Yesterday my kitchen window thermometer read -9 degrees. Instead of grass, snow: frozen, thawed, and re-frozen into mottled clumps which obnoxiously block the sidewalks and accumulate in the most inconvenient places. Hell, the calendar doesn't even acknowledge anything official until the end of March. But none of that matters, because as of Friday--or Wednesday depending on which baseball team you call your own--it's spring, for better or worse.
So when trying to figure out what to watch for this week's edition of our little baseball cinema series, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to just pick from a hat and roll with the punches. We're still a good deal of time away from the first pitch of the regular season, but the first week of spring training seems to me to be a pretty important date. Important in the obvious sense that yes, you have to start this whole thing somewhere, but also important in crafting that whole over-mythologized narrative that baseball means something, that it somehow tells us something important about ourselves and our experience of modernity. And hey, if we're looking for a link between these two self-serving cultural institutions which rely just as much on legacy as they do whatever their newest iteration is, then...I think we've found it.
It Happens Every Spring
87 min. 1949, 20th Century Fox
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Rent on Youtube
Purchase on Amazon
It Happens Every Spring opens on the campus of Norworth University, where professor Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) finds himself in the typical conundrum that seems to plague every fictional academic from the thirties and forties: he's in love with the university president's daughter, but his finances aren't exactly winning the approval of his future father-in-law. This trope is all over radio and film productions of this era, and while I don't really know what to make of it, the answer here comes in a typical bout of mid-century Hollywood magical realism: Professor Simpson accidentally discovers the formula for a liquid which will make baseballs avoid wood like a set of magnets turned against one another.
You know exactly what happens next: Professor Simpson shows up at the offices of the "St. Louis" baseball club and convinces them to let him try out for the team. The club decides to go along with this only after realizing that his eventual humiliation while facing major-league hitting would be quite the lesson to teach someone crazy enough to think he can break bread with the big boys. And it's simple, really. By now, baseball is fundamentally different than what it was for the Babe Ruth narrative back in 1920. It has moved out from the cornfields and backyards of middle-class Illinois homes, passed through the urban spaces where it grew into a mythologized pastime, and landed square into the market. Baseball here is no longer an idea, it is an institution--an institution which can make a whole hell of a lot of money in the process.
But Hollywood, and the market, have never been too keen on convincing people they can't move upward as long as they have a little gumption and elbow grease. So sure enough, Simpson brings his formula to spring training where the ball suddenly starts hopping and skipping around swinging bats, just like when you'd put the free physics code into Mike Piazza's Strike Zone and piss off whoever it was you were playing against. Before you know it, our eager egghead is out there winning games under the alias of "King Kelly," and while his dopey persona never really fully disappears, it seems to me that we're given an entirely new kind of narrative within the baseball imaginary.
No longer is Babe Ruth coming up at just the right spot, calling on that right stuff he has within deep down within himself to hit a home run and save the day. This is no longer that essentialist narrative which would imagine what took place on the Elysian Fields was not a game but rather the first step in an eternal cycle. No, as the institution of baseball grows, monetized into new flows and new markets, winning becomes a strategy. A path, an accumulation of ideas and practices which lead to a distinctly goal-driven outcome--just like the market itself.
Of course, no code-era studio movie could ever end by glorifying the benefits of cheating. On the decisive game of the World Series, Simpson spills the last bottle of his formula, and is forced to head out to the mound without the magical elixir which got him there in the first place. Hanging onto a one-run lead after getting shelled, he shockingly barehands a line drive to win the game, ending his career for good but ensuring the whole ruse still gets him what he wanted in the first place: the girl, the glory, and the money. The first two turned into commodities--with yes, all that sentence implies--and the latter the means by which they are acquired.
The movie itself is a pretty straightforward mid-century studio comedy. But it also arrives at a particularly interesting moment in American film history. One year earlier, the Supreme Court ruled that the vertically-integrated Hollywood studio system--which saw each of the five major studios controlling their own production, distribution, and exhibition--was a monopoly. Over the next few decades, a once incredibly-profitable system started to slowly unravel at the core: some studios dissolved, contracts which kept directors and actors as in-house properties were rendered obsolete, and expensive prestige pictures threatened to bankrupt what was once the marvel of the modern entertainment industry.
But none of this happened overnight. In 1949, 20th Century Fox was still chugging along with the good times, here borrowing Ray Milland from Paramount Pictures and earning industry nods for Fred Sersen's special effects. You can see the pitch effect around the :50 second mark of this video here--all the information I can find on it says it was a "cartoon effect," which I'm willing to bet means he just painted the ball on each individual frame.
The whole thing is a bit silly, and there isn't much to be made for a shot-by-shot analysis or anything. But I've always found it fascinating that Hollywood would continue their heavy-handed moralizing right into the era when their economic stability was beginning to be undermined, as if they knew what was coming but chose to hug their wallets instead of a lifeboat. What It Happens Every Spring tells us is that the world is no longer in the process of modernization, but rather that it has already modernized. That in order to make it in this new post-war world with its big scary global markets are new ideas, nevermind the walls crumbling down in the process. We need baseball, we need the movies--not because they produce anything of great importance, but rather because they help us understand exactly what it all means in the first place.
We haven't come much further in the near-seventy years since this film was released. Baseball is still a thing that happens. It happens every spring. It is a ritual which can appear to us as timeless when it pops its head up out of the ice each February, but it is anything but forever. It stands in comforting defiance to things like economic crises, it drapes a blanket over unexpected interruptions springing up on the front pages of newspapers and twitter feeds. But it does all that knowing full well that it is anything but.
Hollywood loves to mythologize its past just as much as baseball, but what both institutions provide--entrenched as they are in billions and billions of dollars of yearly profit--is precisely the very counter to that myth. This claim that the game makes sense of our changing material conditions of modernity, that it provides us with some sense of stability which can in turn be narrativized by our ever-eager eyes watching in the stands is precisely the obverse side of the coin against which its constitutive myth is founded.
But that narrative, seemingly realist in the face of the Doubleday myth, might be just as geniune as the hand-drawn baseball moving through the celluloid frames of Bacon's film. Why we only ever seem to demand one or the other remains left to be seen.