Eight Men In: Baseball Movie Managers

added 3/8/2011 by Dr. Bill McCurdy

(This column is reprinted with permission from Dr. McCurdy's blog, The Pecan Park Eagle.)

Manager William Frawley (R) with Pitcher Joe E. Brown in the 1935 film, "Alibi Ike."

Ike was a Prima Donna before baseball paid big money.
Bill Frawley will always be Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy" and Uncle Bub O'Casey on "My Three Sons," but those roles will never come close to his true identity. In reality, he was a first tier baseball man, and one who also enjoyed bending the old elbow in the fashion of drinkers from those earlier times. Frawley and the Babe, or manager Joe McCarthy, would have gotten along just fine and their plans for the evenings that followed all those endless days game of the 1920s and early 1930s. He also may have fit into the managerial role as well as any actor from Hollywood ever did -- had he ever been given the chance.

Today's focus for me is upon the eight men I've ruled in as realistic type-casting for baseball movie managers. Bill Frawley is only my first choice of eight for this job, and in no particular order. Anytime any of these guys chose to portray managers in a film, I was, as I still am, ready to accept them as guys who came prepared to deal with all the hassles and flack of the challenge, even if one of them would have to deal with an arguably totaled group of six to eight players who were trying to throw the World Series back in the sweet bye-and-bye.

Here are a few words about each:

William Frawley
(1) William Frawley. The guy had the scornful look of the biggest old cranky man the world had ever known. He was blustery, yet sentimental and understanding, the kind of guy who most probably could have given a young player what he needed, whether it was a pat on the back or a kick in the pants. In 1935's "Alibi Ike," Frawley played "Cap," the manager of the Chicago Cubs who had to deal with the talented, but arrogant rookie pitcher Joe E. Brown on the club's way to a world championship. That's right. The Cubs won it all, but not because of Frawley's credible managerial demeanor. The Cubs won it all here because it was only a movie script fantasy of some writer with Cub ties.

Wilford Brimley
(2) Wilford Brimley. Once was enough. Brimley's performance as Pop Fisher, the manager of the struggling New York Knights in 1984's "The Natural" was a tour de force effort in character portrayal. The droning, honest, and laconic style of old Pop Fisher has a hard time snapping to what he has on his hands when the magical Roy Hobbs shows up to play for the team, but he holds on like a snapping turtle to this incredible talent once he finally sees the man literally knock the cover off the ball. You get the feeling from Brimley that serving as his bench coach would mean going to supper every night with the manager and watching him order the same thing every night from the same cafe booth, if it were open.

Danny Glover
(3) Danny Glover. In the 1994 re-make of "Angels in the Outfield," Danny Glover plays the stressed-out manager of the California Angels, George Knox. Knox plays every hand in fear that his crummy club is about to cost him his job at any moment. When he meets the kid fan who seems to have the ability to lure helpful angels to the games, Knox's desire to win, no matter what, easily wins out over any fear that the media is going to portray him as a nut job. His last concession is admitting to himself that he finally had reached a point in life in which he had come to believe in a power greater than his own will. Whoa, Danny! You came close to finding a philosophy that would have allowed you to set up a rehab program for stressed out baseball managers who became obsessed with winning beyond health and family considerations.

Paul Douglas
(4) Paul Douglas. He played manager Guffy McGovern in the 1951 original version of "Angels in the Outfield," but unlike Glover's anxious portrayal, Douglas's character was lost in hard drinking, unrepentant anger, and surly treatment of others, particularly umpires. You have to cut him some slack for his drinking, foul language, and lack of courtesy to one an all.  After all, they cast McGovern as manager of the early 1950s Pittsburgh Pirates -- and without a Ralph Kiner onboard. Things work out with the help of angels and the faith of a little orphan girl fan and the loving support of Janet Leigh, who plays an early 1950s female  sports writer. In the end, the Pirates win the pennant. The manager and the sports writer fall in love. And we are left to believe that they marry and then adopt the kid who led the angels to the ballpark in the first place. The movie was too short on time and perspective in 1951. They leave out the part where Guffy's girlfriend has to find out after marriage that winning a pennant doesn't always  guarantee a life of "happily ever after" with a manager who is hooked on alcohol, unless, of course, he has the blood of a tiger to protect him from the afflictions that down ordinary mortals.

Pat Flaherty
(5) Pat Flaherty. This wonderful old character actor from the 1930s and 1940s usually played cops or drill seargents, but he fit in easily as Bill Carrigan, the manager of the Boston Red Sox in 1948's "The Babe Ruth Story." Flaherty could have played any Irishman who managed in the big leagues around the turn and early years of the 20th century because he was that guy. He came across as compassionate, but driving; aware of the Babe's talent, but equally aware of the great star's potential for self-destruction. Flaherty represents the face of pragmatism in my book of eight men in. Some of the best managers in history being those who don't get lost trying to fix what's beyond their control. Carrigan was a pragmatist. He played Babe Ruth for what he could get out of him while he was still the manager at Boston, even if his overall relationship with the club's front office apparently was breaking down. Result? The Red Sox took the 1916 pennant and World Series. And then Carrigan was gone. Replaced in 1917 by Jack Barry. Flaherty played the role of Carrigan well, even if all this other stuff never saw the light of day in the movie.

Ted de Corsia
(6) Ted de Corsia. 1949's "It Happens Every Spring" is the only film I recall ever seeing character Ted de Corsia playing anything for comedy in film, but did a great job here as manager Jimmy Dolan of the St. Louis (don't say Cardinals) National League club. Usually cast as a gangster or western bad guy, de Corsia plays the hard-nosed manager of a club that needs "one more good arm" to win the pennant. It is an implicit prayer that is answered by a nutty professor/Cardinal fan who accidentally invents a substance that makes anything its rubbed upon repellant to wood. ("Say, how about rubbing it on baseballs, taking a sabbatical from teaching and becoming an unhittable pitcher for your favorite St. Luis team?") Ray Milland plays the nutty professor/unhittable pitcher Mike Kelly, who grates on de Corsia's nerves from the start, but that quickly changes when Kelly goes in and strikes batters out in droves. De Corsia's great comedy scene comes about when he gets hold of a small bottle of Milland's special wood repellant fluid and, thinking it's hair tonic, pours some on his wooden comb and attempts to comb his hair. -- Your imagination can handle the rest.

Joseph Crehan
(7) Joseph Crehan. Joe Crehan served more movie time as police commissioner than Rick Perry has put in as Governor of Texas. He was the perfect choice for the role as Tom Dugan, a manager and buddy to William Bendix in the 1950 film, "Kill the Umpire." Crehan was just another of the wonderful old Irish-American character actors that were as natural a mix as corn beef and cabbage when it came to baseball movies. You really believed that Crehan's players were going to listen to what he had to say.

John Mahoney
(8) John Mahoney. My eighth man in starred in 1988's "Eight Men Out" as Chicago White Sox manager Kid Gleason of the more commonly known 1919 Black Sox, the club that threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds through gambler Arnold Rothstein and the arguable complicity of six to eight White Sox players. Mahoney comes across as the honest manager who may have been guilty, with several others, of simply looking the other way when some serious shenanigans were taking place between a few 1919 White Sox players and some very serious gamblers. I don't know what real manager Gleason knew or didn't know, but I do think actor John Mahoney did a most credible job of portraying his look-away stance in the movie. All of the innocent inside bystanders to the fix in the White Sox Scandal are remindful of Claude Rains as Captain Renault in "Casablanca," when he shuts down Rick's Cafe Americain on a trumped-up charge after receiving his own winnings. "I am shocked -- shocked I tell you -- to find that gambling is going on here!" Renault exclaims. John Mahoney will always be best remembered as Kelsey Grammer's dad on "Frazier," but he will always be my "eighth man in" too when it comes to picking actors who play well as baseball managers.

At any rate, these are my choices. Do you have any favorite movie actor/managers? I did leave Tom Hanks out, for one, but there others who rate a vote too. Or maybe even give some consideration to actors who never have, but could play managers on the big or little screens. I'd love to hear your thoughts on all the fine thought of my "eight men in," plus the others I left out.

Copyright © 2011 Dr. Bill McCurdy and The Pecan Park Eagle. All Rights Reserved.