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The Winning Team (1952)

While Ronald Reagan is playing the central figure, Grover Cleveland Alexander, in this Warner Brothers bio, it’s Doris Day who scores top billing as the woman who stands by him through both the good times and the bad.

This baseball picture begins in the early years of the 20th century with Ron and Doris planning on a life together and running a farm. At least that’s what Doris believes. This despite her father, Frank Ferguson, thinking Ron is unreliable and wants nothing better to do than play baseball with the locals. He just might be right. Ron ditches a dinner with Doris and the family to throw a shutout on behalf of the locals against a travelling semi-pro team earning a whole dollar and a half for his efforts. He’ll smooth things over with his gal promising to stick to farming and leave the ball and glove behind for his penance.

This leads to an amusing scene at a church function when that semi-pro team’s coach comes calling wanting Ron to pitch for his club. The money is way more than he’ll earn working phone lines trying to save enough money up for the farm so he’s on the road playing ball with or without Doris’ blessing.

Ron writes her daily and Doris pines for her man no matter what her grumpy old man has to say. All while humming and singing a few bars of Take Me Out To The Ballgame as only she can. Ron’s winning games and saving the dollars until a double play ball smacks him on the head KO’ing him the process and leaving him with blurred vision. Seemingly ending his career. So it’s back to the realities of everyday life marrying Doris and working a farm. But he’s got baseball in his blood.

Doris begins to realize just how much baseball means to her man and by this time the Phillies had optioned him. If he could only overcome his vision issues by the time spring training rolls around. If only…..

With his vision back to normal Ron’s off and pitching. Coming along is Doris who makes for an amusing fan with very little knowledge of the game but she’s morphed into his number one supporter. Every pitcher needs a reliable catcher and for this studio era effort from director Lewis Seiler, James Millican has been enlisted to catch Ron’s fastball. To keep the story moving ahead the script has Doris tending a scrapbook allowing the years to pass by.

From 1911 through 1917 Reagan’s career is in overdrive winning him fame and accolades on the field until WW1 intervenes. Cue the battlefield stock footage and Ron’s on the front lines firing heavy artillery and suffering dizzy spells as a result. Something that will plague him once he’s back on the ball diamond to the extent that he collapses on the mound. And so begins his spiral downwards to the bottom of a bottle and being nothing more than a carnival side show act.

Thankfully Doris isn’t giving up on him and convinces Frank Lovejoy portraying Rogers Hornsby who manages the St. Louis Cardinals to give him one more shot.

Yes it’s a Hollywood bio and I have no idea just how Grover’s career and personal life played itself out in reality though I know he’s looked upon as one of the great pitcher’s of the past and a hall of fame member. So I did a little checking up on him and I think we could call into suspect Doris’ role here. It looks as if Alexander’s romantic life was anything but rosy. What is impressive is where the film ends with his comeback in the 1926 world series against Babe Ruth and the Yankees and a quick check on the facts seems to confirm what the film delivers. He was credited with winning game 2 and 6 and amazingly in game 7 he comes in as a reliever in the 7th inning and protects a one run lead through to the ninth earning a save in the balance. Not likely to see that feat in today’s era.

Baseball historians are sure to spot players that are lost to time. Sure I easily spotted the Bambino swinging the bat and moving about the Yankee dugout but he’s the only one I can say I instantly recognized. Apparently Mantle and Gehrig are in here as well. Sorry but I was raised in Canada where we can instantly spot old timers from Gordie Howe to Rocket Richard and Bobby Orr with our eyes closed.

According to the film’s credits Miss Alexander served as a technical advisor on the film. Grover himself had passed in 1950. According to Wikipedia the pair had divorced for a second time in 1941. No way would any sane man divorce the loyal, good looking Doris in the film version. I’m a Doris Day fan so I have no problem with her performance in the film and again she comes across as the girl next door most men want to marry.

Where Mr. President is concerned I know he takes a lot of heat on his acting capabilities though I don’t think he always gets a fair shake. I think he’s both engaging and entertaining this time out. That is until he hits the bottle and delivers a cliched acting job of a man slurring his words and crying in his beer. That scene proves to be a letdown but do your best to ignore it and enjoy the movie for what it is. An uplifting story of a man overcoming his demons with his best gal looking over his shoulder as he claws his way back to the top as only Hollywood can deliver.

Did I just describe the plot of Rocky 3?

The Winning Team is out on DVD as part of the Signature Ronald Reagan Collection if you’re looking to land a copy.

6 Comments »

  1. I have mine in the TCM Classics collection, with three other Reagan hits. I own a lot of baseball movies, but haven’t watched this one yet…and I’m a big Doris Day fan as well, so you’d think I would’ve checked it out by now. And yeah, it’s not often these biographical (or even non-biographical) baseball films get everything right, but as long as it’s entertaining…although I do find myself getting miffed every now and then when I see something that’s ‘sacrilege’ (I’m looking at you, The Fan!). Do you have a favorite all-time baseball film? Mine would have to be 61*.

    • Favorite? Tough call and though it’s purely a fantasy I have always loved it Happens Every Spring since I was a kid and I’m always suggesting it to non buffs. Pride of the Yankees pretty high up the ladder and as for Field of Dreams, Burt Lancaster’s appearance a wonderful way to go out on the big screen. 61 a great pick and a late co-worker of mine loved that one dearly.

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