Tom Hanks on baseball: 'A game to be loved'

A year after his COVID diagnosis, the actor looks back

March 16th, 2021

It was a year ago this week when Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, became the first and most famous faces of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were in Australia, where Hanks was scheduled to film a movie about Elvis Presley and play the part of Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker. They both tested positive for the virus, went into the hospital, then entered quarantine before returning to Los Angeles a couple of weeks later.

It all happened at a time when professional sports began to shut down in the United States and then quickly around the world, and it became clear that Major League Baseball wasn’t going to start its season at the end of March. Eventually, a 60-game regular season wouldn’t start until four months later, at the end of July.

It was at this remarkable moment -- as a global pandemic was about to be officially declared -- when Tom Hanks issued the following statement about a virus that had affected one of the world's most well-known and well-loved actors, and was about to change the planet forever:

"Hello folks," Hanks wrote on Instagram. "Rita Wilson and I want to thank everyone here Down Under who are taking such good care of us. We have COVID-19 and are in isolation so we do not spread it to anyone else. There are those for whom it could lead to a very serious illness. We are taking it one-day-at-a-time. There are things we can all do to get through this by following the advice of experts and taking care of ourselves and each other, no? Remember, despite all the current events, there is no crying in baseball. Hanx."

Now we have gotten sports back -- though the business of sports has dramatically changed along with everything else and still isn’t close to returning normalcy -- even as vaccines slowly begin to bring us all the way back. But one year after COVID-19 managed to find Tom Hanks in Australia, we have Spring Training and will have Opening Day in baseball on April 1.

So the other day I went back to Hanks, who delivered one of the most memorable lines in movie history in "A League of Their Own," Penny Marshall's sweet, wonderful film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Hanks played a manager named Jimmy Dugan, and it was in that role when he looked at one of his players and said, “Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball.”

Now I wanted to know from Hanks, a lifelong baseball fan, what it was like for him in the COVID-19 summer of 2020 and what his relationship was like with the game he grew up loving.

This was his e-mailed response:

“My sole involvement with the game of baseball was my recording of my one-time vendor calls. ‘Soda! Soda here! Peanuts! Bag of nuts! Not Baseball without peanuts!' That was for the radio-broadcast crowd noises created for the Oakland A’s games. I heard myself in one clip, and saw the cardboard cutout the management placed in the stands -- my high school face with a vendors’ hat and tray of snacks. I may have sold beer too. In 2020, not when Vida Blue was on the mound in Oakland.

“[But] I saw not a single game -- as baseball without a real crowd is, yes, a game to be loved but not an experience to savor. No TV, other than a re-watch of Ken Burns’s ‘Baseball.’ Once again, I fell into the infinity green of the grass between the foul lines, lamented the loss of Crosley Field (which I never saw) and the perfectly named Cleveland Municipal Lakefront Stadium (which I did). The latter could swallow up a summer night crowd of 6,237 sweltering fans as completely as Monstro the whale did Geppetto, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket.”

There, of course, is the soul of a true fan, talking about how baseball without a crowd is still a game to still be loved but not savored. In that one phrase Hanks -- who is a wonderful writer of fiction (the best-selling “Uncommon Type”) and a two-time Academy Award-winner as Best Actor -- captures what those of us who did watch the games on television felt last summer, the summer of empty ballparks and cut-out fans and pumped-in crowd noise, when even the crack of the bat somehow sounded different.

Only someone who loves baseball truly can talk about the “infinity green of the grass between the foul lines,” and find himself, because of Ken Burns, lamenting an old ballpark like Crosley Field in the same email in which the baseball kid in him evokes the memory of Vida Blue.

It will be different for Tom Hanks, baseball fan, this season. It will be different for all of us. This time we get to experience baseball again and savor it. Nothing to cry about there. Jimmy Dugan will be back along with everybody else.