For a sport that induces rabid obsession in its fans and narcolepsy in its detractors, there have been a startling number of well made, and totally different, movies about baseball. Some are historical, while others are coming-of-age stories. The really good ones, however, ascend to a level that extends far beyond the game. With Opening Day mere hours away, the writers of Bullz-Eye got together to rank their favorite baseball movies of all time. Several arguments ensued, furniture was broken, shots were downed, and ultimately, this list was made. Enjoy. And remember: You’re getting the deuce. And when you speak of us, speak well.
Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Released a year after Lou Gehrig’s death, this film follows the all-too-short life and career of the “other” 1930s Yankee slugger. Gary Cooper’s Gehrig is instantly likeable and believable, first because Cooper looks an awful lot like the Hall of Fame first baseman, but it’s his portrayal of the shy and humble Gehrig that earns “Pride of the Yankees” a spot on most everybody’s all-time baseball movies list. The Iron Horse long before Cal Ripken became the Iron Man, Gehrig’s tragic story is ideal Hollywood material, from his sudden breakdown due to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) to his timeless farewell speech in front of a packed Yankee Stadium crowd. Hearing Cooper say the words, “Today…I consider myself…the luckiest man…on the face of the earth” is guaranteed to give any baseball fan goose bumps.
A movie directed by a baseball fan (Billy Crystal), for baseball fans, HBO’s “61*” recounts Roger Maris’ record-breaking 1961 season and his rocky relationship with Mickey Mantle, the New York media and Yankee fans. Barry Pepper, who took a turn as Dale Earnhardt in ESPN’s “3” earlier this year, is tremendous as the careworn Maris, a man so overwhelmed by the intense scrutiny he found himself under during his chase of Babe Ruth’s record that his hair began falling out in clumps. Thomas Jane also delivers a nice performance as the boozing, womanizing Mantle, so adored by the New York fans and writers that they actually rooted against Maris, convinced that the home run record was Mantle’s to break. Sandwiched between actual footage of Mark McGwire’s own historical season of 1998, Maris’ story is both depressing and uplifting because Crystal carefully paints his characters as invincible on the field and vulnerable off it. Sadly, following his recent testimony in front of Congress, it looks as though McGwire’s numbers might get slapped with the dreaded asterisk as well.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
A drunk ex-minor league coach (Walter Matthau) is in charge of the motliest crew of players in a very tough California baseball league. The pitcher’s a girl (Tatum O’Neal). The catcher’s the size of a freighter. Their star outfielder is a juvenile delinquent who hustles little kids out of money at the arcade (Jackie Earle Haley, a name that just screams serial killer). Their shortstop is a pipsqueak who will fight with anyone, anywhere, anytime, and their sponsor is a bail bondsman. What’s not to love?
As tough as this group sounds, the movie’s surprisingly sweet. At its center is the relationship between Matthau’s Coach Buttermaker and O’Neal’s Amanda, but the most unforgettable scene may be when a rival coach beats his own son on the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a game. The way he exacts his revenge is one of the sweetest plays of the game.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall’s love letter to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, “A League of Their Own,” is notable for several things – it features Madonna’s finest acting performance, and Lori Petty’s finest looks – but it makes the list solely for the famous scene between Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) and right fielder Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram). When she fails to hit the cutoff man, he lays into her, and she bawls. “What…. Are you crying? There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!” (A later scene, where Dugan tries his hardest not to lay into her for the same infraction, is some of the finest acting of Hanks’ career.) But Geena Davis is the rock of the movie as catcher and AAGPLB All Star Dottie Hinson. She’s so good, so grounded that you can see exactly why Petty’s Kit, who’s Dottie’s sister, is in awe of her yet deeply resents her at the same time. Fun, funny and deeply touching. But don’t blink or you’ll miss Tea Leoni.
The Natural (1984)
Yes, the final scene with the home run and the exploding lights is a bit over-the-top (and not at all what happens in the Bernard Malamud novel on which the movie is based), but you’ve got to love “The Natural.” For one, is there a better fictitious baseball name out there than Roy Hobbs (okay, aside from Crash Davis), and secondly, how cool would it be to smack a big-league homer with a bat you carved yourself? Granted, you’d think Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) could’ve come up with a more original name for his mighty bat than Wonderboy, but we’ll let that slide. The age-old battle between good and evil is on display throughout “The Natural,” the first villain showing up in the form of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), a woman whose hobby of choice is murdering talented athletes. Sixteen years later, Hobbs’ comeback bid threatens to be road blocked by the Judge (Robert Prosky), sportswriter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) and temptress Memo Paris (Kim Basinger). Thankfully, childhood sweetie Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) saves the day while Hobbs’ melodramatic homer wins the pennant.
The Sandlot (1993)
If you played baseball with your buddies growing up, then you’ll appreciate this classic set in the 1960s, which illustrates with wonderful clarity everything that matters to most 12-year-old boys. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is new to town, so when Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), the best player on the neighborhood sandlot team, asks the dorky Smalls to play outfield, he jumps at the chance. If only he knew how to catch, throw or hit. Hell, he doesn’t even know who Babe Ruth is (“Who is she?” he asks), much to the chagrin of his new teammates, Timmy, Tommy, DeNunez, Bertrum, Ham, Yeah Yeah and Squints, who fakes drowning at the public pool so he can kiss the hot lifeguard while she’s giving him mouth-to-mouth. The movie’s about baseball, but to these nine kids, winning and losing doesn’t mean nearly as much as playing the game with their friends. Like all the best childhood films (think “Stand By Me” or “A Christmas Story”), “The Sandlot’s” greatest accomplishment is depicting so precisely what it means to be a kid.
Eight Men Out (1988)
The film version of Eliot Asinov’s book about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal is a textbook example of ‘right place, right time.’ Indie auteur John Sayles wrote and directed, assembled a superb cast (John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, David Straithairn, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, even Gordon Clapp from “NYPD Blue”), and he absolutely nailed the pace and play of the game at that time. Most importantly, Sayles humanized a pretty despicable group of guys without martyring them, which is no mean feat. The movie’s final scene, where Cusack’s Buck Weaver convinces two spectators that the right fielder is not Sweeney’s “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, is one for the ages.
Major League (1989)
There are better-made, more praise-worthy movies than this, but like the Cleveland Indians club they play in the movie, “Major League” is fiercely admired if not greatly respected. Before he became President of the United States, Dennis Haysbert was mainly known as Pedro Cerrano, the voodoo-worshiping slugger who couldn’t hit a curveball if he was swinging a Redwood tree. (His use of Corbin Bernsen’s golf club covers to keep his bats hot was the inspiration for my best friend’s fantasy baseball team name, Hats For Bats.) Wesley Snipes and Rene Russo were relative unknowns until their performances here, as hotshot leadoff man Willie Mays Hayes and Tom Berenger love interest Lynn Wells. The funniest character, however, has to be James Gammon’s Coach Lou Brown. “Nice catch. Don’t ever fuckin’ do it again.” “You run like Mays, but you hit like shit.” One of the all-time underdog movies. Read the full review.
Field of Dreams (1989)
If you build it, he will come. Apparently, if you write a baseball movie, Kevin Costner will come. Whereas Costner’s “Bull Durham” succeeds on the strength of its humor and realism, “Field of Dreams” endears itself to baseball fans and dreamers alike with an equal dose of fantasy and sentimentality. Based on the W.P. Kinsella novel "Shoeless Joe" and buoyed by memorable performances from Costner, Ray Liotta and James Earl Jones, “Field of Dreams” is often thought of as being too sappy, but it’s okay for a sports movie to have heart as long as it’s genuine. Jones’ “people will come” speech has been committed to memory by more than a few baseball fans, and the closing father/son game of catch will tug at the heartstrings of anybody who’s tossed the ball around with dad in the backyard. Read the full review.
Bull Durham (1988)
Baseball purists love “Bull Durham” because of its spot-on take on the minor leagues, seldom seen on the big screen (writer/director Ron Shelton spent five years in the Baltimore Orioles farm system). But while the movie is loaded with memorable moments – catchers giving signals to hitters, the lyrics to “Try a Little Tenderness,” breathing through your eyelids, the quickest way to get thrown out by the umpire – its secret weapon is its soul. The lessons Crash Davis (a never better Kevin Costner) teaches both pitching prodigy Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and Durham Bulls groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon, whose audition for the role is Hollywood legend) may involve baseball, but are by no means limited to it. The best date movie about sports ever made. Read the full review.