Cheating, in some form or fashion, has been at the forefront of baseball conversations for some three decades now. The first and most obvious example is, of course, doping.

Roids. Juice. It gave us monstrous home runs and bigger-than-ever superstars. But it also ruined the sport as we know it and took down the careers of Bonds, Rodriguez, Ramirez, McGwire, Sosa, Canseco, Giambi, and Clemens.

But even after Major League Baseball cracked down on performance-enhancing drugs, players didn’t stop looking for shortcuts to success. Few will ever look at the Houston Astros organization the same after their trash can-aided sign-stealing scandal, even when all those guys are long gone. We still see the effects of the sticky stuff that pitchers smeared on their hands, gloves, belts, and necks to skyrocket a baseball’s spin rate when umpires inspect each pitcher in each game. And Aaron Judge would’ve never broken the AL home run record if it wasn’t for the fact that MLB’s defective high-flying baseballs seemed to only get delivered to Yankee Stadium…

Steroids changed the course of the baseball narrative so completely that we’ve all but forgotten any scandals pre-cable television, like the Black Sox or Pete Rose’s illegal betting. But I’ve discovered a cheating scheme so successful that no one talks about it because, well, he got away with it. That is, until now. 

In 1949, King Kelly, a rookie pitcher on the St. Louis baseball club, owned a pitching repertoire that lacked a fastball with any speed, a curveball with any curve, or a cutter with any cut. But the baseballs he threw seemed to always miss bats anyway. 

You’ll never believe me, but this is because Kelly was cheating. He invented a chemical concoction that repelled wood — so much so that bats could never make contact — and rubbed it over all of his baseballs.

That’s the plot of 1949’s It Happens Every Spring, written by Valentine Loewi Davies (Miracle on 34th Street) and directed by Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street). 

Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) plays college professor Vernon K. Simpson, a nerdy fellow with a knack for boring almost all of his students. He’s been working on a chemical called methylethylpropylbutyl, which a quick Google search shows is just a made-up gobbledygook of mashed-together science words. When a baseball comes crashing through his laboratory window one day, he realizes that the chemical-coated ball rolls off any wooden tabletop he sets it on. 

It doesn’t take him long to come up with his get-rich-quick scheme: convince the owner of a professional baseball club to let him pitch and only ask for payment if he wins a game (the Red Sox should’ve tried that contract with Corey Kluber). It’s a win for both sides. If he stinks, the desperate team that signs him won’t have to pay him. And if he’s great (which there’s no doubt about), he’s on the fast track to fame, fortune, and a plaque in Cooperstown. 

As you can imagine, it’s a very silly movie. The entire conceit is so crazy, I’m surprised it wasn’t remade during that baseball movie boom of the ’90s. Maybe Flubber II? It has that kind of vibe, only it’s black-and-white and doesn’t seem particularly aimed at children. This is probably a good thing because, as I accidentally spoiled earlier, he gets away with it in the end.

It’s still worth the watch. It’s not like this borderline-slapstick comedy would end with lifetime suspensions and court proceedings anyway, but that’s a crazy message to send in a family movie: it’s okay to cheat as long as it’s all in good fun and nobody catches you.

I’m sure Trevor Bauer is working on the recipe as we speak. 

From start to finish, just about everything is so unbelievable. The movie doesn’t even ask you to suspend your disbelief in the usual “Hollywood life is not real life” kind of way – it does it all for you. Ray Milland was 42 when the movie came out, and I’m guessing all the other players call him “kid” because he’s a rookie and not because he’s older than all of them or has a five-o’clock shadow so bad that he probably had to shave in-between takes. Batters never seem to notice that not only can they not hit the baseball, but it swirls through the strike zone Looney Tunes-style every time they swing. And the entire reason he changes his identity to King Kelly, a nod to 19th-century baseball player and notorious cheater King Kelly (a joke written for about eight people), is because his soon-to-be father-in-law … doesn’t like baseball. Not because, you know, he accidentally invented the greatest cheating scheme of all time. 

But here’s perhaps the best part: Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler wouldn’t allow the filmmakers to use the names of real teams. King plays for “St. Louis,” but it’s neither the Cardinals nor the Browns. Additionally, all shots of the ballpark were filmed at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field. Chandler made this decision because he didn’t want cheating associated with the sport.

Little did he know. 

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