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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
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Mr. Baseball

Mr. Baseball

Following the highly successful run of his television series Magnum, P.I., which aired from 1980 to 1988, Tom Selleck was able to parlay his popularity into several starring roles in major releases over the next few years. Mr. Baseball (1992) was released near the end of that run, and although exhibiting many of the clichés of formula sports films, it has an appealing style and humor and offered Selleck a chance to show his considerable comic range as a washed-up ball player traded to a Japanese team. Forever bucking the management, smoking, drinking, getting into fights and insulting the manners and mores of his newly adopted country, Selleck, as Jack Elliot, eventually gets his act together and instills some winning spirit into the club, with the help of a fellow U.S. transplant played by Dennis Haysbert.

The history of American Major League Baseball players joining Japanese teams dates back to 1962, when pitcher Don Newcombe signed on to a Japanese club, although the first American athlete credited with playing baseball in that country after World War II was Wallace Kaname Yonamine, a Japanese-American who had played professional football but never had a position with a major league team. Yonamine had a Hall of Fame career in Japan.

The sport was introduced into Japan in the 1870s, and by the turn of the 20th century, it was a popular national pastime. The first professional teams were established in the mid-1930s, and the current league structure was established in the early 1950s.

This was an uncharacteristic genre for Australian director Fred Schepisi, better known for such dramas as Plenty (1985) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and the offbeat Steve Martin comedy-romance Roxanne (1987). Realizing that sports films often suffer from staged and unconvincing crowd scenes, Schepisi seamlessly incorporated real stadium footage for authenticity and excitement. Mr. Baseball was shot in the U.S. and Nagoya, Japan, by cinematographer Ian Baker, later winner of an Australian Film Institute Award for Japanese Story (2003).

The crusty head of the Japanese ball club, the Dragons, is played by Ken Takakura, who is known as the Clint Eastwood of Japan. Takakura started his career in the mid-1950s and quickly rose to stardom in the crime dramas that became so popular from that period and continue today. He later achieved recognition outside his own country with roles in such films as Too Late the Hero (1970), The Yakuza (1974), and Black Rain (1989).

There is a scene in Mr. Baseball in which pitchers refuse to throw the ball to Elliot for fear he will break the country's home run record. He challenges them by gripping the bat at the opposite end. This was apparently based on a real-life incident of a few years earlier when Japanese pitchers refused to pitch to American player Randy Bass, then playing for the Hanshin Tigers, because he was on the verge of breaking the single-season home run record. Bass also tauntingly turned his bat around in protest.

Reportedly, the cap Selleck's character wears at the end of Mr. Baseball is the same one he wore throughout the Magnum series.

Director: Fred Schepisi
Producers: Jeffrey Silver, John Kao, Susumu Kondo
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Kevin Wade, Monte Merrick, story by Theo Pelletier and John Junkerman
Cinematography: Ian Baker
Editing: Peter Honess
Production Design: Ted Haworth
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Selleck (Jack Elliot), Ken Takakura (Uchiyama), Dennis Haysbert (Max Dubois), Aya Takanashi (Hiroko Uchiyama), Toshi Shioya (Yoji Nishimura).
C-109m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon



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