Friday 28 June 2019

Movie Review: The Winning Team (1952)

A baseball biopic, The Winning Team is earnest, straightforward and largely uninspired.

It's early in the 1900s in Nebraska and Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan) is a telephone company employee and amateur baseball pitcher planning to settle down with his sweetheart Aimee (Doris Day). Grover's superior pitching skills are discovered during a game against traveling opposition, and he signs a pro contract, disrupting his domestic plans.

But his seemingly burgeoning career is unceremoniously halted when a blow to the head causes double vision. He marries Aimee and attempts to put baseball behind him, but his health recovers and the dream lives on. Grover makes it to the major leagues where glory and heartbreak await, plus an interruption for a World War.

The name Grover Alexander is unlikely to be well known outside true baseball aficionado circles, and The Winning Team is a workmanlike effort to spotlight one of the game's greatest pitchers from the early part of the 20th century. Alexander is presented as a beaming and wholesome All-American guy devoted to the game and placing his love for Aimee in a close-enough second place to maintain a long-time relationship.

But this is also a relatively low budget effort with a pre-breakthrough Doris Day and a plodding Ronald Reagan in the lead roles. They are not helped by a methodical script that checks off Alexander's life and career milestones with automated soullessness, notwithstanding the unnecessary Hollywoodization of many facts.

The on-field action scenes are introduced in good doses, supporting rather than overwhelming the film. For the higher profile games in Grover's career, real footage (of sometimes irrelevant games) is mixed-in to showcase mammoth crowds and enhance the big-league ambiance.

Director Lewis Seiler tries to uncover a few interesting visual angles from around the diamond, and on the domestic front finally starts to find some traces of humanity and character depth when serious post-war health issues and the bottle enter Alexander's life in a big way.

The pitcher's late-career resurgence with the St.Louis Cardinals provides the groundwork for the movie's best moments, and within the limits of the flat story Reagan and Day are able to conjure up a few moments of self-reflection and supportive affection. Frank Lovejoy is the one notable supporting cast member as fellow baseball legend Rogers Hornsby.

Competent enough and nothing if not well-meaning, The Winning Team is a basic cheerleading routine.

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