Despite the bizarre casting of Sylvester Stallone and 48-year-old Michael Caine alongside an international team of the world's greatest soccer stars, Victory remains one of the best of all sports movies. A team of POWs overcomes a crack squad of Nazis -- in a fixed match, no less! -- and escapes to glory.
Victory was inspired by a true 1942 story of Ukranian untermenschen, who defeated a team composed of The Master Race, 5-3. There was no escape to glory, however. Only a trip to the camps -- and, for many, death. World War II is not the richest vein from which to mine true-to-life, feel-good yarns.
And yet, there is one little-known WWII story practically screaming to be made into a heartwarming Hollywood blockbuster. And no whitewashing of death and despair would be necessary. That would be the amazing 1945 triumph of the ragtag, integrated Overseas Invasion Service Expedition baseball squad over the mighty 71st Division squad -- which was stocked with Major League talent and, by definition at the time, all white.
A stirring article about the games by Robert Weintraub appeared yesterday on Slate. Weintraub briefly notes that the sole "name" player on the OISE squad was journeyman Major League Pitcher Sam Nahem; this article doesn't have a lot to say about him. But Nahem was a man with a lot to say. Fifty-eight years after the games in front of 50,000 soldiers packing Nuremburg's Hitler Youth Stadium, we walked into Nahem's sunny Berkeley living room.
"Subway Sam" Nahem -- who earned his moniker from country teammates who'd never before met a New Yorker -- wasn't like other ballplayers. He was bald. He wore glasses. He was a college graduate. He had a law degree. He read Balzac on evenings and off-days instead of chasing tail (though he did note the following: "I remember even the almost ethical guys would chase women. You know, I wasn't a natural woman-hunter, and most players, even the successfully married ones, were skirt-chasers, they really were. I wasn't too happy at that. [But] the class of women in the big leagues was higher than in the minor leagues. That was another reason to aspire to the big leagues.").