Spring training is almost complete, reminding these two All-American boys how much we love baseball and especially baseball lore. Baseball, books and film make a cheesy concoction, never more so than in the 1984 movie The Natural based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud.
Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a wholesome Midwestern 19-year-old farm boy in 1923, is a great natural baseball pitcher. The night before he travels to Chicago for a professional tryout he spends it with his lovely and equally wholesome girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close). But when Roy gets to Chicago, he’s shot by a deranged young lady in black (Barbara Hershey) who then commits suicide. His recovery takes a long time, and he loses contact with the folks back home and misses his chance as a ballplayer.
Sixteen years later, via fluke developments in a convoluted good-versus-evil story and after playing semi-pro ball, he debuts in the majors playing for the hapless New York Knights, managed by Pops and Red (Will Brimley and Richard Farnsworth). After some fits and starts, the rookie who’s the age at which most players are retiring leads the team out of the cellar on an unlikely drive toward the only thing Pops, who gave his heart and soul to the game, ever wanted: a pennant.
So, who is Roy Hobbs? Well, he’s many baseball legends rolled into one.
At first, he’s Bob Feller, the best pitcher in baseball in 1952 and a Midwestern farm boy who could throw a ball through a barn wall with pinpoint control.
When he returns to the game, he’s Ted Williams, in 1952 the greatest American League hitter (and second best ever in baseball) who’s stated desire was when folks saw him they’d say, “There goes Ted Williams — the best hitter there ever was, ever will be.”
Also Stan Musial, the best National League hitter at the time and “baseball’s perfect knight” who cheerfully signed autographs for all the starry-eyed kids who ever asked.
Being a great pitcher and the best hitter, he’s also Babe Ruth, the best ballplayer ever, a pitching super-star before becoming the greatest hitter ever.
And he’s King Arthur, because his bat, Wonderboy, has a mystical provenance like Arthur’s sword Excalibur.
But Roy takes up with Memo (Kim Basinger), another beautiful young woman who brings him trouble, and he swoons in a mid-season slump – until Iris appears unbeknownst to him at a game in Chicago. She stands up radiantly in a white dress and hat, and he sees but doesn’t recognize her in the bright sun. Still, the vision of the Lady in White (who stood up because she couldn’t stand to see him fail) inspires him and he hits a massive homer that destroys the clock high above the right field bleachers. The pennant chase is back on.
Roy and Iris re-establish contact, and Roy learns she has a son of an age he now needs his absentee father. The Knights finish the season tied for first, but Roy is hospitalized from poisoning by Memo to aid gamblers who have bet against him. Not knowing Memo poisoned him, he nonetheless realizes she’s playing against him.
Injured and recovering from the poison, Roy struggles during the play-off game for the pennant. Iris, in the stands with her son, sends him a note telling him he’s the father. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Roy’s at bat with the game on the line. Following a long foul ball into the bleachers, he returns to the plate to find he has broken his Wonderboy bat.
This is when his past good deeds and wholesome nature combine with the true love of a good woman for his redemption. He tells the bat boy, Bobby Savoy, to find him a good bat. Earlier, when Bobby asked, Roy taught him how to make and finish his own bat. What goes around now comes around: Bobby brings him the Savoy Special, and of course Roy smashes the pennant-winning home run in spectacular fashion.
The epilogue finds Roy back home in the Midwest wheat fields with his wife and son, who appears to be the next natural. A real man’s story complete.
Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.
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