Folklore in "The Sandlot" | Digital Traditions

by Emily Enloe. Enloe is a Dance Education major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Spring 2009 class "Folklore and Film."

A classic movie about a boy trying to fit in during the summer of 1962, The Sandlot is full of folklore in several aspects. This movie shows the way in which folklore is passed on through the boys’ active baseball playing while also incorporating parts of folklore and legend in the movie itself. Although a fictional story, The Sandlot seems like a real possibility making the study of its folkloric aspects more interesting and valuable.

The majority of the movie is based around these nine boys’ summer experience of 1962 which consists mainly of baseball in addition to a few scattered activities. One of the boys, Scotty Smalls, is new to the neighborhood and attempts to find his way into life as a ten year old boy by joining the other eights’ baseball games. It does not take anyone long to realize that Smalls, as he is later nicknamed, has no experience in playing baseball and needs lots of help. This is where the process of sharing folklore begins. The first example of this is the folk group these nine boys create for themselves out of a shared interest in playing baseball as well as the proximity they have by being neighbors. It could also be argued that they come together out of a social necessity since they need something to do during the summer and the new boy Scotty has his mom forcing him to go make friends. This group then begins to consist of ideas and activities relative only to that group. For one, most of the boys are called by some nickname, like “Squints” and “Repeat,” that come from an informal name-calling by the rest of the group. The same happens for new guy Scotty who quickly becomes “Smalls” without much discussion as to the why or how—he just is.

Scotty Smalls is new to the game of baseball, however, and has to find a way to learn the basics in technique and rules. Here again is where the process of folklore kicks in since Smalls does not go to a formal institution to learn baseball nor does he learn from being a solitary creature; his education requires informal interaction. He first tries by playing catch with his stepdad Bill, what many consider a “tradition” in the father-to-son book of teaching. Learning this process of throwing and catching is then considered part of the tradition heading in folklore. It is also possible to say it is a show of consciousness of kind of a sort; Bill and Smalls feel awkward toward each other but realize that playing catch together is taking part of a tradition that many people also do. Smalls’ short catch session proves unfruitful with his black eye and returns to relying on his friends for instruction. Much of this comes from the “team’s” star player, Benny. How Benny teaches Smalls to play baseball as well as fit in with the other boys is the main evidence for The Sandlot as an example of folklore because of the characteristics revealed.

First, as stated earlier, Smalls’ education remains traditional in transmission because all he learns about how to play baseball is taught orally rather than in a book or in an institution. It can also be argued that a young boy learning baseball, especially during the summer, is customary for one to do; this makes Smalls’ journey to play baseball one of the three divisions of folklore. Last, the other primary defining characteristic of folklore is that it exists in variation due to its oral nature. This too occurs among Smalls and his group of friends. Baseball does have a set of specific rules which the boys follow; however, other aspects of playing baseball and being part of this folk group vary from other folk groups. One main example is what the boys wear. Benny nicely tells Smalls after a day of practice to wear jeans, tennis shoes, a t-shirt, and a cap with a short bill next time rather than his khakis and fisherman’s hat. One can see how variation occurs when rival team The Tigers rolls onto the sandlot on their bikes. This group of kids, from a different neighborhood, practiced and played in uniforms with baseball cleats which they believed was the way to play according to their set of rules and ideals about baseball. These two groups also vary on the types of fields they play on as well as whether to keep score during practice; the sandlot boys are, obviously, more humble on both accounts and have neither a real field nor reason to keep score.

The Sandlot also contains other aspects of folklore that are not necessarily related to their games of baseball. The biggest legend in the story which creates much stress for the boys is that of the “Beast.” Smalls learns the legend during a sleepover in the tree house, again showcasing the traditional transmission of folklore and legends. Squints tells the story, taking aesthetics into consideration and makes himself seem scarier by placing the glow of the flashlight under his chin. His legend follows the typical formula and even though supposedly involves his grandfather, Squints takes liberty to change numbers to enhance the scariness of the story. His legend contains a level of suspense and horror along with a hint of believability since the beast he speaks of lives in the yard behind the sandlot’s fence. One side note of folklore also takes place during this sleepover in the tree house. One of the boys, Ham, is making the dessert-like snack s’mores and asks newbie Smalls if he “would like s’mores?” Smalls misunderstands the question, thinking Ham means “some more.” Ham eventually goes on to explain the construction of a s’more to Small, implying his necessity to know and the necessity s’mores have at sleepovers during the summer. Here again is tradition in a folk group, a s’more itself being an item that will exist in variation since one person’s recipe will not taste like another’s.

The second big legend talked about in the movie is that which surrounds real-life baseball player George Herman Ruth, Jr., more commonly known as Babe Ruth. In this sense legend does not mean whether he truly existed since Babe Ruth was a real person; this type of legend has more to do with baseball culture and the hype built around one person. Smalls has no idea who Babe Ruth is until he is fully immersed into baseball culture towards the end of the movie. Babe Ruth is another example of nicknames emerging from a folk group, the boys of the sandlot referring to him as "The Great Bambino" and the "Sultan of Swat" which were names given during his amazing career. Another aspect of Babe Ruth’s legend, although not really mentioned in the movie, is whether his infamous “called” homerun shot actually happened or if he was just pointing his bat at the pitcher showing yet again that stories can change and evolve over time or from person to person.

Another interesting way to look at The Sandlot as part of folklore is by viewing the new kid Smalls like an ethnographer. Smalls came into the culture of baseball with basically no knowledge. He wanted to learn both about baseball and these neighborhood kids and had several processes to go through. Most of his learning was similar to participant observation in which he learned by viewing or listening but also did not deny himself from taking part. He also had to build rapport and make compromises with the boys in his folk group. The biggest example of this is during the infamous scene when Smalls steals his stepdad’s trophy baseball signed by Babe Ruth, not understanding the significance of the ball. However, he is only attempting to be on better terms with the boys by bringing a ball to the game which leads them to make many compromises during their attempts to retrieve and replace the priceless ball when it is hit into the Beast’s yard. Furthermore, Smalls’ relationship with the boys is also reciprocal in nature. The boys would never had learned the truth about the Beast—he is really a regular dog belonging to a retired Yankees player—had Smalls not joined into the group.

Using baseball and the culture surrounding it, this movie goes through one boy’s struggle from being an outsider to an insider in a new folk group. Characteristics of folklore are evident and several examples of different types of folklore and legend are presented. Overall The Sandlot is an entertaining movie about the fun shared among nine boys in a makeshift baseball field that also showcases many aspects of folklore.