In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.
Today we have a cartoon from 1937 starring Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s called The Twisker Pitcher, and it’s dark as hell. Seriously, this cartoon has…
A) Rampant steroid use (the spinach)
B) Violence, both on the field and in the stands
C) A near total disregard for rules and the space-time continuum
D) A total disregard for player safety.
Oof. So, go below the jump for a summary of this, the 47th Popeye Cartoon:
This is a heck of a stadium, looking more like it’s meant for football than baseball. It somewhat calls to mind how Yankee Stadium looked like in it’s earliest days, or perhaps even more accurately the Polo Grounds early in it’s tenure. There’s a lot of LA Coliseum and Rose Bowl in there too.
But anyway, as Olive Oyl and Bluto’s unnamed girlfriend cheer for their boyfriends from reserved boxes (with Bluto’s girl at times physically reaching over to stop Olive’s cheers), Popeye is preparing in the clubhouse, where he almost forgets his spinach:
Now, the use of spinach is a controversial part of Popeye lore. While arguably his most iconic trait, there has long been the problem that spinach, while good for you, is nowhere near the super-food that Popeye depicts it as. While this could usually be chalked up to the fact that it’s a freaking cartoon, the story goes that this was a result of a typo by a German scientist that made it look like spinach had ten times as much iron as it actually did. However, others say that the amount of iron has never had anything to do with why Popeye ate spinach, and that it was based on Vitamin A alone.
Either way, though, there is also the troubling fact that Popeye’s use of spinach is often shown in a manner that suggests it, in the Popeye universe, is a performance-enhancing drug. It is a deus ex machina that automatically makes the sailor stronger, faster, and often grants him remarkable powers. When fighting evil, this seems all well and good, but in a sporting event it seems… unsporting. And selfish, really. I mean, remember Dash Dartwell and how he used his powers to not save his teammates, but rather play in a game and only save the ballplayers after the game? Popeye is really no different here if he intends to use his super-spinach to win a ballgame, as opposed to, like, I dunno, stopping a bank robbery or flying over to Europe and beating up Nazis.
But enough of debating the ethics of PED use in first-half-of-the-20th-century works of fiction. Let’s look at what going on in the stands:
As Bluto and Popeye take the field, Bluto knocks over Popeye with an “unintentional” elbow. Popeye declares that to be “Bush League”, and they nearly come to blows before the umpire calls “play ball!”
As he walks to his place to begin the game (apparently Popeye is the visiting team), he drops his spinach. Bluto grabs the spinach, eats it himself, and then replaces it with ordinary grass. Nobody seems to notice this, despite the fact he’s doing this in broad daylight in front of a crowd of tens of thousands:
So then the game starts, and we get a quick and actually kind of funny gag where we see Bluto’s catcher using flags to signal the pitch selection:
Needless to say, Popeye strikes out. And so do his (unseen in this inning) teammates. Olive Oyl cries, and I realize her eyes look like little Pac-Mans:
It doesn’t go well, and soon the bases are loaded, Bluto is up, and so Popeye takes out his spinach. Which, as we know, isn’t spinach, but rather some grass that Bluto grabbed from the field. Popeye seems to notice the difference, at least based on his facial expressions:
And then, we promptly jump to the last inning:
Now, a few problems here. The way the game began, with Popeye batting first, would suggest that he was the away team. However, here we see Bluto listed first, suggesting he is the away team. And yet still, Popeye is shown to be batting presumably meaning either he is the away team again OR it is the bottom of the 9th. Either way, however, the game should be over after Bluto strikes out Popeye to seemingly end the inning using various cartoony pitches…. and yet Popeye still takes the mound.
Anyway, whatever inning it is now, Bluto starts it by hitting a ball that hits all of Popeye’s fielders and knocks them unconscious:
Absolutely nothing is said or done about this. I mean, if there were 8 unconscious people on the field, you’d think there would be, like, a stoppage of play or something. But, nope. Oh well, it’s just a show, I should should really just relax.
Oh, and at this point, Popeye takes out his ace-in-the-hole: spinach… seeds.
With this power, Popeye then does what is known in baseball circles as “The Full Bugs Bunny” (interestingly, this film was released years before Bugs Bunny’s famous cartoon): he throws the pitch, runs behind home plate to catch the ball (the catcher, of course, having been knocked out earlier) and for extra credit calls the pitch as if he were the umpire:
He then runs back to the mound, catches his own return throw, and repeats. And then, when Bluto gets a hold of the 0-2 pitch, he runs to the outfield and moves the stands out of the way so he can catch the ball:
And then what few rules of baseball and physics that still exist go to hell as Popeye runs to the plate, hits all the pitches that Bluto throws at him in anger, and runs around the bases so fast it appears there are multiple versions of him:
Inevitably, he scores 21 runs, then, for the tiebreaker, he punches Bluto into the scoreboard, where he forms the second 2 in 22:
Man, that’s kind of a dark finish. I mean, beating somebody up and forcing them to recite your boyfriend’s theme song? Man, Olive Oyl, that’s dark.
So anyway, what can we glean and learn from this piece of Bizarre Baseball Culture? Well, we learned that the rules of baseball are malleable, that having your entire team be unconscious is not a cause of concern, and that eating super-drugs (or spinach) in order to win a game is a-okay. Also, violence is fine if it means you are going to win or have just won that game.
So… nothing. We learned nothing.
NEXT TIME ON BIZARRE BASEBALL CULTURE: The Return of Ultimate Sports Force
Previously on BIzarre Baseball Culture:
Prologue: “Rockets on the Mound” (short story)
20. Shortstop Squad
21. Cosmic Slam
23. Mariners Mojo
32. Mr. Go
36. Dick Cole
46. Popeye the Sailor Man in “Twisker Pitcher” (you are here)