Fictional baseball movies appear to share the same premise: some catalyst turns a hard-luck team in last place into a lovable underdog that makes its way to the pennant race.
“Angels in the Outfield” featured divine intervention, a reformed foul-mouthed manager and a rejuvenated Pittsburgh Pirates. In “Rhubarb,” the fictitious Brooklyn Loons find luck in their new owner, a cat.
In 1953’s “The Kid From Left Field,” it’s a former ballplayer and his son jump-starting the Bisons. If the first two films are comedies, “Left Field” is touching, a heartfelt father-and-son story. The two share a love of the game that ultimately brings them closer together.
Dan Dailey plays Larry Cooper, a former ballplayer who sells peanuts at Whacker Stadium, home of the Bisons. They are a losing team that sets records for low attendance, and team owner Fred Whacker (Ray Collins) says their new slogan should be “You can lose them all.” This means single father Larry struggles to make ends meet for himself and his son, Christie (Billy Chapin). Christie idolizes his father and believes him to be a former baseball hero, unaware that his dad’s career was not a stellar one.
When Larry loses his job and goes on a bender, Christie manages to get his dad’s job back and then is hired to be one of the team’s batboys despite his small size. While father and son love baseball, Larry is soon telling Christie what is wrong with each of the Bison players, and Christie shares with infielder Pete Haines (Lloyd Bridges) how to get out of his hitting slump. Soon Pete is following Christie’s advice, and it doesn’t take long before other players are asking for the pint-size batboy’s guidance, which irks the team’s manager (Richard Egan), who tries to take all of the credit for the team’s turnaround.
“The Kid From Left Field” may not be great filmmaking, but the simplicity of the narrative works, as does the screenplay by Jack Sher. It’s a straightforward film, one that doesn’t force the emotional moments. Director Harmon Jones previously worked with Dailey on the Dizzy Dean baseball biography “The Pride of St. Louis” the year before. Harmon guides Dailey through a terrific, understated performance of a man who clearly loves his son but lacks self-confidence in his own abilities.
Appearing in one of her first films is Anne Bancroft playing Marian Foley, secretary to Fred Whacker and Pete Haines’ girlfriend. It’s amusing that the poster makes you think Dailey and Bancroft are an item when, in fact, I don’t believe they even share a scene together! She’s playing the usual “girl” role, but she is not the typical starlet and therefore Marian is not the typical love interest, which is a very good thing. Although there’s not much to the role, Bancroft gives Marian intelligence; she’s more than just a pretty face, and a decade later moviegoers would know just how talented she was.
But Dailey and Bancroft take a backseat to Chapin. The youngster may not be a great actor (late in the film he faints and it’s an amateurish effort even by kids’ standards), but he’s earnest and likable, which is all that’s needed for him to carry the film. And the supporting cast – including Bridges, Collins and Egan – does fine work.
Sometimes simple is the best approach, and “The Kid From Left Field” wisely follows this path. Even with a fairly predictable plot, the film is surprisingly touching in its own quiet way.