Features and Columns · Movies

The Real Story Behind ‘Moneyball’

And what came next: criticism of the way the movie depicts the real events and ignores many details.
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on September 18th, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind the 2011 movie Moneyball. Plus the disputes over how it depicts those real events.

Moneyball stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, an ex-professional baseball player turned general manager of the Oakland Athletics. The A’s are one of the poorest teams in Major League Baseball, and Beane has to get creative if he wants to start winning games. In the movie, he enlists the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a geeky Yale grad with a passion for statistics. Together, they build a team of overlooked and undervalued players via the system of statistical analysis known as sabermetrics. Against all odds — and the expectations of baseball’s so-called experts — the A’s make the playoffs in 2002.

Directed by Bennett MillerMoneyball is inspired by a true story. Screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adapted Michael Lewis‘ 2003 nonfiction book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game for the thoughtful sports movie. But one of the many things that make Moneyball so interesting is how it deviates from those real events. Many critics were quick to point out everything that the movie rewrites or ignores. But details almost always have to change in order for a movie based on a true story to succeed, and by looking at the places where Moneyball takes artistic liberties, we can begin to understand the art of adaptation.

And so, here’s a look at the true story behind Moneyball, as well as the real disputes over the movie’s depiction of real events. 

How Billy Beane Changed the Game

Billy Beane’s main problem in Moneyball is money. The Oakland A’s are a small market team and could never attract the kind of revenue that the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox can. Unlike other sports, there is no salary cap in the MLB. Richer teams can spend and spend as much as they please. In the movie, Beane loses star players to both New York and Boston. 

As he sets out to rebuild his franchise in a new and interesting way, Beane encounters many skeptics. A pivotal moment comes when Beane decides to trade Carlos Peña, a rising star first baseman, and replace him with Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a catcher who has never played first. Beane likes Hatteberg’s offensive abilities and wants to keep him around. Unfortunately, the tendinitis in his elbow means the player is no longer suited for his catcher position. So Beane finds a new spot for him.

The movie portrays Beane as a failed former player who can give others a new lease on life, an executive who can make do without star talent and bring out the talent of lesser-known players. His risks pay off and he is celebrated for changing the game of baseball. 

The All-Stars Ignored by Moneyball

But there’s one major problem: Moneyball skips over much of the true story it’s depicting. For one thing, it mostly ignores a handful of All-Star players who were on the A’s during the 2002 season. At the time of the movie’s release, baseball writers pointed out its neglect of three standout pitchers on the team: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. In 2002, the trio pitched more than 200 innings for the team and averaged fewer than 3.5 runs per nine innings of play. Translation: they were really good. 

Zito made the All-Star Game in 2002. Hudson had been an All-Star in 2000. And Mulder would make his first All-Star appearance the following year. The three pitchers would make a combined total of nine All-Star games in their careers. And in 2002, the year depicted in Moneyball, Zito won the American League Cy Young Award, given to the best pitcher in the league. 

Beane’s greatest critics within the movie are the organization’s scouts. They don’t believe that statistics can replace the more human, qualitative approach to their work. The movie depicts the A’s success as Beane proving them wrong. But in actuality, Zito, Hudson, and Mulder were all drafted by the A’s organization. In other words, they were byproducts of the old school. 

Moneyball also ignores shortstop Miguel Tejada, who not only made the All-Star Game in 2002 but was named the American League’s most valuable player. And third baseman Eric Chavez, who won six consecutive Gold Glove awards in the early 2000s, similarly gets no respect. It’s no wonder baseball fans raised an eyebrow at the movie.

Undermining Manager Art Howe

There’s no question Billy Beane is the hero of Moneyball. He’s resolute, and he’s the one proven right in the end. Another of his main foils in the movie is Art Howe, the A’s manager, who is played by Philip Seymour HoffmanOn-screen, Howe not only voices his opposition to Beane’s strategy but at times outright defies him. It is after Howe refuses to start Hatteberg that Beane forces his hand and trades Peña. When the A’s start winning, Beane gets the credit. The team wins in spite of Howe, not because of his leadership. 

After the release of the movie, Howe, understandably upset, offered a more nuanced history of his time with the organization. In an interview for SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio, he said:

“Considering the book wasn’t [a] real favorable to me to start with, I figured it would be something like this, but to be honest with you it is very disappointing to know that you spent seven years in an organization and gave your heart and soul to it … and this is the way evidently your boss [Beane] feels about you.”

In the same interview, Howe also revealed that Michael Lewis only spent 10 minutes interviewing him for the Moneyball book. He added:

“If you ask any player that ever played for me they would say that they never saw this side of me, ever.”

Howe attributed his negative portrayal to the real-life Beane. After the interview, Beane responded by calling Howe’s comments “misguided” and said he was not responsible for the depiction of Howe in the movie.

According to a 2012 report in the Boston Herald, Howe was so hurt by the portrayal that he nearly didn’t attend an event celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the team’s playoff run. But in the end, it is impossible not to attribute some of the team’s success to Howe. During the five years Beane and Howe worked together, the A’s had four winning seasons. They appeared in the playoffs three times and twice won more than a hundred games in a season.

The Real Peter Brand

Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball, Peter Brand, is the antithesis of the professional baseball scouts he bests in strategy meanings. He’s polite, unassuming, dorky, quiet, and looks like anything other than a jock.

The first thing to know about Peter Brand is there is no Peter Brand. The character is based on Paul DePodesta, currently the head of the NFL football team the Cleveland Browns. A 2011 article in the Washington Post about DePodesta explains that he “wisely chose not to have his name attached to the movie.”

Among the reasons the article gives for DePodesta’s “wise” choice is that Moneyball did not leave much room for nuance. At no point did DePodesta or Beane advocate for eliminating traditional scouting methods as the film suggests. DePodesta says:

“There are human elements that go into the development of players. It’s probably a little dangerous if we just disregard that. On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that the data is important. Virtually everybody in the industry at this point would agree.”

It’s the kind of nuance that makes sense in real life but would really drag down a Hollywood movie like Moneyball. I mean, how boring would it be if everyone just got along?

The Art of Adaptation 

Like so much of Hollywood cinema, true story or not, Moneyball bends fact to fit form. Mainstream movies must have a protagonist we can root for and empathize with, one who beats the antagonist(s) and proves them wrong. Unfortunately, that sometimes means all-stars will be ignored, other contributors will be minimized, and nuance will be lost. That is what one finds in Moneyball. 

While many baseball fans have an issue with the movie’s depiction and rewriting of real events, Moneyball never pretends to be a documentary or piece of journalism. It takes a clear side and rolls with it. And so, we find the truth or “real story” of Moneyball not in the plot but in the fallout from the choices the adaptors made. Moneyball and its reception is a living document of the debate over sabermetrics, a debate that continues in baseball, and all professional sports, to this day. That’s as real as it gets.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.