Opening weekend is upon us, which means baseball is back! While the MLB gears up for the 2021 season, Variety reflects on America’s pastime, which began in the mid-1800s and that showbiz was quick to monetize.
In “Plie Ball! Baseball Meets Dance on Stage and Screen,” Jeffrey M. Katz links the growing popularity of baseball with the pop culture art of the time: songs. He cites one of the earliest baseball ditties, 1858’s “The Baseball Polka.”
Many followed, but it was 1908’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer that has endured, although Von Tilzer tried again to capitalize on the wildly popular sport with 1910’s “Back to the Bleachers With Mine” (July 16, 1910, Variety ad).
While songs kept fans upbeat on the game, baseball stars were sent out on the theater circuit by savvy promoters and producers in the late 19th century, and vaudeville welcomed the athletes well into the first few decades of the 20th century, with Variety’s pages touting news and reviews on Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt, White Sox star Cap Anson, New York Giants manager John J. McGraw and N.Y. Giants pitcher Rube Marquard among the stars who picked up extra cash by regaling rapt audiences in the off-season with stories about the sport and its colorful characters.
Variety covered baseball as part of the entertainment business that it is, and the moviemakers have always courted the top players for films. There are several mentions of a Rube Waddell biopic in the 1940s and 1950s — a player ripe for comedy and tragedy. Waddell built up eye-popping numbers during his career, including back to back years in which he struck out more than 300 batters (1903, 1904), a stat that stood until Sandy Koufax in 1965-66.
The press described him as eccentric, while his drinking earned him the nickname the Souspaw. He also toured on the vaudeville circuit. There’s a lot there for an enterprising producer looking for a limited series subject.
The late 20th century brought a wave of great baseball movies, some of which blended fantasy and magic with America’s pastime. 1989’s “Field of Dreams” gave us the famous line, “If you build it, he will come,” and “Rookie of the Year” taught us that anything is possible. Meanwhile, documentaries like “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” and Ken Burns’ “Baseball” told the incredible true tales of the storied sport.
The movies, of course, have always loved baseball. But what are the best baseball movies? Fans have been debating this for decades, so Variety decided to weigh in.