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On this day in 1901, Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois. I’m sure you have all heard what this guy would accomplish in the world of animation and general entertainment, but did you know that he was an avid fan of baseball as well? Walt would frequently attend Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Dodgers games in the 1940s and 1950s and even had a baseball field installed on the studio lot. He was known to take a swing or two himself on occasion. The Walt Disney Company and baseball would cross paths many times throughout history, so let’s celebrate Walt’s 121st birthday by taking a look at just a few examples. Starting from the beginning…
Baseball in Film
Before the dawn of Mickey Mouse, one of Disney’s most successful series was the Alice Comedies, a collection of short-films featuring a live-action girl, portrayed by Virginia Davis, in a fanciful animated world. Fifty-seven shorts were produced between 1923 (the year The Walt Disney Company was formed) and 1927 (a year before Mickey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie), the last of which was titled Alice in the Big League, which featured the titular Alice playing the role of the umpire in a pickup baseball game, but her skills were quickly questioned as the animal players and fans took objection to her calls.
Decades later, in 1942 and 1949 respectively, Goofy and Donald Duck would each star in a baseball-themed short of their own: How to Play Baseball and Slide, Donald, Slide respectively. The 1940s would prove to be a notable decade for baseball content at Walt Disney Animation as 1946’s feature film Make Mine Music, a compilation of various shorts, included the famous Casey at the Bat segment about the arrogant superstar player who lost the game for his team due his cockiness and showboating. Casey would return to the silver screen in a sequel, Casey Bats Again, in 1954, this time taking on the role of manager of a team made up of his daughters. Many years later, Casey would even get a nod in multiple Disney Parks with the “Casey’s Corner” quick-service restaurants in Disneyland Paris (opened in 1992) and Walt Disney World (opened in 1995). The restaurants are themed after early-1900s baseball nostalgia and serve standard ballpark fare like hot dogs and fries.
It would be nearly fifty years before Disney returned to releasing baseball-centric content in cinema, this time in the form of feature films. Released to varying degrees of success were Mr. Destiny (1990), A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995), Simon Birch (1998), Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (2002), The Rookie (2002), Mr. 3000 (2004), and Million Dollar Arm (2014). In March of 2019, Disney officially acquired 20th Century Fox, and with it brought movies such as Rawhide (1938) starring Lou Gehrig, The Sandlot (1993) and its sequels The Sandlot 2 (2005) and The Sandlot: Heading Home (2007), Rookie of the Year (1993), and Everyone’s Hero (2006) under its studio umbrella as well. There is one film, however, that was notably a double whammy for The Walt Disney Company…
Angels in the Outfield (1994) gave Disney a unique opportunity for some corporate synergy. Starring Tony Danza, Danny Glover, and Christopher Lloyd; as well as featuring a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this beloved film told the story of a floundering Angels team starting an improbable win-streak with some assistance from literal angels. The movie proved to be enough of a success to spawn two sequels, one of which being the direct-to-TV Angels in the Infield (2000). Many may not be aware of this, but this was actually a remake of the 1951 film of the same name. A key difference between Disney’s remake and the original film is that the featured team in the first iteration was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Disney elected to instead feature the California Angels, who to be fair were not an MLB team in 1951, to showcase a new asset in their company portfolio: the actual California Angels, who Disney had become a minority owner of in the early 1990s. Which brings us to…
The California… I mean, Anaheim… Well, actually, Los Angeles Angels (… of Anaheim)
The saga surrounding Disney and the Angels is a long and fascinating one, potentially dating all the way back to when the Angels joined MLB. The Los Angeles Angels, owned by legendary actor and singer Gene Autry, joined MLB in time for the 1961 season. Autry would spend the next few years trying to secure a new stadium in Los Angeles, but after failing to do so, decided to move the team to Anaheim, breaking ground on what would become Anaheim Stadium in 1964. Rumor has it, Walt Disney played a big part in persuading Autry to select Anaheim as the new home for his ballclub. Walt, and Disney at large, had a vision of making Anaheim a tourist destination to boost attendance at Disneyland (which was nearly a decade old at this time). Walt even spent some time on the board of directors for the Angels in the 1960s prior to his death. To coincide with the relocation out of Los Angeles and down I-5, the Angels were renamed the California Angels. A fantastic example of this new synergy in Anaheim came on April 15, 1967 when Disney and the Angels offered the “Angels-Disneyland Double Header.” Fans could purchase a ticket for $5 that included admission to the Angels’ 3pm game against the Cleveland Indians, followed by admission to Disneyland that night.
Fast forward to the 1990s. By this time, Autry was declining in health and was making fewer decisions atop the Angels organization, leaving the door open for Disney, a minority owner of the team, to take more operational control. With the hiring of Tony Tavares as team president in 1996, Disney had effectively taken control of the club, although Autry would remain as Chairman until his death in 1998, at which point Disney also became the majority owner. Disney launched its “Anaheim Sports” subsidiary to operate both the Angels and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim NHL club (who would also receive their own Disney movie tie-in). One of the first actions taken by Disney was an agreement with the city of Anaheim for a renovation of Anaheim Stadium, which was over thirty years old. Along with an agreement to sell the naming rights and to downsize the stadium after the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis, the Angels agreed to change their name once more to include Anaheim, another effort at creating a destination city. Thus, the Anaheim Angels were born and with the name came a new logo and uniforms featuring the iconic “A” with an angel wing to its side.
On May 15, 2003, Disney sold the Angels to Angels Baseball, L.P., led by Arte Moreno. Disney had decided it was best for its business to exit the sports-ownership world and quickly sold the Mighty Ducks as well. On January 3, 2005, the Angels announced they would be changing their name once more to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but this announcement was met with almost instantaneous backlash from several groups, including Disney. Leaders throughout Los Angeles and Anaheim contested that since the team does not play home games in the city or county of Los Angeles, that they should not be able to claim the city as its home. After a brief legal battle, a jury sided with the Angels and allowed them to keep the new name in February of 2006.
The Angels were selected by MLB to host the 2010 MLB All-Star Game. To celebrate, Disney and the Angels teamed up and unveiled several seven-foot-tall Mickey Mouse statues featuring logos and colors of each MLB team and scattered them throughout southern California.
Disney’s time at the helm of the club was short, but hardly unsuccessful, as Disney practically saw instant on-the-field success with the Angels. After moving on from the uniforms they introduced with the name change and reverting back to the classic red-and-whites, the Angels entered the 2002 without many grand expectations from the baseball world. The Mike-Scioscia-led squad had other plans, however, as they eliminated the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins en route to facing the National League Champion San Francisco Giants in the World Series. The Angels found themselves behind one game in the series, 2-3, and down 0-5 in the seventh inning of Game 6. They would score three runs in both the seventh and eighth innings, though, winning the game and tying the series before winning Game 7 as well without much contest. To date, this is the Angels’ only World Series championship. Of course, there’s only one way to celebrate such an occasion…
Days after securing their first championship in team history, the Anaheim Angels paraded down Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland, just minutes away from Angel Stadium. While this example is exceptional since Disney owned the club, the company had long since established its theme parks as the destination of champions. Frank Viola and Orel Hershiser each uttered the iconic phrase, “I’m going to Disney World!” after the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers respectively won the World Series in 1987 and 1988. Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz would do the same when the Boston Red Sox won in 2004. Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds would put their own spins on the tradition when they set their individual home run records in 1998 and 2001 respectively. Several teams, including the 2016 Chicago Cubs and 2017 Houston Astros, would also take their turns parading down Main Street, U.S.A. after their World Series wins.
In April of 1994, Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort opened in Walt Disney World. Not limited to any one specific sport, the resort has nods to many scattered throughout its property, but one of its most prominent features, the Grand Slam Pool, is themed around baseball. A year later, Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, known today as the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, hosted its first event: an exhibition game between the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds at The Ballpark at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. Future Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, and Barry Larkin played in the game, while Bobby Cox managed the Braves, and Reds’ outfielder Deion Sanders recorded the first hit. The Braves would win 9-7. On June 20, 1997, the Gulf Coast League Braves began their tenancy at Cracker Jack Stadium (the new name for The Ballpark) and would host all of their home games there through the 2019 season, but the partnership with the Braves organization didn’t end there. The Atlanta Braves played their first home Spring Training game at the complex on February 26, 1998 and would do so through the 2019 season. One more tenant would make there way to The Most Magical Place on Earth as the Orlando Rays moved in on April 6, 2000, however, their stay would be short as they moved to Montgomery and became the Biscuits after the 2003 season. The stadium didn’t only showcase exhibition play, however. The Tampa Bay Rays would host a regular season home series at the complex in 2007 against the Texas Rangers and in 2008 against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Rays swept both series and are a combined 6-0 at the Wide World of Sports.
Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. announced that the 2001 season would be his last that spring. As such, as he made his final stops as a player at stadiums and cities across the league, he’d often receive gifts or other forms of recognition. Well, in July of 2001, while Ripken was in town to make his final appearance in the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium, he found time to stop at California Adventure at Disneyland. To mark the occasion, July 27, 2001 was dubbed “Cal Ripken Jr. Day” in Anaheim and the park was re-named “Disney’s CAL Adventure.” Ripken would notably return to Disney Parks when he announced The Ripken Experience would be coming to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World on August 20, 2019. While the start of play would be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2021 tournaments for players ages six to eighteen began as part of this partnership. This would not be the end of Ripken’s ties to Disney, however…
Baseball in TV
On November 12, 1988 the Boy Meets World episode “Grandma Was A Rolling Stone” premiered on ABC. Rue McClanahan of Golden Girls fame guest-starred as Bernice Matthews, protagonist Cory Matthews’ grandmother, who promised to get Cory a baseball card signed by Cal Ripken Jr. Boy Meets World would actually feature a few references to baseball, especially in the earlier seasons when Cory’s fandom of the Philadelphia Phillies seemed to peak, such as when Jim Abbott guest-starred in the episode “Class Pre-Union.” Guest stars from the baseball world have been featured plentifully throughout Disney (Touchstone Television, ABC Signature, and Disney Branded Television) and 20th Century TV shows. To name a few, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Johnny Bench guest-starred on the Mr. Belvedere episode “The Field” in 1989; Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, David Ortiz, Jimmy Rollins, and Joey Votto guest-starred on The Cleveland Show episode “California Dreamin’ (All the Cleves Are Brown)” in 2013; and Mookie Betts and Andrew McCutchen guest-starred on the Puppy Dog Pals episode “7th inning Fetch” in 2021. While filled with A-listers, none of these carried the cultural weight of arguably the best baseball-themed episode in television history.
On February 20, 1992, episode sixteen of the third season of The Simpsons titled “Homer at the Bat,” in reference to the aforementioned Casey at the Bat poem, premiered on the Fox network. The plot follows Homer Simpson and the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team, helmed by Mr. Burns, as they strive to win the championship. Of course, Mr. Burns doesn’t waste an opportunity to flex his financial muscle and enlists a few ringers to aid in their efforts. Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, Ozzie Smith, and Darryl Strawberry all guest-star as themselves and suit up alongside Homer. The baseball references certainly do not stop there as allusions to The Natural, The Pride of the Yankees, and the baseball-themed Twilight Zone episode “The Might Casey” are made throughout the episode’s run. A really great line from the episode was when Mr. Burns showed his age and disconnection with modern life (a running joke in the show) and rattled off the names of his preferred lineup of ringers: Cap Anson, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Jim Creighton, Harry Hooper, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Nap Lajoie, Gabby Street, Pie Trayner, and Honus Wagner; all of which had been deceased for years by that point. In 2017, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the episode’s premiere, Springfield of Dreams: The Legend of Homer Simpson aired on Fox and Homer Simpson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
This was a very high-level look at just a few examples of where baseball and Disney overlapped in history, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of more moments like these! I’d love to share them all here, but it could prove to be a little lengthy for a blogpost. If you are interested in learning a little more, I started Dugout Disney earlier this year (Twitter & Instagram) as a way to share as much content as possible.