(This is the fourth in my monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. It Happens Every Spring is a laidback comedy about a mysterious pitcher who finds a way to turn major leaguers into frustrated Little Leaguers.)
By Glen Sparks
Before there was Sidd Finch, there was King Kelly.
You may recall Finch, the great Sports Illustrated April Fools’ Day joke of 1985. He was the subject of an article “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” written by the late, great George Plimpton. Finch, according to Plimpton, is a mysterious pitcher, hunkered down in the Himalayas, who can hurl a baseball 168 miles per hour, or about 65 mph faster than any MLB pitcher has ever thrown.
A scout for the New York Mets discovered Finch, who must choose between a career in baseball or in music. The Phenom, Plimpton writes, also is a master on the French horn. Sidd Finch is the picture of contrived eccentricity. He, according to Plimpton, only pitches if he also is wearing just one shoe, a hiking boot at that.
He grew up in an English orphanage. The archeologist who adopted him later died in a plane crash somewhere near Katmandu. Finch attended Harvard, as a scholar, not an Ivy League baseball player. Eventually, he left for Tibet to study yoga.
King Kelly could not claim a life story quite so rich or exotic. In real life—or, in “reel” life—he was simply Vernon K. Simpson, college professor. Ray Milland stars as Kelly/Simpson in the entertaining 1949 baseball comedy It Happens Every Spring.
While working on a great experiment, Simpson accidentally discovers a compound that repels all forms of wood, especially, as it turns out, baseball bats. Well, what’s a devoted baseball fan to do? Quit teaching in this case. Try out for a local baseball team. Simpson heads to St. Louis.
Not surprisingly, the ballclub laughs off this middle-age rookie. Until he tosses a few warm-up pitches. King Kelly (a nifty alias, one that harkens to Mike “King” Kelly, a Hall of Famer player from the late 1800s) puts enough movement on a pitch to make Warren Spahn envious. Baseballs whip around the bats of major-league hitters. The opposition doesn’t stand a chance against the funkiest curveball of all-time.
St. Louis keeps winning and winning. This mysterious pitcher (No one had ever heard of him.) refuses interviews and keeps generating headlines. His compound—dubbed methylethyproplbutyl—baffles batter after batter.
King Kelly pitches his team to the World Series. Does his club win? Does Kelly put together a Hall of Fame career, one greater than Cy Young or Walter Johnson? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie.
Valentine Davies, whose credits included Miracle on 34th Street (1934 version), The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Glenn Miller Story, wrote the screenplay for It Happens Every Spring. Lloyd Bacon directed the picture, for 20th Century Fox. Bacon also skippered productions of 42nd Street, Knute Rockne, All-American, The Fighting Sullivans and many other movies.
Welsh-born Milland takes a rare comedic turn in It Happens Every Spring. More famous as a leading man in movies such as Reap the Wild Wind and Ministry of Fear, and as an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend, Milland demonstrates a light, humorous touch in It Happens. The movie co-stars Jean Peters (Pick-up on South Street, the second wife of billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes) as Milland’s girlfriend, Deborah Greenleaf, and Paul Douglas (Angels in the Outfield, 1951 version, another baseball comedy) as sympathetic catcher Monk Lanigan. (Look for Alan Hale Jr., the future Skipper of Gilligan’s Island, in a small role near the movie’s beginning.)
It Happens Every Spring did not create the sensation that Sidd Finch did. The New York Times liked Douglas but called the movie “monotonous.” Famed critic Leonard Maltin, though, gave the picture 3 ½ stars and said it was “enjoyable” and “unpretentious.” And, that it is.
Many readers, meanwhile, truly believed in “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.” And, they weren’t too happy when Sports Illustrated admitted soon after that the story was a big fake. The magazine printed one letter that read something to the effect: “Ha ha. Very funny. Cancel my subscription.”
Of course, the article did appear on April 1. And, the subhead went like this: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga—and his future in baseball.”
The first letters of these words spell out “Happy April Fools Day – a(h) fib.”