In the midst of a BttP staff discussion on the merits of Field of Dreams, I found myself on an IMDB list of ‘baseball movies’ (in the traditional sense, not the Sam Miller definition). The usual suspects were all there: Bull Durham, Major League, The Natural, and so on.
With a 7.8 rating, higher than of all of these, and many more classic baseball movies, was Long Gone, starring William Petersen of CSI and Manhunter fame. I had never heard of, let alone seen this film; nor had most IMDB users, judging by the 813 total ratings – Field of Dreams has 88,806. I asked a number of baseball fans if they were familiar with the film; none of them were. What’s more, there appeared to be no clear way of obtaining a copy; there was no obvious DVD release, and it certainly wasn’t on Netflix. This only made the topic more fascinating. I had to get this film. Eventually, after much searching through the typical channels in which you might buy DVDs, I obtained a (presumably unofficial, as we’ll see) copy from an eBay international seller, the listing for which featured the unattributed quote “The greatest baseball movie ever made!”
Why was this apparently acclaimed production so hard to find? Tampa Bay Times movie critic Steve Persall wrote about the film a couple of years ago and dug up a number of interesting nuggets. A brief history from his article is instructive: Long Gone was made for TV by HBO, based on a 1979 novel by Paul Hemphill. It cost $5 million to make and filming largely took place in the Ybor City area of Tampa Bay. The movie aired on May 23rd, 1987 to an almost universally positive reception, but was barely aired on HBO after those early years and had not been shown for over a decade by the time they lost the rights in 2004.
With no significant fanbase from its straight-to-TV release, and no network to produce and distribute the film, it’s hardly surprising that Long Gone slipped into obscurity relative to the other baseball movies of the time. It is now largely infamous for exactly that: being the best baseball movie you never saw. The good news is that there is a version available online, at least while this link remains on Youtube; however, it’s still blocked in the U.S., so American readers will have to find another option. For anyone who can view that version, be aware that it is extremely low-resolution (not that the original is in HD) and it still isn’t quite the full version: the channel owner notes that around two minutes of sound had to be removed from a scene for music copyright issues. If you’re really curious to know the exact dialogue in that scene, I will reproduce it in the comments.
On to the film itself (spoiler alert!). The year is 1957. Petersen plays Cecil ‘Stud’ Cantrell, the player-manager of the Tampico Stogies, a team based in the Gulf Coast League. It emerges that Stud was once a hot prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals system, set to compete with Stan Musial for a major league job when Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. Instead he joined the Marines, got wounded in battle, and missed his chance at a big-league career. Here’s Stud with the tale of how he came so close to battling Stan the Man for an outfield spot.
Fifteen years later, Stud spends his days drinking, smoking cigars, womanizing and playing ball. He’s still the best player (both as hitter and pitcher) on the team, which is not doing all that well. Stud also has a contact in the Cardinals organization, who is helping him to find new Stogies players, and perhaps also a way back in to the system.
Change for Stud and the basement-dwelling Stogies arrives in the form of three characters: newly-crowned Miss Strawberry Blossom 1957, the implausibly-named Dixie Lee Boxx (Virginia Madsen); slick-fielding but inexperienced (both in baseball and life) second baseman Jamie Weeks (Dermot Mulroney); and powerful catcher Joe Louis Brown (Larry Riley). As the Stogies begin to turn their fortunes around as a result of this new injection of talent, Dixie sets out to make sure she isn’t just another Cantrell one night stand.
There are plenty of laughs, from Weeks muddling his way through everything beyond fielding a ground ball, to Stud’s commitment to doing just about anything to disadvantage the opposition. There’s a sense of real unity amongst the team, perhaps helped by the fact that many of the actors were Petersen’s friends from the theatre.
At the same time, more serious social issues are touched on without forming a major focus of the film; for instance, when the issue of the African-American Joe Brown being targeted by the KKK in Alabama is brought up while Stud is trying to convince Tampico’s owners to sign him, I initially thought it would form a much more significant aspect of the story. It again becomes an issue when the team appears to be uncomfortable with Brown showering with them. The Klan do indeed surface while the team is on a road trip, but they band together to chase them off, Brown destroys their burning cross, and the topic does not come up again. It is at once a reassuring moment of team unity and inclusion, and yet a somewhat strange and inadequate acknowledgement of the racism still present at the time.
The tone of much of the film is not unlike Bull Durham, which was released just over a year later. From the team camaraderie to the world-worn Cantrell guiding the naive Weeks through life, the parallels aren’t hard to draw, even if Cantrell is a cruder, less mature version of Crash Davis and Weeks is mild-mannered where Nuke LaLoosh is brash. In comments from that Tampa Bay Times piece, Madsen actually claimed that Ron Shelton, the writer and director of Bull Durham, sat in the same row as her in a Los Angeles screening of Long Gone and took notes, then later confessed that they “stole every shot” from the film. Shelton unsurprisingly denied this, saying that he was only there to watch an actor he was thinking about casting. It would be difficult to make a movie about a veteran on a minor league team without some parallels. Whether Shelton drew anything from the film or not, fans of Crash will likely also enjoy the antics of Stud.
Petersen is excellent as Cantrell, combining a questionable collection of morals with a genuine passion for the game and a hint of desperation to maintain any connection he might have to the big leagues. The supporting cast is similarly strong, from Mulroney’s comically inexperienced Weeks to Madsen’s witty, forceful Boxx. The biggest pity might be the lack of focus on Dixie, whose personal backstory and motivations for latching on to Stud as a partner for life aren’t really fleshed out, and she serves more as Cantrell’s moral compass. The same goes for the relationship between Weeks and similarly innocent Esther Wrenn, which is used more as a coming-of-age narrative for Weeks without really developing Esther as an independent character.
The baseball itself is largely convincing. The fielding and baserunning generally look like proper baseball, with Mulroney and Riley looking the part as defensive wizard and slugger respectively. However, as the film reaches its climax, realism is sacrificed for drama. In the final game of the season to decide the pennant, Brown is being intentionally walked by rivals Dotham in the ninth with Tampico down by one, when he steps in front of the plate and launches an intentional ball for a home run to right-center. This is, of course, an automatic out. There are some other questionable decisions and plot twists taken in the name of increasing the drama, but that is the one most likely to irritate sticklers for realism. On the topic of the baseball itself, fans of the Stogies uniform are in luck: you can actually buy a pretty accurate replica online. Whether anyone will shell out $140 for a jersey that almost no-one will recognise is another matter.
Long Gone is in many ways a very predictable underdog story that lacks for depth in many areas, but it’s also a fun tale that encapsulates the experience of baseball outside of the majors, and what the plot might lack in substance is made up for by the film’s main characters. Thirty years on from its release, it doesn’t seem as though the film will ever be widely available, which is all the more reason to watch it. After all, it’s probably the best baseball movie you’ve never seen.Next post: Better Know a Ballplayer: Richie Zisk
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