Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TEGWAR - The Exciting Game Without Any Rules

For all of baseball's resonance in our culture, the paucity of quality baseball films is surprising. Hollywood is 0-2 on perhaps the most natural subject for an epic film - Babe Ruth - having produced two truly horrible biopics about the Bambino, starring William Bendix and John Goodman respectively. Spike Lee finally gave up after years of trying to get his Jackie Robinson movie funded - even after having secured the participation of Denzel Washington in the starring role. Fairing somewhat better were a pair of late 80s films touching in different ways on the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the quasi-mystical "Field of Dreams" and John Sayles' "Eight Men Out". "Bull Durham" also rates a mention as an enjoyable romp through the minor leagues.

One of my personal favorites is "Bang The Drum Slowly" from 1973. The film is based on Mark Harris' novel (a bare bones television adaptation with Paul Newman had been attempted in 1956). The film introduced many people to Robert De Niro, and his sensitive understated performance is a revelation to watch considering the roles that he would become known for later ("Mean Streets" was released shortly after "Bang The Drum Slowly" and would form the template for his characters for years to come).

In the film, De Niro's character is Bruce Pearson, a catcher of modest talent and even more modest intellect. Pearson forms an unlikely friendship with pitcher Henry "Author" Wiggen, wonderfully played by Michael Moriarity, who passes for somewhat of the intellectual on the team, having written a book and set up an insurance business on the side. (Some thought Wiggen's character was based on Tom Seaver). Henry's newfound loyalty to Bruce is based on a secret they share about the doomed catcher's health. We get to see how this friendship is played out against the dynamic of a major league ballclub during the throes of a pennant race.

A sublot of the film is Wiggen's holdout (this in the days before free agency, of course). Wiggen wouldn't report to camp unless he was paid the ungainly sum of - wait for it - $127,500 a year. How times have changed.

The film wisely steers clear of too many action sequences (footage of the 1969 and 1970 World Series was used) but instead focuses on the more meditative rhythms of the baseball life, and the tribal nature of professional baseball players: The clubhouse, spring training, etc. One of the enjoyable aspects of the film is the card game Tegwar (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules) which is a time-honored way for ballplayers to separate suckers from their money. Pearson - not being considered mentally agile enough to help in the scam - is not welcome at the Tegwar games. It is a sign of Wiggen's increasing loyalty to his teammate that he after learning his secret he refuses to play Tegwar without including the catcher.

The film was shot in 1972, and both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium were used as locations for the fictional New York Mammoths. (Mets fans would be interested to know that the Kiner's Korner set was used for the singing players scene). In an interesting side note related to our specific area of interest, the actual last Yankee flannel uniforms were used by the Mammoths (the emblem was changed on the home pinstripes, the road "NEW YORK"s were left unchanged). I would also like to take a moment to praise Vincent Gardenia, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the crusty and suspicious Mammoths skipper, Dutch Schnell.

Vincent Gardenia as N.Y. Mammoths manager Dutch Schnell.

Anyone wanting to see a more meditative film about baseball players than say, "Major League", will be well-rewarded with this nuanced and heartfelt baseball film.

About the jersey: The Mammoth home pinstripe flannel jersey is available with Robert De Niro's #15, or with the numeral of your choice. It is specially-priced at $99 for a limited time (reg. $185).