Pop culture and the Pastime: Baseball and the Twilight Zone

If you’re anything like me, your favorite part of the New Year’s celebration is The Twilight Zone marathon that airs on the SyFy Channel. It usually features some of the most iconic episodes in the history of the groundbreaking series, the creation of the brilliant mind of Rod Serling.

Inevitably, I look for ways to tie interests of mine to baseball, and The Twilight Zone does not let down in that regard. Of the 156 episodes that aired from 1959 to 1964, at least one centers on the theme of baseball. (To the best of my knowledge, none of the shows focused on basketball, football or hockey.) Appropriately, the episode is called “The Mighty Casey.” It aired on June 17, 1960, during the first season of The Twilight Zone’s successful five-year run.

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Most of The Twilight Zone episodes involve serious subject matter, with twist endings that produce dire conclusions for characters who have committed a variety of sins and lesser indiscretions. A few of the episodes involve lighter fare, where the supernatural twist is more comedic and fanciful in nature. Written and developed by Serling, “The Mighty Casey” falls into this latter category.

The episode begins with the following opening narration, delivered in Serling’s wonderfully clipped and creepy manner of speaking.

“What you’re looking at is a ghost, once alive but now deceased. Once upon a time it was a baseball stadium that housed a major league ballclub known as the Hoboken Zephyrs. Now it houses nothing but memories and a wind that stirs in the high grass of what was once an outfield, a wind that sometimes bears a faint, ghostly resemblance to the roar of a crowd that once sat here. We’re back in time now when the Hoboken Zephyrs were still a part of the National League and this mausoleum of memories was an honest-to-Pete stadium. But since this is strictly a story of make-believe, it has to start this way: One upon a time in Hoboken, New Jersey, it was tryout day. And though he’s not yet on the field, you’re about to meet a most unusual fella, a left-handed pitcher named Casey.”

As the plot unfolds, Zephyrs manager Mouth McGarry (played by the great Jack Warden) finds his team playing so poorly that it has fallen completely out of the pennant race. A scientist named Dr. Stillman approaches McGarry with a potential solution to his problematic team. The good doctor introduces the manager to a pitcher named Casey, played by the relatively little-known character actor Robert Sorrell. Casey is a terrific pitcher but also happens to be a robot. McGarry keeps that fact a secret as he adds him to his beleaguered roster.

Casey throws a fastball so hard that it cannot be hit, but his lack of humanity is eventually discovered when he is beaned with a ball and has to undergo a physical examination, revealing his robotic status. The National League tells McGarry that robots are not permitted to play, so Dr. Stillman offers to make the robot a human by transplanting a heart into his mechanics.

As with most Twilight Zone episodes, an unintended effect occurs. Now that he has a heart, Casey feels sympathy for opposing batters. He refuses to throw his superhuman fastball and becomes useless to the Zephyrs.

His reluctance appears to doom the Zephyrs, who are now on the verge of bankruptcy. Dr. Stillman gives his robotic blueprints to McGarry, who looks at them before undergoing an epiphany. He hatches a scheme to create an entire pitching staff of robotic Caseys, an idea that will make his club the team to beat for years to come.

Serling then closes the episode with his narrated summary:

“Once upon a time there was a major league baseball team called the Hoboken Zephyrs, who during the last year of their existence wound up in last place and shortly thereafter wound up in oblivion. There is a rumor, unsubstantiated of course, that a manager named McGarry took them to the West Coast and wound up with several pennants and a couple of world championships. This team had a pitching staff that made history. Of course, none of them smiled very much but it happens to be a fact that they pitched like nothing human. And if you are interested as to where these gentlemen come from you might check under ‘B’ for baseball, in the Twilight Zone.”

Here are a few other notes of interest with regard to “The Mighty Casey:”

*The episode was originally filmed with veteran actor Paul Douglas starring in the lead role as manager McGarry. But Douglas appeared out of sorts and sounded raspy throughout the filming, leading to some speculation that his drinking problems had returned.

A few days after the filming, Douglas died from a heart attack at the age of 52. It turned out that he was suffering from heart failure; it was that condition, and not a relapse of drinking, that led to his haggard appearance. When Serling learned of Douglas’ death, he felt that the episode, which was centered on light-hearted comedy and whimsy, simply could not air. As Serling explained, it was as if he and others on the set were literally watching Douglas die in front of them.

Serling came up with a Plan B. He decided to re-shoot most of the episode, calling on Jack Warden to replace Douglas. When CBS refused to pay for the re-shoot, Serling took on the costs himself, paying more than $25,000 out of his own pocket. The result was a bit of an editing nightmare, with the episode appearing somewhat disjointed. But Serling felt this was a better option than showing Douglas in his dying days. It was the right choice by the always sensitive Serling.

*Sorrells, who portrays Casey, turned to drinking in later life and became a bizarre recluse. In 2004, he shot two customers in a Simi Valley bar, killing one of them. Arrested for murder, Sorrells is now serving a sentence of 32 years to life for the shootings.

*The baseball scenes were filmed at Wrigley Field, but not the one in Chicago. They were recorded at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the home of the minor league Los Angeles Angels. The California Wrigley, which also had ivy on its walls, was often used by Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s and became the setting for the 1960 cult favorite, Home Run Derby, hosted by Mark Scott.

*The uniforms worn by the mythical Zephyrs have a National League 75th anniversary patch on them, indicating that the episode was set in 1951. The Zephyrs are based in Hoboken, the same town where the first officially recorded game under the Cartwright Rules took place.

All in all, “The Mighty Casey” provides light entertainment, though it hardly ranks with the classic Twilight Zone episodes, which usually involved imprisonment, cruel justice, or even death. Still, there is a deeper theme at work here, and a timely one, if we draw a parallel between robots playing baseball and the current issue of steroids. At what point do players and teams try to make themselves better without disrupting the notion of fair play? It’s a question that remains unanswered by the end of the 30-minute episode.

There are some other points in the episode’s favor. “The Mighty Casey” remains memorable because of the last-minute re-casting that had to be done before it reached the airwaves. The underrated Warden is always good, whether it’s performing comedy or drama, or a little bit of both. And even a weaker episode of The Twilight Zone is worth watching, if only to catch a glimpse of Serling, in his classic narrations, delivering us some of his science fiction-inspired wisdom.

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Comments

  1. Ron Kaplan said...

    One of my all-time favorite TZs. Well done, sir. Fantasy/Sci Fi baseball stories are fairly difficult to come by. W.P. Kinsella collected several short stories for Baseball Fantastic (2001), which is just of one the many titles included in Steven Silver’s list (http://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/baseball.html) of the genre. To be accurate, however, several titles are not exclusively about baseball.

    Some stories involve time travel, such as Darryl Brock’s “If I Never Get Back,” while other look at alternate possibilities, as in “The House That George Built” (http://www.tor.com/stories/2009/06/the-house-that-george-built) by master of the genre Harry Turtledove.

  2. Paul Blocklyn said...

    In his book “The Twilight Zone Companion,” Marc Scott Zicree states that the baseball scenes for “The Mighty Casey” were filmed not at Wrigley Field but at “Hollywood Baseball Park.”  Does the latter venue actually exist?  Does anyone know?

  3. Frank Jackson said...

    Gilmore Field, home of the PCL Hollywood Stars, would be a possible venue…had it not been torn down in 1958.  We know that Wrigley Field was still up and runnuing at the time of the “Twilight Zone” episode, as it was the home park of the AL Angels in their inaugural year.

  4. dennis Bedard said...

    Twilight Zone was serious political philosophy brought home to the masses.  Whether it’s Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Augustine, or James Madison, they all focused on human nature and its foibles.  To me, the message of Twilight Zone was that hubris has consequences.  Great post Bruce.

  5. Paul Blocklyn said...

    Scott is correct in stating that the Zephyrs were changed back to the Brooklyn Dodgers in Serling’s short story.  However, that story appears in the original STORIES FROM THE TWLIGHT ZONE, not in the volume that followed it.

  6. Scott Sheaffer said...

    Oops! You’re right, Paul. It was in the first collection, not the second one which I mentioned. Thanks for the correction.

  7. Scott Sheaffer said...

    Originally, the Zephyrs were supposed to be the Brooklyn Dodgers. When this episode was adapted to short story form for the book MORE STORIES FROM THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the Zephyrs were changed back into the Dodgers (who’d also moved west by that time.)

  8. Eric Paddon said...

    Paul Douglas I’m sure was originally cast because he’d played an almost identical role in “Angels In The Outfield”.  Serling’s decision to reshoot long after the fact out of pocket was quite an unprecedented move for the time, but after seeing a publicity picture of Douglas during the shooting, I agree he made the right decision.

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