clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Old/New Baseball Movies: Mean Dads Edition

New, 9 comments

Those a-holes screaming at kid-game umpires aren't new.

Jim Morris and Dennis Quaid, who played him in "The Rookie." Both are Mean Dads, undoubtedly.
Jim Morris and Dennis Quaid, who played him in "The Rookie." Both are Mean Dads, undoubtedly.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Mean Dads have been part of drama since humans invented drama. While the cliche is usually Mean Dads going after sons (for reasons of patriarchy, which I won't belabor here, except to say you shouldn't read Dan Brown novels explaining where patriarchy came from, as they are stupid novels), we all know there are also Mean Moms. And either parent can go after a child of any gender.

Since this post is about movies, let's look at some well-known examples of Mean Parents from film history. Also, I wanted to make a chart:

Movie Title Reason Mean Parent Is Mad At Kid Way For Kid To Please Mean Parent
The Jazz Singer Sings jazz instead of being an Orthodox cantor Show Dad you're great at blackface
Hamlet Hasn't killed regicidal uncle, his new wife (mom) Kill uncle, mom, die
The Godfather Doesn't want to kill anyone Join war, shoot enemies, come home, shoot enemies
Star Wars Won't join "Dark Side" Mutual limb amputation
Mommie Dearest Gets in way of movie career Don't use wire hangers
Star Trek IV Enlisted in Starfleet Save Earth with friends who wear hairpieces
Postcards From The Edge Can't live up to parent's movie career Write book about mom, do less coke, dump Paul Simon

As seen via the chart (charts are always instructive), one common theme in Mean Parent stories is wanting to win the Mean Parent's approval. You also learned that "Hamlet" was made into a movie. Really! A few times! Once with Mel Gibson! He so crazy!

The thing is, Mean Parents are pretty crazy themselves (usually because they had Mean/Crazy Parents of their own, or other abusive authority figures) and so it's fairly impossible in real life to satisfy them. The happiest true-adventure tales of reconciling with Mean Parents almost never involve making Mean Parent happy; they're more about recognizing you never can, and making peace with what damaged souls they are.

This is in itself difficult, and not always possible or rational.

So onto our Mean Dad baseball films. Both feature happy endings. I wouldn't steer you towards something depressing like "Sugar," the realistically grim tale of what happens to struggling Dominican players, now would I? (I would, but there's no old baseball movie to match it . . . or IS THERE?)

"Fear Strikes Out" features Anthony Perkins as Jimmie Pearsall, a Red Sox player with . . . issues. Perkins is pushed into full-steam psychotic breakdown by his Mean Dad, Karl Malden. Sample dialogue: "I'm third in the league in hitting!" "That's not first."

I won't say, watch this movie the first chance you get. Perkins's performance as a man losing his shit under stress is a bit much. Not bad, and certainly what the moviemakers probably wanted, as James Dean was doing the same stuff for adoring young audiences. In his quieter moments, Perkins veers between seeming quite likable and quite spooky.

He would, of course, be cast a few years later as the quiet serial killer in "Psycho." (Where he kills "Angels In The Outfield" star Janet Leigh.) For Hitchcock buffs, the psychiatrist who helps Piersall here is played by Adam Williams; he'd later be among the goons trying to kill Cary Grant in "North By Northwest," providing a classic line delivered by Jesse Royce Landis as Grant's mom: "you gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?"

One accidentally hilarious 1950s bit. Piersall meets a girl in Spring Training. He doesn't have the courage to ask her out. Later, we see the lady's apartment, and there's a knock at the door. It's Piersall. The woman shouts through the door, "how did you get my address?" Piersall/Perkins replies, "I called the hospital where you work and told them I was your brother."

OH MY GOD DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR HE WILL KILL YOU but it all works out fine.

There is some really slovenly cutting of stock footage, too. Piersall's breakdown comes at Fenway Park, and stock footage shows what is clearly Fenway. Then we see Piersall in the outfield, losing his shit, nervous over impressing his Mean Dad in the stands. Behind the outfield walls are trees. That's not Fenway; it's not even close. La-zy.

The last half-hour is potent stuff, though. After Piersall's breakdown, he's stuck in a mental hospital, and the film is incredibly sensitive towards Piersall's struggles. Keep in mind that this was 1956. (The director of "Fear Strikes Out," Robert Mulligan, would later make "To Kill A Mockingbird," which was similarly sympathetic to shut-in Boo Radley, played by Robert Duvall in his first movie role.)

Whatever you think of 1950s psychiatry (and if you think much of it, I distrust you intensely), Piersall's battle to escape the harm done by Mean Dad is very moving. The movie works because Malden, the Mean Dad, is nowhere near so fashionably angsty as Perkins. He underplays his role nicely. His character genuinely thinks ridicule and praise dispensed out in measured portions are the best way to raise a winner.

In the most powerful scene, Malden visits Piersall's sanitorium doctor and asks when he can straighten his son out. The doctor, quite lovably, says "fuck you no way" (the 50s equivalent, of course.) So Malden cheats and finds Piersall's room. Piersall is just beginning to realize how badly his dad screwed up his head, it's not an easy thing to process, and then, boom. Hiya, buddy! Let's get this nonsense behind us and go back to kicking some doubter butt!

Quite likely, most of you have never experienced deranged people insisting they force abusive behavior on you. Luckily for you, I have. I can tell you fun stories! I won't, because they are not fun.

What I will tell you is, when abused people are lucky enough to get protection, from 1950s psychiatry or supportive friends or whatever, this protection from the abuser is an amazing thing. You never assumed you could get it, because you never assumed you deserved it.

That protection falling away, and the abuser showing up to say "hey, we're all cool now, right?", is about the most terrifying situation imaginable. I still have constant nightmares about something like this happening, and I've been away from abuse for 25 years.

Since "Fear Strikes Out" is a cheesy Hollywood movie, with only one effective sequence (Piersall's recovery from meltdown in the last act), it ends with Piersall having resolved his issues. Perkins and Malden play catch, for the first time without Malden pressuring Piersall too much. Everybody's learned their lessons! Thanks, 1950s psychiatry!

(Verbal vomiting, which is the phrase I prefer instead of "oversharing," insists I mention playing catch with my Dad. If I made an errant throw, and the ball went far past him, I was shamed into running down the ball, picking it up correctly, returning to my spot as the thrower, and doing it better. I never got much better at it. Also, my dad was kind of a dick, probably because he was abused by broken people. Shit rolls downhill.)

So, "The Rookie." Washed-up ex-prospect has one last chance to prove he could have made The Show. He coaches a high-school team in farmland, promises the team he'll try out again for the majors if the kids win. They win.

It's probably one of the better baseball movies ever, and that's despite it having too many themes mashed into an overlong film. There's a Mean Dad (Brian Cox, the best actor whose name you don't know.) The misfit-ragamuffin-underdog teens who win. Foll-oll-wing Yer Dreams. Small towns (especially in Texas) are just so much more Friendly than anywhere else (especially in Texas) because everybody knows everybody and there's no gossip or petty-mindedness or lunatics trenched in with enough ammunition to blow up an entire county (especially in Texas.)

It works because Dennis Quaid holds it together. Dennis Quaid can act, folks. He was always sort of a second-rate Tom Cruise (they have similar man-child mischievous grins), who got the smaller action-movie roles, the less heralded Serious Parts. There's a difference. Crusie's grin is intended to make you adore him, so you care what happens to his character. Quaid's grin is a performance. There's vast insecurity behind it, and that varied with every role he played.

There's a moment, when Quaid's character finally gets his MLB shot, and he sees his family in the stands, where Quaid's grin is just heartbreaking. He's hanging onto them for dear life, practically suspended from the railings. That grin comes out, signifying joy. No matter what happens, his family's proud of him. It's maybe the finest moment I know of from Quaid's underrated career and better than anything Cruise could ever accomplish.

(Possibly the best reason to watch "The Rookie" again is a DVD feature on the real Jim Morris. It shows his nervousness during that first game, him exhaling on the mound, and Morris is instantly winning.)

While the ragtag kids and the friendly town are well-paced sequences with a good cast, the movie would have been better as an hour-long TV episode, focusing on him and his family. I'm a sucker for baseball stories that include how stressful Foll-oll-wing Yer Dreams is to the people who care about you. Plus, once Morris decides to try again, the movie's pace changes; it goes from "slow buildup" (which is fine) to "let's damn well tell the story efficiently while leaving space for quiet scenes" (which is better.)

I remember bawling at it the first time. Oh, why? Because Mean Dad shows up at Morris's debut. And it's fucking Brian Cox. (That part of the plot isn't quite fleshed out -- yet it always works to have Quaid, a successful adult teacher/husband/father, referring to Cox as "sir.") Mean Dad loves his son now. Thanks, Disney movies!

Really, what child of a Mean Parent doesn't dream of this? You never stop wanting reconciliation. No matter if it's impossible (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, sometimes you can learn to balance making Mean Parent happy with maintaining boundaries, sometimes you can't.)

Consciously knowing it's impossible, and you have to move on from those irrational expectations, doesn't mean you stop having dreams (actual, sleeping dreams) about fixing it all, or nightmares over failing -- even when the connection has been severed for decades.

Sports and Hollywood. The stuff dreams, and night terrors, are made of.