Reel Life: 'The Natural'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

"The Natural" is baseball fantasy, a modern myth that borrows elements freely from Arthurian and baseball legends. But the movie doesn't have any fancy special effects -- the life of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is grounded firmly on farms, in trains, in locker rooms, and, of course, on the diamond.

The Natural
The filmmakers weren't "true" to the Bernard Malamud novel upon which the film is based, but they did strive mightily to be true to the historical period in which they set the story (primarily 1923 and 1939), and to some important baseball history.

Did they succeed? You decide.

The young Roy Hobbs
In Reel Life: Very young Roy (Paul Sullivan Jr.) pitches to his father, and his glove has webbing.
In Real Life: In the 1920s and 1930s, gloves, though much smaller than today's, did have a little bit of webbing. The webbing was introduced by pitcher Bill Doak of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1920, according to Total Baseball.

Getting used to the old-fashioned glove was hard for Redford. "When I first started playing ball, about 1946, I used a big Trapper mitt at first base," Redford told Sports Illustrated in 1984. "I'd snag everything one-handed. In 1939, they used those small gloves with the five stubby fingers and no webbing. In the movie, we use the same kind. So just about the first ball hit to me in the outfield, I wave everybody off and yell, 'I got it.' It looked like an easy catch. The ball bounced off that little glove and hit me right in the head."

In Reel Life: Hobbs hand carves his own bat out of a huge tree split by lightning.
In Real Life: The bat is a Louisville Slugger, made by Hillerich & Bradsby.

In Reel Life: Hobbs names his bat "Wonderboy," branding the name into the barrel. In Real Life: It wasn't unusual for great hitters to name their bats back in those days. Shoeless Joe Jackson, for example, named his bat "Black Betsy." Babe Ruth also named his three bats -- one was "Black Betsy," another "Big Bertha," and the third "Beautiful Bella."

In Chicago and New York
Mike Nola shows Joe Jackson's "Black Betsy" before it was auctioned on eBay last year.
In Reel Life: It's 1923, and Hobbs is a promising pitcher, on his way to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. His train stops for a half hour near a carnival. There he gets into a pitcher-batter duel with "The Whammer" (Joe Don Baker), a Ruthian baseball star who happens to be on the train. Hobbs strikes him out on three pitches.
In Real Life: The carnival and the strikeout scene took place in South Dayton, near Buffalo, where much of the movie was filmed. It "was absolutely the biggest thing to have happened to South Dayton since the deer jumped through the post office window," said the town's mayor, Larry Tollinger.

In Reel Life: Hobbs walks through Chicago's cathedral-like train station with the scout, Sam Simpson (John Finnegan).
In Real Life: That's Buffalo's Central Terminal.

In Reel Life: Hobbs pitches and bats left-handed.
In Real Life: "I'm left-handed all the way," Redford told SI in 1984."I played a lot of American Legion baseball ... and I intended to play in college, but I discovered drinking instead and flunked out."

In Reel Life: Hobbs meets Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) on the train to Chicago. After they arrive in Chicago, she calls Roy in his hotel room, asking him to her room. He knocks on the door and enters the room. She shoots him. He goes down.
In Real Life: This incident is modeled on the shooting of Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, which took place in a Chicago hotel room very late on the night of June 14, 1949. Waitkus had gotten a note in his room from a "Ruth Ann," and he thought the note was from a girlfriend of that name.

"Eddie goes up to the room, knocks on the door, and this broad answers the door," said Waitkus' roommate, Russ "Monk" Meyer. "Eddie thinks he's in the wrong room. She said, 'No, you're Eddie Waitkus, aren't you? I'm a friend of Ruth Ann's.' She tells Eddie, 'Ruth Ann went to get a newspaper and she will be right back. Why don't you come in?' " Waitkus entered the room, and shortly after the woman pulled a .22 caliber rifle out of a closet and shot Waitkus in the chest.

The woman was Chicago native Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a deranged 19-year-old fan who had been obsessed with Waitkus for years (he had played for the Cubs from 1946-48). He probably would have died had she not called the hotel's front desk right away, telling them, "I just shot Eddie Waitkus." Why did she do it? "As time went on, I just became nuttier and nuttier about the guy, and I knew I would never get to know him in a normal way," she said. "And if I can't have him nobody else can. And then I decided I would kill him."

In Reel Life: Much later in the movie, Roy's boyhood love, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) walks into the Parkside Candy Shoppe in Chicago, when she hears about Roy and "Wonderboy." Later, she and Roy meet at Parkside for a lemonade.
In Real Life: These scenes took place at Buffalo's Parkside Candy Store, which opened in the 1920s, and is still around. You can find it at 3208 Main St. in Buffalo, and it serves ice cream, homemade candy and sandwiches. According to Bill Rapaport's Buffalo Restaurant Guide, it has "a fantastic interior."

The great comeback
In Reel Life: It takes 16 years for Hobbs to return to baseball.
In Real Life: It took Waitkus less than a year. He had four operations after he was shot, but played every game in 1950 for the pennant-winning Phillies, hitting.284 in the leadoff spot.

Robert Redford
Robert Redford was 46 during filming, but he played Roy Hobbs at 19 and 35.
In Reel Life: When Roy makes it to the majors, he's 35 years old.
In Real Life: Redford was 46 when the film was made, and even plays Roy as a 19-year-old in the movie. Note the soft focus and scant lighting used to help create the illusion that Redford's younger than he is.

In Reel Life: Hobbs tells New York Knights manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) he's been playing for the Hebrew Oilers, a semi-pro team.
In Real Life: This is probably a sideways reference to the House of David barnstorming teams, which many excellent players of that era played for (or against). The House of David was a religious colony formed in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1903. Sports were emphasized by the colonists (who were not Jewish -- they considered themselves Christian Israelites), and they started barnstorming seriously in 1920s. Eventually, they started using players not of the faith, as long as they agreed to wear long hair and beards (George Steinbrenner, take note). The House of David teams were consistently excellent, drew large crowds, and played against major-league teams and great Negro League teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs. It would not have been difficult for a star of Hobbs' magnitude to quickly draw the attention of a major-league scout after a couple of weeks with the House of David.

In Reel Life: Knights coach Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth) befriends Roy, and dispenses plenty of advice on life -- but little on baseball.
In Real Life: Farnsworth, who was 63 at the time the movie was filmed, had spent most of his time in Hollywood as a stuntman, doubling for Henry Fonda and other big stars. But he didn't claim to know much about baseball. "Gosh, I haven't picked up a bat since grade school," he told Time in 1983.

At the ballpark
In Reel Life: The Knights play in Knights Stadium.
In Real Life: Director Barry Levinson had a hard time finding ballparks that had that 1930s look and feel. "We quickly determined there were only three appropriate major-league parks," said the film's production executive, Patrick Markey. But the movie was filmed between August and October 1983, in clear conflict with major-league schedules. They finally settled on Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium, where the AA Bisons played. The producers spent about $200,000 fixing up the ballpark, which had been built in the mid-1930s.

In Reel Life: Roy goes into the Knights' locker room and gets his uniform.
In Real Life: The uniforms are an original design, combining the looks of the Giants and Yankees uniforms of the late 1930s.

In Reel Life: The stadium is near empty when Roy arrives, and, of course, full when he starts to play.
In Real Life: About 3,000 people were recruited to play extras in the stands -- at the then-minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. Obviously, there still weren't enough folks to fill the stadium. According to a contributor to Digital City Buffalo's Movies bulletin board, "FN Burt, [a printing company] made cardboard people to be placed in the stadium during filming to cut back on the cost of extras."

Many of the extras were outfitted with straw boater hats that were fashionable in the 1930s. This wasn't easy. "In the '30s, boaters had about a 2¼-inch brim and a lower crown than they do today," said costume designer Bernie Pollack. "We finally located a company in Italy that made the boaters we wanted. When they arrived, they were perfect except that the brim was an inch too wide. We then had to search for a place that would sew the brim down an inch and hot glue the pieces together."

In Reel Life: The stadium's outfield wall is covered with ads for products such as Zenith radios, Sunkist lemon, Lifebuoy soap, Ritz crackers, White Owl cigars, and Wrigley chewing gum.
In Real Life: The Zenith and Wrigley ads, and perhaps others, were paid placements.

In Reel Life: In at least one scene, you can see a fielder's mitt laying on the fringe of the outfield grass between short and third.
In Real Life: Players used to leave their gloves on the field when their team came up to bat. This stopped by 1954, when a rule prohibiting the offensive team from leaving gloves and other equipment on the field went into effect.

In Reel Life: The bases are buckled into place by groundskeepers before games.
In Real Life: Bases were, indeed, strapped to a U-shaped spike until the 1960s, according to Claudette Burke at the Baseball Hall of Fame library.

In Reel Life: The Knights play against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
In Real Life: All High Stadium, built in 1929 next to Bennett High School in Buffalo, stood in for Wrigley Field.

In Reel Life: After a long while, Pop finally allows Hobbs to take batting practice. Hobbs hits about 10 straight out of the ballpark. After this amazing display, Pop asks to see his bat. Pop looks at it, hands it to Red the bat and says, "Red, measure that and weigh it. If it comes up to specifications, we'll let you use it."
In Real Life: If the bat did look like it was of unusual size, Red should have measured it -- to make sure it was no thicker than 2¾ inches in diameter at its thickest point, and no longer than 42 inches. But weighing the bat was an unusual request, since there have never been any weight requirements for bats.

In Reel Life: Game balls have red and black stitching.
In Real Life: Until the beginning of the 1934 season, the official NL ball had red and black stitching; from that point forward, they had red stitching only. The AL switched from red and blue stitching to red-only stitching in 1935.

In Reel Life: In his first major league at bat, Hobbs literally hits the cover off the ball.
In Real Life: That would have been a truly unique feat. The Baseball Hall of Fame has no record of this happening in a major league game.

In Reel Life: Hobbs seems to be able to hit the ball wherever he wants to. For example, during a late night batting practice, he sees sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) spying on him from the left-field stands, and almost hits him several times.
In Real Life: No batter is that accurate, but Redford was a perfectionist, and he swung "40 times and more for just the right trajectory and camera angle on a pop up or home run," wrote Jim Jerome in Time.

Players -- real, imagined and imitated
In Reel Life: The Knights and their opponents usually play pretty good ball.
In Real Life: Levinson held tryouts to field squads for the film. Among those on the Knights were 1980 Rookie of the Year Joe Charboneau and former Tiger and Met Phil Mankowski.

In Reel Life: The batboy, Bobby Savoy (George Wilkosz), plays a prominent role in the movie and becomes friends with Hobbs.
In Real Life: According to a 1984 Time article, director Barry Levinson was looking "for the perfect period batboy -- chubby, innocent, wide-eyed." Levinson told Time, "We finally found the kid working at his parents' produce stand in Buffalo. They were from Gdansk." Wilkosz was 13, but the "The Natural" was his first and last film. SI caught up with Wilkosz in 2001, and found that he was still in Buffalo, looking for work as a commercial artist. "Whenever I watch the movie, I feel as if I'm watching another person," he said. "I go, Wow, I was in that. It's just a great movie."

In Reel Life: Roy sits on the bench for a long time, but finally gets his chance to play as a regular when right fielder Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen), going after a long fly ball, dies after running through the outfield fence.
In Real Life: Only one major leaguer, Ray Chapman, has died as a direct result of a baseball injury. Chapman died shortly after he was beaned by Yankee pitcher Carl Mays on Aug. 16, 1920 at the Polo Grounds.

However, this incident is probably modeled after many that afflicted Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser, who, according to one estimate, was carried off the field 11 times after crashing into outfield walls. Reiser almost died after one 1947 crash against the concrete wall at Ebbets Field -- he was administered the last rites. Another collision, in St. Louis in 1942, resulted in a concussion, a separated left shoulder, and lifelong dizzy spells.

According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, "Warning tracks and padded fences came about because of Reiser's mishaps."

Ted Williams
Much of Redford's portrayal of Roy Hobbs was inspired by Ted Williams.
In Reel Life: After a Knights game in Chicago, Roy tells Iris he wanted to break "every record in the book." She asks, "And then?" Hobbs replies: "And then? And then when I walked down the street, people would've looked and they would've said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game."
In Real Life: Hobbs is, in some ways, a tribute to Ted Williams, who famously said, "When I walk down the street and meet people, I just want them to think 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" Other parallels include that both Hobbs and Williams were lefties and both wore No. 9. Redford said he patterned his stance in the movie after Williams: "Williams was my hero as a kid ... Williams I could just see in my mind's eye in Fenway Park. I copied his stance the way I'd seen it in pictures."

In Reel Life: Team members wear 1839-1939 Baseball Centennial patch on their left sleeve.
In Real Life: All major league teams wore the patch during the 1939 season. The year before, the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees wore patches promoting the upcoming 1939 New York World's Fair.

In Reel Life: Throughout the film, headlines and stories from the season are interspersed, and they look authentic.
In Real Life: Screenwriter Phil Dusenberry researched 1930s-style sports stories and headlines in the New York Daily News morgue. From a close look at freeze-frames of the newspapers, it appears that real newspapers of the day were used, with the Hobbs/Knights headlines pasted on top of real, but unrelated stories. For example, one headline, "Knights in 2nd," tops a story that begins, "The United States Bureau of Fisheries has been making a close study of the black bass, with a particular view to protecting the bronzebackers."

In Reel Life: In one newspaper, league RBI leaders are visible: "Will'ms, Red Sox, 124, DiMaggio, Yank, 116 ... "
In Real Life: In 1939, Ted Williams led the AL in RBI with 145; DiMaggio was second with 126.

In Reel Life: The Knights face Pittsburgh in a playoff for the National League pennant.
In Real Life: The movie's 1939 Pirates are as much a fantasy as the 1939 Knights. The real Pirates finished with a 68-85 record in 1939, good for sixth place in the NL, 28 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Reds.

In Reel Life: Hobbs, in the hospital, is given a newspaper by the doctor. It's dated Friday, Sept. 8, 1939, which means The Knights and Pirates playoff game is on Monday, Sept. 11, 1939.
In Real Life: The day and date are real (Sept. 8, 1939 was a Friday), but the timing is a little off. On Sept. 11, 1939, the NL season still had about three weeks to go -- the final games of the regular season were played on Oct. 1.

In Reel Life: The Pirates-Knights playoff game is played at night.
In Real Life: The Red and Pirates played the first Major League night game on May 24, 1935. But it wasn't until 1971 that the first World Series game was played at night, and not until 1975 that a playoff game was played under the lights (both firsts were at Three Rivers Stadium).

The gambler and the (attempted) fix
In Reel Life: Max introduces Hobbs to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin). Hobbs says he's never heard of him. "You kidding?" says Max. "He's only a $10 million a year bookie."
In Real Life: Sands resembles (both in character and in appearance) Arnold Rothstein, the New York bookie/gambler behind the fix of the 1919 World Series. Rothstein started gambling and making book when he was about 20, in 1902, and by the late 1910s was famous not only in New York, but throughout the country, going by a variety of nicknames, including "Mr. Big," "The Big Bankroll" and "The Brain."

In Reel Life: Sands tells Hobbs he bet against him. "Well, I didn't know you could bet against just one player," says Hobbs. "Oh, you can bet against anybody, anything," Sands replies. "Strikes, balls, hits, runs, errors, anything, take your pick."
In Real Life: Rothstein was well known for saying he'd bet on anything but the weather -- because he couldn't fix the weather. And, of course, you could (and can) bet on anything, including the performances of individual players in baseball.

In Reel Life: Hobbs collapses at a big party near the end of the season, and ends up in the hospital. There he's visited by the Knights owner, The Judge (Robert Prosky). The Judge asks Hobbs to throw the game, and also says, at some point, that he's got a backup plan (as in, another player in his pocket). "As you may know, the prevailing rate for this sort of thing is $10,000. I'm offering you twice that." Before the Judge leaves the hospital, he leaves an envelope stuffed with cash on Hobbs stomach.
In Real Life: Hobbs' association with Sands, and the request that he throw an important postseason game clearly allude to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and most specifically to Joe Jackson, who was offered $10,000 by gambler Chick Gandil to join seven other White Sox in throwing the Series. When Jackson refused, Gandil offered $20,000. When he still didn't take it, a teammate, Lefty Williams, left $5,000 in Jackson's hotel room during the Series.

The big blast
In Reel Life: Hobbs' doesn't go for the fix. Instead, he hits a game-winning home run that slams into the Knights Stadium light tower over right field, showering the field with spectacular fireworks.
In Real Life: That would have been one of the longest blasts in major league history up until today. Only a few players, writes William J. Jenkinson at, have had the power to hit home runs clear over outfield bleachers or high up into the upper deck. They include Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ralph Kiner, Mickey Mantle, Dick Allen, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Dave Kingman and several others, and their longest drives would have gone more than 500 feet on the fly, if unimpeded. Last, but not least, there's Reggie Jackson, who, says Jenkinson, hit one of the 10 longest homers in history when he blasted a ball off a light tower over right-center at Tiger Stadium in the 1971 All Star Game.



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