America’s pastime has been a staple of film since before the turn of the century. And while silent movies featuring games of pepper or a man on a motorcycle racing a pitched baseball to see how fast it travels may not be true cinematic classics, they beat out “Summer Catch” any day.
To honor this special time of year, when the nation’s sports fans turn their attention to steroids, perjury trials, and athletes making $25 million a year claiming to be underpaid—you know, the things that make the game great—Film Slate Magazine presents the top 10 baseball movies that you need for your collection.
“The Bad News Bears” (1976) If most modern day sports movies seem derivative, then it’s mostly due to “The Bad News Bears.” Written by Bill Lancaster (son of Burt, and based on the experiences he had playing on a team coached by his famous father) and directed by Michael Ritchie, the original “Bad News Bears” invented the template, and has been copied a thousand times, but never done better. The Bears, which are the worst team in the league, are assigned down and out, alcoholic former minor league pitcher Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) as a coach. He’s merely in it for the paycheck, but gradually he grows to like the misfits on his team and wants them to succeed. What would become the usual cast of characters in most sports movies of the following decades (the nerd, the fat kid, the little kid with the Napoleon complex) is accentuated by a couple of ringers: Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the female pitcher torn between her tomboy past and more feminine pursuits, and Kelly (Jackie Earl Haley), the dirt bike riding hoodlum who just happens to be the best athlete hanging around the diamond. “Bears” is unapologetically politically incorrect (having had the good fortune to be made 20 years before the term was invented). Not only is it a snapshot of 1970s Americana, it’s a pretty accurate picture of the dynamics of team sports, and anybody who’s played will recognize every personality.
“Field of Dreams” (1989) This is the movie that solidified Kevin Costner as the quintessential All-American leading man. Costner plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa corn farmer who’s facing financial difficulties, and after hearing the command of “If you build it, he will come,” begins constructing a baseball diamond in his field. Ray tracks down a reclusive author (James Earl Jones) to help him interpret the signs he is receiving, and his spiritual quest brings forth the ghosts of the disgraced 1919 White Sox, Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster), and the chance to reconnect with his father. Costner owns this movie, as his portrayal of an everyman who’s in over his head but learns to let go makes this far more than just a baseball movie.
“Major League” (1989) Sure it’s formulaic, and is there ever any real doubt that this ragtag bunch of losers will get their act together and thwart the plans of the evil owner who wants to move the team? But “Major League,” written and directed by David S. Ward (who also wrote “The Sting”), never tries to be anything more than it is. Starring Tom Berenger as aging catcher Jake Taylor, Charlie Sheen as the fresh from jail Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Corbin Bernsen as Roger Dorn, the image conscious shortstop who merely wants to phone it in, and Bob Uecker as hapless announcer Harry Doyle, this movie is eminently quotable, and good mindless fun. It’s pretty much guaranteed that anybody who grew up and played baseball in this era, at one time or another, stood in the on deck circle, looked down at his bat and said, “F—k you, Jobu, I do it myself.”
“Bull Durham” (1988) Part love triangle, part treatise on aging and ambition, and part lecture on the philosophy of baseball, “Bull Durham” works on multiple levels. Every season, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) has an affair with a minor leaguer, and teaches him the ways of love and life on the road as a ballplayer. Her summer with the Durham Bulls takes a turn when she meets the can’t miss prospect Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and career minor league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who’s been assigned to turn LaLoosh into a major league pitcher. Annie never gets attached beyond the season, but as Crash’s career is winding down, he’s looking for something real. The movie, written and directed by Ron Shelton (who played in the minor leagues), has its own particular rhythm, much like the game of baseball itself. And much like baseball, it’s the little details of “Bull Durham” that make it so worthwhile.
“*61” (2001) In 1961, two New York Yankees took aim at the vaunted Babe Ruth’s home run record. Of course, the season had been expanded from 154 games to 162 games, so a few trusted names in the hierarchy questioned the validity if the record would be broken. Those two Yankees were Mickey Mantle, already a legend and a fan favorite, and Roger Maris, the shy, earnest player who certainly didn’t quite have the Mick’s knack for making friends and fans. “*61,” directed by Billy Crystal (whose love of Mantle and baseball of this era is quite obvious) and written by Hank Steinberg, drips with authenticity, with old Tiger Stadium standing in for Yankee Stadium. Mantle (Thomas Jane), whose aw-shucks charm and status as a demi-god overshadow his alcoholism and constant infidelities, and Maris (Barry Pepper), whose painful shyness and desire to merely play the game instead of being media fodder make him appear aloof to the fans and writers, are played as human beings rather than icons, and their chase for single season immortality is riveting, even though the outcomes were decided long ago.
“Amazing Grace and Chuck” (1987) This only makes my list because for some inexplicable reason, my freshman health class was shown this movie because the teacher (who was our varsity football coach) really didn’t like teaching, and felt he could get away with showing us movies all semester in lieu of actually imparting any knowledge to us. Joshua Zuehlke plays Chuck, a whiny little kid who’s the best pitcher in his league. After touring a missile silo, Chuck decides that he won’t play baseball until the world disarms all of its nuclear weapons. Boston Celtic Amazing Grace Smith (Alex English, who actually played for the Denver Nuggets at the time) hears about Chuck’s quest, and decides that he’ll quit pro basketball and follow Chuck’s lead. He moves to Chuck’s hometown, and several other pro athletes do the same. If I remember correctly, Amazing Grace gets blown up in a plane. Thus teaching kids that no matter what, the world will keep its damn nukes, so you better play ball.
“Eight Men Out” (1988) Great period drama, depicting a seamier side to baseball, and certainly one of the more well-known scandals to hit the major leagues. In 1919, several players of the Chicago White Sox, who had won the American League Pennant, are approached to throw the World Series for money. Many of the players do accept money, but after the fix is in, some back out, some keep playing poorly, and there are a few who never accepted money at all. When the scandal breaks two years later none of this matters. Any player found to be connected to the scandal, including Buck Weaver (John Cusack) who didn’t take any money, and Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), whose role in the scandal is the subject of debate, are banned from the game. While there may be a few minor historical inaccuracies, “Eight Men Out,” directed by John Sayles, remains the definitive cinematic account of this event which shaped professional baseball.
“The Pride of the Yankees” (1942) This makes the list because a) Gary Cooper is awesome (even though he looks ridiculously out of place during the baseball action scenes) and b) Cooper’s take on Lou Gehrig’s speech where he counts himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” has probably taken over Gehrig’s actual speech as historical fact.
“Cobb” (1994) Directed by Shelton, “Cobb” peels back the legend of Ty Cobb (played with a scary vengeance by Tommy Lee Jones). While he was unarguably one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Cobb was much less as a human being, and this movie doesn’t flinch at the truth. Robert Wuhl plays Al Stump, a writer assigned to write Cobb’s memoirs before he dies. Cobb wants to set the record straight, as he feels he has gotten a bad rap from the general public. But Stump finds that the racist, spiteful Cobb has pretty much been accurately portrayed, as he eschewed relationships with fellow ballplayers, his wives, and his children. A great character study–and a great performance by Jones.
“Ed” (1996) Matt LeBlanc and a monkey! ‘Nuff said.