Thursday, February 25, 2016

Someone Really Wants the Cardinals to Lose the Pennant.

In real life, 1934 was a great year for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Gashouse Gang--as the team was nicknamed--had five .300 hitters, while Dizzy Dean was a 30-game winner on a regular basis. They won 98 games in '34. They were matched against the Detroit Tigers (who had 101 regular season wins) in the World Series and won it in seven games.

In the B-movie universe, though, the Cardinals were struggling to take the Pennant. A job made harder, by the way, when someone starts knocking off their best players.

This is the premise of the 1934 film Death on the Diamond (based on a novel by Cortland
Fitzsimmons). It's a fun, fast-paced movie that reminds us the three most American things in the world are baseball, apple pie and... murder.

As the movie opens, the prospects for the Cardinals look good, especially with rookie pitcher Larry Kelly (Robert Young) racking up wins. But there are some gamblers who have a vested influence in seeing the Cardinals lose. A guy who wants to buy out the Cardinals would rather see them lose as well--that would lower the value of the team and force the current owner-manager to sell out.

But, when bribery and minor mayhem don't work, are either the gamblers or the wannabe owner willing to commit murder to make sure the team loses? Because someone is pegging off key players during key games. It's really hard to win a game when you find one of your best players stuffed in a clubhouse locker during the 7th Inning Stretch.

The mystery is a good one, well-written and and full of red herrings. The dialogue is witty, with Robert Young and Marge Evans (as the manager's daughter) playing nicely off one another.

For me, though, it's the supporting the cast that sells the film. Paul Kelly, one of my favorite tough-guy actors, plays a sports reporter with a nose for sniffing out bad guys. Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy respectively play a catcher and an umpire who bicker like an old married couple throughout most of the film--leading to a surprisingly emotional scene when the murders begin.

The real-life Gashouse Gang might have been one of the best teams in baseball history, but by golly, they never had to solve a murder mystery while simultaneously winning the pennant.

Then again, a murder mystery in which Dizzy Dean and the rest of the gang solve the crime would be too cool for words.

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