Novels and movies about Major League Baseball routinely skew toward fantasy (The Natural, Field of Dreams, and so on), but some are more fantastic than others. The crème de la crème is Angels in the Outfield (1951), the premise of which is spelled out in the title. If, like me, you are a lifelong baseball fan at least mildly depressed both by the State of the Game (especially the grotesque invasion of online betting) and by the current fate of your particular team, you will find this oldie a balm (unless you are seriously allergic to corn). But the film will also make you think about the evolution or devolution (or both, as I see it) of American society from the immediate postwar years to the present, from an angle that seems far more congenial than the usual huffing and puffing about elites and modernity and such.
I will not rehearse the plot of the movie in detail. I hope you will watch it at the first opportunity! It centers on the crusty manager of the woe-begotten Pittsburgh Pirates (played with great zest by Paul Douglas), a young newspaper columnist (Janet Leigh, radiant, with an amazing wardrobe), and a young girl, an orphan at a Catholic institution (midcentury American Catholicism is depicted with deep affection here), whose fervent prayers on behalf of the Pirates find a receptive audience in heaven. Hence those angels in the outfield, corny and yet crazily touching at the same time. What a premise.
The best sequence in the movie (one of my favorite bits from any movie of the period) takes place in a hearing conducted by the commissioner of baseball. Never mind the specifics; suffice it to say that a Bad Guy is trying to discredit the manager by saying that he’s nuts: The manager, our hero, who has been moved to uncharacteristic compassion for the orphan girl, has acknowledged that the Pirates’ amazing turnaround has been aided by angels! Obviously he’s certifiable, right?
To drive the point home, a psychiatrist is called to testify. His withering (and jargon-laden) assessment seems decisive. But the manager's allies have a response prepared: a panel consisting of a suave Mainline Protestant minister, a witty rabbi, and an avuncular priest. This superb ecumenical tag-team turns the tables; suddenly it’s the psychiatrist who appears to be out of step, and all is well.
Angels in the Outfield was remade in 1994 (set in California!), but I’ve never had the heart to watch that version. The original is so redolent of a particular era in American history: not by any means an ideal time, but one with strengths and weaknesses quite different from those of our current moment. What would interest me would be a movie that centered on “the supernatural” in a manner quite different from what we usually encounter nowadays. I am struck almost every day by the extent to which many Christians appear to be embarrassed by the claims of their own tradition. Of course we also see the opposite, an obsession with “signs and wonders,” often tangled up (strangely enough) with politics, but to recognize the one problem doesn’t at all obligate us to ignore the other.
What comes to your mind when you hear “supernatural” and “movies” in the same sentence? Zombies? Computer-generated shape-shifting beings? Why are so many of them purple? Why such an absurdly limited palette? Why are we so often embarrassed by the distinctive claims that have been made by Christians since the beginning of the Church? How did we get here? I recall, as I often do, the first time “Communion,” as we referred to it, came up in Sunday School in the Baptist church we were attending at the time, in the 1950s; I was roughly ten years old. “Remember, it’s just a symbol.” I kid you not.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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Photo by Bart Jaillet via Creative Commons. Image cropped.