“As a catcher he was a million dollars worth of promise worth two cents on delivery.”
So New York Mammoths star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) describes his catcher and roommate Bruce Pearson (Robert DeNiro). As the movie opens, Henry and Bruce are leaving the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, where they just learned that Bruce is dying of Hodgkin’s disease. Although they had been rooming with each other for a while, Henry wasn’t particularly fond of Bruce, whose nasty habits—including chewing giant wads of tobacco and pissing in the sink—often got on his nerves. But when he learns that Bruce is dying, he befriends him, which is something few others ever had.
Bruce was a dimwitted fellow (“he was almost too dumb to play a joke on”) who often was the subject of ragging from his teammates. When Henry learns that the ball club has just signed a new hot shot catcher named Piney Woods (Tom Ligon), he works a clause into his contract that binds him to Bruce: if Bruce is traded, so is Henry, if Bruce is cut, so is Henry, etc. This new clause is a personal bug to team manager Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia) who goes to epic lengths to discover the reasons behind it.
So as not to cause an overdose of sympathy or increased distance from the rest of the team, Henry tries to keep Bruce’s disease a secret, but eventually word gets out and the team rallies around Bruce and makes a run for the pennant. Even the “doom-ded” Pearson—who finally is getting some playing time—starts showing some of that millions of dollars of promise.
Bang the Drum Slowly came very early in the well documented career of Robert DeNiro. It was released in 1973, the same year DeNiro would explode onto the screen in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and just one year before he would win his first Oscar as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.
Early in his career or not, DeNiro’s now famous work ethics were already there. To prepare for his role, he read a book about baseball written by the production’s technical advisor Del Bethel, and spent hours watching games and highlights. He also worked out with trainers, encouraging them to throw at him as hard as they could while he worked out in full catcher’s gear. The hard work definitely appears on screen, as DeNiro is thoroughly convincing as a catcher—that is, in the few scenes we actually get to see him behind the plate. If there is a bad thing to say about his ball playing scenes (which were filmed at Yankee and Chea stadiums), it is that there are too few of them. Much of the film takes place in hotels and locker rooms, and Bruce spends a lot of the film on the bench. There is, however, an excellent extended sequence on the ball field late in the film as we see the effects of his illness starting to take effect.
Also impressive on the field is Michael Moriarty. Moriarty looks every bit as impressive as a pitcher as Dennis Quaid did in The Rookie or Kevin Costner in For Love of the Game. Although DeNiro is definitely the bigger star looking back, it was Moriarty who had the star role in Bang the Drum Slowly. His character, pitcher Henry Wiggen, was the focus character for a set of four novels by Mark Harris, the first being The Southpaw, followed by Bang the Drum Slowly, A Ticket for Seamstitch and finally It Looked Like Forever in 1979. To the best of my knowledge, no films were ever made out of the other books, probably because the disease plot of Bang the Drum appealed to audiences of the 70s who had just seen the similar Brian’s Song on television.
The movie had some great scenes, usually involving Vincent Gardenia as the team’s colorful manager. His determination in discovering the secret behind Henry’s devotion to Bruce is hilarious, as is his speech comparing winning to capturing a fly in your hands (“if all the fingers don’t work together . . .”).
The movie looks a little dated today, particularly the stock footage used in many of the ball playing sequences. Fine performances, some good humor and a tragic, but touching ending, however, makes this baseball and disease drama worth watching. I give it a B.