This version stars Michael Moriarty and a then little known Robert De Niro as baseball teammates. De Niro's performance in this film and in Mean Streets, released two months later, brought him widespread acclaim.
Henry Wiggen (Moriarty) is a star pitcher for the New York Mammoths, a fictitious Major League Baseball team. He is a valuable player to his manager Dutch but is in a dispute with the team's ownership, holding out for a new contract and more money. Henry has a sideline as an insurance salesman working for the Arcturus Corporation, with ballplayers as his clients. Henry's friend Bruce Pearson (De Niro), the team's catcher, is a player of limited skill and intellect. Teammates call Henry by the nickname "Author" because the brainy pitcher once wrote a book, although Bruce misunderstands and, with his thick Southern drawl, often calls him "Arthur" instead.
Henry and Bruce leave the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where Bruce has been told he is terminally ill with Hodgkin's disease. They drive to Bruce's hometown in Georgia, because Bruce always wanted his only friend to see it. On their first night there, Bruce burns his old baseball memorabilia to acknowledge the inevitable end of his life.
The team knows nothing about Bruce's fate. At spring training, Dutch is preparing to release Bruce in favor of a hot young prospect, country boy Piney Woods. So management is amazed and confused when Henry ends his holdout and agrees to a new contract on one condition: that he and Bruce come as a package. If one is on the team, so is the other. If one is traded or sent down to the minor leagues, the other goes, too.
Dutch tries everything to make Henry reveal why he insists that Bruce catch for him. In the meantime, the Mammoths are losing games and have a low morale, with teammates quarreling among themselves. Knowing that he is dying, Bruce wants Henry to change the beneficiary on his life insurance policy from his parents to his girlfriend Katie. Henry knows she is interested only in Bruce's money and is taking advantage of his circumstances, so Henry only pretends to change it.
One day when a player teases Bruce, a frustrated Henry blurts out the fact that Bruce is dying. He asks that it remain confidential, but quickly teammates and Dutch all learn the news. They begin to treat Bruce differently and each other as well, and the team's play and mood both improve. Near the end of the season, Bruce becomes too ill to continue playing. The team eventually wins the World Series, but Bruce returns home to see his parents. After the season is over, he dies, and Henry vows, "From here on in, I rag nobody."Michael Moriarty as Henry Wiggen
Robert De Niro as Bruce Pearson
Vincent Gardenia as Dutch Schnell
Phil Foster as Joe
Heather MacRae as Holly
Ann Wedgeworth as Katie
Tom Ligon as Piney Woods
Danny Aiello as Horse
Selma Diamond as Tootsie
Barbara Babcock as Team Owner
Patrick McVey as Bruce's Father
The non-Florida baseball sequences were filmed at New York City's Yankee and Shea Stadiums during late May and June 1972, when the Yankees and Mets were on extended roadtrips. The opening scenes of the movie show the stars running on the warning track at Yankee Stadium; in addition, the visitors' clubhouse, the walkway from the Yankees' dugout, and the front of the right-field bullpen also were used in the "away-game" sequences. The few scenes of Yankee Stadium – particularly the wide pan at the end of the rain delay sequence – are some of the best clips of the stadium before the 1973–1976 renovation. Dugout shots of "home" games were shot at Yankee Stadium.
The "home" game sequences were filmed in Shea Stadium. The filmmakers also used the walkway that connected the Mets clubhouse, dugout, and the TV studio that was the home of Kiner's Korner post-game show for the singing scene. The Opening Day/band clips came from Major League Baseball (MLB); they were recorded before the fourth game of the 1969 World Series at Shea. Wide crowd shots are from a regular season game, and MLB films also provided clips of Tony Pérez (from the 1970 World Series) and Brooks Robinson hitting.
Spring-training baseball scenes were shot at the Philadelphia Phillies' complex in Clearwater, Florida, which is still in use. Rain-delay footage of a grounds crew covering the infield with a tarp was from the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington's RFK Stadium (the game was postponed by rain and played the next day). In the audio over this clip was the voice of long-time Yankees' public-address announcer Bob Sheppard. Baseball-game action clips starting at 01:21 are from MLB films; they are from Yankees and Mets games in 1970 and 1971 – Danny Cater (10), shortstop Gene Michael (17), hitter Jerry Kenney, catcher Thurman Munson (15), and runner Bobby Murcer (1) can be seen.
The uniforms worn by the Mammoths baseball team are Yankees uniforms from 1971, but the "NY" on the home pinstriped shirts was changed. Other teams providing uniforms were the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox.
The film and book include a fictional card game known as tegwar, an acronym for "the exciting game without any rules". It is a game designed to separate a sucker from their cash. Henry Wiggen plays this game along with other ballplayers and coaches to sucker passers-by in the lobby of the team hotel. It is generally believed that Bruce Pearson is too dumb to be able to sucker people, so he is initially excluded; however, Henry begins to include Bruce in the tegwar games as the story progresses.
This film is reportedly Robert De Niro's colleague Al Pacino's favorite film. In reviews, Wiggen is often referred to as being modeled after Tom Seaver, though not in the book, which was written when Seaver was 12.
One piece of artistic license: Moriarity's Wiggen is a right-handed pitcher, while Wiggen in Harris's novels is explicitly a left-handed pitcher; in fact, the Harris book that featured Wiggen and that preceded Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) was titled The Southpaw (1953).
For his portrayal of Dutch Schnell, Vincent Gardenia received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination. Timeout magazine named it 12th best baseball movie of all time.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Sports Film