By Colin Salt
What is Sports Alternate History? Its not as easy to pinpoint as we might expect. Let's take a look at one specific movie: Robert Redford's The Natural. It's a very interesting case in that:
A - It's far and away the most successful work of Sports Alternate History in terms of footprint and mainstream success;
B - Its status as alternate history is very clear cut when you go through a series of box-checking factors; and
C - Said status as alternate history is completely unintentional.
Thus, even though the movie itself is a fluffy mushy feel-good cinematic marshmallow, its circumstances make it worth noting here.
First, I have make clear that this article is only applicable to the movie. The original book has a vague timeframe derived entirely from author Bernard Malamud trying to work every single baseball moment of fact and legend into the narrative. It has some rivet-counting errors like mentioning a past World Series between two American League teams, as well as being just as shallow as the movie in its own way. For a book-accurate adaptation, you'd need to have a hated player based on someone like Alex Rodriguez ultimately lose a championship when he strikes out (due completely to his own arrogance, mind you, not the skill of his opponent or the vagaries of the game). There's a reason the movie did a 180 in terms of tone and I think it's ultimately a good reason, but that's another story.
Anyway, the book has a vague time and place. The movie, though, specifically and unambiguously takes place in 1939, well before the making of the film or even writing of the book. It features Roy Hobbs and the New York Knights, a player and team that did not exist in real life (they're heavily based off the New York (now San Francisco) Giants, but the point remains). And since in the movie, Hobbs doesn't strike out and does hit a spectacular game-winning home run, it means the movie creates a different historical outcome in that the Knights win the National League pennant (the actual Giants finished 18 games back from the NL-winning Cincinnati Reds that year).
Of course, this movie wasn't intended as an alternate history the way that a book or film set in a hypothetical time when Babe Ruth continued to play for the Red Sox, or a designated hitter was adopted far earlier than in real life would have been. Almost certainly no one involved in the making of this movie thought they were doing a baseball equivalent of The Man In The High Castle or It Happened Here. But the fact of it having an exact date and an exact change of outcome makes it, however accidentally, a clear case of alternate history.
Now I understand fully if someone adopts the view that since it just as clearly wasn't meant as anything but historical fiction, it shouldn't be considered alternate history. That's a view I have no problem with. But it does show just how hard it is to define "alternate history" at all.
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