The late Roger Ebert and I were probably equally talented on the baseball fields of our youth. That is to say, we certainly both selected the correct career path. If you are a true baseball fan, movies about your favorite sport are irresistible. There have been numerous “top-ten” and “best-of” lists of baseball movies, but someone’s opinion doesn’t matter if you fell in love with a movie the first time you viewed it on a screen. When Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble With The Curve” came out a few years ago, a baseball-loving friend of mine thought it was great. A mainstream baseball writer, however, took the film to task for its depiction of scouts as “grumpy and unfunny old men” instead of celebrating their contribution to the game. Which of them is correct? It doesn’t matter because for many of us, a movie about baseball is always worth the time.
For this visit, the Old Duck will ramble on about some of his personal favorites and delve into the archives for “Quacktoids” about the famous and obscure of the genre. Your favorites may be among them, but remember that opinions are like a part of your anatomy…everyone has one. Two top-25 lists from respected Internet sites each had nine movies that weren’t on the other list and film review site Rotten Tomatoes had five in their top-20 that didn’t appear on either of the other lists.
> 4 Stars
According to Leonard Maltin’s comprehensive movie guide, only one mainstream baseball movie qualifies as “****” and that is 1942’s “Pride Of The Yankees”. This biography of Lou Gehrig impacts even the Yankee haters in the audience and certainly belongs in the top five of all time. When Gary Cooper gives the famous, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech, there’s not a dry eye in the house. One interesting side note is that Lou Gehrig once appeared in a movie playing himself but it wasn’t about baseball. In 1938, just prior to him being diagnosed with ALS, he starred in “Rawhide”, a “B” movie Western. The premise was that Lou had retired from baseball, moved out west and joined forces with a singing lawyer. Together, they worked against a racketeer who’s stealing money from ranchers. Sound corny? Of course! But watch a few 1930’s movies with John Wayne, Roy Rogers & Gene Autry and you’ll understand.
> Kevin Costner
This Oscar-winning actor, director and producer obviously has an affinity for baseball. He made two films back-to-back in the late 1980’s that show up on just about every top-five list you will find. The outrageous “Bull Durham” (1988), is a minor league story of the veteran Catcher “Crash” Davis mentoring the kid Pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh. Worth watching over and over again if only to hear, “Why’s he calling me meat? I’m the one driving the Porsche”. And who wouldn’t convert to Annie Savoy’s Church of Baseball?
A year later, “Field Of Dreams” was the complete antithesis of the previous film. Costner’s character hears voices that convince him to build a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa corn farm and the next thing you know, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox show up to play. As with many sports movies that depend on history, the audience must have some “suspension of disbelief”. After all, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson didn’t throw left-handed, but the movie is, after all, a fantasy. “If you build it, he will come”.
A decade later, the star returned to the baseball diamond with 1999’s “For Love Of The Game”. Not up to the standard of the first two, it still gets points for the realistic end-of-season baseball game that provides the backdrop of the story and the brilliant decision to have Vin Scully do the play-by-play.
> Based On A True Story
This term usually means that the screenwriter and producer had some level of poetic license in the depiction of true events. Movies are infamous for creating a “Hollywood” ending that might be a real stretch. With that caveat, there have been many baseball movies that didn’t need much fabrication because the stories stood the test of time.
One such example is “Eight Men Out” (1988), the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and their attempt to throw the World Series. Director John Sayles was meticulous in creating the era on screen and Eliot Asinof’s book was the basis for the film. A wonderful ensemble cast made the players believable and the movie easily belongs in the top ten.
Even though it wasn’t a theatrical release, “61*” (2001) was an amazing film directed by lifetime Yankee fan Billy Crystal. The story of Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris chasing Babe Ruth’s record in the Summer of 1961 was brought to life beautifully without a major star in the cast to detract from the story. How could you not love a movie that casts knuckleball Pitcher Tom Candiotti to portray knuckleball Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm?
A heartwarming entry in this category is “The Rookie” (2002), which tells the true story of high-school baseball coach Jimmy Morris, who makes it all the way to the big leagues with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Be careful not to look through the bargain bin and accidently pick-up “The Rookie” (1990), the buddy-cop movie with Clint Eastwood & Charlie Sheen, as you’ll be very disappointed.
Speaking of heartwarming, don’t miss “The Stratton Story” (1949) with Jimmy Stewart playing White Sox Pitcher Monty Stratton, who lost his leg in a hunting accident. Major leaguers Jimmy Dykes & Bill Dickey appear in the film.
Turning a book about advanced baseball analytics into a mainstream success may sound like a stretch, but Director Bennett Miller, along with star Brad Pitt, put it all together in 2011’s “Moneyball” based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling book. It is rated as the #2 baseball movie ever by Rotten Tomatoes.
“A League Of Their Own” (1992) celebrated the professional woman baseball players who helped keep the game alive during the 1940’s. Lots of laughs and a few tears too, especially the final scene in Cooperstown. But, don’t forget, “There’s no crying in baseball”.
Even though it is in the documentary category, don’t miss finding “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (2000). It tackles two difficult historical topics…prejudice in the sport and how World War II impacted the lives of baseball players and fans.
After you’ve seen “42”, find “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), where Jackie plays himself. It was a “docudrama” before the term was invented.
Jimmy Piersall wasn’t a superstar player but his story was unique and you get a dramatic glimpse into an athlete recovering from a mental breakdown in “Fear Strikes Out” (1957). Three years before “Psycho”, Anthony Perkins portrays the Red Sox outfielder.
> Consensus Classics
These next three movies seem to pop-up on just about every top-ten list. “The Natural” (1984) tells the story of Roy Hobbs, who goes from obscurity to stardom in the twilight of his baseball years. Bernard Malamud’s novel was written in 1949, the same year major leaguer Eddie Waitkus was shot by a deranged female fan. Some say the event inspired the book, but no matter the back story, the film has some of the best cinema photography and set pieces in any sports film. And, of course, Robert Redford chose #9 as a tribute to Ted Williams.
“The Sandlot” (1993) is a charming little film, essentially for younger viewers, that follows a 1960’s sandlot baseball team through their trials and tribulations in the neighborhood of their small town.
“Major League” (1989) followed closely on the heels of Bull Durham and took the characterizations to a comic-book level. Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Dennis Haysbert and especially Bob Uecker, created the necessary atmosphere to make the rag-tag Cleveland Indians a pennant-winning team. Haysbert also played a baseball player in Tom Selleck’s “Mr. Baseball” (1992).
> Under The Radar
If you first became aware of Robert DeNiro’s acting chops in his Oscar-winning performance as young Vito Corleone is 1974’s “Godfather II”, you may have missed “Bang The Drum Slowly” (1973). Michael Moriarty plays the star Pitcher of a mythical New York baseball team (patterned after Tom Seaver?) and DeNiro is his slow-witted Catcher with a terminal illness. While accepting the actor’s skills as major leaguers might be difficult, the story is true to the sport.
I’m always surprised at how few baseball fans have seen “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Movie Kings” (1973). An homage to the barnstorming days of the Negro League players, it includes Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones & Richard Pryor in the cast. Look for former Angel slugger Leon Wagner as the 1B.
While not really a baseball movie, “The Naughty Nineties” (1945) must be included on the list for one reason. It contains the best recorded version of Abbott & Costello doing their “Who’s On First?” comedy routine. This is the film clip shown at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
> Rock Bottom
Every movie category has its clunkers and baseball in no exception. Stay away from sequels including Major League II & III as well as any of the Bad News Bears follow-ups and Sandlot 2 & 3. “Ed” (1996) is about a chimpanzee playing 3B in the minor leagues and “Talent For The Game” (1991) would have us believe a scout could put on catching gear and sneak into a televised major league game without anyone noticing.
Was one of your favorites missed? Maybe you’re a fan of musicals and feel “Damn Yankees” (1958) belongs in the discussion. Or Dizzy Dean’s biography, “The Pride Of St. Louis” (1952). Or either version of “Angels In The Outfield” (1951 & 1994). How about Tommy Lee Jones as “Cobb” (1994) or John Goodman’s version of “The Babe” (1992). As a Red Sox fan, I’d be remiss not to mention “Fever Pitch” (2005).
Whatever you decide to watch, save me an aisle seat.