Diamonds on the Silver Screen, a one-hour study of Hollywood's homage to baseball over the past 100 years, will be shown on the American Movie Classics cable channel Thursday at 8 p.m. (with replays Friday at 10 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.). James Earl Jones, who starred in two classic baseball films, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings in 1976 and Field of Dreams in 1989, is host of the program. He spoke recently with several national baseball writers.
Q: What to you makes baseball unique?
A: Baseball is one of the loneliest sports, listening to it alone as a kid on a farm as I did, later watching it on TV. And even on the field there's an alone-ness. Action happens only to individuals. You're up at bat, on the pitching mound, on base, in the outfield. You've got to do it by yourself.
Q: Some fans feel the game is too slow. Do you agree?
A: One thing I noticed when I took my 9-year-old son to a game last year is that baseball is so slow that you can look around. You can look up at the sky and look at people buying hot dogs. You can take your eye off the game any time you want to and still enjoy the game. That's one of the things I like about it.
Q: What did your son think of Field of Dreams?
A: His only question was "What's in the cornfield?" I told him, "Eternity," and he went to the dictionary to look it up.
Q: Do you have a favorite baseball movie?
A: Any baseball movie about Shoeless Joe Jackson or Babe Ruth, I'm going to latch onto it, not because of the game so much as because of those men, those heroic men. Two movies worth noting are The Jackie Robinson Story and, more recently, A League of Their Own. These are about people who didn't have access to that hierarchy of major-league baseball but they were heroes who insinuated themselves into the game. Baseball movies are less about baseball than they are about relationships. In most of them, the game is secondary. It is about the things that happen on the way to the ninth inning.
Q: Was Bingo Long a breakthrough baseball film?
A: I guess it was one of the first movies that wasn't a biopic (biographical picture), although it was about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. It wasn't strictly biographical, but the two heroes were based on those characters.
Q: Why do you think baseball pervades our society so much more than some other sports?
A: We grow up with it whether we want to or not. Many of us remember the names of players we heard because our fathers or other adults spoke of them. In World War II, when soldiers heard, "Halt, who goes there?" they could shout out some arcane baseball statistic or fact to identify themselves as friends. I remember being in a restaurant celebrating someone's birthday back in 1986 the night Mookie Wilson hit that grounder (through Bill Buckner's legs) in the World Series. Somehow, someone found a portable TV and the celebration became about baseball instead of the birthday. You can't escape it.
Q: When you were making Field of Dreams, did you realize the impact it would have?
A: No, but Kevin Costner (the director and star) made sure we were going to expend all our energies telling a good story. We were encouraged by him to keep it simple. We had no idea, yet when I went to see a screening of it and heard the music, I started crying. I had no idea why I was crying. It's a very subjective response. Wives ask their husbands, "Why are you crying?" Anyone who had the pain of misgiving about his early life with parents got it. Anything unresolved that you had about your dad, you got it.