' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: It Happens Every Spring (1949)

Friday, April 04, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: It Happens Every Spring (1949)

At the conclusion of “It Happens Every Spring” on Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz explained that then-Major League Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, refused to grant his organization's participation in the film, which had planned on using actual team names, ballparks and players. Chandler, ever contradictory to his nickname, explained that the film was “the story of a cheat” and that cheating was not in the spirit of America’s so-called Pastime. Never mind, of course, that Major League Baseball had been embroiled in innumerable cheating scandals (see: “Eight Men Out”), it also had only allowed black players entry to its supposedly plain-jane game but two years earlier. Ah, baseball, always going to absurd lengths to protect the illusion of its noble soul.

It’s baseball season once again here in the States (and a part of Canada) and as always happens this time of spring, men and women, young and old alike, become absent-minded at the sound of the crack of the bat, the fly ball popping against the leather of the glove, the fizzy froth of the Old Style drawn from a Wrigley Field vendor’s tap. This is what happens to Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland), chemistry professor at a St. Louis university, whose work toward a doctorate degree finds trouble post-Opening Day. The degree is crucial because to earn it means he will become director of a new research laboratory on campus and to become director would mean the necessary financial windfall that would allow the University President (Ray Collins) to allow Vernon to ask for his daughter’s, Debbie (Jean Peters), hand in marriage. Money means everything. Just ask Albert Pujols!

Alas, the experiment Vernon expects to catapult him to his doctorate goes necessarily awry, yet it also yields a pitcher’s mound-shaking discovery – a liquid compound, impossible to duplicate as it is impossible to know what created it, that if rubbed on a baseball, propels it to leap up and over a piece of wood (like, say, you know, a baseball bat). Heavens to murgatroyd! So long before Hollywood “rewarded” Lake Bell for her glorious “In A World…” triumph with some head-hanging nonsense called “Million Dollar Arm”, Professor Vernon Simpson discovered the Million Dollar Liquid Compound.

Via analytical chicanery, Simpson always quoting numbers and facts, resisting embellishments, finagles himself a tryout with the local St. Louis baseball team, never referenced beyond its city nor in the context of its league, by guaranteeing he can win 30 games and deliver a championship. And in spite of Manager Dolan’s (Ted de Corsia) and Owner Stone’s (Ed Begley) skepticism, when Simpson’s secretly juiced…er, liquid compounded…ball hops up and over the bat of every player who swings, they sign him to a handsome contract based on per game performance. If Simpson makes good on 30 wins, he will have the money to wed Debbie. There may be joy in Mudville, after all.

In a way, Simpson, who re-christens himself “Kelly” (which inevitably begets "King" Kelly) to avoid detection by the University President who has permitted Simpson to take a leave of absence, is Sidd Finch Before Sidd Finch. Finch, if you don’t recall, was The Great Sports Illustrated Hoax of 1985, invented by the late writer George Plimpton, purported to be an exotic and entirely unknown New York Mets’ rookie who could hurl a fastball at 168 MPH. Needing to keep his real identity a secret, Kelly, employing his pal, roommate and catcher, Monk (Paul Douglas), refuses all photographs and maintains mystery even as he dominates every game in which he pitches.

The premise of “It Happens Every Spring” is, of course, inherently absurd, and yet it still suggests something fundamental about the game we hold so dear. After all, here is a chemist, a man of finite detail, who has come across a startling sort of equation he cannot explain or re-create. And despite his devotion to elemental truths, he props himself up on fabrication, sculpting a myth even if the myth outweighs all the pertinent facts. At the same time, as his baseball literally leaps over bats and leaves batters and umpires and spectators and sportswriters wondering if they’re seeing things, no one follows up or probes deeper or looks to see if this “Kelly” has something secretive squired away in his glove. In other words, they bury their heads in the sand. Not that this ever happens.

Chandler may have been a hypocrite, but he was also right. The film, entertaining though it may be, is the story of a cheat, and the cheat quite plainly gets away with it. This could never happen in a modern day movie which would demand a comeuppance to convey that lessons are always learned and that there is no cheating in baseball. But there is always cheating in baseball. It happens every spring.

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