As a baseball fan, there’s something special about the opening weeks of the season. Every team, even my, often disappointing, NY Mets has a chance to be in the World Series teams. Every team is a contender, even the ones that the “experts” have written off before the first pitch of the first game.
Between the recent opening of Shanghai Disneyland, the soon to be opened Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxies Edge, the construction going on at EPCOT and other announcements for more to come at that park, we are seeing an investment in Disney Theme Parks that rivals the Michael Eisner era of Disney-MGM and Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and new attractions in the U.S. We could call it Disney’s Opening Days.
Starting with Toy Story Land, then all the cool new stuff that we are about to feast our Disney lovin’ eyes on in the next couple of years, this is just like the start of the baseball season. All of it carries the possibility of a winning season for Disney theme parks. But, before I finish this line of thought, I want to return to my baseball reference.
There have been a number of quality sports movies, some of them feature baseball like (this Blogger’s opinion), The Natural, Pride of the Yankees, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. There have been just as many bad sports movies (many people’s opinion), like The Babe, Mr. Baseball, and The Fan. Disney has recently made its fair share of decent baseball movies including The Rookie and Million Dollar Arm. And two outstanding animated shorts.
In 1942, (42 was also Jackie Robinson’s uniform number) in conjunction with The Pride of the Yankees ( Lou Gehrig died the same year), Disney released the first of the “How to” series featuring Goofy called, not surprisingly How to Play Baseball. Samuel Goldwyn of MGM sent Disney the Pride script and asked him to create a short, to run with the film.
Goofy was a perfect foil for the quiet, calm demeanor of Gehrig, the lunch pail, everyman, considered one of the greats of the game. Aside from contributions from many of the “Nine Old Men” and Bill Tytla, Disney relied on George Stallings, one of his story artists, whose father managed the old Boston Braves, to insure that the film was accurate as well as funny.
Disney’s patriotism is in full view as the piece opens with a billowing American flag and a description of the game as the American Pastime. The game may have started in a field in Hoboken New Jersey, but the depiction of baseball stadiums located in urban centers was appropriate for the time period. I love the mention of gum as an important part of the game. Even today, dugouts in every league are supplied with huge boxes of the stuff. The short is full of gags explaining and depicting how the game is played. It includes knocking the cover off the ball, which was later “copied” by the hero in The Natural. It ends with a donnybrook (bench clearing brawl) and a last shot of the American flag.
The other baseball short feature the iconic figure of Mighty Casey as part of the feature, Make Mine Music, released in 1946. The short is based on a 1888 poem Casey at the Bat published in the San Francisco Examiner. The war years were tough for the Disney studio. I offered a view in my post Working Through the War. It wouldn’t surprise me if Walt was looking back at the happier days of his youth. Like, many of that era, before television, most people were not able to attend a professional game. Most were played during the day. (Imagine that?) So, the baseball of Walt’s childhood would have been local teams or pick-up games. He may have followed newspaper accounts of the St. Louis Cardinals the Chicago or Kansas City teams, the Cubs or White Sox.
The lyrical nature of the original poem probably appealed to Walt’s artistic sensibilities. And the colorful description of the action, peppered with baseball terms, many still used today, no doubt, presented his gag men with plenty with which to work. “Cooper died at first”, “tore the cover off the ball” “Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.” I encourage you to read the short poem. It’s long on great imagery like this stanza:
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip
It’s practically a ready-made storyboard. Disney and staff took great liberties with the text and added a couple of songs. But, overall, they kept the Main St USA feeling while sticking to the drama of the story as it builds to its climax. Walt would return to this slice of Americana theme many times in films and Disneyland. The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World still has a Casey’s on Main St. They serve hot dogs, of course.
Baseball was even part of Disney company life at Hyperion Studios. According to the Disney archives, not only were there regular ball games, but Walt would swing the lumber himself.
When Walt built his new studio in Glendale, it included a ball field.
To return to my earlier Opening Day analogy, there is a lot of speculation by experts and wanna-be experts about what the major investments in the Parks will deliver. Disney theme park lovers gobble up every press release, official or unofficial photos and artist’s renderings, looking for insight into how the Disney team will perform when we reach each addition’s opening day. Then we all go at it like the talking heads on ESPN, dissecting whatever details we’ve been able to lay our hands on.
There’s a great section in the book “Shoeless Joe”, which inspired Field of Dreams spoken by the writer character baseball. Joe Jackson, was a member of the infamous Black Sox team that was punished for throwing the World Series in 1919. (Graham is a character in the story):
“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. American has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erase again. But baseball has marked time while American has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history like calico dresses, stone crockery and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian head penny in a handful of new coins.”
Terrance Mann in “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella
Can’t resist including James Earl Jones doing this section in the movie, Field of Dreams.
Walt seemed to embody that same sense of America. He wanted to push the limits and remake areas of the entertainment industry, to push into the future with his bulldozers. But like a base runner, he wanted to keep one toe on the base of what he saw as the greatness of America’s past.
So, rather than worry about whether the Toy Story Land will take Disney Studios out of the half day visit category, or whether Galaxies Edge will meet our pent up expectations for a truly immersive experience, lets enjoy the Disney Opening Days, when all the new additions are ready to be beloved for many years to come.
Baseball is a great teacher of an important secret of living: the giving and taking in the group, the development of qualities and behavior that will stand us in good stead through life in pursuits both personal and professional.