Today, it’s a cliché in a sports movie to see someone go from nothing and rise to fame. It’s the classic underdog tale that’s been told again and again before being told again. For modern films, there needs to be some sort of spin on the formula to make it stand out, but my guess is that in 1919 the formula was fresh. Jerome Storm’s silent feature The Busher presents a story that is terribly predictable today but historically, it’s a fascinating look at early baseball films and an un-perfected spin on something that has since gone on to be repeated countless times since.
The title refers to Ben Harding (Charles Ray), a small-town ball player who builds a name for himself in small-time the bush leagues in search of something bigger. Harding starts out small before becoming the toast of the city as he pursues his quest to be a pitching hero. The film charts not only his rise but his struggles with adjusting to city life. Things change when you go from a star in a small place to starting over at a more professional level. As the crowds grow, so too do the pressures. The big city also presents a new set social rules, adding further complications and adjustments.
Equal parts funny and endearing, The Busher is baseball movie comfort food coming from a different era. Much of the story and situations cover timeless themes and don’t feel overly dated. But when you throw in the historical context of the film, that’s where the film really takes on an interesting spin.
The Busher presents a somewhat lax view on gambling and its place in the sport. Although it’s not smiled upon in the movie, gambling is an accepted part of the game that was done openly and involving on-field personalities. This takes on even greater significance when you realize that The Busher came out only a short time before the scandal involving eight members of the Chicago White Sox being banned from the game for taking World Series bribes to throw games. Alongside labor strife, racism and steroids, this scandal remains one of baseball’s darkest events.
If it were remade today, there’d be little worth paying attention to in The Busher. But there’s some fascinating history present that cannot be captured ever again. For that alone, it’s a film worth tracking down and having a little fun with.