Doris Day got top billing but she was not the star...
Although Doris Day received top billing in "The Winning Team,"she was not the clear star of the film, Ronald Reagan was. Later in her career, Miss Day, perhaps by the sheer magnetism of her personality and screen persona, dominated any film in which she appeared, no matter her leading man, whether he was a legendary movie star like Clark Gable or James Cagney, or extremely handsome heartthrobs such as Rock Hudson or John Gavin. Her films ultimately centered on her. It suddenly dawned on me that probably the reason she made this film was because studio baron, Jack Warner, from whom she was taking orders, forced her into it. Why else would she play second fiddle to Ronald Reagan?
"The Winning Team" is the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, (Ronald Regan) a field technician for the telephone company, who aspires to become a professional baseball player. His ambition to pursue this career was in complete contrast to his fiancée, Aimee Arrants (Doris Day) and her father, Sam's (Frank Ferguson) plans on his becoming a farmer. Grover's determination is strong, however, even though he honestly tries to fulfill his obligation to marry, have a family and live a normal life. Alexander receives an invitation to play professional baseball from George Glasheen (Gordon Jones), the manager of a team in need of a good pitcher. Grover is offered a whopping $100 a month which does not impress Aimee who wants him to get serious about marriage and forget his unattainable goals. Grover, driven by his ambition, takes his chances and joins the team. With his expert pitching, the team starts winning, nation-wide. His letters to Aimee are not answered, but he continues to send money to her for investing in their first home. During one of his games, he is accidentally struck in the head by a baseball. His injury results in a condition called myopia, or double vision.
Presumably with baseball behind him, he marries Aimee and their plans seem to be on course again. Grover, still seeing two of everything, keeps practicing his pitching even though his career is deemed over. After another team buys his baseball contract and expects him to go into training in a few months, Grover sinks deep into depression, feeling that playing baseball again is an impossibility. Aimee, in a heartfelt revelation to his mother laments: "Mom, it's so awful for him. He's tried so hard to be a good farmer, to be everything that I wanted him to be, and all the time he's sick inside because he can't ever pitch again. You know something, Mom? I used to think it would be better if he liked another girl – at least I could compete against her and, win or lose. But I could compete against his love for baseball, anybody would have been second to that. Mom, I was glad when he had his accident. Deep down in my heart I was glad because I knew it meant he could never play again. And that meant I wouldn't have to share him with the game. Now, I realize how wrong I was and I'd do anything if I could help him."
Suddenly, upon awakening one morning, Cleveland seems to have miraculously recovered. He sees things singularly, not double. Aimee joins Grover as he sets out to again conquer baseball with the Philadelphia Nationals. Success follows and in 1917, Grover signs with the Chicago Cubs. At the same time, he is served with a notice from the Armed Services. After his stint in the war, Alex returns like a gladiator. Everything seems "onward and upward" when his myopia suddenly returns, but this time, has developed into a more serious condition which causes blackouts and fainting. After collapsing on the diamond, he is advised by a doctor to retire and return to his life as a farmer. Alex keeps his diagnosis secret and does not reveal the truth, even to Aimee.
Depressed, Alex hits the bottle to combat his anxiety and panic attacks. He gets in trouble with the law, gains a reputation as a drunk and is dropped by the Cubs. In between these troubles, Aimee leaves him, not understanding his underlying condition. After being told the truth by Alex's doctor, Aimee sets out to find her now-in-hiding husband. Because of his celebrity, several amateur ball teams hire him, but his illness progressively gets worse. At this point, no team will take a chance with this has-been and Grover is desperate for money. Aimee finds him working in a tacky carnival, as a side show attraction, billed as "Alex the Great" answering questions about baseball. She implores old friend and former player, now manager, Rogers Hornsby, portrayed by Frank Lovejoy, to give Alex a job with his team, the low rated St. Louis Cardinals. Amazingly, Cleveland's pitching is so good; the team eventually wins their first ever National League Pennant.
The 1926 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals was an important event, filled with suspense. The favored Yankees were a cinch to win the battle. In attendance is Aimee and fellow baseball wife, Margaret, played by Eve Miller. Cleveland is picked to pitch, much to the disappointment of Cardinals fans who expect him to fail. Alexander disappointed his doubters by striking out the majority of the Yankees, including Babe Ruth in the first game. Grover was fighting his illness, but with Aimee at the games, he somehow fought off the attacks and was able to play. At the crucial moment of the final game, Cleveland steps in for another pitcher. On hearing this at the hotel, Aimee rushes to Yankee Stadium realizing that, possibly, without her, Grover might fail and lose the game. As the contest wore on, Alex was beginning to have problems. Every glance at Aimee's empty seat made him more vulnerable to an attack. Finally, he sees her sitting there and like magic, it was "Casey at the Bat". Grover wins the game and the series for the Cardinals.
With "I'll String Along With You" as a recurring background musical theme throughout the picture, the melody lent a sentimental feeling to the film. Ronald Reagan was a bit mature to play this part, for he was already 41 when shooting began and looked a bit old to be a "boy" still living at home and taking orders from his parents. His performance was good, however, and he conveyed the drive that one must have to make such a great sacrifice. Miss Day on the other hand was 27, playing perhaps 22 and was just right, age-wise, in this thankless role. She was light at the beginning, but grew stronger as the story progressed. As usual, she gave 100% in her portrayal and was likeable throughout. Frank Lovejoy was wasted, as usual, and reminded me of the male version of Laraine Day, another Warner castaway. What a terrific actor he was and was seldom shown to his best advantage. He supported Miss Day in three films, this one, "I'll See You in My Dreams" and "Julie". Eve Miller, you will remember as the actress who had a slugfest with Doris in "April in Paris".
The production was adequate and the direction by Lewis Seiler was pedestrian. The previous time Reagan was in a picture with Doris, he was billed over her ("Storm Warning"). In 1952, with Miss Day being elevated to the top ten box office list, Jack Warner used her name to sell this picture, even though Reagan was the central character. As baseball movies go, this one had some punch. Fans of the game will enjoy the original film snippets of the baseball sequences during the '26 World Series. New Yorkers will be thrilled to see the actual footage of New York in the "olden days" with shots of the fabulous Astor Hotel in Times Square.
Ralph McKnight, New York, May 2000