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Based on a True Story (Part 1)

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So – with baseball season upon us, all of a sudden, like, right now – I have a couple baseball-related type comments. Sorta – but you can be the judge. Part 1 is this – part 2 is next week.

So they say – life imitates art, yeah? Or is it that art imitates life? I always thought they were just interchangeable anyway, I guess. Even serious art. Yeah, I think so.

Serious art, like, the movies? Hmmm.

Do we take movies seriously, ever?

Perhaps.

Are we going somewhere with this, cos I got things to do!

Yeah, yeah. I get it. But this is, at the least, interesting. So stay with me, k?

Back to the movies. And I’m talking waaaaaaaaaaaay back – to 1984. The movie: The Natural. Well, that movie was based on a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud…which was based on…

Get this! – a real-life, true…

Story!

Art and life…and imitations…

Yeah, right on, Dr. B. I got your D-Bizzle!

Wait, wait – so now hang on…it really will get interesting…

Everybody dies? No, no – not every movie ends like that. This movie, The Natural, ends with a final scene, and – the climactic scene before the final scene.

You remember, right? Where Roy Hobbs (what an absolutely perfect baseball player name) hits a home run into the lights, the lights explode, it’s raining – wait, was it raining? Yeah. It was. So we can have more of one theme of the story – lightning! Well, still, the bad guys lose, the crooked owner is thwarted finally, the beloved coach finally wins, and on and on with all the classic good-guys-win-there-is-still-hope-kinds of feelings…

Absolutely – a favorite.

It actually is my personal favorite. The best movie ever made – to my mind.

Am I kidding? No.

And here’s why…

But wait, let me set it up a bit…

So the story goes…

Like any good story – this one has background, conflict, climax, and resolution – so, it is standard fare, garden variety there – but, those pieces, the background, conflict, climax and resolution – you have to have those in order to have a good story. Without, there is no story. That’s the template, and The Natural has them, and also then, – the makings of a Classic!

The background: Roy Hobbs has a gift for the game of baseball. As a young lad, his talents are extraordinary, and he loves the game, so, as his father wisely instructed him, he picked his spot (his baseball gifts) and he worked it. And he has a lovely young admirer too – a sweet girl named Iris. And they of course, fall into young love – you know, the innocent kind – young love…

Conflict: The first appearance of conflict comes when Roy’s father passes away suddenly, amidst rain, and lighting, and a large tree in the yard – split in two by a lightning strike.

Roy fashions a baseball bat out of the tree near where his father passed. This is significant and meaningful. He polished the finished bat, or “boned it, so it won’t chip,” and he gives it a name: “Wonderboy,” which he etches into the barrel of the bat, along with a lightning bolt.

Later, he says goodbye to his sweet girl Iris, and heads off to make a way with his life – in baseball. On the train, he encounters a veiled woman, who convinces him she has something important for him – and then she steps out of the shadows, produces a gun, and shoots him in the chest. This is a key moment in the story – this moment of conflict. It seems so random, and unexpected. But the whole story seems to turn on this moment…

You see, little known is the fact that this is where the story in The Natural is based on a true, real-life story…

Aye! It is. A True story…The story is of an original femme fatale, perhaps – where, in the late 1940s, a young woman, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, 19-years-old, developed a crush on Eddie Waikus, the handsome first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. So complete was her obsession that she insisted that her mother set a place at the dinner table for him every night. He never showed, of course, but for being unaware. Not surprisingly, Steinhagen also had a shrine in her room dedicated to Waikus, and it was reported that she would get the vapors every time she went to a Cubs game and was in the vicinity (along the first base line) of Waikus. Understandably, she pitched a fit when Waikus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1948 season – and as the real life story goes – it was then that she decided to kill him.

When the Phillies were in Chicago to play the Cubs during the 1949 season, Steinhagen set her trap – she booked a room at the hotel where the Phillies were staying, and sent a compelling and convincing note to Waikus, urging him to come see her. She gave a false name and her room number, and the promise that “…it would be to your advantage to let me explain [further].” However, improbable as it may seem, Waikus agreed to meet Steinhagen in her room. So, he went to her room, slowly walked in, and sat down – and that’s when she pulled out a gun – and shot him!

Sound familiar?

Yeah – and you remember…

Now, the climax in the story of The Natural builds as Roy Hobbs attempts to make a comeback, 16 years after having been shot by the mysterious woman on the train…

In the course of the comeback, which is dramatically covered in one season, there are, naturally, ups and downs; high points – and low points. But you get the feel that success will come. That there is hope. And right then, guess who reappears!?! Yup! Iris! Obviously, she’s older, but she fires the heat of the story – right straight to classic! Hope is alive!! But that’s all they have – Iris and Roy. Isn’t it funny sometimes, how what was meant to be turns into…what is.

Perhaps there’s still hope, yeah? The Natural is the story of the wheelhouse of that hope…

But before we can get to that – there’s been another important development – one of the high points of the story is that Roy Hobbs has this rather charming camaraderie with the team bat boy, young Bobby Savoy. This too seems quite natural. The boy adores Roy, but perhaps even more, the boy adores the winning, and the fun of winning that Roy brings.

One of the lynchpins of the winning, and the success of Roy Hobbs, is “Wonderboy” – the bat carved from the tree where Roy’s father died.

One day, little Bobby Savoy looks up at Roy Hobbs and says, “Do you think I could make one of those bats?” Hobbs smiles, and nods in agreement. The scene changes and the story goes on…

Iris has reappeared. And like life, good things and bad things happen. But it’s all building, building…the story is building…

We have the background, and the conflict, and the climax…building, and building…

So, the crescendo of the climax in The Natural reaches its highest heights in the scene before the final scene – who can forget!?! No one, who ever saw it, right?

Well, perhaps – or, perhaps not.

Still – even the remembering is kinda cool…

So, Roy Hobbs is up to bat. “Wonderboy” in his hands…and it is quietly ready to spark our hearts with a shout in the blood…

The pennant is on the line. Last inning. Two outs. Down by two runs. Two men on base.

The pitch.

Strike one.

Next pitch. Long fly ball…going, going, going…foul.

Foul ball. Strike two.

On his way back to the batter’s box, Roy reaches down for his bat, and then he sees it – and stops! Oh, no!!!! “Wonderboy” has split in two. It’s a broken bat – as a result of that last foul ball blast…

And this is what makes this story, this movie, the best movie ever made – to my mind…

The bat boy, Bobby Savoy, slowly comes out to collect the bat – Hobbs reaches down, gathers up the broken pieces, and looks at the boy, and knowing the little boy’s heart might sink because of the sheer force of the moment, Hobbs smiles and says, “Pick me out a winner, Bobby!”

The bat he picks is the “Savoy Special,” which he and Roy had fashioned out together, after he had asked, “Do you think I could make one those bats?” And of course, Roy hits that towering, crashing, sparkling, lightning home run to win the pennant, save the day, and on, and on…

That is what not makes this movie great. No. It’s not the fireworks, or the homeruns, or the lightning, or the cinematics spectacular. Or the music. No.

What makes that movie great was that in that one moment, when Bobby Savoy looks up and asks that question, in that moment was captured the one thing that we all want, and we all reach for, and aspire for, and strive for – every day – The Fountain of Youth!

That snapshot of Bobby Savoy asking that question is a picture of – The Fountain of Youth!

So now, dear readers, think on that for a week…

And we’ll explore this more next time…

In Part 2…

Sources:

Conradt, S. (2016). The true story behind The Natural. Mental floss (June 15, 2016). Available:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/81530/true-story-behind-natural. Retrieved: March 9, 2017.

Memmot, M. (2013). Stalker who inspired The Natural Dies; Lived real life in obscurity. Breaking News from NPR (March 18, 2013). Available: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/03/18/174623312/stalker-who-inspired-the-natural-dies-lived-real-life-in-obscurity, Retrieved March 9, 2017.

By Dr. Rodney J. Blackman

Dr. Rodney J. Blackman is the Chair of Recreation Management at the United States Sports Academy, and can be reached at rblackman@ussa.edu.

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