Big Leaguer is literally a minor league movie. Its unique setting is a New York Giants training camp in Melbourne, Florida, for hopefuls who want to show their stuff and maybe begin a long climb to the major leagues, although most of them will never make it. Shot on location in semi-documentary style, with a largely pointless narration by a journalist (Paul Langton), the film takes a simple, low-key approach building to an inevitable “big game”. The photography is often crisply deep-focused, so that we even see the blades of grass; thank goodness for a clean print on demand from Warner Archives. The viewer may notice moments of dynamic composition throughout, even a few modestly showy moments where balls are knocked toward the camera as if it’s 3-D.
The movie has two ringers. The first is Edward G. Robinson, among Hollywood’s most versatile and convincing actors, as real-life coach Hans Lobert, a former 3rd baseman who now might be cut himself if the camp doesn’t find a few more diamonds. At every step, he makes moral decisions backed by a wise philosophy. The sure-handed Robinson can sail it over home plate when Herbert Baker’s dialogue reaches for something, such as Lobert’s defense of “crazy hot-rodding kids” who are “only 18”: “I don’t know, seems like every time I pick up a headline, it’s full of 18 year olds. They may be robbing a bank or fighting the war, but one way or the other they let you know they’re around….No sir, 18 is real important, real important. When you’re 18, you’re tomorrow morning. You’re the world giving yourself another chance.”
That scene ends with his turning on the jukebox and gracefully dancing out of the room. The whole scene has a natural Hawksian camaraderie among the poker-playing cronies. The rookies include Jeff Richards (a real ex-minor-leaguer), Richard Jaeckel, and William Campbell, with Carl Hubbell and Al Kampanis as themselves. Except for the commercial presence of Vera-Ellen and her romantic character-building subplot, it’s a male movie, fitting how Andrew Sarris categorized director Robert Aldrich as a “moralist in a man’s world.”
Oh yeah, Aldrich is the other ringer. This was his feature debut after a long apprenticeship and a number of TV episodes. It’s generally overlooked in his filmography because he himself said it wasn’t a personal work and it certainly went unnoticed. Still, it’s made to order as an example of what critic Richard Combs (quoted in American Film Directors, Volume Two) called “the desired end of any Aldrich film, the achievement of maturity.” Like the movie itself, the naive rookies depicted probably won’t set the world on fire and will simply look back on this interlude, as Lobert says at the end, as the time they almost made the big leagues. But as he implies, that has its own value, and you never know, somebody in there just may have the stuff. Sometimes you’re surprised by which one has a long career ahead.