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Eddie Waitkus, a handsome first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, had returned to his room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago on the night of June 14, 1949, after a game with the Cubs, when he received an "urgent" message to meet a young woman named Ruth Anne Burns in her room, 1297A, at the hotel. Waitkus, 29, had never met the woman, whose real name was Ruth Steinhagen, and who had been his ardent fan, but he succumbed to curiosity and decided to see what was up. He was received at the door of 1297A by a tall brunette who said to him, "I have a surprise for you." The woman withdrew to a closet and emerged holding a .22 rifle. She shot Waitkus in the chest.
This was certainly a singular moment in baseball history, but it would have even greater significance as a literary event. Three years after the shooting. Bernard Malamud's first novel, The Natural, was published. Taking at least one chapter from real life, Malamud had his ballplayer hero, Roy Hobbs, also respond to a message to meet a young woman in a Chicago hotel room—with similarly unfortunate results: "She pulled the trigger (thrum of bull fiddle).... He sought with his bare hands to catch [the bullet], but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut. A twisted dagger of smoke drifted up from the gun barrel. Fallen on one knee he groped for the bullet, sickened as it moved, and fell over...she, making muted noises of triumph and despair, danced on her toes around the stricken hero."
Waitkus, who was hitting .306 at the time he was shot, didn't play again in 1949, but he recovered and was the Comeback Player of the Year in 1950, when he hit .284 for the National League champion Whiz Kid Phillies. He played for six seasons after the shooting, finishing with a career batting average of .285. Hobbs was a much better ballplayer than Waitkus, a much better player, for that matter, than Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb or Willie Mays. There's no telling what Roy might have accomplished had he not submitted to the blandishments of a lethal siren. He was perhaps 18 at the time of the shooting, the quintessential country bumpkin, so naive he was afraid to emerge from his Pullman berth for fear of having to figure out how much to tip the porter. But he had had his moment, striking out a Ruthian figure, Whammer Wambold, in the countryside while his train was halted. Alas, Hobbs didn't recover from his brush with death as quickly as Waitkus. It would be another 16 years or so before Hobbs would make it back to the big leagues. And then...ah, but that is Malamud's story.
The Natural is a haunting piece of fiction, confounding in its switches from mythology to realism, from sports-page jargon to lyricism. The critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of it, "Mr. Malamud has in The Natural found, not imposed, an archetype in the life we now live; in his book the modern instance and the remembered myth are equally felt, equally realized and equally appropriate to our predicament...he has not felt obliged to choose between the richness of imagined detail and that of symbolic relevance." Obviously, this isn't your average baseball book, which is probably why making it into a movie has taken so long, although the surface story alone—dedicated hero coming back from the worst imaginable luck—would seem to have made it, well, a natural. But its dreaminess, its overriding fatalism—in the book, Hobbs doesn't quite make it all the way back—seems to have daunted a generation of scriptwriters.
Hollywood hasn't had much luck with baseball, anyway. Joe E. Brown, a true fan and the father of retired baseball executive Joe Brown, used the game as a comedy vehicle in '30s films. Danny Kaye fiddled with it, and even Ray Milland starred in a baseball movie, It Happens Every Spring, about a professor who invents a substance that causes horsehide to dodge wood. And then there were the mostly soupy ballplayer biographies: The Pride of the Yankees (Lou Gehrig), The Babe Ruth Story, The Pride of St. Louis (Dizzy Dean), The Winning Team (Grover Cleveland Alexander) and The Stratton Story (Monty Stratton) all starring actors—Gary Cooper, William Bendix, Dan Dailey, Ronald Reagan and James Stewart, respectively—who, it became apparent, were no more familiar with bat and ball than they were with nuclear fission. Not until Bang the Drum Slowly (based on the Mark Harris book) of a few years ago did the game become the backdrop for a relatively serious movie—and even in Drum, the star, Robert De Niro, swung a bat as if he were beating rugs. No, the national pastime hasn't had a pretty history on film.
"The word is that baseball movies just don't sell," says Mark Johnson, who nevertheless decided to produce Roger Towne's script of The Natural. Towne is the younger brother of Robert Towne, a highly successful screenwriter (Chinatown, Shampoo) whose own venture as a writer-director into the sports world, Personal Best, wasn't notably successful. The Natural is, in fact, the younger Towne's first screenplay to be filmed, although he has worked for some years in the movie industry. He read the book five years ago and became, he says, "obsessed with seeing it as a motion picture."
Towne completed his screenplay in June of 1982 and showed it to an agent friend, Amy Grossman, who in turn showed it to the head of her agency, Michael Ovitz, who in turn had the prescience to show it to Robert Redford. As it happened, Redford, who played the game as a youngster in Southern California, had been interested for some time in doing a serious baseball movie. He would have liked to make Bang the Drum Slowly, and he had read Malamud's book with fascination. Towne's script interested him, and he passed on this intelligence to director Barry Levinson during the course of a conversation the two were having on baseball. Levinson is currently a hot property in Hollywood as a result of the success of Diner, a movie about hanging out in a Baltimore eatery that he both wrote and directed. Levinson urged his cinematic partner, Johnson, to read the new script, and after doing so Johnson, who had read two other Malamud novels, The Fixer and Pictures of Fidelman, was equally enthusiastic. After 31 years, The Natural was to become a movie. Produced by Tri-Star Pictures, of which HBO (a subsidiary of Time Inc.), Columbia Pictures and CBS are equal partners, it will open nationally on May 11.
Levinson, a droll man who once wrote screenplays with Mel Brooks, gives credibility to this, as they say in Hollywood, "daring venture," but Redford gives it clout. The star system in Hollywood may have died with the big studios, name players now tending to be overnight whizzes, or short, dark scenery ingesters, but Redford—along with his pal Paul Newman—is an anachronism, a star of the old magnitude, a criminally handsome leading man whose face and mannerisms are instantly identifiable the world over. Ask a visitor from Katmandu who his favorite movie actor is, and chances are Robert Redford will be the answer. Redford wins the fan polls. He gets the girl. He has commanded as much as $3 million for a single picture. And because he has remained steadfastly aloof from the screen community's social whirl and has fiercely guarded his privacy, he has achieved the aura of mystery that is essential to genuine stardom.
As with anyone of this stature, Redford has his detractors. To many critics, he's just another pretty face. One actor who co-starred with him in a well-publicized flop some years back claims that Redford is too concerned with his screen image. "He went so far as to tell me I'd never be a leading man if I took parts requiring me to cry on film," the actor says. Redford's forays into the environmental wars, his championing of solar energy and his backing of liberal political candidates have earned him both praise and ridicule. His private life had been unusually free of scandal—he's been married to the same woman for 25 years—until his elder daughter's boyfriend was murdered last year in what police say may have been a drug-related execution. And when that same daughter was involved this March in a near-fatal automobile accident, the previous incident, to Redford's sorrow, was revived.
There may, in fact, be a little of Roy Hobbs in the actor who plays him. Like Hobbs, Redford is a restless seeker, and, again like Hobbs, he was a drifter as a young man and didn't settle down to an acting career until he had bummed around Europe and tried his hand at painting. Redford is also an accomplished athlete, an avid skier, tennis player, mountain climber and, fleetingly, a ballplayer once more during the making of The Natural. The experience set him to thinking of sport's peculiar hold on the public, a subject he first explored on film 15 years ago in his critically acclaimed Downhill Racer, a movie about an arrogant yet insecure American skier who wins the Olympic downhill. If this character sounds suspiciously like the latest Olympic downhill champion, Bill Johnson, the coincidence isn't lost on Redford, who had fought in vain to make his skier in the movie a Californian, as both he and Johnson are. Redford's filmcraft is at its finest in that picture when, at the end, he, as the Olympic champion, is being carried off in triumph. In the giddiness of the moment, he espies a young challenger whose face is set with determination. Redford's own expression is transformed by this momentary contact. His face says it all—"My time is so short."