One of the most famous moments in baseball history occurred in game one of the 1954 World Series when New York Giants centerfielder Willie Mays made a spectacular catch, followed by an equally extraordinary throw, of a long fly ball off the bat of Cleveland Indians slugger Vic Wertz. Most baseball fans know that play and have seen the image of Mays with his back towards home plate sprinting into deep centerfield at the old Polo Grounds, as it is generally regarded as the greatest catch in World Series history. More intense fans are familiar with a beautifully and compellingly written account of that game by Arnold Hano, a noted sportswriter who was in the centerfield bleachers at the Polo Grounds for that game. Hano's book, A Day in the Bleachers, is one of the ten or twenty baseball books that all fans should read.
Hano, it turns out, is also led a fascinating life in and around baseball as both a writer and a fan. His story has now been told by filmmaker Jon Leonoudakis in his new movie Hano! A Century in the Bleachers. Leonoudakis's film tells the story of Hano's personal life, military service, work outside of baseball and political activism, but what makes this film special is that it is, at its core, an exploration of what it means to be a baseball fan.
Although Hano remains best known for A Day in the Bleachers, he has been an extremely prolific writer whose ouvre includes fiction, political campaign coverage, environmental advocacy and always baseball. In the 1960s, Hano married some of these diverse interests in his work with another star Giants outfielder, Felipe Alou. Alou, the oldest of three brothers to play with the Giants in the early 1960s was one of the first Dominicans to star in the big leagues. Hano and Alou collaborated on a 1963 Sport Magazine piece called "Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights." This was one of the very first articles to recognize the challenges facing Latino big leaguers, as well as their enormous contribution to the baseball beginning in the late 1950s. Alou and another early Latino great, Orlando Cepeda, appear in the film recounting anecdotes about Hano and expressing their gratitude to him for giving them a voice when few in baseball were otherwise listening.
Hano! works because it is a movie by a lifelong baseball fan about another lifelong baseball fan. In the first ten or so minutes of this 53 minute film, Hano recounts a story about how many times he saw the 1926 Giants play at the Polo Ground as a four year old. Hano's joy in describing watching the Giants star first baseman Bill Terry play more than 80 years ago is palpable. A few minutes later we see Hano taking in a high school baseball game near his home in Southern California, recounting stories about seeing Babe Ruth pitch for the Yankees in 1933. At another point in the film Hano describes being at Don Larsen's World Series perfect game because he won a limerick contest and was given a ticket to the game as a prize. This is a man who loves baseball, and for whom that love has been an enriching and sustaining force over the course of a very long and fascinating life.
Leonoudakis is the right person to tell this story because he shares Hano's passion for the game. This is now his third film that focuses on the human side of baseball. Leonoudakis's contribution to baseball is that he tells stories about things like a quirky museum that has an irreverent approach to the game's history-the subject of his first baseball film, a personal account of attending the earthquake World Series game in 1989-his second baseball film, or indeed a biography of a 93 year old baseball fan who in 1954 wrote about the ultimate bleacher experience. These are the kinds of stories that can only be told from the perspective of somebody, like Leonoudakis, who loves baseball and spends more time thinking about it than is probably recommended by most spouses and mental health professionals.
The film ends with a now legally blind 93 year old Hano celebrating his birthday, how else, by reminiscing about the great New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell and throwing a few screwballs, his and Hubbell's favorite pitch, to Leonoudakis. Leonoudakis crouches like a catcher, with his fielder's glove on his right hand, as both he and Hano, like the great Carl Hubbell are lefties, to receive the pitches. As the ball travels across about 30 feet, as far as Hano can throw now, it also travels across almost all of baseball history. The history contained in the arc of Hano's screwball is that of the personal stories, favorite players, beloved teams and memories of days in the bleachers that exists inside of all real baseball fans, even those of us who, unlike Hano, never saw the Babe, Don Larsen or Willie Mays.