Baseball film explores bigger shifts in American life
September 15, 2005
David Ledingham is no baseball fan. In fact, given the state of the baseball industry, with mercenary players and carpetbagger owners, he wonders how anyone can still be a fan of America’s one-time pastime.
“Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley,” Ledingham’s debut as a film director, is very much about baseball. Set in a 1957 Brooklyn bar adorned with Dodgers memorabilia, the 20-minute short is filled with chatter about Dodger legends Duke Snider and Gil Hodges; Ebbets Field, the glorified, defunct Brooklyn landmark; and references to 1955, the year the Dodgers – affectionately known as the Brooklyn Bums – finally won the World Series. The most devout fans may even recognize the aged face of Ralph Branca, the pitcher who gave up a crushing, season-ending home run to the Giants’ Bobby Thompson in 1951, in his cameo as a bar patron.But non-fans will have no difficulty seeing beyond the baseball references and to the more universal issues. The theme Ledingham, and writer R.M. Cohen, wanted to explore is not how young pitcher Johnny Podres came out of nowhere to pitch the ’51 Dodgers to their first Series victory, over the cross-town rival Yankees, but loyalty. And what better way to explore loyalty, and the demise thereof in America over the last five decades, than through baseball.The film has five young men in their Brooklyn neighborhood bar, celebrating the Dodgers victory they’d just seen. Their talk touches on subjects related to loyalty: Mikey’s decision to leave the priesthood, the sacrifices they and their families have made on behalf of their country. Into the bar walks a Los Angeles reporter, seeking reaction to the rumor that Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley is moving the team to Los Angeles. The boys in the bar are incredulous, but the rumor was true: In 1958, O’Malley uprooted the Dodgers, making him a symbol of heartless greed.There’s a story, mentioned in the movie, about sportswriters Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield. The two concocted separate lists of the 10 worst human beings of the 20th century, and were surprised to find that their top three were identical: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Walter O’Malley.
“That hit me,” said Ledingham, an Aspen product and current resident whose résumé as an actor and director includes numerous appearances with Aspen Theatre in the Park, and three years playing Suede Pruitt on the soap opera “One Life to Live.””I’m not a baseball fan. But I love that it’s so huge for people, especially on the East Coast. Baseball is the soul. As Vinny says in the film: ‘When they moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, they took the heart out of Brooklyn. Conversation stopped.'”And I’ve always thought it’s a s–tty thing to do to your fans, to move the team, move free agents around. I thought, what was it like before all that, before this shift took place?”
Ledingham is talking about the shift in baseball from a time, before the 1970s, when fans could count on rooting for the same players decade after decade, and team allegiances ran through a family’s history. But he is also talking about a parallel change in America at large. Unlike the young men of “Hitler, Stalin & Walter O’Malley,” who fervently believe in America, Ledingham sees a greater ambivalence about our country now.”Vinny says, ‘My uncles taught me that trust, loyalty, honor and integrity were the most important values in life. Nowadays, everybody talks about values. The problem is, it’s all talk,'” quoted Ledingham. “There was a period there where we all seemed united. And look at the country now.””Hitler, Stalin & Walter O’Malley” will have a free showing Tuesday, Sept. 20, at the Aspen District Theatre. The film premiered at Cyclone Stadium, a Brooklyn minor-league park, and will be screened Oct. 2 at the Brooklyn Public Library and, Ledingham hopes, in Cooperstown, N.Y. – home of the Baseball Hall of Fame – in late October. Ledingham is also working on creating a TV pilot, “Bases Loaded,” based on the film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org