Until recently, to my way of thinking, the term “bullying” referred to groups of grade school, high school, or college-age kids who singled out and picked on a solitary young person who was viewed as being weak and vulnerable. But one current media item has been much on my mind. This is coverage of the alleged harassment of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by one or more of his teammates. So the questions here become: Are insecure children the only victims of bullying? In fact, can a 300-pound professional football player also be bullied? Is there a difference between good-natured locker room ribbing and the kind of provocation that apparently was experienced by Jonathan Martin?
All of this brings to mind the point of view expressed in one of the all-time great baseball films. Let me add here that, yes folks, movies can be entertaining. Movies can and should be great escapes, but they also can be teachers. They can offer great insight into a range of issues.
The film in question is BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, which dates from 1973. This eloquent, heartbreaking story of the ebb and flow of a baseball season, and the ebb and flow of life, features a fresh, believable naturalism in its script, staging, and acting. The scenario, which is adapted by Mark Harris from his classic novel, highlights the bond between a pair of ballplayers on the same major league team, the New York Mammoths. Henry Wiggen, a glamour boy star pitcher played by Michael Moriarty, is the Mammoths’ franchise player. Bruce Pearson, played by Robert De Niro, is a none-too-bright reserve catcher who might be described as the 26th man on a 25-man roster. But what really separates Pearson from his teammates is that he is terminally ill. (Let me add here that this is one of Robert De Niro’s unsung early screen performances. It is not as well-remembered as his work in THE GODFATHER PART II, MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, or RAGING BULL, but it should be.)
In any case, as the story progresses, the Mammoth players bait each other, which seems to be standard fare in locker rooms. Here, the petty differences and ragging disrupt the team. Once Pearson’s teammates learn of his illness, however, they rally around him and what emerges is some genuine camaraderie. Notes Henry Wiggen: “It was a club, like it should have been-- all year...”
BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY is loaded with insight, as it offers a subtle but uncompromising condemnation of everything from uncaring baseball executives who would have the players pay them to play ball to insensitive jocks who constantly rag one another over their ethnic or racial backgrounds, styles of dress, or whatever. Throughout the story, Henry Wiggen-- a kind and decent man-- becomes Bruce Pearson’s protector but, of course, Wiggen cannot cure Pearson’s illness. Wiggen is just a ballplayer, and not a miracle worker.
So what does he learn from the experience? Well, the film is narrated by Wiggen, who bookends the scenario by observing near the opening, as he and Pearson are leaving the Mayo Clinic: “You’re driving along with a man’s been told he’s dying, and yet everything keeps going on.... As a catcher, he was $1-million worth of promise worth two cents on delivery. Most people didn’t know he was with the club. And, um, he was almost too dumb to play a joke on. And now he’d been played the biggest joke of all.”
At the finale, Wiggen is in a Georgia cemetery at the conclusion of Pearson’s funeral. “There were no flowers from the club, and no person from the club,” he notes. “They could have sent somebody. He (referring to Pearson) wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most, and probably better than some. And not a bad ballplayer neither, when they gave him the chance, when they laid off him long enough.
“From here on in,” Wiggen concludes, “I rag nobody.”
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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