Paying homage to Buffalo’s baseball opus

Robert Redford, star of "The Natural."

Buffalo is a much larger city than Knightstown, Indiana.

The Midwestern municipality is about a square mile around, with less than 2,500 people living within its Henry County-hosted borders. It has a farmers market, Good’s Candies, and something called the Fish Wagon, which is eligible for nonprofits to use as a food truck. This all may not seem like much of a tourism ad for the rural enclave, and maybe it’s not.

But Knightstown has done something that Buffalo still has yet to do: properly honor and promote itself as a host city to one of the greatest sports films of all time.

Back in 1986, the Indiana town was featured as the home of the Hickory Huskers in the basketball classic Hoosiers. Its idyllic, green-paneled high school gym had been obsolete for nearly twenty years before the likes of Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale and Dennis Hopper’s Shooter Flatch made the building iconic for generations of both movie and sports fans. Today, the gym still stands just off the state’s stretch of US 40, open as both a pristine shrine for those to pay homage to the game of basketball, and as a portal into on-court scenes that continue to touch millions of viewers.

Two years prior to Knightstown’s close-up was Buffalo’s, when the city served as the on-screen home of the New York Knights in Barry Levinson’s baseball opus, The Natural. Legendary actors like Robert Redford, Glenn Close, and Robert Duvall populated Queen City locations like Parkside Candy, the Ellicott Square Building, and War Memorial Stadium, which hosted most of the film’s memorable game sequences. Redford’s Roy Hobbs knocking the cover off the ball. Michael Madsen’s Bump Bailey going through the wall in centerfield. Duvall’s Max Mercy ducking from shattered glass in the press box. It all lives on via cable and Netflix, and it all happened at Buffalo’s Rockpile.

But that stadium’s gone. It wasn’t salvaged as a testament to the film or its fans, nor could it have been. It was a great backdrop as an old, run-down ballpark because it was old and run-down. It needed to fall, but that doesn’t mean Buffalo’s celebration or long-term acknowledgement of The Natural should’ve been swept aside with it.

Aside from a small display of artifacts and photos from the film featured within the Bisons Hall of Fame inside Coca-Cola Field, the city of Buffalo doesn’t feature any large-scale tribute to the film in any corner of its area code. That’s a shame not only for those who either worked on the film or first saw its premiere with their fathers in local theaters, but those who’ve since discovered the film, or been inspired by its scenes—yet have no idea it was ever filmed in locations across downtown, Main Street, and the city’s east side.

Is there no room on James D. Griffin Plaza for an oversize version of the lightning bolt-emblazoned Wonderboy bat or a "Goodbye, Mr. Spaulding" statue of Roy Hobbs (similar to Rocky Balboa’s in Philadelphia)? Is there no vacant building façade interested in hosting an oversize reprint of the film’s Life magazine Hobbs cover, or maybe a large mural near Coca-Cola Field replicating Max Mercy’s archived sketch of Hobbs striking out the Whammer? And at a time when Buffalo is slowly getting back in the game through its own resurgence, shouldn’t there be a monument to Redford’s character that emerged from a sixteen-year-long abyss to recapture remnants of his original promise?

In Knightstown, Indiana, they’ve given both residents and visitors the chance to celebrate their square mile’s enduring role in film history. Buffalo’s hosted many productions, but none has left a more indelible print on sports fandom and pop culture than The Natural. It’s time we properly honor our city’s role in its production and, after over thirty years since its release, invite visitors and fans alike to cue up the film’s Randy Newman score in their heads—and celebrate with us.   

Michael Farrell, author of Running with Buffalo, is a frequent contributor to Spree.

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