for a glorious Hall of Fame career, Conigliaro, the handsome local Italian boy made good, suffered one misfortune after another following the beaning he suffered in a game in August 1967.
While on top of the world, Tony alienated many with his narcissism, clubbing, and womanizing, but no one could deny his immense talent and charisma.
Despite an amazing comeback in 1969, Tony’s life was essentially over and his career destroyed before he even turned 30. If all that wasn't bad enough, Tony suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1982 (at age 37), slipped into a coma, and stayed a vegetable until his death eight pathetic years later.
As Peter Gammons wrote of Tony: He “had glorious talent, but not a trace of luck.”
A good title for a Tony Conigliaro film might be “Whom Gods Destroy.”
Tony C’s contemporary, Joe Pepitone, also deserves Hollywood’s full attention – Joe’s tale is one of great potential damaged by self-indulgence and self-destruction.
Coming from a tough Brooklyn childhood, Joe, half a wiseguy, half a baseball talent, was a New York Yankee icon and anti-hero of the 1960s -- partially for his athletic talent, but more so for his colorful, outrageous behavior (which included Herculean partying as well as wearing a hair piece and keeping a hair dryer in the locker room).
Pepi’s story would be ideal for the likes of Martin Scorsese, who certainly is very familiar with the milieu of 1950s Brooklyn and the serpentine passageways through Manhattan’s celebrity social circles of the following two decades.
Though Peptone is still with us, his story, too, is a tragedy -- a saga of failed potential and spiritual collapse.
Richie (or Dick) Allen
Richie Allen may no longer be a household name outside of the Philadelphia and Chicago areas, but his life story is certainly worth telling.
One of the most controversial and fascinating athletes of the post-war era, Allen was the first black athletic superstar for the racially torn city of Philadelphia. Enduring racial abuse first in Arkansas as a minor leaguer, he found a similar welcome in the City of Brotherly Love in that fateful year of 1964, when the Phillies’ hopes for a rare pennant collapsed in the final weeks (white fans blamed Richie).
Then Richie’s life got even worse.
Mirroring the progress of the turbulent civil rights/Vietnam War era, Richie Allen was one of the most impressive sluggers baseball has ever known (he hit some unforgettably, majestic 500-foot homers), but his potential was doomed by racism and his own many foibles, including alcoholism, a refusal to conform to rules and an apparent lack of sustained interest in his own career, despite his huge talent.
He could've been one of the greatest players in history, but he was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and had the wrong temperament.
Like a 1960’s version of Lou Gehrig, the noble and tragic Roberto Clemente deserves a Hollywood embrace perhaps like no other ballplayer.
Handsome, elegant, eccentric, hypersensitive and superbly talented, Clemente was baseball’s first Latin superstar – playing in the small-market hamlet of Pittsburgh, he suffered the slings of racism both for being black and Hispanic.
A wondrous player with all the five tools necessary for super-stardom, Clemente perished in a plane crash on his way to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua from his native Puerto Rico. He was 38, just a year older than Gehrig.
Nicknamed Teddy Ballgame, Ted Williams was perhaps the greatest pure hitter in the history of the game. He lived a life so extraordinary, that it defies belief, exactly what Hollywood loves.
He was a real-life version of John Wayne – not only a tremendous hitter (the last .400 batter), but also a war hero (he interrupted his career twice to serve his country), and impossibly handsome.
On the darker side, Ted was insanely vain and insecure following a poverty-stricken childhood in San Diego. He also endlessly battled Boston’s fans and media and seemed cartoonishly irascible and incapable of ever finding any satisfaction or happiness in life.