Monty Stratton, Jimmy Stewart, and Hollywood

When The Stratton Story premiered in 1949, movie audiences without even a tangential interest in baseball became engrossed in the story of a champion whose determination serves as a model of courage.  Monty Stratton played a key role on the pitching staff of the Chicago White Sox during his brief major league career in the 1930s, but win-loss records cannot measure his contribution to baseball.  After a hunting accident led to a leg amputation, Stratton emerged from physical, emotional, and mental horrors; it was a stunning comeback.

On November 27, 1938, Stratton injured himself while hunting for rabbits on his mother’s farm, close to Greenville, Texas.  Associated Press reported that Stratton’s pistol discharged accidentally, sending a bullet into his right leg.  It severed an artery, necessitating the amputation.  Consequently, the White Sox organization presented an opportunity for lifetime employment.  Team President J. Louis Comiskey said, “Monty as a job with us as long as he wants it.  He was a fine pitcher and is a finer man.  Baseball can’t afford to lose him.”  A benefit Cubs-White Sox game raised money for the Stratton family.

Already familiar with teary subject matter in a baseball setting from directing the Lou Gehrig biopic Pride of the Yankees, Sam Wood helmed The Stratton Story.  Starring Jimmy Stewart in the title role and June Allyson as Stratton’s wife, Ethel, the movie received acclaim for its portrayal of Monty Stratton’s seemingly impossible rebound to the baseball diamond after the accident deflates his spirit, dimming a once shining career to darkness.  Stratton’s promise evidences early in the movie, when baseball scout Barney Wile tells Stratton’s mother, “He can transform a baseball into a streak of gray lightning and curve it in like it was weaving through traffic.”  Frank Morgan played Wile and Agnes Moorehead played Mrs. Stratton.

AP’s April 15, 1939 story “Stratton, Coach, Is Hopeful of Pitching Again” cited the hurler’s insistence on returning to baseball.  “It will take time, because I’ve got to learn pitching from the mound all over again,” declared Stratton, who reached his goal in 1946 with an 18-8 record with the Sherman Twins.  He played in the minor leagues sporadically between 1947 and 1950, never in more than four games each season.  Appropriately, his last team was the Greenville Majors.

The Stratton Story hit movie theaters during Monty Stratton’s comeback, making it current in addition to poignant.  With the All-American Stewart and Allyson in the starring roles, the movie generated mainstream appeal for filmgoers neither knowledgeable about nor interested in the National Pastime.  It is, after all, a story based on overcoming adversity, a universal plight.  Therefore, it is a familiar story, even if baseball specifics are mysterious to the audience.

Los Angeles Times sports columnist Braves Dyer praised, “Jimmy Stewart, as always, does a superb job and actually looks and acts like a baseball player, which he isn’t.”  In the New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes’s review of Stewart paralleled Dyer’s.  “Thanks to his engaging and artful performance, a sentimental and inspirational screen biography has more than a little power,” wrote Barnes.

In the Washington Post, movie critic Richard L. Coe addressed the story’s emotional impact:  “Jimmy Stewart plays him with his adroitly winning style, and you’ll admire the way both writers and Director Sam Wood have managed the sentiment without wallowing in it.”  Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper similarly lauded the direction:  “Sam Wood steered it away from the saccharine morass into which it could have fallen.”

Legendary sports writer Red Smith opined, “As viewed by a sentimentalist who can still weep over practically any page of ‘Little Women,’ it is a solid tear-jerker effectively performed by James Stewart and June Allyson, which commits no outrages when it deals with technical baseball.”  Barnes agreed regarding the representation of baseball details.  “Since the script by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper has some good pungent talk of the kind that might be expected from big leaguers, and Sam Wood’s direction is resourceful, the work should appeal to payment as well as ardent baseball fans,” wrote Barnes.

Stratton approved of Stewart’s portrayal.  In a “Special to the Herald Tribune,” Stratton recounted, “He was our first choice—my wife’s and mine—when we first heard about the picture.  But we really didn’t expect Hollywood to see it the same as us.”

To research Stratton’s amazing tale, Douglas Morrow, co-writer of the screenplay, ventured to Greenville, Texas.  In a scene reflecting a real-life incident, Stratton practices pitching with Ethel.  “Slowly, imperceptibly, he was developing a pitching technique,” wrote Morrow in “Standing On Top Of The World,” an article in the June 12, 1949 edition of the Los Angeles Times.  “So gradual was it that neither Monty nor Ethel realized that he had regained much of his former speed.  That is, not until he whipped a fast ball through one day that boomed into Ethel’s mitt and bowled her back on her seat.  With swollen hands and a bruised rear end.  Ethel beat a strategic retreat and Monty began pitching against the barn wall with his four-year-old son, Monty Jr., and his dog, Happy, retrieving the balls.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 2, 2015.

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