Directed by Lewis Seiler
Written by Ted Sherdeman and Seeleg Lester & Merwin Gerard
It’s weird to see a former President of the United States in a movie, even after knowing he was a movie star before becoming a politician. Yes, you guessed it, this was my first Ronald Reagan movie. But it doesn’t change the weirdness factor. Does it get better the more movies I see featuring him? It’s also different because I didn’t really live through his years in office (I was born in the late 1980s), so I wonder if it weirds people out even more!? Anyway, I was excited to find out this was Reagan (and Doris Day) after I saw that this baseball movie was going to be on television for me to record and watch later for this Baseball marathon. All of the talk about Ronald Reagan, and I haven’t even mentioned this was also my first Doris Day movie, so the trifecta attracted me to this title, and while it was somewhat underwhelming, it was definitely a story worthy of the marathon.
Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan) is a name any baseball fan should know, but perhaps they don’t. His hayday was before baseball really exploded with super star talents like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but his place in baseball history as one of the game’s top pitchers is cemented. The Winning Team serves as his version of The Pride of the Yankees, or The Pride of St. Louis with Lou Gehrig and Dizzy Dean as the subject, respectively. Alexander’s story begins as a young man working the telephone lines in a small town when he gets the chance to pitch against a semi-pro team, and he doesn’t disappoint. Actually, he disappoints his girlfriend, Aimee (Doris Day), as he misses their meeting to talk about buying a house and getting married. That does not deter Alexander or Aimee from their dream, as Grover starts the climb to the major leagues and Aimee throws caution to the wind to pursue her love. Alexander finds success, then failure, as his relationship with both baseball and Aimee finds rocky ground and then redemption.
As I mentioned, seeing Ronald Reagan was surreal, but so too was seeing a film about Grover Cleveland Alexander. I wonder, in 1952, what spurred on the necessity of telling this story, because he seems a peculiar topic. We has The Babe Ruth Story and The Jackie Robinson Story, big names in baseball got biopics, but to see an older star like Alexander get his due struck me as peculiar. He has a good story, almost similar to Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story, but in this case, Alexander is able to overcome his handicap a little more, and still maintain all-star status for an extended time in his career. The problem is Reagan is not James Stewart, he is not Gary Cooper. As a result, his Grover Cleveland Alexander comes across more like Dan Dailey’s Dizzy Dean, a mediocre lead performance in an intriguing, albeit secondary, story about a baseball star.
The story actually succeeds most when Doris Day is in the picture, as she is much more engaging and charismatic than Reagan ever is. Gary Cooper was similar, but his icy demeanor fit with Lou Gehrig’s work ethic, and it helped with the emotional impact of his moving Yankee Stadium speech. Grover Cleveland Alexander never gets that moment here. The film falls into the pit of baseball action for much of the second half after successfully building the relationship between Grover and Aimee in the first half, relegating Aimee to a cheering wife with no personality of her own. Day makes Aimee as sympathetic as she can, but in the end, as she sits by living out her husband’s dream instead of her own, I begin to lose some respect for her, especially after he seems to show no reciprocation of love or respect at times.
I love hearing about these forgotten baseball heroes, but I think I prefer the Ken Burns’ Baseball version of the story better. Certainly, there are great unknown stories out there worth telling, but there are also certain stars and filmmakers who are capable of even elevating the material and its delivery to make a wonderful film. Lewis Seiler, Ronald Reagan and Doris Day are not the trio to deliver a great Grover Cleveland Alexander film. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t without its moments, or that it is a complete trainwreck. The film is quite enjoyable for the most part, but simply unremarkable and forgettable. Average and mediocre through and through, The Winning Team (a title by the way that doesn’t make a lot of sense, even as it alludes to Grover and Aimee’s relationship) is not a recommendation except for the biggest of Baseball or Doris Day fans.