The Stratton Story

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The Stratton Story

The third in a series of a lifelong baseball fan finally watching some movie classics for the first time while social distancing. For the previous installments, see:

Many baseball fans are familiar with the stories of Jim Abbott and Pete Gray, players with disabilities who made it to the big leagues.  The one-handed Abbott famously threw a no-hitter and put forward a respectable career.  Yet, Monty Stratton’s literally crippling injury and subsequent comeback demand a revisit.  In this time of pandemic and looming economic downturn, a Depression Era true story has certain lessons all the important for us today.

The Plot – Spoiler Alert!

The Stratton Story portrays the rise, fall, and rebirth of Monty Stratton. The plot is fairly straightforward. Farmhand Stratton (James Stewart) is an exceptional semipro pitcher in Nowheresville, Texas. In somewhat ham-handed but effective plot devices, Stratton is seen taking long walks to and from the ballfield, runs to catch departing trains at the last minute, and, later in the film, loves dancing. A charming, down-on-his-luck old baseball man by the name of Barney Wile (the Wizard himself, Frank Morgan) plucks Stratton out of obscurity.

Wile persuades the young Texan to leave the farm and tryout with the White Sox at their spring training facility.  Through montage and explanation to his love interest, Edith (June Allyson), the audience understands that Stratton is a legitimate pitching prospect.  He faces a nearly immediate demotion after a poor showing against Bill Dickey (Arkansan alert!) and the Yankees.  After a few years of jumping between the parent club and the minors, “Gander” succeeds.  He makes the All-Star team and earns MVP votes behind impressive pitching performances and not-too-shabby hitting.

Stratton is earnest with a naturally cheerful disposition. He is always looking on the bright side and ready to tackle the world while maintaining a certain humility. These very personality characteristics set him up to handle the tragedy that befalls him. While hunting during the offseason, Stratton accidentally shoots himself in the leg.

The Tragedy

While unconscious, Edith wavers between signing off on the doctor’s recommendation to amputate or letting Stratton die. Allyson does a fine job portraying the gravity of the moment. Edith is depicted with agency in this movie. She makes the fateful decision to amputate. She chooses Monty for her husband and later chooses to stay with him after the accident. Her struggle is her own and not depicted merely as an extension of Stratton’s.

As anyone would, Stratton encounters severe difficulties with the sharp change in quality of life. In ways characteristic of this era, the film chooses not to linger too long on Stratton’s depression. This directorial decision is the right one. Having worked for years advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, this author knows that the most honest takes focus on resiliency and avoid pity. The only shortcoming in this movie might be the lack of recognition of institutional barriers to Stratton’s success. Inaccessible buildings and employment discrimination were rampant in those days and remain problems today.

Stratton relatively quickly puts aside his orneriness and commits himself to raising his young son and doing what he can on the farm. He even gathers the courage to pitch again. With excellent attention to detail, he pitches and bats (no designated hitter in those days) in a minor league All-Star game. Without giving away this exciting finale, it is safe to say that his performance is inspiring and welcome in these difficult times. In real life, Stratton spent several years in the minors playing with an artificial leg.

Three Out of Four Baseballs!

With solid (but not exactly praiseworthy) acting, a real-life story told relatively well, and lessons applicable to us all, The Stratton Story receives three out of four baseballs.

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