Retro Review: “Angels in the Outfield” Is Still A Pittsburgh Home Run After 70 Years
In our Retro Review series, we ask our editorial intern Emma Malinak to watch made-in-Pittsburgh flicks from the 20th century — long before she was even born.
More than 70 years after its release, “Angels in the Outfield” stands as more than an old Hollywood sports comedy — it serves as a time capsule that showcases the ever-evolving Steel City on the silver screen.
The movie, released in September 1951 after being filmed in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, follows the story of fictitious Pittsburgh Pirates manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) as he helps the team escape a season-long slump. McGovern’s guardian angel tells him that as long as he curbs his bad habits — and stops using curse words and fist fights to communicate with umpires, players and fans alike — angels will guide the Pirates to victory.
Real Pirates’ uniforms and equipment were used on set at Forbes Field, which was home to the team from 1909 to 1970, to realistically capture America’s favorite pastime. According to the Heinz History Center, most of the action scenes in the movie are comprised of real footage from Pirates games, and Pirates legend Pie Traynor coached the film’s actors to make every catch, pitch and hit look authentic.
McGovern mends his ways throughout the film. With help from a local reporter and an orphan girl who can see the angels on the field, he gathers national support for the team as they beat the odds. The Pirates win the pennant in the climactic finale — not with the help of the angels, but with the new strength that McGovern gives every player by believing in them.
The message that a little belief — in yourself and in others — can go a long way was something Pittsburgh needed to hear in the 1950s.
With the steel industry declining, the state government began to fund the reimagination of the Golden Triangle in 1945, razing more than 30 acres to create Point State Park and developing new bridges and high-rise buildings. The next 15 years became known as the Pittsburgh Renaissance; in addition to construction, the city adopted changes by passing legislation for pollution and smoke control, creating projects to decrease flooding and improving public transportation and traffic patterns.
By the end of the 1950s, Pittsburgh was hailed as America’s model Renaissance city — but when work began at the start of the decade, locals couldn’t foresee that outcome. They only knew that the Pittsburgh they loved was being demolished.
The hope that locals needed to navigate the turbulent times is found in “Angels in the Outfield,” which proved to Pittsburgh that change is possible when people believe in those around them. If a city once known as “hell with the lid off” can become the set of a glamorous Hollywood classic, and if the blasphemous McGovern can learn to make the angels proud, then anything is possible.
A supplemental note to Gen Z readers: Don’t let the black-and-white cinematography scare you away, because “Angels in the Outfield” is worth a watch. Step into Pittsburgh’s history and enjoy these five timeless elements.
- The girl power: Although the 1950s aren’t known for the empowerment of women, this film’s female lead, local reporter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) is a trailblazer. Paige escapes from writing the “household hints” column for the ladies’ page and forges her own path by chasing leads and demanding answers as a sports reporter. She even gets her own name in the bylines of her stories — an achievement that was rare at the time.
- The celebrity appearance: Bing Crosby, famous for his roles in “White Christmas,” “Anything Goes” and other movie musicals, had a 25% share in the ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1946 until his death in 1977. He makes a special appearance in the film to congratulate the Pirates on their winning streak.
- The timeless humor: McGovern uses humor to cope with the challenges of mending his ways; he even resorts to using Shakespearean insults, such as “fie, fie upon you,” to scold an umpire instead of swearing.
- The Pittsburgh scenes: If you want to experience a ’50s Pirates game, “Angels in the Outfield” serves as a time machine to visit Forbes Field at the height of its popularity. Keep an eye out for University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning that towers over the bleachers of the Oakland stadium.
- The ’90s remake: A movie has to be top-notch for Disney to make a reboot, right? In 1994, Pittsburgh’s classic story in black-and-white was reimagined as a feel-good flick about the California Angels, starring A-listers such as Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd and Matthew McConaughey. The world premiere was held at Three Rivers Stadium!
You can watch the original trailer.