Monday, May 12, 2014

The Tribulations of a Real-Life Natural

"You told me once, 'A man has to know where he's goin'!' Where are you goin', Monty?"

Ethel (June Allyson)

Yesterday, I wrote about the debut of "The Natural" — a fictional story about a natural–born baseball player.

Today, my topic is a movie about a real natural — Monty Stratton — whose mostly true story was made into a movie starring James Stewart and June Allyson that made its debut 65 years ago today.

Don't feel bad if you never heard of Stratton. His was a very short career — only five years.

And I say the story was mostly true because there were some liberties taken with it. Of course, that tends to be the case with biographical movies, even those that appear to be meticulous about details.

See, the story of Monty Stratton was that he was a baseball player, a pitcher, during the Depression. Frank Morgan (who was the wizard of Oz 10 years earlier) played the baseball scout who discovered Stratton playing semipro ball when he wasn't working on his Texas farm and persuaded him to come to California for a tryout with the Chicago White Sox during spring training.

The tryout went so well that Stratton made the team, and the scout was hired to coach pitching prospects.

It wasn't a fairy–tale career, though. It certainly had its rocky moments.

One of them, Stratton's actual major–league debut, yielded one of the best lines in the movie — but the scene was manipulated, presumably for what would be an understandable reason.

Stratton made his first major–league appearance on June 2, 1934, coming in as the second and final relief pitcher of the day for the Sox, who lost, 12–0. He didn't pitch as poorly as the two pitchers who preceded him; he only gave up two of the runs. But he was sent down to the minors, anyway, and didn't pitch in the majors again until the following year.

In the movie, he told his wife (Allyson) that the game had been against the New York Yankees. In fact, it was against the Detroit Tigers.

I don't know why the identity of the opponent was changed like that, but my guess is that it had something to do with the facts that (a) the Yankees had been in four of the previous eight World Series (when Stratton made his debut), whereas the Tigers had not been in a World Series in a quarter of a century (although, ironically, the Tigers did go to the World Series in 1934 — and 1935), and (b) the Yankees had guys named Gehrig and Ruth in their lineup.

The Yankees simply were better known (although, in a noteworthy filmmaking mistake, Joe DiMaggio could be seen rounding the bases in the stock footage that was used for Stratton's debut. DiMaggio didn't make his major–league debut until 1936).

"Honey," Stewart said to Allyson, "do you know there's a tailor in Chicago that gives a suit of clothes away to any ballplayer that hits the scoreboard in center field? As of yesterday, the New York Yankees are the best–dressed team in baseball."

If Stratton really did say that to his wife, he was exaggerating. Detroit scored a lot of runs that day, but no home runs were hit. The Tigers had a bunch of singles and half a dozen hits for extra bases. Zero home runs.

Stratton's next four years were more successful than his debut. He did struggle in 1935 and 1936, but he won a total of 30 games in 1937 and 1938. He was an All–Star in 1937 and received votes for Most Valuable Player after the 1938 season.

The future looked bright.

But then Stratton was injured in a hunting accident. It was severe enough to cost him one of his legs, and his baseball career appeared to be over.

That much was true. But, in reality, Stratton shot himself with a revolver. In the movie, the wound was inflicted with a shotgun. I don't know why that change was made — unless it was to avoid having to answer questions about why he had a revolver with him on a hunting trip.

If a Supportive and Long–Suffering Movie Spouse Hall of Fame is ever created, June Allyson is sure to be a charter member. At times, it seems to me that she was the very definition of the label supportive movie spouse in her movies, especially (but not exclusively) the ones in which she was paired with Stewart because some sort of personal trial was sure to follow — and Allyson's spouse was equally certain to be in denial about the situation. Thus, it was up to Allyson to be the stronger of the two.

In "The Stratton Story," it fell to her to decide between her husband's leg and his life. She chose his life, realizing that losing his leg meant the end of his dreams of major–league success.

Then she had to deal with her husband's mood swings and his apparent tendency (though never spoken) to blame her for the loss of his leg. As she so often did, Allyson played the supportive, long–suffering wife, putting up with his peevishness in silence.

Of course, I know it wasn't always that way. Allyson once played Jose Ferrer's malicious and shrewish spouse — at Ferrer's request — and she had several separations from her real–life husband, Dick Powell.

In real life, Stratton did come back. He didn't make it all the way back to the major leagues, but he did pitch in the minor leagues from 1946 to 1953 wearing a prosthetic leg. It was a truly inspiring story that was worthy of inclusion in the American Film Institute's list of the most inspiring films — but was not.

There were times during the movie when I thought it was a little heavy–handed in its foreshadowing — of the loss of his leg especially. The hunting accident wasn't presented until about two–thirds into the movie, but there were allusions to it. Early in the movie, for example, the viewers learned that, on the days he pitched for the semipro team, Stratton walked five miles into town, pitched, then walked five miles home — and then worked on his farm.

Another time, he learned how to dance so he could dance with his wife. Unbeknownst to his wife, he had a membership at a dance studio, of which he could take advantage at studio outlets in every American League city. It was a big subject in the movie.

I have never lost a limb — and I hope I never do — so I can't know how the real Stratton must have felt, but it must be an unimaginable blow to be 26 years old and lose one of your legs, particularly if you are a professional athlete. Stewart's reactions rang true — and, as it was with so many of his performances, it was hard to imagine anyone else playing Monty Stratton once the movie was made.

In fact, though, Ronald Reagan tried to get the part, but he was under contract to Warner Bros., and Warner wouldn't let him do it, fearing the movie would be a flop (in fact, it turned a profit). At one point, Van Johnson was inaccurately reported to be playing the role of Monty Stratton.

In hindsight, Johnson would not have been believable in the role. Reagan might have, but his Stratton almost surely would have differed from Stewart's — and Stratton himself said Stewart "did a great job of playing me, in a picture which I figure was about as true to life as they could make it."

Based on that, I think Stratton was at peace with the liberties that were taken. If he was OK with them, who am I to disagree? It must be tremendously challenging to be asked to portray someone who is still living.

Agnew Moorehead played the role of Stratton's mother. It was the kind of role she played frequently in her career, sort of a semi–animated Whistler's mother, and she was usually quite believable in it, but she was an odd choice because of the difference between her age and Stewart's age (she was roughly 7½ years his senior).

Allyson and Stewart were paired in three movies; "The Stratton Story" was the first. In their second movie, they played Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Miller, and Allyson's ordeal was living through the loss of her husband's life. In the third, she played the spouse of another baseball player (fictional this time) who was injured flying a new aircraft for the Air Force Reserve.

"The Stratton Story" won the only Oscar for which it was nominated — Best Story.