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Ronald Reagan had been at Warner Bros. for 15 years and had appeared in 40 Warner Bros. productions when he made his last film under contract to the studio, The Winning Team (1952). The film is the biography of baseball great Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had died in 1950. Alexander struggled with illness and alcoholism, and was best known for leading the St. Louis Cardinals to victory in the 1926 World Series over a powerhouse New York Yankees team that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The Winning Team was a fitting swan song for Reagan, who had worked as a radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs before turning to acting in the 1930s, and was an avid sports fan. A few years earlier, Reagan had begged Jack Warner to loan him out to MGM to play pitcher Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story (1949), but Warner told him that "nobody wants to see movies about sports or cripples." After that film, starring James Stewart, became a hit, Warner agreed to make The Winning Team and gave Reagan the lead.
Doris Day, who was top-billed, plays Alexander's wife Aimee, who sticks by him through all his troubles. In fact, the "winning team" of the title refers not to any of the baseball teams for which Alexander played, but to the partnership between Alexander and his wife. This was no coincidence. Aimee Alexander was the film's technical adviser, and her name is featured prominently in the credits. Known at the time primarily for musicals, Day only had one song in The Winning Team, but turned in a strong dramatic performance.
At 41, Reagan was really too old to play Alexander in his prime as a pitcher, but Reagan worked hard, training for three weeks with Jerry Priddy of the Detroit Tigers, Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians, and Arnold "Jigger" Statz, a contemporary of Alexander. They taught him, Reagan recalled, "the difference between throwing from the mound and just throwing." He was believable as a baseball player, and handled the dramatic challenges of the role creditably as well.
But if the baseball looked authentic, The Winning Team suffers from the usual sanitized treatment of biographical films of the era, glossing over some important facts about the pitcher's life. Perhaps the biggest omission is that Alexander's epilepsy is never mentioned by name. In the film, his neurological disorder is diagnosed as double vision. Alexander himself had hidden his illness from the public, preferring to be known as a drunk rather than as someone who suffered from a debilitating illness. Reagan felt that continuing the cover-up in the film added to the stigma. "I've always regretted that we did not use the word, although we tried to get the idea across. The trouble was that a frank naming of the illness would have the ring of truth, whereas ducking it made some critics accuse us of inventing something to whitewash his alcoholism." The Winning Team accurately portrays a washed-up Alexander playing for a comedy baseball team, The House of David, and working in sideshows before his triumphant comeback in the 1926 World Series. But those humiliations actually happened after his career declined and his drinking increased, in the 1930s.
Decades later, baseball historian Bill James called The Winning Team "an awful movie, a Reader's Digest movie, reducing the events of Alexander's life to a clich." But reviewers at the time were more polite. The Time critic wrote, "The Winning Team dramatizes the ups and downs of Alexander's career in conventional and sometimes fanciful screen style." Variety called it "A conventionally-treated screen biography," and praised the performances: "Ronald Reagan tackles the Alexander character, proving passable as a ballplayer and okay as the man. Doris Day, on whose name rests the film's chief marquee draw, contributes a sincere, moving portrayal as Alexander's wife."
For Reagan, The Winning Team would remain one of his favorites. As Tony Thomas writes in The Films of Ronald Reagan (1980), "The film gave Reagan one of his best opportunities as an actor, and one in which he conveyed both his own enthusiasm for the game and the glorious ups and painful downs of Grover Cleveland Alexander. It is an intelligent, skillful, sympathetic performance."
Director: Lewis Seiler
Producer: Bryan Foy
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman, Seelag Lester, Merwin Gerard (based on a story by Lester and Gerard)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Editor: Alan Crosland, Jr.
Costume Design: Leah Rhodes
Art Direction: Douglas Bacon
Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Doris Day (Aimee Alexander), Ronald Reagan (Grover Cleveland Alexander), Frank Lovejoy (Rogers Hornsby), Eve Miller (Margaret), James Millican (Bill Killefer), Rusty Tamblyn (Willie Alexander), Gordon Jones (Glasheen), Hugh Sanders (McCarthy), Frank Ferguson (Sam Arrants), Bob Lemon, Jerry Priddy, Gene Mauch (ball players).
by Margarita Landazuri