Baseball movies tend to lump into one of about three categories. One of those is the hero flick in which our ballplayer overcomes great odds, rises to the top, falls back, then comes on in the end to become a hero. It’s sort of a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back plot that is so prominent in musicals and comedies but with a sports story. One of these is the 1952 flick “The Winning Team.”
The movie purports to be a biography of Grover Cleveland Alexander from about 1905 through the end of the 1926 World Series. It stars Ronald Reagan (whatever happened to him?) as Alexander and Doris Day gets a turn as his wife. Frank Lovejoy gets the second male role as Rogers Hornsby and Gordon Jones plays Alexander’s first manager.
The basic premise of the movie is that Alexander is happy in his small town in Nebraska, planning to marry his girl, and pitches on the side for the town team. During a slide show presentation for the town at the community church, Gordon Jones shows up and persuades him to join a professional team. He does and ultimately is beaned, causing him to have blurred vision which magically clears up one moonlit night. He goes on to fame and fortune in the big leagues, enters World War I, develops a form of epilepsy, drowns his troubles in booze, and becomes a bum. But faithful wife knows he still has it in him to be great and manages to convince Rogers Hornsby to pick Alexander up for the Cardinals where he leads them on to glory in the 1926 World Series.
That’s a pretty standard “sports hero” movie and it fits right into the late 1940s and early 1950s sports flick that lionizes the ball player. “The Pride of St. Louis” does it for Dizzy Dean and “The Babe Ruth Story” does it for the Bambino. And they are good movies for what they do. What they don’t do is look at all critically at the real player (or his family) or at the facts. In “The Winning Team” there are a lot of things skipped over (like Alexander’s drinking, which is only briefly touched on) and a number of facts are simply wrong. Just two examples at the end of the movie (I figure if you’re interested in this movie, you already know how the 1926 World Series went) make my point. In the flick, Tony Lazzeri strikes out on a 3-2 pitch and fouls off the wrong pitch, and rather than Babe Ruth being out on a caught stealing to end the Series, Alexander strikes out a nameless player wearing number 15 (the Yanks didn’t add numbers until after 1926).
Having said that, it’s not a bad movie, if you understand what you’re seeing. Reagan, Day, and Lovejoy do fine jobs as the main characters and Jones is great as the minor league manager. The supporting cast includes a handful of real ball players, including Bob Lemon who has a speaking role as Jesse Haines (I wonder if any other Hall of Famer has portrayed a Hall of Famer in a movie).
If you can find it somewhere it’s worth a watch at least once. As with most movies about historical events, it tells us more about the era when it was made (1952) than about the historically portrayed era (about 1905-1926). And after you check it out, see if you can find out what happened to that Reagan guy.