Throughout his life, Ronald Reagan understood the importance of recognizing the forgotten ones, and much of the action and argument of his life was centered on manifesting this recognition. It may seem unlikely that this attitude and moral disposition would seep into Reagan’s acting career, but it did, and on many occasions. Lewis Seiler’s 1952 “The Winning Team” is an excellent example of Reagan’s view of American heroes, one that appears largely to have been forgotten.
“The Winning Team” tells the true story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, a major league baseball player, who faced many challenges in his life. Reagan plays Alexander (“Alex”) alongside Doris Day, who plays his devoted wife, Aimee. Alex lives in Elba, Nebraska, and is on the verge of getting married to Aimee. It is expected that Alex will become a farmer in order to take care of Aimee. The only trouble is that Alex loves baseball more than farming, and it turns out that he is a superb pitcher.
Alex moves from local teams to the minor league and finally to the major league. His first challenge occurs when he gets hit in the head by a baseball, which causes double vision. It appears that he has given up baseball. He practices but the double vision prevents him from success. One day, his condition miraculously improves, and he returns to baseball. World War I interrupts his play, but upon his return, Alex resumes his baseball career.
At this point, he is pitching for the Chicago Cubs, but he soon moves to the St. Louis Cardinals, which proves to be one of his biggest successes. Although reluctant at first, Aimee joins him in his travels and fully supports his baseball career. But after Alex’s return from the war, he begins to have fainting spells. He is informed that his condition will never improve and that the fainting spells will simply continue. He hides that information from the team doctor as well as Aimee.
Perhaps from shame or sheer frustration, Alex begins to drink. His fainting spells continue and the Cubs manager suspects it’s because of the constant drinking. Alex continues to drink, but more to ease his anxiety. But like any alcoholic, he descends into self-pity. He becomes more and more distant from Aimee, leaves the team, and is nowhere to be found. Penniless, he ends up playing for small, local teams for peanuts, and finally, he is reduced to being sideshow attraction in a fair. Paraded next to a fire eating man, “El Diablo,” Alex comes out to talk about the glory days of baseball only to be insulted and dismissed as a “has been.”
In the meantime, Aimee finds out about Alex’s medical condition, and witnesses the undignified display at the fair, which prompts her to ask St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Rogers Hornsby to give Alex another chance at being a pitcher. This event turns things around for Alex. The film culminates in Alex facing New York Yankees slugger Tony Lazzeri. Alex strikes him out and secures the win for the Cardinals.
“The Winning Team” is a highly enjoyable film, yet it does have its moments of darkness. Lewis Seiler directed many noir films, and Sidney Hickox’s cinematography (he was also director of photography for 1946’s “The Big Sleep,” 1947’s “Dark Passage,” as well as many noir-inspired episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show”) moves deftly from light-hearted scenes to darker, dramatic episodes. We see a transformation of Doris Day from a happy-go-lucky wife to a darker, often frustrated but devoted woman. (As a most pleasant bonus, Day gifts us with a few songs, too. Only Doris Day could make “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” seem so heavenly.)
Once again, Reagan is in full control of his character. He is often funny (especially at the beginning of the film), and Reagan’s comedic talent is often unappreciated. At the same time, Alex’s struggles are brought forth by Reagan’s intensity. We get the feeling that Reagan understands Alex’s descent into darkness, especially when he has (almost) given up on life itself.
“The Winning Team” could have been an even more powerful film had the producer chosen to tell the real story and reason behind Grover Cleveland Alexander’s “fainting spells.” In reality, Alexander was suffering from the effects of epilepsy, and the “fainting spells” were actually seizures. In his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, Reagan recalls the filming and regrets not telling Alexander’s real story.
At the time of the shooting of the film, Alexander was already dead, and his widow was the on-set advisor. Reagan writes that it was from Aimee that he and others “learned a great deal about the tragic secret so carefully kept from the public during all those years of her husband’s greatness. There was no secret to Grover’s problem with alcohol, but his real cross was epilepsy, and in that earlier, unenlightened day he felt keenly the stigma which today we are learning was compounded of ignorance and superstition. I’ve always regretted that the studio insisted we not use the word [epilepsy], although we did try to get the idea across.”
Alexander’s condition was not revealed until much later after his death, and even so, it appears that his life has been forgotten. The old stories tend to become truths over time, and we begin to lose sight of reality.
Reagan enjoyed working on the film and had fond memories of it. (“The Winning Team” is one of the films that was part of the Reagans’ movie weekends at Camp David, viewed on April 18, 1986.) But it seems that it is the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander and the need to tell the truth about him that struck Reagan as the most important aspect of the film.
On May 12, 1988, President Reagan received the Cardinals uniform that he wore in the film. He was incredibly touched by the gift and assured John Allen (who secured the uniform from MGM) that it will certainly find its proper place in his presidential library. This was supposed to be a simple photo-op, yet Reagan took the time to tell a story, something he often did. The story was not about him but about Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Reagan’s lasting regret for not speaking the truth in the film about Alexander’s illness. “I never forgave Jack Warner for not using the word epilepsy,” Reagan said. It’s clear from this 1988 encounter that Reagan was still dwelling on the fact that Alexander’s story has not been properly told.
As he told Allen about Alexander’s condition, one could see there was a sense of unburdening. Reagan maintains a distance, yet his compassion clearly comes through. To him, it was unacceptable to have Alexander’s character maligned and through seriousness and some levity, Reagan shows us how Alexander was more than just a character in a movie to him. Alexander was also a human being with an interior life. Alexander was a fellow human being, in other words, and one whose dignity should be respected.
In “The Winning Team,” Reagan humanizes Alexander without ever exhibiting pity. The reality of the ups and downs is understood by Reagan, yet there is always a sense of the possibility of life and greatness within all of us.