On February 22, 1992, The Simpsons aired a cameo-heavy episode simply titled "Homer at the Bat." Twenty-five years later, the episode is considered an all-time classic—cited by Simpsons fans, writers, and showrunners alike as its apex. Former showrunners Sam Simon and Al Jean named it their favorite episode of all time, and one of the most important. Also "Homer at the Bat" was the first time The Simpsons beat The Cosby Show ratings.
The episode was, as director Jim Reardon observes in the DVD commentary, "a quantum leap into craziness. Once you go that way, you can't go back." "Homer at the Bat" was the episode in which The Simpsons took the leap from off-beat, yet (reasonably) naturalistic, depiction of blue-collar America, to a show with boundless realms of possibilities. For me, it's the episode where The Simpsons grasped the potential of its animated universe: the synthesis of awareness, absurdism, culture, and unreality that would turn the show into the greatest post-modern critique of the 20th century in any medium.
For those who have somehow missed its many reruns, the episode has a simple plot. It blasts off with Homer almost choking to death on a doughnut, while Lenny and Carl idly observe and ponder the validity of CPR—leading them to discover the signup sheet for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant's softball team. This setup, which ends with Lenny daydreaming of Homer frying their opponents with a laser gun, passes with such sublime efficiency that you don't even notice how it's easing you into a full-tilt collapse of sitcom tropes, structure, and form.
On its surface, "Homer at the Bat" is a sports movie genre parody, with overt nods to everything from The Natural to The Pride of the Yankees. There's a slick riff on the sports hero origin story early in the episode when Homer shelters under a tall tree during a thunderstorm and—trying to cover himself (of course) with sheet-metal—discovers a magic stick, which he fashions into his "Wonderbat."
Soon it's revealed Mr. Burns has made a million dollar bet for the softball pennant—and he plans to win by stacking his team with the best baseball players money can buy. As soon as Mr. Burns tells Smithers he has "24 hours" to get his nine ringers, the episode snaps, and the frenetic gags slip into light-speed screwball.
To understand the craft behind this turn, you have to understand Simpsons writer, John Swartzwelder. An infamous recluse, Swartzwelder is credited with writing the most Simpsons episodes (59, contributing to several more)—as well as penning classics such as "Rosebud," "Krusty Gets Kancelled," and "Homer's Enemy." You can instantly feel a Swartzweldian joke, they are a seemingly impossible jumble of traditional setup and non sequitur: The infamous example in "Homer at the Bat" was Mr. Burns's confusion over Don Mattingly's "sideburns."
Swartzwelder's obsession for detail and old-timey Americana means his episodes strike a distinctly other-worldly tone: full of carnival barkers, door-to-door salesmen, and yes, baseball. His ear for pre-war American touchstones made Swartzwelder the ultimate Mr. Burns writer. In "Homer at the Bat," it was typified by Mr. Burns's Zephyrs get-up, his hawking of "brain and nerve tonic" (may cause gigantism), his reference to "the negro leagues," and (as Smithers observes) the fact Mr. Burns's desired right fielder had been dead for 130 years—all lent improbable believability by a top Harry Shearer performance.
Swartzwelder's distinct style makes "Homer at the Bat" great, but it was the collaborative process of The Simpsons, and the insanity of the episode's production, that made it something else. The episode was put together over six months, with professional baseball players being brought into record whenever their teams were playing in Los Angeles. Each player spent five minutes recording their part, and an hour signing autographs. Ken Griffey Jr. didn't understand the meaning of "there's a party in my mouth and everyone's invited."
This chaotic process made the episode nearly impossible to edit together, which is how it ended up with such a daring, sketch-like episodic structure. The disparate recording sessions—and the fact this was the show's first serious attempt of real life caricature—meant the nine ringers were not playing themselves but true cartoon stand-ins. It would allow them to create some of the greatest offbeat moments in Simpsons history. Some of the line readings from the players are just amazing. Mike Scioscia's sincere enthusiasm for nuclear power plant work, even after he spills radioactive material and Carl tells him not to worry. Scioscia replies with the gentlest, "Oh man, is this ever sweet." Somehow it just makes his fatal radiation poisoning diagnosis so gut-bustingly good, as the player responds to the news he'll barely be able to breathe tomorrow with a beleaguered, "Oh… maaan."
The dynamic that builds between Darryl Strawberry, Homer, and Mr. Burns could be a show in and of itself. There are few things as tragic as Homer asking Strawberry if he is a better right fielder, only to get the response, "Well, I've never met you. But yes." Equally hilarious is Strawberry and Mr. Burns's reciprocal brown-nosing, which peaks with Mr. Burns telling the rejected players that they have no heart and Strawberry chiming in with, "No hustle either, Skip."
Harry Shearer and Julie Kavner (Marge) famously disliked the episode because it took the focus off the family and onto the cameos. But it's this friction between the show's core group and the ringers that tip the Simpsons out of our world and into theirs. And the desperation never drops—Homer telling Bart to give up because someone will always be better than you at the thing you love is classic James L. Brooks sentimentality, sharply neutered by Bart's summation: "Can't win, don't try." Homer's dissatisfaction with his life crystalizes when Marge compliments his snuggling prowess and he replies, "Yeah, but none of my friends can watch me."
It's the divergence from the family-sitcom formula where the show lays out its new rules of TV, for itself and everyone else. When Burns considers what it'd take to stop his plan: "Three misfortunes? That's possible. Seven misfortunes? There's an outside chance. But nine misfortunes? I'd like to see that" the episode kicks into overdrive. A concussive string of jump-cuts: radiation poisoning, house fire, hypnotism, gigantism, coward punch, police brutality, mystery hole, unshaven sideburns, and finally Mr. Burns's decision to bench Strawberry even though he's hit nine home runs. "Homer at the Bat" sums itself up with a chintzy ballad, complete with the lyric, "Mike Scioscia's tragic illness made us smile."
The episode bled into reality as well: Mattingly was benched by Steinbrenner that following season for his "unacceptable" haircut. Stories circulated that two people were saved from choking because their rescuers knew the Heimlich maneuver from the opening scene. Terry Cashman reportedly receives more requests for "Talkin' Softball" than 1984's "Talkin' Baseball"—the song it was meant to be parodying.
Maybe most significantly for The Simpsons, the episode was the first time it beat The Cosby Show—then a ratings powerhouse—in that time slot. The Simpsons was no longer a fringe animation for obsessive nerds. This was the point in which they transcended the bounds of TV and became cultural avatars. The rapidity, the montage, the running gags, the cultural pastiche, the banality of Marge's sports-commentary: "Homer at the Bat" is the distillation critical elements that made classic Simpsons an unstoppable, all-consuming, hilarious comedy beast. There is no fat here. No frame is wanting of a gag, every setup is paid off. Nothing falls flat.
Twenty-five years later and the episode feels startlingly modern. The curse of The Simpsons was that at one point in time it was so startlingly brilliant that it eclipsed itself. Not many shows have "ages" of bronze, silver, and gold. Picking a favorite Simpsons episode is like picking between Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Elder, but for its influence and consistency, "Homer at the Bat" is mine.
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