Pages Menu
TwitterRsslogin
Categories Menu

Posted by on Mar 29, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 1 comment

My Ten Favorite Baseball Movies

 

 

Baseball season starts today.

I’m not much of a baseball fan, that is, except when I gamble on the games.  Then, I become a fanatic.  I don’t have a favorite team.  I cheer for whichever team I bet on.

Baseball is strange.  Unlike football, baseball doesn’t come across particularly well on television.  Yet for reasons I can’t explain, baseball is far superior when it comes to being the subject of movies.  At least a dozen outstanding baseball movies and documentaries instantly come to mind, which you’ll read about shortly.  Meanwhile, I struggle to come up with even a single great movie about football.  Or, basketball.  Or, most other sports.  Go figure.

What follows are my all-time favorite movies about baseball.

First, let’s begin with my four “Honorable Mentions.”  This means movies well worth seeing, but didn’t quite round all the bases and crack my top ten list:

 

HONORABLE MENTION:

Mantle (2005)

Mickey Mantle carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders.  He was the most popular athlete in America on the most storied franchise in sports history during an era when the country was at the height of its world power when nothing seemed impossible.  Mantle’s towering home runs and infectious “aw-shucks” attitude masked deeply hidden insecurities.  He played hard on the field and then partied much harder off of it.  Was Mantle, as some insist, a tragic hero?  That’s for us to decide in this mesmerizing film directed by George Roy, who produced several other terrific sports documentaries.  Mantle steadfastly refuses to lionize the ex-New York Yankee great.  Instead, this gripping hour-long biography from HBO Films provides an honest and revealing portrait of a shy country boy from rural Oklahoma who made it big in New York City and then slowly threw it all away one drink at a time.  His story passionately told through surviving family members and several notable celebrities who grew up worshipping “the Mick.”  The final scenes of a once-great Mantle reduced to a broken man overwhelmed with grief and consumed by regret is heartbreaking.  “You talk about a role model….,” Mantle tearfully says during his dying final hours.  “….Yeah, I’m a role model — don’t be like me.”  This documentary can be watched in its entirety HERE.

 

A League of Their Own (1992)

Penny Marshall directed this fun caper about an all-ladies baseball team based on a real pro baseball league for women which existed during the 1940’s.  Buoyed by a terrific script, an outstanding musical soundtrack, and excellent performances throughout from an all-star cast, A League of Their Own has become one of the most successful baseball movies of all time — both at the box office and by critical acclaim.  Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Jon Lovitz, Rosie O’Donnell, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, and Bill Pullman are each perfectly cast in a movie that will leave you laughing and cheering in equal measure.  See the movie trailer — HERE.

 

Sugar (2008)

For every multi-million dollar earning superstar who makes it big in the majors, unnamed thousands do not.  Failing to make it as a pro is a tough reality for anyone to face.  But it’s even more of a devastation to ballplayers born in the Caribbean, for which baseball has become one of the only exits out of a life of poverty.  Over many decades, a vast number of “immigrant athletes” arrived in America dreaming of success.  Each young man carried the longshot hopes of their families back at home.  Most struggled in the minor leagues for a few years before eventually being cut by management.  They return to the barren sandlots where the seeds of ambition first took to bloom and fade into oblivion.  Sugar is a little-known movie (mostly in Spanish with English subtitles) about a once-gifted pitcher from the Dominican Republic.  He’s determined to use his left arm and a wicked curveball to lift himself and his family out of the slums of Santo Domingo.  He dreams of buying a Cadillac with his first paycheck.  Then, upon arrival in the Midwest, reality sets in.  Trapped in a foreign land, riding buses between ball fields, and lacking the language skills that might offer other alternatives, Sugar increasingly feels isolation and loneliness.  The stress of making it to the majors and signing the big contract that can alter the lives of loved ones back at home is slowly corroded by the ticking time clock on every young ballplayer, leading to the depressing self-realization that for most people, dreams don’t come true.  If this movie sounds sad, well it is sad — in parts.  But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.  I’ll leave it at that and let the suspense linger.  Watch the movie trailer HERE.

 

Brooklyn Dodgers:  The Ghosts of Flatbush (2007)

No team meant more to the people of a place than the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Ghosts of Flatbush is the true story not just of a baseball team, but of neighborhoods otherwise segregated by race, class, ethnicity, and religion — which all unite as one community to cheer on the beloved team at Ebbets Field.  This documentary does a terrific job explaining why the so-called Brooklyn “bums” were such an integral part of so many people’s lives.  Oddly, the Dodgers weren’t popular because they were winners.  To the contrary, the club struggled for a half-century — in glaring juxtaposition to their two snobby rivals across the East River — the glorious dynasty known as the Yankees up in the Bronx and the deep-rooted Giants who played in uptown Manhattan.  Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue may have been just a subway ride away from Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, but the working-class team and its loyal fans might as well have been from a different city on the other side of the planet.  We learn why the great Jackie Robinson was such a transformative historical figure, not just in sports as the first Black man to break baseball’s longstanding color barrier, but as an icon for American culture.  After spending decades near the bottom of the standings, by 1947 (Robinson’s first year) the Dodgers were every bit as talented as the hated Yankees.  Then, just when Brooklyn finally beats the Yankees in the World Series for the first time which sends Flatbush into a frenzy, it all vanishes.  The Dodgers break millions of hearts by packing up and moving to Los Angeles.  The move wasn’t just a devastating blow to fans.  The club’s abandonment came to symbolize an economic shift and cultural sunset on Brooklyn that plagued the borough for the next half-century.  The full two-hour movie can be seen HERE.

______

Now, here’s my top ten countdown:

TOP TEN:

[10]  Major League (1989)

Before Charlie Sheen went cocaine crazy, he starred in some really good movies — most notably Wall Street.  However, Sheen is better known for playing “Wild Thing,” the erratic pitcher in the romp camp comedy Major League.  Never to be taken too seriously, this fun movie features a rogue team of misfits who play for baseball’s perennial laughingstock (at the time) — the last-place Cleveland Indians.  Comprised of by an ideal cast — including  Tom Berenger, Rene Russo, Wesley Snipes, and Corbin Benson — Major League became an instant crowd-pleaser and grossed millions at the box office.  Unfortunately, that massive success led to two awful sequels which followed.  But later misfires don’t detract from our enjoyment of the original.  Watch the movie trailer HERE.

 

[9]  Bull Durham (1988)

I’ve heard several movie buffs insist Bull Durham is a woman’s movie.  Are we allowed to say “Chick Flick?”  I’m not sure about that.  Writer-director Ronald Shelton based his film on real-life experiences when he was playing minor league baseball years earlier for the Durham Bulls (hence, the film’s unusual title).  Susan Sarandon is caught in a love triangle between a rising baseball star (played by Tim Robbins) who is destined for the major leagues versus a fading has-been who’s aging fast and likely in the last months of his final season (played by Kevin Kostner).  Bull Durham successfully blends drama, romance, baseball, and comedy into a film that’s established a lasting legacy with movie audiences.  It’s often ranked among the best sports movies ever made.  I don’t rate it quite so high, but it’s certainly a well-crafted film carried by excellent performances throughout.  Bull Durham’s trailer can be seen HERE.

 

[8]  Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

One year before Robert De Niro was cast in his breakthrough Academy-Award winning role in The Godfather: Part II, he played a struggling major league catcher with diminished mental capabilities.  Adding to the challenges of trying to be a regular guy on the team and fit normally into society, he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness during a midseason pennant race.  Fearful that his disease will create even more problems and quite possibly trigger a release from the team, with the help of his best friend (a pitcher played by Michael Moriarity), the duo tries to keep the catcher’s terminal illness a secret.  Based on a book of the same title written 15 years earlier, Bang the Drum Slowly is sometimes referred to as baseball’s Brian’s Song.  This mostly-forgotten film often gets overlooked in the broader pantheon of great sports movies.  But it certainly merits a place.  The chemistry between catcher De Niro and Moriarity, along with club manager Vincent Gardenia is often deeply moving.  There are scenes which stick with me to this day, decades after seeing the movie.  The film’s credibility is enhanced by being shot on location at old Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium during midseason while the respective pro teams were away on road trips.  From the empty beer cups littering the outfield to the towels laying all over the locker room, everything looks and feels very real.  This isn’t really a romanticized story about baseball.  This isn’t a story about illness and death.  It’s the story of friendship and the power of the human spirit.   Watch the film trailer HERE.

 

[7]  Eight Men Out (1988)

What really happened with the ill-fated 1919 Chicago White Sox?  They were a great team which intentionally lost the baseball World Series to satisfy personal grievances with their tight-fisted owner and collect bribes from shady gamblers determined to bet on the fix.  Why they did it and which specific players were involved and to what degree is one of the worst scandals in sports history remains a subject of lively speculation nearly a century later.  This movie won’t reveal any hidden secrets, nor solve lingering mysteries.  Still, Eight Men Out remains a thoroughly entertaining account of what made eight players on the very best team in baseball abandon their desire to win a championship in exchange for revenge and profit.  Critical reception to this film was (and is) mixed, and I can appreciate both sides.  Non-baseball fans may be underwhelmed by the story of corrupt ballplayers who were kicked out of the game and were given lifetime bans from baseball as a fitting punishment.  Yet, most hard-core baseball fans love this film and many sympathize with the players as victims.  As the umpire, my ruling is — Eight Men Out is a broken-bat lead-off stand-up triple.  The official trailer can be seen HERE.

 

[6]  The Natural (1984)

Every boy dreams at least once about being Roy Hobbs; stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the 9th; glaring at a mighty fastball; taking a backbreaking swing; then cracking a game-winning home run out of the park into the upper deck light towers.  It’s the stuff boyhood dreams are made of.  Director Barry Levinson completely understood this fantasy.  Accordingly, he crafted one of the greatest baseball movies ever — The Natural.  Robert Redford plays the aging ballplayer Hobbs with a mysterious past.  Glenn Close plays his long-lost love interest and muse.  Audiences will also recognize the rest of a stellar cast — which includes Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Richard Farnsworth, Joe Don Baker, Darren McGavin, and Michael Madsen.  However, the dramatic film score by the great songwriter-composer Randy Newman steals the film.  Combined with mystifying visuals in the hands of a masterful filmmaker like Levinson, this makes for a cinematic grand slam.  When old-fashioned filmgoers complain they don’t make movies like they used to — what they likely miss are movies like The Natural.  This film is a throwback to a time when honesty, integrity, and a person’s character mattered most and baseball was looked to as the kettle of those noble virtues.  Watch the final dramatic home run smash HERE.

 

[5]  Ken Burns:  Baseball (1994)

Measured either by ambition or sheer volume, filmmaker Ken Burns’ nine-part film masterpiece on the history of baseball might convincingly be argued as the best movie of its kind ever made on the subject (I considered placing this artistic gem as my #1).  I wasn’t sure it was fair to compare documentaries alongside mostly fictionalized stories, which comprise most of this list.  But then I realized leaving them out would be a grave injustice.  Ken Burns:  Baseball originally aired on PBS back in 1994 over a two-week stretch.  It became one of the most watched public television programs ever.  Nearly 25 years later, it continues to stand the test of time.  Baseball was a daring follow-up to Burns’ epic breakthrough documentary series on the American Civil War which had been completed a few years earlier.  Taking on something so sacred as “the national pastime” seemed an impossible reach.  However, Burns stepped up to the plate and whacked our most lofty expectations out of the park.  This film isn’t just about baseball.  It’s really the story of American culture’s coming of age during the 20th century, manifested in its most popular sport — baseball.  Unapologetically patriotic, informative, riveting, inspirational, and downright poetic in parts, this is the quintessential duel-purpose documentary which somehow satisfies both general movie audiences and academic purists.  Burn’s storytelling techniques influenced a whole genre of documentaries for decades to follow, which remain with us to this day.  This opening monologue, running about three minutes long, is absolutely brilliant.  Watch HERE and see if you agree.

 

[4]  Pride of the Yankees (1942)

What’s not to love and admire about the heroic story of the great Lou Gehrig, played by movie legend Gary Cooper?  One year to the day before the film’s release, the ex-New York Yankee great died tragically from ALS, a dreaded and debilitating disease which not only took Lou Gehrig’s life but also his name.  Gehrig is aptly idolized in Pride of the Yankees, which became the first great sports movie.  It received ten Oscar nominations (more than any other film on my list).  His relationships with family, teammates, and fans are sentimentalized in a way that likely wouldn’t be believed today.  It might even seem a bit hokey.  But back then, Americans badly needed something to cheer for.  America desperately needed heroes in those dark months after the attack on Pearl Harbor when the outbreak of the war wasn’t going well for the U.S. and its allies and the future of the world seemed in peril.  Even in death, Gehrig was a lighthouse of life, exhibiting class and dignity until the very end.  With hundreds of thousands of servicemen about to be shipped off to battles in the Pacific, the Atlantic, Europe, and North Africa Pride of the Yankees was a reminder of just what exactly they all were fighting for.  I really liked this musical montage with clips from the movie — check it out HERE.

 

[3]  Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball has the added intrigue of being a true story.  Brad Pitt plays the role of Billy Beane, the former real-life general manager of the Oakland Athletics during a time when baseball’s playing field wasn’t level.  Teams with fewer resources and small payrolls simply couldn’t compete with the far-richer mammoth franchises.  Facing financial and competitive disadvantages, Beane (aided by a colleague perfectly portrayed by Jonah Hill) came up with an unorthodox idea that came to revolutionize baseball and later other sports too, focusing almost exclusively on the use of analytics.  The book of the same title effectively explains the technical minutiae.  But how does a movie intended to appeal to mass audiences make data-driven decisions in cramped offices seem interesting?  Answer:  Call in Aaron Sorkin to write the script.  As is typical with most of Sorkin’s work, Moneyball’s snappy dialogue becomes almost rhythmic.  Somehow, we begin to understand why spreadsheets create singles.  It’s not bats that put curveballs down the third-base line.  It’s calculations and percentages.  Still, the purists continued to have their doubts.  Even Beane begins to doubt himself and questions his own system.  Then during the middle of 2002 regular season — lacking anyone on the roster who even remotely might be considered a superstar — Oakland goes on a 19-game winning streak, tying the American League record for most consecutive victories.  Soon thereafter, every team in baseball wants to hire Beane.  Even clubs that don’t offer contracts adapt his brilliant use of sabermetrics.  Hence, baseball is a game changed forever.  Unlike most of the other films on this list, there’s little sentimentality to Moneyball.  It’s very likely the most accurate portrayal of what the game is today.  See the trailer HERE.

 

[2]  Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams has become so mythologized as a cinematic fairy tale that its most famous quote “If you build it, they will come” is now the motto of every believer carrying a dream.  The film has come to symbolize the virtues of sticking with one’s own faith even when there’s compelling evidence to the contrary.  Believe in yourself even with others may not.  Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer with a wife and daughter.  However, these are tough economic times in the American heartland.  Costner’s family appears to have run out of options.  Their crisis is worsened by a crazy idea inspired by a vision one evening, a voice from the sky which instructs Costner’s character to build a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield.  The film seems preposterously implausible on the surface but somehow convinces us all that our subconscious gut instincts are both real and should even be pursued.  Field of Dreams is made all the better by strong supporting roles played by Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster (in what most fittingly was his final film appearance).  It’s hard to convey the mesmerizing quality of this film without seeing it.  Many critics consider it the best baseball movie ever made.  Hard to disagree.  But I think there’s one film that’s even better.  Watch the official trailer HERE.

 

[1]  The Bad News Bears (1976)

If there’s one film which perfectly captures the times in which it was made, it’s the 1976 baseball classic, The Bad News Bears.  It’s cynical.  It’s profane.  It’s joyous.  It’s a double-barrelled middle finger to the establishment.  A scathing takedown of suburban American life in all its competitive-infested hypocrisies, the misfit Bears take a flamethrower and incinerate every common societal expectation.  Against all odds, each individual, by working together as a team, manages to create his and her own self-identity.  Incited by a heretical set of values preached but rarely followed, the film manages to incriminate what we normally define as success.

Walter Matthau plays an alcoholic loser and emotionally distant loner tasked with the undesirable role no one else wants — managing a last-place little league baseball team that’s terrible.  The Bad News Bears works completely because it treats the kids (all ballplayers) as real people worthy of respect, instead of cute muppet-like caricatures often portrayed in similar movies.  It’s hard to appreciate just how scandalous the anti-PC script and characters were 42 years ago when this movie was released.  Yet instead of a movie degraded by bratty kids cursing gratuitously and even being subject to several instances of emotional abuse, what we see instead is the very first movie which shows how most kids growing up in America really talk and behave.  Rolling Stone wrote in its review:  “These pre-teens are unwashed, obnoxious, cynical, fractious, gleefully profane, unrepentantly juvenile, and deeply untrusting of any sort of authority — in other words, just like the kids you probably played team sports with.”

There numerous metaphors throughout the film — some obvious, others more subtle — intended as a stinging social commentary.  Yet oddly enough, The Bad News Bears is still often classified as a kids’ movie, when it’s really a blistering revelation of misbehaving adults.  The movie also has an unusual and little-known connection to Field of Dreams — Burt Lancaster’s last movie.  His son, Bill Lancaster wrote the script for The Bad News Bears.  It’s often been said that baseball’s history is the story of America.  If so, then this the chapter where we’re all forced to gaze into the mirror and decide whether or not we like what we see.

By the way, Chico’s Bail Bonds (which really did sponsor the team and branded the Bears’ uniforms) is a real company based in the San Fernando Valley, where the movie was shot on location.

WATCH MORE HERE:  Here’s a one-minute clip which highlights the majesty of this movie.

SEE MORE HERE:  Watch this 3-minute clip of a film critic who explains more about the genius of The Bad News Bears.

Note:  Do not be confused by the horrid 2005 remake of this movie, starring Billy Bob  Thorton, which is unwatchable.  Also, skip the two sequels missing Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal.

_____

Finally, if you’d like to see what movies didn’t get on base, here’s a link to the IMDB WEBSITE PAGE with a nearly-complete list of all the films made about baseball.

Follow the discussion about this article on FACEBOOK HERE:

 

_____

1 Comment

  1. Great list, especially since I’ve finally signed up for Netflix. I’d put Bull Durham up higher.

    And don’t be too hard on basketball (Hoosiers, Space Jam, White Men Can’t Jump) or football (Rudy, The Longest Yard, Friday Night Lights, Radio, The Blind Side, Remember the Titans) movies.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

css.php