Personally, I don’t think you are a true sports fan unless you truly believe in your heart that watching your favorite team play gives them a better chance at winning, as if your love and strong will were the key to their success. I grew up in Cleveland in the pre-Jacobs field days of the ’70s and ’80s. There was a reason that Major League concerned the hapless Indian franchise. It seemed as though even in their best years, the Indians would finish at least ten games back of the hated, moneyed Yankees. So I can understand how die-hard Washington Senators fan Joe Boyd feels. The Senators were so bad that congressional graft couldn’t even keep them in town.
“If we just had one long ball hitter. That’s what we need. I’d sell my soul for one long ball hitter!” Those are dangerous words and no sooner are they said than Ray Walston shows up as Mr. Applegate asking “would you like to be the greatest baseball player in all history?” And you thought he was just Mr. Hand from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but you can call him “Lucifer”, he’s a man of wealth and taste. Ray Walston isn’t the sort of guy you could cast as a lead or an action figure, but he’s very weasel-like, can talk out of both sides of his mouth, and I can’t imagine even Jack Nicholson enjoying himself this much as the devil. You need to see him mock the dance numbers, although you’d think the devil would have a better hairline.
“Look I’ve got something to trade here. I’m offering you the chance to be what you’ve wanted to be all of your life.” That’s no light offer. I’m not sure what most people would want to be today, but if its 1958 and you’ve seen the Yankees in the World Series every year of the decade save 1954, you’d want to be Joe Hardy, baseball Jesus, a singing and dancing Roy Hobbs. That’s right. This is a musical, and it was the only one I could stand to watch when I was a kid. It’s about baseball, was directed by the same guy that did “Singin’ in the Rain,” and was choreographed by that far-out mod drug addict Roy Fosse. There is some funky stuff going on here, like river dancing baseball players. So just because I like it doesn’t make me Kevin Kline from “In & Out”.
He’s only human, so Joe just up and disappears on his wife, has the requisite amazing tryout scene where he hits like thirty something balls over the fence, and this is a movie about the professional game so you can be sure to see some montage scene of home runs and newspaper headlines. His manager even looks like Sparky Anderson, which is a neat trick because even Sparky didn’t have gray hair in 1958. Joe Hardy is played by the estimable and wooden Tab Hunter way before the John Waters days, and he even looks a little like Mickey Mantle before he drank himself to death. Joe’s not the dumbest fish in the sea either — he gets himself an escape clause for midnight September 24th, but can he win the pennant by then? He even disobeys Walston’s orders and becomes a border to his unwitting, confused wife.
Walston is so worried Joe might not fry that he brings in Gwen Verdon, an old hag who sold her soul to be the hottest thing on two legs. Verdon’s gams were so fine she coasted on this role for the next 30 years. She’s hot in a weird Lucille Ball kind of way. There’s nothing more interesting than a cute couple with reservations about having sold their soul to the devil. There’s even a lady reporter who looks and sounds like a cute skinny version of Rosie O’Donnell. Can Joe outsmart the devil, win the pennant, and reclaim his wife? Not if Ray Walston has anything to say about it.
You might have heard that they even redid this old warhorse on Broadway a few years back with Jerry Lewis playing Applegate. When I first heard it announced, I thought they meant The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis…now that’s a Broadway show I would pay to see!