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Friday, November 30, 2012
Throughout the winter, I’ll be examining the National Pastime from the standpoint of popular culture, in particular through movies, television appearances, memorabilia and advertisements. It’s remarkable how often baseball and pop culture intersect, sometimes in ways that are curious or funny or even downright bizarre. While some ballplayers have achieved notoriety for appearing in mass media (I’m thinking of Wes Parker’s appearance on The Brady Bunch), other examples are more obscure, but no less entertaining. So let’s have some fun with these situations when baseball steps out of its own beaten path and ventures outward to become part of the cultural mainstream.
There has been a long tradition of ballplayers appearing in film, dating back to the earliest days of motion pictures, when silent movies ruled the theaters. A more recent example, though not too recent, can be found in the blaxploitation films that became so prominent in the early 1970s.
For the uninitiated, blaxploitation films were originally targeted for a black, urban audience, but they also became popular with other ethnic groups and eventually gained mainstream appeal. These films, generally made on a low budget, featured a mix of good and bad features. On the one hand, they gave roles to talented African-American actors who were being ignored by the rest of Hollywood. On the other hand, these films often perpetuated the stereotypes that some whites held toward blacks. The films also contained countless ethnic slurs that spared no one, whether they be white or African-American.
40 years ago, an intriguing blaxploitation piece hit the theaters with the release of Black Gunn. This classic example of 1972 cinema stars former NFL star Jim Brown as the title character. The retired Cleveland Browns great plays what is billed as a “beefy nightclub boss” living in Los Angeles. When his brother, a Vietnam veteran, is murdered after the robbery of the “wrong people,” Brown seeks revenge against the local mafia. Although Brown is clearly the centerpiece, and is surrounded by such veteran actors as Martin Landau and Bruce Glover (the father of Crispin Glover), the film also features appearances by two well-known baseball players of the day, Vida Blue and Tommy Davis.
So what were Blue and Davis, teammates with the Oakland A’s, doing on the set of a feature film? Black Gunn was filmed in 1971, which just so happened to be Blue’s breakout season with Oakland. The pill-throwing left-hander, who also had a terrific overhand curve, led all American League pitchers with a 1.82 ERA, winning 24 of 32 decisions and striking out 301 batters in 312 innings. He drew huge crowds throughout the season, particularly on the road. Some opposing teams like the Yankees even staged promotions to capitalize on Blue’s upcoming appearance at their ballpark.
The media coverage given Blue throughout the season helped his cause for immediate fame; he appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine, and Jet, and even made the cover page of Time, a rarity for a baseball player. Blue also made guest appearances on two nationwide television programs, the Dick Cavett Show and NBC’s Today Show. Given Blue’s on-field performance, which earned him both the Cy Young and the MVP, not to mention his growing media celebrity, he became a logical candidate to make the transition from baseball to film. And so the movie poster heralds Blue’s appearance by “introducing Vida Blue.”
But what about Davis? While the veteran first baseman/outfielder had a fine season in 1971, hitting .324 in a platoon role and a scorching .464 as a pinch-hitter, he was hardly in the prime of his career and certainly lacked the household name status of Blue. Well, that didn’t matter. Davis happened to be Blue’s roommate; the two men were good friends, perhaps the closest of friends among the A’s. So it’s likely that Blue was able to convince the filmmakers to bring Davis along for the Hollywood ride.
In making his only feature film appearance, Blue played a character named “Sam Green.” (How about that, Blue playing a character named Green in a movie featuring the word Black in the title? How great is that?) The role was a small one, but Blue did earn fifth-place billing, right after Brown, Landau, Brenda Sykes, and Luciana Paluzzi, all established veteran actors. In the meantime, Davis settled for lower billing and an even lesser role, playing a character named “Webb.”
While Blue and Davis gave the film two well-known baseball names, they were outnumbered by the number of football players who appear in the movie. In addition to Brown, present-day NFL players Deacon Jones (who plays himself) and Gene Washington also made cameos, as did retired footballers like Bernie Casey (perhaps best known for appearing in Revenge of the Nerds) and Timothy Brown (of M*A*S*H fame).
All of these appearances, while interesting, don’t tell us about the quality of the film. Though I have never seen Black Gunn from start to finish, I have watched a number of clips and have read a sufficient number of reviews to offer some general judgments. As blaxploitation films go, Black Gunn is pretty much standard fare, and perhaps a bit above average for its genre. Though cheaply made, there is a good supply of fight sequences, funky 1970s music, and plenty of period atmosphere to make it a worthwhile ride.
In terms of acting, Brown is acceptable as the lead character. He has enough charisma and brawn to make up for a lack of technical acting skill. (He also appears often with his shirt off.) Landau, in contrast, overacts badly, especially when he is playing the role of a used car dealer, which is a cover for his true role as a vicious mob leader. By far the best acting is put forth by Glover, who portrays Landau’s lead enforcer. A prolific and talented character actor, Glover brings some gusto and humor to the role of a racist henchman. His performance also stirs up visions of his acting son, Crispin; the two share a number of facial mannerisms and speech patterns.
All in all, Black Gunn provides a relatively uncomplicated entertainment diversion that lasts 96 minutes. You’ll have to look closely to see Blue and Davis, but they are there, as are the full cache of football stars. As long as you don’t take the plot too seriously, you’ll be able to pick out some sports celebrities and enjoy a classic slice of 1970s culture.
Today marks the 50th birthday of one of the highest profile baseball players—or athletes in any sport—of the 20th century. He didn’t have the greatest career nor did he even come close to Cooperstown, but for a few years his star was among the brightest in the sky.
It’s Bo Jackson.
Today, Bo knows AARP membership, but he was as big as it got back in the day. I remember reading an article trying to figure out who was the biggest and most marketable name in all of sports, Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan. The article ultimately concluded it was Jordan, but that tells you how big Jackson was. He was in plenty of commercials, most notably the famous Nike “Bo Knows” ones, in which Jordan was just one of the galaxy of stars orbiting Bo.
Calling Bo Jackson a star baseball player misses at least half the equation—the more important half, at that. He was a true two-sport star—and baseball was his second sport. His best sport was football. As a running back at Auburn, he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. A great football career seemed ahead for him.
Then he shocked the world by deciding to go for baseball instead, and abandon football. It’s easier on the joints. Jackson joined the Royals and in 1986 made his major league debut. However, it turned out the lure of football was too strong, and in 1987 he made his debut with the Oakland Raiders. He remained a regular in both sports through 1990, when a hip injury ended his football career.
He also made a memorable controversy for himself when he explained his decision to return to football by calling it a “hobby”—a word choice that caused him no small amounts of grief.
Jackson is something of a what-if in baseball. He had talent, but he was a far better football player. In 1989, his best season, Jackson hit 32 homers, stole 26 bases, and drove in 105 runs, but hit only .256 with a .310 OBP. He also had just 15 doubles.
Then again, there’s always the question of how good he could’ve been if he had applied himself full-time to baseball. Surely, he would’ve been better. Not only would he have had more practice time, but those nicks in football can’t be good for the body. In fact, his football-ending hip injury cost him dearly in baseball, sidetracking his career. That said, Jackson’s big problem was that he was a good hitter, but never a great hitter.
His best strength in baseball may have been his sense of timing. In his only All-Star Game, he belted a monstrous first-inning homer that had everyone talking the next day. He once hit three straight homers before going on the DL—and then hit a homer in his first swing upon returning, becoming one of the few people to homer in four straight at-bats. Near the end of his career he played for the White Sox, and when they won their division, it was Bo who drove in the run that clinched a playoff berth.
When he had his first big league at-bat—a national story broadcast across the country—Jackson came within 10 feet of homering. He hit a long ball that went just foul. He ended up striking out, but still had people’s attention.
Jackson’s ability to perform his best when the most were watching showed in football, too. In his fifth NFL game, Jackson played for the Raiders on Monday Night Football against Seattle. Not only did he rush for 221 yards, but he had two touchdowns that many vividly remember. On one, Jackson steamrolled the (over)hyped Brian Bosworth—who’d promised the world before the game that he’d contain the KC Royal. The other was a 91-yard run, punctuated by Jackson running out of the end zone and down a Kingdome tunnel.
Oh, and here’s a fun fact: That great Monday Night Football performance came on Bo’s birthday—his 25th, on Nov. 30, 1987. So it’s the silver anniversary of that game.
One last Bo Jackson story that I have to share. A few years ago he appeared on the Spike TV show Pros vs. Joes, pitting four great athletes against four barroom blowhards. They’d have some events where the joes try to match the pros at their own game, but also one special event, where neither pros nor joes had any experience.
In the Bo Jackson episode I saw, the pros and joes all gave skeet shooting a chance. Jackson had apparently never shot skeet before, but within two or three shots had the hang of it. He started nailing everything after that, the best of any of the competitors.
That Bo Jackson—he sure was something. And today he’s 50 years of something.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that occurred X-thousand years ago today). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim.
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