It’s spring, the flowers have sprung, the air is clean and the breeze soothing. For sports fans, it means baseball season, whether it be the return of comparatively-overpaid major league players to our television sets, or the chance for some of us to shake off the winter doldrums and toss the ball around.
Warner Bros. isn’t oblivious to this, which is why this Friday sees the release of “42,” the Brian Helgeland-directed story of Jackie Robinson. One of the best second basemen of all-time, Robinson changed the face of sports forever by breaking the color barrier and taking his skills all the way through the Dodgers’ minor league system to become the first black major leaguer in sports history.
Baseball is a cinematic sport, not reliant on a narrative-fueling time clock to speed up the action but instead requiring human action, or inaction, to drive the story. As a result, some of the best baseball films have the potential to be about outsiders and insiders, stars and scrubs, managers and front office types. It’s exactly that type of awareness of dramatic potential that has led “42” to focus not only on Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) but on paradigm-shifting owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Of course, the movie seems to emphasize what makes baseball so pivotal in creating America’s national identity: Rickey isn’t interested in making history, he just wants to win more ballgames.
The Playlist staff came together to celebrate the very best in films about baseball, and we cast a wide net. In this list are tales of the Negro Leagues and the Black Sox, from New York Yankees to Durham Bulls. We found ourselves sympathizing with rich general managers and poor kids, prospects and superstars, legends and has-beens. What’s thrilling is that we found the best films in this subgenre don’t just tell the stories flickering on the screen in front of us, but about the history of the game, both where it’s been and where it’s going.
“The Sandlot” (1993)
There’s a reason why so many baseball films are about, and geared towards kids. As much as it remains a complex game with elaborate rules, it still appeals to that childhood sense of community and togetherness that ensures everyone plays an equal part. Which makes “The Sandlot” not just a children’s comedy about baseball, but a film about a small community. The story centers on new kid in town Scotty Smalls, but using very broad strokes, writer-director David M. Evans captures a collection of misfit personalities at each position, each one friendly enough to assist Smalls in his rites of initiation, whether it be coping with his somewhat ornery father-in-law (an intimidating Denis Leary) or learning the difference between Babe and Baby Ruth. Through one 1962 summer, this group of boys manage to find and lose love, develop new friendships, and defeat “The Beast,” owned by kindly neighborhood geezer Mr. Mertle (baseball movie veteran James Earl Jones). “The Sandlot” captures why baseball thrills younger kids: it’s the association to summer, when the days are long, the temperature runs hot, and it feels as if each day holds infinite possibilities, both before and after a quick nine innings. With the sort of touches that make a film like this a cultural touchstone for legions of young boys (chase sequences, urban legends and Wendy Peffercorn), “The Sandlot” is actually something of a classic.
“The Bad News Bears” (1976)
“The incredible story of how a disaster combined with a catastrophe and somehow became the greatest champs who ever played ball.” If you’re looking for a tale of pristine sportsmanship and great baseball, this is not the film for you. With a drunken Little League baseball coach, kids using foul language, and a cavalcade of off-color jokes, “The Bad News Bears” is not your typical baseball movie. Rather than starting with some great talent being discovered, the film’s premise stems from a lawsuit against the league for preventing less talented players time on the field, resulting in a team of the worst talents (including a near-sighted pitcher, an overweight catcher and a bigoted shortstop) in need of a suitable coach. This is where Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) steps in. Not quite what one would hope for in a Little League coach, Buttermaker is a curmudgeon (based off on the screenwriter’s father – Burt Lancaster) and spends the film cradling a beer can like a newborn. Getting to work on the near-hopeless squad, Buttermaker recruits the sharp-tongued, fast-pitching daughter (Tatum O’Neal) of one of his exes, and the “best athlete in the area” (Jackie Earle Haley) who smokes cigarettes and rides a Harley Davidson. Between Matthau’s blank stares and O’Neal’s spunk, The Bears win where it counts, and the film spawned two sequels (one set in Japan), a TV series and a remake in 2005 along with inspiring a generation of childhood crushes (including Vince Vaughn and Quentin Tarantino) on Tatum O’Neal.
“The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)
Samuel Goldwyn condemned the idea of a baseball movie – “It’s box office poison. If people want baseball, they go to the ballpark!” If that was the case, this list wouldn’t exist and “The Pride of the Yankees” wouldn’t have been named 3rd best sports movie and 22nd most inspiring film in American cinema by the AFI. The story of Lou Gehrig is an inspiring, albeit tragic one – a Columbia engineering student becomes a ballplayer and works his way up from the minors to the New York Yankees. While playing for the Yankees, Gehrig (Gary Cooper) finds love with a baseball fan (Teresa Wright) and becomes a fan and team favorite. In a recreation of one of the most touching (and oft-parodied) moments in baseball history, Gehrig promises a crippled boy (Gene Collins) that he will hit two home runs during the World Series in his honor, and does just that. Things start to turn when Gehrig begins to feel weaker and we find out why — it’s ALS (later known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Finding out he has little time left to live, Gehrig addresses the crowd at Yankee Stadium and the film ends with the tear-jerking line, “People all say that I’ve had a bad break, but today… today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” The film was released just 17 months after the actual Lou Gehrig passed away. Featured baseball players include a very funny Babe Ruth (a former roommate of Gehrig’s on the road) and cameos by Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig. Interesting trivia includes the fact that Gary Cooper had never played baseball before getting the role and that with his right-handedness (compared to Gehrig’s left-handedness) they had to use image reversal for at least one sequence.
“Angels in the Outfield” (1951)
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite film when he was president, “Angels in the Outfield” is about Pittsburgh Pirates manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas), who begins to hear voices, and reporter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) who hounds him about the Pirates’ losing streak. The voice turns out to be an angel who promises to help the Pirates if McGovern cuts out his and the team’s foul language and behavior, true to the era of Ike and the 1950s . With the help of the ghosts/angels of past baseball players, the Pirates make it to the pennant. Unfortunately for McGovern, Paige gets a real scoop in an 8 year-old orphan (Donna Corcoran) who can see the angels (which makes sense as she’s the one who prayed for them to appear). A vengeful sportscaster (Keenan Wynn) takes the story and tries to get McGovern thrown out of the league. In the end, McGovern is forced to rely on his team’s talents – winning not only the big game, but possibly a family (if he marries Paige and adopts the orphan as hinted in the ending). For baseball fans, some great scenes were shot at Forbes Field (the old Pirates stadium) and cameos include Bing Crosby (who owned 15% of the actual Pirates), Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio. A bit schmaltzy, it’s an enduring classic about believing in baseball and happy endings in general. Many of you will remember the 1994 remake, which features the California Angels instead of the Pirates and doesn’t include the romantic plot, but boasts a cast that includes Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd, a prepubescent Joseph Gordon-Levitt and ball-players played by Tony Danza, Matthew McConaughey and Adrien Brody.
“A League Of Their Own” (1992)
The story of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which started in 1942 with all the male ballplayers fighting in WWII, “A League of Their Own” is something of a touchstone for any female athletes of a certain age told they simply weren’t good enough. With a snappy script of quotable one-liners, the Penny Marshall-directed comedy also manages to tug its share of heartstrings. “A League of Their Own” managed to not only make baseball accessible and riveting to non-fans as well as fanatics, it showed that the sport was grueling and the girls (and guys) who played it played hard and suffered for the game they loved. It features a great ensemble cast, including alpha female Geena Davis fresh off “Thelma And Louise,” Madonna in one of her better acting turns, Tom Hanks, playing against type as the blotto Jimmy Dugan and a scene-stealing Rosie O’Donnell as Madonna’s loudmouth BFF. The narrative unspools in extended flashback, illustrating the conflict between Dottie Hinson (Davis) and plucky younger sister Kit Keller (Lori Petty), as two sides of a coin: one who is settled in the traditional values of marriage and family, and the other who yearns for the new freedom the AAGPL offers. Their reluctant alcoholic and antagonistic manager Dugan (Hanks) doesn’t take it seriously and instead Hinson steps up as manager, fueling an inevitable separation, creating a rift both personal and professional. Though at moments “A League of Their Own” can veer into sappy cliché territory, Marshall’s ability to keep baseball at the cinematic center, as well as effectively combine laughs, gasps and tears (even though “there’s no crying in baseball!”), make this film a heartfelt favorite, baseball fans or no.
“The Natural” (1984)
“The Natural” resonates with any baseball fan, whether it is your favorite movie, a rite of passage during your Little League years, or, like some of our staff, a bone of contention as you disagree with the general consensus amongst critics that it is one of the best sports movies of all time. Based on the Bernard Malamud novel, the film begins with a father and son playing catch. The father suddenly dies and lightning strikes a nearby tree, splitting it in half. The boy carves a baseball bat out of the tree and names it “Wonderboy.” That boy is Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) and this is the beginning of a truly bizarre and inspiring baseball saga. From striking out “The Whammer” (based on Babe Ruth) to eating a bullet fired by alluring stalker Barbara Hershey, Hobbs endures a lifetime of highs and lows before finding his way onto the New York Knights at 35. From there, he proves his naysayers wrong by bringing the team out of its slump and hitting home run after home run. But the Knights’ owner tries to sabotage Hobbs using both an in-her-prime Kim Basinger and a poisoned éclair to distract the slugger. Temptation! Luckily, Hobbs powers through to win the big game and the love of the optimistic and near-saintly Iris (Glenn Close) with one of the most iconic baseball home-runs in cinematic history. Despite a controversial departure from the source material (imagine the EXACT opposite of Hobbes’ triumph, but worse), the movie has taken a life of its own, being referenced in other great baseball movies – “Field of Dreams” and “The Sandlot” – to being spoofed at least five times on “The Simpsons.”
“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings” (1976)
Loosely based on the exploits of Negro League players who opted to ply their trade outside of their poorly-compensated central profession, this John Badham-directed sports comedy manages to capture the strife and discontent of segregation-era baseball. When W.E.B. Dubois-reading catcher Leon Carter (James Earl Jones, in a role loosely based on Josh Gibson) holds court regarding the prospect of these mistreated athletes acting independently of their penny-pinching owners, charismatic pitcher Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams, effervescently channeling Satchel Paige) proposes their own amateur league as something of a sideshow. Traveling from town to town, barely getting by, these players employ showmanship and irreverence not only winning over racist white fans, but also eventually outdrawing their Negro League competition. The presence of Richard Pryor as Charlie Snow, a troublemaker eager to get into the majors, suggests that this would be a more lightweight film that skimps on the very real hardships faced by black athletes near the start of the twentieth century and beyond. But Snow ends up participating in the film’s darkest subplot, revealing that as many smiles as Bingo and Leon can muster (Williams and Jones are having a helluva time, and it’s infectious), there’s always trouble waiting outside the diamond. The definitive Negro Leagues film has yet to be made, but ‘Bingo Long’ doesn’t short on the virulent racism faced by these great athletes, nor does it trivialize the more practical problems based in class and opportunism.
Animalistic, terrifying, and loaded with talent: those are the words that capture the essence of not only legendary outfielder Ty Cobb, but also Tommy Lee Jones’ ferocious performance as the infamous Georgia Peach in Ron Shelton’s woozy, disorienting drama. The film is based on a famous chronicle penned by journalist Al Stump (played by an overmatched Robert Wuhl), who famously printed the legend based on a collection of topsy-turvy days spent in an elderly Cobb’s company, later writing a more truthful and more incendiary account upon Cobb’s passing, documented here. What’s fascinating is the ornery depiction of Cobb not only as an unrepentant racist and sexist bruiser, but also as an unstoppable competitor, suggesting that the flood of hate coursing through his veins made him not only a monster, but, on the field, an unstoppable hitter with unmatched skill, complicating the hero worship held by Stump at the start of the film, seemingly a remnant of a lost era. Shelton, a former minor league ballplayer who has made films about golf (“Tin Cup”), boxing (“Play It To The Bone”) and basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of Stump’s book (which has been questioned for its veracity), making a decidedly downbeat film that smartly questions the idea of legendary ballplayers as heroes, creating a picture that grants viewers a greater understanding of the depth and humanity captured within America’s pastime.
There’s never been all that much love devoted to Billy Crystal the director, but based on his charming, wonderfully old-fashioned 1995 romantic comedy “Forget Paris” and this thoughtful, well-acted made-for-HBO baseball biopic, dude knows his way around behind the camera. Crystal focuses on baseball’s most famous and winning team, the New York Yankees, specifically the 1961 season that saw Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) usurp Babe Ruth’s long held single season home run record of 60. Crystal and his screenwriter, former sports reporter turned screenwriter Hank Steinberg, give the proper context for the uninitiated (Ruth as God to Yankees fans, his many records so monumental that the thought of another mortal topping them became sacrilegious) so anyone, fan or otherwise, can enjoy “61*.” But baseball devotees should enjoy it as well because it gets so much right: the importance of statistics; that amazing ’60s era Yankees team; the historical accuracy; the ace casting (Pepper and Thomas Jane, playing legend Mickey Mantle, are perfect for their roles, looks and ability-wise); the legit look and feel of the baseball. Despite the use of a tired first person interview biopic structure — which is actually pretty well utilized — the film achieves a sense of sadness and appreciation for the two men it zeroes in on.
“Major League” (1989)
Director David S. Ward had a relatively minor career after helming the two “Major League” films, and it’s not exactly some sort of travesty that he never lived up to this iconic sports classic. Not to say he doesn’t do a phenomenal job with the material in “Major League,” which has become a significant clubhouse classic to an entire era of ballplayers. The bigger disappointment is losing Ward as a writer, as his real-life status as a Cleveland Indians fan allowed him to populate “Major League” with a crew of characters that were both inspired comic creations and instantly recognizable baseball “types,” the likes of which were, and remain, familiar to long-time sports fans. The narrative is common, and somewhat depressing for some fans, with a cheapskate owner intending to strip-mine the Indians and turn them into also-rans in an attempt to shuffle the franchise to Florida. But in the ragtag-leftovers-learn-to-win category, the lack of freshness regarding the story is offset by a fairly impressive group of comedic performances. As reliever Ricky Vaughn, Charlie Sheen perfectly taps into that insouciance of reckless youth and naivete. As alpha male veteran Jake Taylor, Tom Berenger perfectly captures that clubhouse leadership role mixed in with a dunderheaded jock appeal, an overtly romantic portrayal of a faded star. And stealing all of his scenes is Wesley Snipes as Willie Mayes Hayes, the insufferably bombastic showboat on the basepaths.
The romanticism of the game clashes with the practicality of sports as contemporary business in Bennett Miller’s adaptation of the non-fiction best-seller “Moneyball.” It’s impossible for the modern fan to not consider the economics of the game, as depicted in the painful opening moments of the film, where Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) listens powerlessly as his bargain-basement team completes an inevitable loss in the postseason to the massively pricier New York Yankees, the collective weight of the Yankees’ near-mythical payroll collapsing onto Beane’s small-market dreams. Millions of fans feel this defeat coming every year, but Beane’s job is to circumvent a compromised system to maintain a slender budget while also remaining competitive as their best players depart for distinctly greener pastures. Though Beane finds salvation in the irreverent new sabermetric approach by cub exec Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), he remains unfulfilled – the poetry in “Moneyball” is in finding a new way to do business in a manner where you can never be certain if it’s working. As the A’s become a winning ballclub, it can’t help but feel like smoke and mirrors, and Beane jeopardizes long-time relationships and risks professional mockery for a championship, a result only one out of thirty teams celebrates every year. In other words, what if you were a trail blazer and had nothing to show for it? “Moneyball,” picked up from the ashes of a previous, different version by Steven Soderbergh, is a film about fascination, about a truth far away from your grasp, a question without an answer.
“Eight Men Out” (1988)
John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” tells the story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal and the eight players who were banned from playing professional baseball for throwing (or “throwing”) the 1919 World Series. Adapting Eliot Asinof’s book of the same name, Sayles’ 1988 film casts a mostly sympathetic eye on the ballplayers, showing a group of men who, while praised by fans and are at the height of their talents, felt underpaid and were resentful of the White Sox owner, Charles “Commie” Comiskey, himself famous for being a miser (he made the players pay to launder their uniforms and rewarded the team with cheap champagne after winning the 1917 pennant). “Eight Men Out” moves at a swift pace, filling the first half with plenty of old-timey baseball action before the tone shifts down to the subsequent conspiracy trial and fallout from the scandal. The cast is a who’s who of character actors and up-and-comers, including Sayles regular David Strathairn as pitcher Eddie Cicotte, D.B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson, John Mahoney as manager William “Kid” Gleason, John Cusack as Buck Weaver, a pre-“Major League” Charlie Sheen as Hap Felsch, and Michael Rooker as Chick Gandil, the instigator of the fix. Sayles covers a lot of ground, showing the complexities of the scandal in the two-hour runtime, and the end result is a fine depiction of when baseball was the reigning pastime and a reminder of a less cynical era when players said they just wanted to play ball, and we believed them.
“Bull Durham” (1988)
Anyone who’s watched ESPN in the past 20 years probably remembers the network’s often hilarious commercials, which brilliantly spoof sports culture and make actors out of former athletes and broadcast journalists. There was a time when ESPN remade scenes from famous sports movies, casting its on-air personalities in the roles but otherwise recreating them verbatim. One of the favorites were the “Bull Durham” segments, in which the indelible crew at the time for “Baseball Tonight” — baseball nerd legend Peter Gammons, former player turned commentator Harold Reynolds, and more — lovingly re-enacted two famous moments from sports movie director Ron Shelton’s beloved baseball comedy: the “lollygaggers” scene and the “what’s it like in the show?” bus sequence. ‘Durham,’ starring Kevin Costner (who would become the Babe Ruth of baseball movies) as salty veteran catcher Crash Davis and lanky Tim Robbins as brash pitcher Nuke Laloosh, looks at the world of minor league baseball, where some players toil for years and never get called up to the big leagues while others are merely waiting impatiently to inevitably move up. It’s a smart, sexually frank, very funny and wonderfully scripted baseball movie, one that’s often understandably cited as the best of the genre. Shelton, a former minor leaguer writing from experience, would have later sports successes, like “Cobb,” “Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” but perhaps he’ll never make as good a film as “Bull Durham.”
As majestic as baseball may look on the big screen, it doesn’t necessarily capture the realities of a game where thousands of players compete just to make it to a major league diamond, and dreams die every day. “Bull Durham,” which paints a fairly accurate portrait of the minor league system, carries with it an unmistakable sense of hope. But the decidedly more balanced “Sugar” captures the realities of the modern game better than any recent baseball picture, with Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden’s narrative capturing the life of a minor league prospect who doesn’t rise up the ranks as much as plateau as a promising talent stuck in neutral gear. Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto) is like many young ballplayers, seeing the game as a way to thrive away from the village where he keeps his home. But pushed into the game so early, Miguel hasn’t been able to distinguish his identity away from the ballpark, and his eventual trip to America is fraught with angst about his identity, a stranger in a strange land, with strange, borderline worshipped ability. “Sugar” depicts the mundane careers of low-level minor leaguers, some who don’t even know English, slinging fastballs in the cornfields of the Midwest and playing a part in America’s pastime as if they were sacrifices to an unfamiliar religion. While heartbreaking, “Sugar” is powered by a human heart: there are no villains in “Sugar,” only a support system around Sugar eager to see him succeed. In a way, it’s a picture about the American Dream, and what it means for someone who hasn’t quite figured out how, or why they should be dreaming in the first place.
“Field of Dreams” (1989)
For many American boys, baseball has been the bridge that unites them with their fathers. Yeah, it’s a cliché to say this, but clichés are often loaded with truth. For “Field of Dreams,” Phil Alden Robinson’s beautiful, meditative and moving dramedy with Kevin Costner in one of his best performance to date, the writer-director tapped into this very real cliché, and the result was the best damn baseball movie ever made. Yet it’s not even a baseball movie in the way we typically associate the genre. Sure, baseball is played in it, and the sport is omnipresent in every scene, not unlike one of the ghosts from the Iowa cornfield that Costner plows and turns into a baseball field (the field still stands today as a tourist destination near Dyersville). Hearing a perfectly-pitched (creepy, yet soothing) voice tell him “if you build it, he will come,” Costner risks his family and life to pursue an obsession he can’t shake. Robinson has always been an underrated, gifted and thoughtful filmmaker, and his take on the material (adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe”) is so assured it’s scary to think of any other director’s vision of the movie. He packs in fascinating history (the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal) with grounded, atypical fantasy elements and lets his terrific cast do the rest of the work. Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley are all at the top of their game. The film has a restless vibe, and its spirit of the ‘60s attitude (which may be played out now, but works perfectly here) complements the contemplative mood. Wanna see grown men cry like babies? Put on “Field of Dreams” and watch the tears flow like a leaky faucet, especially at the climax, when Costner gets another chance to “have a catch” with his father. Pure movie magic.
When Hollywood first sought to tell the story, they went straight to the source, with Jackie Robinson playing himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” an upbeat and able biopic that nonetheless didn’t make our list due to taking a fairly generous approach towards some genuinely virulent systematic racism. Jimmy Piersall’s life story “Fear Strikes Out” also deserves a mention, if only for “Psycho“-era Anthony Perkins absolutely losing control during ballgames and picking fights with teammates and fans. Baseball plays a sizable role in the little-seen Don DeLillo-penned drama “Game 6,” with a primo intellectual showdown between playwright Michael Keaton and theater critic Robert Downey Jr. A pre-“Mean Streets” Robert De Niro is absolutely heart-breaking as a player in “Bang The Drum Slowly” but also memorably nasty as a psycho in Tony Scott‘s steroidal “The Fan.” And we’d be remiss in not mentioning that despite it’s hackneyed melodrama, Sam Raimi‘s “For Love of The Game” features some of the single best and most convincing baseball footage ever seen in a major studio film. — Gabe Toro, Erik McClanahan, Deborah Bosket, Diana Drumm
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