Commentary

The World Series: A part of us all

It shows up in some unexpected places across the landscape of American culture.

Updated: October 23, 2012, 10:31 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Hollywood SeriesCAMORRIS.comSome of our favorite fictional and film characters are familiar with the Fall Classic.

You think the modern World Series TV schedule causes you grief because the games either start too early (West Coast fans) or end too late (East Coast fans)? It wasn't any better in the old days, when the games were played in the afternoon, as Ken Kesey made clear in his acclaimed 1962 novel about life in a mental hospital, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

In the novel, soulless Nurse Ratched refuses to change the ward's TV time to accommodate the patients who want to watch the Series, much to the exasperation of Randle Patrick McMurphy. He complains that even when he was in prison, they let the inmates watch the games: "They'd have had a riot on their hands if they hadn't."

After Nurse Ratched rigs a vote against the World Series, McMurphy and the patients protest by sitting down in front of the TV anyway and pretending to watch the game. In the Oscar-winning movie version, Jack Nicholson goes a step further by delivering an imaginary play-by-play.

"Koufax kicks. He delivers. It's up the middle, it's a base hit. Richardson's rounding first! He's going for second! The ball's in to deep right center! Davidson, over in the corner, cuts the ball off! Here comes the throw. Richardson's around the dirt! He slides, he's in there. He's safe! It's a double! He's in there, Martini! Look at Richardson, he's on second base. Koufax is in big f---ing trouble! Big trouble, baby!"

That is probably not quite the way Vin Scully would have described it, but Nicholson was on a roll.

[+] EnlargeCarlton Fisk
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"All right, here's Tresh. He's the next batter! Tresh looks in. Koufax … Koufax gets the sign from Roseboro! He kicks once, he pumps … It's a strike! Koufax's curve ball is snapping off like a f---ing firecracker! Here he comes with the next pitch. Tresh swings! It's a long fly ball to deep left center! It's going! It's gone! Somebody give me a f---ing wiener before I die! It's the great Mickey Mantle, now! Here comes the pitch! Mantle swings! It's a f---ing home run!"

A double and two home runs off Koufax? Evidently, McMurphy is a Yankees fan. It's almost enough to make you side with Nurse Ratched.

That scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is just one of many World Series references in popular culture. Naturally, the World Series plays a part in any number of baseball books and movies, but it also frequently finds its way into literature, cinema and art that isn't necessarily about the game.

And why not? The World Series is as much a part of our cultural fabric as cowboys, car chases, misunderstood teens, cops sharing the beat, unrequited love, forensic investigators, vampires or any other popular theme in American fiction.

Life can be complicated; but, as Nicholson tries to demonstrate in "Cuckoo's Nest," the World Series is therapeutic. Consider "Good Will Hunting,'' when counselor Sean (Robin Williams) tells Will (Matt Damon) how he met his wife on the night of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

"My friends and I had slept on the sidewalk all night to get tickets," Sean says. "I was sitting in a bar, waiting for the game to start, and in walks this girl. Oh, it was an amazing game, though. You know, bottom of the eighth, Carbo ties it up at 6-6. It went to 12. Bottom of the 12th, in stepped Carlton Fisk. Old Pudge."

The two replay Fisk's home run in their heads, excitedly talking about how the Boston catcher had to push his way past fans rushing the field. When Will asks whether Sean rushed the field, too, the counselor tells him, no, he wasn't there. He had given up his ticket so he could meet the girl who would become his wife. "I slid my ticket across the table and said, 'Sorry guys, I gotta see about a girl.'"

Will is incredulous. How could a Boston fan give up a ticket to the most famous game in Red Sox history? Sean dramatically explains that meeting his wife was far more important than a baseball game.

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"That's why I'm not talking right now about some girl I saw at a bar 20 years ago and how I always regretted not going over and talking to her," he says. "I don't regret the 18 years I was married to Nancy. I don't regret the six years I had to give up counseling when she got sick. And I don't regret the last years when she got really sick. And I sure as hell don't regret missing the damn game."

"Wow"' Will says, now understanding. After a pause, he adds. "Would have been nice to catch the game, though."

"I didn't know Pudge was going to hit a home run."

Damon is from Boston and a Red Sox fan, so it isn't surprising that he references a World Series loss in another of his movies. In "Rounders," when he walks back into the poker den where he lost his entire bankroll to play another game against Teddy KGB, he thinks, "I feel like Buckner walking back into Shea."

The Red Sox and the World Series also play a role in J.J. Abrams' hit TV series, "Lost,'' which tells the multilayered story of survivors after the September 2004 crash landing of Oceanic Flight 815 on a South Pacific island. The lead character, Jack Shephard, suffers all manner of pain, wounds and humiliations, but none worse than when creepily menacing Ben taunts him by showing a video of the Red Sox 2004 world championship, which Jack missed because he was stranded on the island.

Abrams must be a baseball fan. Just this summer, a trailer for his new post-apocalyptic TV show, "Revolution," showed a couple of survivors walking past Wrigley Field in the year 2027. The ballpark is completely overrun with vegetation, but its famous red marquee is still visible and proudly displays these words: "2012 World Series Champions." The Cubs reportedly objected to the World Series reference and made the producers remove it from the marquee in later versions.

Perhaps, suggested a friend who is a Cubs fan, the team is just a stickler for detail and wanted the marquee to read: "2014-18 World Champions."

Well, hope springs eternal for Cubs fans. Although for now, they must turn to fiction to see their dreams come true.

James Belushi breaks out of prison to go see the Cubs play in the World Series in the 1990 movie "Taking Care of Business." In "Public Enemies," Johnny Depp plays a baseball-crazed John Dillinger who asks FBI agents about the score while a Cubs-Yankees World Series game plays in the background (an impossibility since Dillinger was killed in July 1934, three months before New York and Chicago met in the World Series).

"Kolchak The Night Stalker" was a short-lived cult classic TV series that aired on ABC from 1974 to '75. Each week, wire service reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) ran across vampires, ghosts and other assorted monsters roaming Chicago. His most outrageous story by far, however, was the episode titled "They Have Been, They Will Be, They Are …" in which a stranded alien life force sucks the bone marrow from its victims while it tries to repair its spacecraft and return home. A being from another galaxy on a killing spree in Chicago? Maybe you could swallow that tale, but the episode's backstory was totally unbelievable.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Depp as John Dillinger
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As Kolchak drives through Chicago, he turns on the radio and listens to this broadcast from Dick Enberg: "This is the day Chicago fans have been waiting for 29 long years," Enberg says. "After a mistakefree season, the Chicago Cubs have crawled their way to the top of the National League, they've won the playoffs and now the first game of the World Series."

Remember, this was 1974. But even then, the Cubs and Red Sox playing in a World Series was a ludicrous concept.

In the 1989 movie sequel "Back to the Future 2," Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to the year 2015, where they see a hologram news report that the Cubs have just swept the World Series from Miami. That was quite the prediction given that there was no team in Miami when the movie was made … although not as outrageous a prediction as the Cubs winning four consecutive games at any time.

Chicago's other team has inspired plenty of cultural references, as well. Not only does the 1919 Chicago White Sox fix provide a basis for two baseball movies ("Eight Men Out" and "Field of Dreams") but it finds its way into one of American literature's finest novels and cinema's finest movies.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby," Gatsby points out a man named Meyer Wolfsheim to Nick Carraway. "Who is he anyhow?" Nick asks. An actor? A dentist?

"'Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he's a gambler.' Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: 'He's the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919.'

"The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World's Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people -- with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe."

Meyer Wolfsheim is a fictional version of the name of the actual gambler who fixed the series, as fans of "The Godfather Part II" know. In that movie, Michael Corleone visits Hyman Roth, who is watching a college football game. "I enjoy watching football in the afternoon, one of the things I enjoy about this country; baseball, too," Roth tells Michael. "I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919."

Unfortunately, there is no scene of Shoeless Joe waking up with a horse's head in his bed.

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As we see so often in popular culture -- "Rocky," "Rudy," "Forrest Gump" -- America celebrates the underdog, the lovable loser who finally wins in the end. In the movie "Oh, God," God, played by George Burns, tells John Denver he no longer performs miracles.

"They're too flashy," God says. "The last miracle I performed was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you'd have to go back to the Red Sea."

Billy Joel makes a very brief reference to the Brooklyn Dodgers' finally winning their only World Series in 1955 in this verse from his 1989 hit, "We Didn't Start the Fire": "Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn's got a winning team.''

Alas, the underdog does not always win, as Charlie Brown knows all too well.

A huge Giants fan, legendary cartoonist Charles Schulz made two references in "Peanuts" to the frustrating ending of the 1962 World Series when Willie McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson with the potential tying run on third and the winning run on second in a 1-0 Game 7 loss.

Two months later, Charlie Brown and Linus sit silently for three panels before Charlie Brown shouts, "Why couldn't McCovey hit the ball just three feet higher?" A month later, another strip showed the two sitting silent for another three panels before Charlie Brown shouts, "Or why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball even two feet higher?"

As Nurse Ratched would have told Charlie Brown, sometimes it would be better not to see the World Series. Sometimes, it's just best to imagine it instead.

A note: This story isn't meant to be a definitive account of World Series references in pop culture. Got others? Let's hear them in the conversation page below. Just bear in mind, the book, movie, TV show, play, song, etc., cannot be about baseball specifically; it just needs to include a World Series reference.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com