Damn Yankees is a musical about a man who sells his soul to the Devil for the sake of baseball. It is the dumbest version of the Faust legend I have ever seen.
All right, I admit it, I am an atheist. And since I don’t believe in God, and since I definitely don’t believe in the Devil or Hell, you might think that any movie presupposing the existence of such would not find favor with me. But I can enjoy a movie about the supernatural, provided it makes a modicum of sense. And there’s the rub. It’s not that the Devil does not exist that bothers me; it is the intrinsic absurdity of the Faust legend. The general idea is that Faust, or some character based on him, literally sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly goods, such as knowledge or pleasure. Who in his right mind would make such a deal? To put it differently, anyone who sold his soul to the Devil would for that reason have to be mentally impaired, and thus would deserve to be forgiven.
If the Devil manifested himself one day in my living room, promising me whatever I wanted, pleasure, power, wealth, fame, or knowledge, if only I would sell him my soul, which would then mean suffering eternal damnation once I died, there is no way I would agree to such an offer. First, I would send him packing. Then I would probably spend the rest of the day saying to myself, “Wow! All that stuff about God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, is true.” And then I would completely change my life. From then on, I would turn the other cheek, give all my worldly goods to the poor, and never again look at a woman with lust in my heart.
I think that would be a perfectly rational choice on my part, for what could be more important in this world or the next than avoiding the fires of Hell? But is this the reaction that these Faustian characters have when they encounter the Devil? No, never, not once do they react that way. Instead, with only a hint of hesitation, they condemn themselves to eternal torment for a mess of pottage. In Goethe’s Faust, the title character sells his soul, apparently in order to get laid. In The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a farmer gives it up for seven years of prosperity. And so it goes. Still, Angel Heart (1987) is one of my favorite movies, perhaps because the Faustian character in this story figured he had a way of weaseling out of the deal.
But as I said, Damn Yankees is the worst of the lot. I tried to suspend disbelief, accepting for the sake of the movie that there is such a thing as the Devil and Hell, and I even tried to make allowances for Faustian imprudence on the grand scale. But even so, the thing just didn’t make sense. It all begins in the living room of Joe Boyd, who is yelling at the television because his favorite baseball team, the Washington Senators, is losing. In his exasperation, he says he would sell his soul if the Senators had a slugger who could put the ball over the fence, beating the Yankees. Suddenly, the Devil appears, going by the name Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), ready to make a deal.
As an aside, have you ever noticed how often stories about the supernatural involve sports? Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), boxing; Heaven Can Wait (1978), football; Angels in the Outfield (1951), baseball; Field of Dreams (1989), baseball; The Natural (1984), baseball; just to name a few. Setting aside the Faustian story, with all the people on this planet suffering from the ravages of war, disease, starvation, and tyranny, the supernatural intervenes in something that exists merely for the entertainment of those fortunate enough to have a comfortable life. As far as the Faustian story is concerned, wouldn’t it be nice if someone was willing to sell his soul to the Devil, if it gave him the power to end wars, cure disease, feed the hungry, and end tyranny, willing to go to Hell out of his love for mankind?
Anyway, Applegate says that in exchange for Joe’s soul, he will make Joe the greatest baseball player ever, who will help the Senators win the pennant. He will make him Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), and he will be twenty-two years old. Joe has misgivings, thinking for a moment about his job and his wife, but Applegate says this is too big a deal to worry about them.
In the end, Joe deserts his wife. From the song she was singing earlier, lamenting how during baseball season, which is six months of the year, she is neglected, we gather that she and Joe are now in their forties. She appears to be a housewife, a common role for women in the 1950s. And so, after Joe leaves her, she continues in her role as a housewife without the slightest concern that there is no longer any income with which to pay the bills. In other words, it is not just the supernatural part of this movie that makes no sense.
In making the deal, Joe insisted on an escape clause. If he changes his mind by midnight of September 24, the deal is off. So, we figure that is how he will get out of the deal. He will play baseball until then, and then back out at the last minute. But that is not what happens. Owing to complications we need not enter into here, Joe does not back out at the last minute. He stays with the Senators. And so, we figure Joe will continue helping the Senators win the pennant and then be dragged down to Hell.
And then, from out of left field, Applegate decides he is going to make the Senators lose the pennant. But that would mean he would not be living up to his end of the bargain. So, we now figure that when, against all reason, Applegate makes the Senators lose the pennant, Joe will not have to go to Hell, because Applegate failed to fulfil the contract. No, that’s not it either, because in his effort to make the Senators lose the pennant, he turns Joe Hardy back to Joe Boyd, thinking he will not catch the fly ball. But Joe does catch the fly ball, and so the Senators do win the pennant. So, that means Joe is going to Hell after all, right?
No, Joe goes back home. For some reason, his wife takes him back, as if being abandoned didn’t bother her in the slightest. Applegate shows up, we think to collect Joe’s soul, but instead he acts as though Joe is in the clear. He offers Joe the chance to help the Senators win the World Series in exchange for his soul. I suppose if Joe had made that deal, then at the last minute, Applegate would have tried to make the Senators lose the World Series, but when he failed and the Senators won the Series anyway, Joe would go back home then too, and once again be in the clear, for reasons that don’t make sense, either in this world or the next.