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Rob Edelman: Time Passes

Could the year 1992 be that long ago?

In 1992, a film titled MR. BASEBALL came to movie houses. Tom Selleck starred as Jack Elliot, an aging New York Yankee first-sacker who just four years earlier was the World Series Most Valuable Player. But the previous season, Elliot hit a paltry .235. His superiors are displeased with his penchant for boozing, sleeping around, and giving unsuspecting rookies hotfoots. He may be contrasted to a newcomer, a hot prospect who is described by management as “the real thing.” It’s spring training, this young player is burning up the grapefruit league and he is fated to replace Elliot as the Yankees’ new first baseman. So Elliot’s contract is sold “not to Canada, not to Cleveland” but to the Chunichi Dragons, a Japanese baseball team.

Who do you suppose plays Elliot’s no-name replacement, who is listed in the credits simply as “Rookie?” None other than Frank Thomas, who was in his early twenties when MR. BASEBALL was released. At the time, Thomas-- all six-foot-five, 240 pounds of him-- had completed his second full season with the Chicago White Sox. And back in July, the very same Frank Thomas, after enjoying a nineteen-year major league career, entered the Baseball Hall of Fame as a first-ballot inductee.

Thomas’ Cooperstown credentials are unimpeachable. For openers, he is one of four ballplayers to hit .300 with 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks. The other three are Mel Ott, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth. Thomas also deserves to be celebrated for his long and loud condemnation of steroid use among athletes.

On the day before the induction, Thomas along with his fellow inductees met the press. He admitted his nervousness, but was excited and ever-smiling. He reminded me of a kid on Christmas Eve who was anticipating all the goodies he would momentarily find under the holiday tree, rather than a fortysomething who was about to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And the following day, Thomas’ induction speech was emotional and deeply personal, particularly when he cited his mother, who had traveled to upstate New York from her Columbus, Georgia, home, and his late father. Touchingly, Thomas wiped away more than a few tears as he declared, “Frank Sr., I know you’re watching and smiling in heaven. Without you, I know 100 per cent I wouldn’t be here in Cooperstown today. Thanks for pushing me and always preaching to me that you can be someone special if you really work at it. I took that to heart, Pops, and look at us today.” Another non-baseball person he cited was his wife, Megan, who entered his life a decade-and-a-half ago when “life was throwing me a curveball I could not hit.”

Sometimes, real-life events are more dramatic and touching than any fictional storyline or any bit of dialogue conjured up by a screenwriter or playwright. On July 4, 1939, for example, Yankee legend Lou Gehrig was dying of the illness that has come to be known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” In a speech that has since been dubbed baseball’s Gettysburg Address, Gehrig told the throng at Yankee Stadium that “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” These words were the closing lines in THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, the classic 1942 biopic which starred Gary Cooper as Gehrig. Had they been conjured up by a screenwriter, they might have been viewed as nothing more than Tinseltown corn, but they first were spoken by the real Lou Gehrig a couple of years before his passing.

Perhaps critics or moviegoers might have scoffed at Frank Thomas’ sentiments if they were penned by a screenwriter and included in MR. BASEBALL or some other film. But the words and emotions put forth by Thomas as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame were poignant, heartfelt-- and real.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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