There is no more exciting time for a baseball fan, like me, than March with another Spring Training. Being that I am a lifelong Yankee fan, I definitely have a lot to be excited about this year – but I digress. Also being a film fan, the cinema has brought us a rich history of classic baseball films. From Bull Durham to Field of Dreams to Major League to The Bad News Bears to Eight Men Out there is no shortage of superior flicks about the American Pastime – though based on the MLB Network’s scheduling you wouldn’t think so. I will spend the next four weeks highlighting underrated baseball movies you may have missed and that the MLB Network would be wise to acquire the rights to – unless they enjoy showing Little Big League twice a week.
In the early days of Home Box Office, their original film productions were both risky and often overlooked. After all, what business did a fledgling cable company have making movies? One of those early risks was 1987’s Long Gone, a charming and insightful tale about minor league baseball in the 1950’s. The film was directed by Martin Davidson (best known for Eddie and the Cruisers and The Lords of Flatbush) and stars an uncharacteristically charismatic William L. Petersen. Best known for his intense work as the brilliant and brooding Gil Grissom on the long-running CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Petersen is all loud-talking chauvinistic bluster as Cecil “Stud” Cantrell.
The film follows “Stud” as the player-manager of the Tampico Stogies, a Florida-based low-level minor league team. He was once a prized prospect who missed his window when he was drafted to fight in WWII. He spends his days still playing above average baseball and hoping for shot at the big leagues as a manager. In the meantime, he drinks too much and beds any baseball groupie he can until he meets his match in local beauty queen Dixie Lee Boxx (a fiery Virginia Madsen).
It seems like another losing season for the Stogies until a pair of prospects breathe life into the team. There’s the wet-behind-his eyes rookie with an excellent glove played by a wide-eyed Dermot Mulrooney. There’s also an African-American Phenom, a catcher meant to mirror the real-life Negro League legend Josh Gibson, played by Larry Riley. In what was a common practice of the time, we see this prodigy try to market himself as Hispanic by changing his name from Joe to Jose. Thankfully, the penny-pinching/bigoted owners of the team fall for the ruse. They are played to comic perfection by longtime character actor Henry Gibson and Teller (yes, of Penn and Teller), in a very rare SPEAKING role.
Released almost a year before Bull Durham, Long Gone captures the struggle and monotony of minor league baseball. It’s a life full of twelve-hour bus rides, constant fast food and faint hopes of making it to the “big leagues.” There are some outrageous moments in the film, like when we see the lengths to which “Stud” will go to get an opposing team’s imposing pitcher out of the game before it starts. There’s also the poignancy of a long time player that needs to be cut to fix the roster, a minor league lifer who just wants to tell the story about the time he struck out Ted Williams one more time.
Unlike Bull Durham, Long Gone does follow a more traditional Hollywood storyline with the Stogies finally playing their best ball with a chance to make the playoffs. There’s drama when “Stud” must decide if he will stick with his guys or take a much dreamed of manager job. And we watch Joe/Jose Brown show the resolve and courage needed for a black player to have a chance at following in Jackie Robinsons’ legendary footsteps.
Long Gone is funny, heartfelt and the perfect way to kill two hours before MLB’s first pitch in April.