(Ron Knecht & Geoffrey Lawrence) – It’s baseball season again, so we offer some thoughts on the great 1984 movie The Natural.
Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a former Nebraska farm boy who’s a fantastically great natural pitcher and hitter destined to be a major league superstar. But as he’s on his way to The Show at age 20, events take weird turns and he never gets his chance.
Until years later. After some unlikely plot twists and strange intrigue, he’s back in the game as a 36-year-old rookie for the totally hapless New York Knights of the National League. There are lots of sub-plots here, but let’s focus on his magical bat and the relationship it fosters between him and the team’s bat boy, Bobby Savoy.
Throughout the story, the bat seems to supply the magic that lets Roy become what he always aspired to be: the best hitter ever. But in the end, the good deed related to the bat that he does for Bobby actually turns out to be Roy forging his own redemption.
Let’s go back to the beginning, the bat’s mystical origins. When Roy was a mid-teenage boy, his yeoman father and baseball mentor collapsed and died under the massive tree in their front yard. That night, as Roy watched from his bedroom window, a spectacular lightning bolt split the tree, exposing the core of its massive trunk.
The next morning, with ax and saw, Roy harvested a fine post from that core. Using various tools skillfully, he turned that piece of wood into a perfect bat and boned its surface beautifully smooth to resist chipping and other damage. Finally, he used his wood-burning tools to etch the name “Wonderboy” onto its barrel along with a lightning bolt.
When the phenom gets to the majors and sets the league on fire, people assume Wonderboy provides the magic. It becomes the unifying symbol for the Knights as Roy leads them from the cellar to contending for the pennant.
Along the way, Bobby is admiring the bat one day. Knowing that Roy made it himself when he was only somewhat older than Bobby is now, he asks Roy to teach him to make a bat. Always having been generous with time, attention and autographs for his legions of young fans, Roy tells Bobby to go to the lumber yard and find a perfect piece of timber and they’ll work on it.
Ultimately, Roy comes to bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in the playoff game for the pennant. After a couple of whiffs, he turns on a pitch and smashes it into the stands – but just barely foul. Returning to the plate, he finds Wonderboy laying there broken.
This climactic moment completes a theme that runs throughout the film: Namely, that Roy is really King Arthur reincarnated and that Wonderboy is his sword Excalibur. The bat was forged from the giant tree under which his father fell at his death, reminding us of Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon plunging his sword Excalibur into the stone as he dies. Seeing the broken bat, we imagine Roy wailing as Lancelot did when he broke Arthur’s sword: “I have broken that which could not be broken!”
Is the magic gone?
Under the night-game lights, Roy tells Bobby, “Go pick me out a winner.” They look at each other knowingly and Bobby runs to the bat rack. He fetches a perfect replica of Wonderboy, labelled the “Savoy Special”. The bat Bobby made with Roy’s help.
Roy contemplates the new bat for a moment and steps back into the battersbox. With his replacement magic weapon, he smashes the next pitch into the highest light above right field, winning the game and pennant – while setting off a chain reaction that ultimately plunges the whole stadium into darkness and defeats the evil people who have plotted against him and the Knights.
More than just the usual story of what goes around comes around, in this tale when the big star generously responds to the young boy’s request, he actually ends up preparing the tool for his own redemption.
The Natural is a fairy tale – the kind we love and that teaches our children great moral lessons.
Ron Knecht is Nevada’s State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Nevada’s Assistant State Controller.