Whose Life Story Is It Anyway?

The life story genre is a staple of baseball films.

Fear Strikes Out depicted the anxieties of Jimmy Piersall.  William Bendix and John Goodman played Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story and The Babe, respectively.  42 spotlighted Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking into the major leagues.  The Pride of the Yankees showcased Lou Gehrig’s personal and professional lives.  It is either a baseball story with a love story as a backdrop, or vice versa.

Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story.  Ronald Reagan, known throughout his film and political career because of his portrayal as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American, added a baseball role to his roster of credits when he portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.

Ballplayers are heroes on the diamond, but they are also, nonetheless, human.  Stratton overcame an injury to his leg caused by a gunshot while hunting.  Robinson endured hatred in the form of racial taunts baked into a public attitude about minorities.  His inner strength pushed him to excellence in spite of horrific opposition in discrimination, bigotry, and human indecency.  Gehrig, of course, symbolized courage in the face of a debilitating disease, proclaiming himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” while his physical ability diminished.

These stories go beyond mere entertainment.  They are inspiring because they are real.  Overcoming a tragedy is a cornerstone of drama.  Writers and producers face a challenge in offering stories with a baseball theme—depicting the tale on film or on television may require sacrificing time for the sport to give more time to the story.  In his review of The Pride of the Yankees for the New York Times, noted film critic Bosley Crowther underscored this point.  “Furthermore, sports fans will protest, with reason on their side, that a picture about a baseball player should have a little more baseball in it,” wrote Crowther.  “Quite true, this one has considerable footage showing stands and diamonds of the American League, with Lou at bat, running bases and playing the initial bag.  What is shown is accurate.  But it is only shown in glimpses or montage sequences, without catching much of the flavor or tingling excitement of a tight baseball game.  Fans like to know what’s the inning, how many are on and how many out.  At least, the score.”

Facts are public domain for a life story.  For example, Lou Gehrig’s estate has no legal recourse for a Gehrig life story indicating that Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games.  But there will need to be agreements regarding Gehrig’s image, Major League Baseball trademarks, photographs, and film footage in a visual representationfilm, television, cartoon, book, comic book, art, merchandising, arcade game, and computer game.  Terms will include limitations on the use and the crediting of the material.

When the producers of a life story seek to incorporate material from a copyrighted work, then a license agreement will be  sought.  Another option is contracting for the right to create a new work based on the original copyrighted work.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 15, 2013.

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