While there’s no box score to prove it, I’m pretty sure that the first time I ever cried in a movie theater was during a mid-‘70s screening of "Bang the Drum Slowly."
Nearly 42 years after its initial release, John D. Hancock’s 1973 film is still a beautiful bummer, worthy of inclusion on any list of great baseball flicks. Adapted from Mark Harris’ 1956 novel of the same name, about a country bumpkin ballplayer dying from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, "Bang the Drum Slowly" neatly sidesteps the cheap sentimentality and saccharine clichés that have marred so many films about the national pastime.
The emotional power of this low-key drama derives from its portrayal of players as real people. The film shows us the sheer boredom of life on the road, the grind of the long season and the tension it creates between teammates, and the soul-crushing frustration of do-it-yourself contract negotiation during the pre-free agency era. Throw in a veteran catcher (played by Robert De Niro) whose skills are being steadily eroded by a terminal illness that he desperately wants to keep hidden from his teammates and … well, I think I have some dust in my eye.
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Which is not to say the film is unremittingly bleak, by any stretch. There are a number of memorably humorous scenes throughout "Bang the Drum Slowly," including the ones where New York Mammoths coach Joe Jaros and ace pitcher Henry Wiggen (played by Michael Moriarty) engage suckers in a card game called “tegwar” — which stands for “The Exciting Game Without Any Rules” — and there are several hilariously snappy exchanges between Wiggen and the Mammoths’ irascible manager, Dutch Schnell, played by Vincent Gardenia.
Best of all is the Singing Mammoths segment, wherein six of the team’s players perform a song-and-dance number on a TV show. The performance includes some silly soft-shoe maneuvers from De Niro’s character Bruce Pearson, whose teammates — unbeknown to him — are well aware that he’s dying and have decided to include him in the fun despite his apparent lack of singing or dancing talent.
That song, “Please Excuse My Tears” (often referred to as “Look Before You Weep”) was written by Orville Stoeber, an immensely talented singer, songwriter and composer, whose lovely 1971 album "Songs" is one of the era’s hidden musical gems. Stoeber actually appears in the scene, finger-picking an acoustic guitar and doing his best not to crack up while watching his “teammates” stumble through their rudimentary choreography. Like the film itself, the story of how Stoeber came to be involved in "Bang the Drum Slowly" is redolent of a far less glitzy period of Hollywood history than our current one.
“I had worked with John Hancock on two of his previous films, scoring the Oscar-winning short "Sticky My Fingers… Fleet My Feet and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death," a low-budget horror film,” says Stoeber, who these days is based in Venice, Calif., and is still active as a songwriter, artist and teacher.
“In 1972, I was living on 100th Street on the west side of Manhattan, crashing among various hippies and dope dealers; you could still afford to live in brownstone apartments then. I had recently been signed to a three-record deal with Uni/MCA; (his album was) an artistic hit but otherwise a failure, and who cares about artistic hits? Anyway, I borrowed a friend’s Volkswagen and drove to Nebraska looking for my first wife, who had left after the record debacle. After giving up on any possibility of reconciliation with my wife and being thrown out of my father’s house in Missouri, I made my way to my sister Cathy’s in Chicago. …
“So, I’m sitting in my sister’s house, drinking all my brother-in-law’s beer, when somehow Hancock tracks me down and says he needs a song for a movie about some guy who is dying. I picked up my guitar, walked into my sister’s living room and wrote ‘Please Excuse My Tears’ in five minutes. John called again; he asked if I could fly into New York and come to Yankee Stadium where they were filming and sing the song, which he had not heard.”
Shortly thereafter, Stoeber found himself enjoying the surreal experience of playing his newly written song to Hancock and "Bang the Drum Slowly’s" cast and crew at The House That Ruth Built. “How do you end up in Yankee Stadium,” he says with a laugh, “when you were piss-drunk in your sister’s garage the week before?”
Hancock thought the song, which Stoeber says “caught the tragic tone from my heart being broken by my first wife,” would be perfect for the Singing Mammoths sequence. In Harris’ book, the team’s singing group is a vocal quartet with a flair for barbershop classics like “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,” but the director wanted something closer to the musical numbers that pro athletes often performed on the TV variety shows of the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Tom Seaver’s Lettermen-assisted 1969 appearance on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall.
“It was done in classic wing-it style,” says Stoeber of the scene, which was filmed at Shea Stadium, on the set of the Mets’ postgame show"Kiner’s Korner." “I taught the song to the actors, they put me in makeup, and we filmed the scene. I would not let them cut my hair.”
Stoeber says Hancock initially wanted him to play the role of Piney Woods, the Mammoths’ guitar-slinging young catcher, who bums everyone out during a rain delay with a mournful rendition of “Streets of Laredo,” but that he was “too f—-ed up” to handle the role (which was eventually given to actor Tom Ligon).
But Stoeber did provide the poignant musical bed to the film’s most heartbreaking moment: the slow-motion sequence in which Pearson loses track of an easy pop-up during the Mammoths’ pennant-winning game. Nowadays, such a sequence would likely be set to a bombastic power ballad or obtrusively weepy Sarah McLachlan-type song; but here, Stoeber’s spare picking and wordless vocals delicately underscore the tragedy of the moment instead of hitting you over the head with it. “It is nice to work and have someone believe that you can accomplish something creative for them,” says Stoeber.
On a lighter note, Stoeber says that working with De Niro definitely left an impression upon him, though perhaps not in the way one might expect. While the actor’s next two roles, in 1973’s "Mean Streets" and 1974’s "The Godfather Part II," would turn him into a huge star, "Bang the Drum Slowly’s" Bruce Pearson was by far the biggest role he’d played up to that point, so Stoeber was completely unaware of being in the presence of greatness when the two men crossed paths on the set. “Being the method actor that he is, De Niro never dropped out of character,” Stoeber recalls. “I thought he was just some cracker they got to play the dumb-ass catcher.”