Since it’s getting close to the MLB post-season and since Trouble with the Curve just came out and since I saw the latter and will see the former, now is a good time to reflect on the elegant sport that is baseball and the best baseball movies ever made.
I would talk about best baseball novels, but there aren’t that many. My overriding criteria for a good baseball movie is that the baseball itself has to look real, or at least believable, rather than like a bunch of actors in baseball uniforms who clearly have never thrown a pitch from a mound or swung a bat, much less turned a 6-4-3 double play. I don’t care how good the story is, if the baseball isn’t real, the story suffers for it. So, here we go. In no particular order except that I’m saving my selection for best baseball movie ever for last.
The Sandlot: Besides the fact that you got kids and baseball, this is one of the most entertaining stories about baseball out there. These kids look like they’re really playing the game, and baseball story inside the story has happened to anyone who ever picked up a glove and a bat. And who didn’t cringe when the Babe Ruth-autographed ball wound up in the wrong, um, paws? But the antics of the kids, from the hysterical poolside “rescue” kiss to the chewing tobacco experiment at the local fair, keep you in stitches the whole time. There are some out there who prefer The Bad News Bears to this one, and that’s fine. But I always liked the way the game of baseball folds into this story. So there.
The Natural: At first, I didn’t care much for this movie, probably because I saw it when I was very young and couldn’t appreciate the story (which is very loosely based on Phillies player Eddie Waitkus), which seemed (and still does) a little fantastical for my taste. But Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs is a memorable character, and the baseball moments do soar, which balances out some of the more heartbreaking moments of this well-done story.
A League of Their Own: There’s no crying in baseball. But there’s plenty of laughing. Before Tom Hanks became Serious and Somber Actor of the Universe Tom Hanks, he cracked you up with movies like this. Another quasi-true story of women’s baseball during DubDub 2, this movie is loaded with a great cast around Hanks – Jon Lovitz, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, even Tea Leoni. Oh, Madonna is in it, too. And Rosie O’Donnell. Supposedly, these women are all exceptional baseball players, but the actresses don’t really pull it off, and there are times when that gets in the way (notice I’m resisting the urge to say they all throw like a girl). Luckily the story keeps going at a pace that you don’t stay distracted too long. Lovitz is a scream (as always), and Hanks managing a women’s baseball team as his last chance at redemption at a career ruined by his own hand is both entertaining and poignant.
Field of Dreams: OK, full disclosure up front: I’m a Kevin Costner fan, period. Say what you will, but the man has made some damn good movies (and Water World wasn’t that bad). This is one of them. I’d even go so far to call this a masterpiece. In fact, if the part of Costner’s character’s wife had been played by someone other than the annoying Amy Madigan (sorry, Ed Harris), it’d be perfect. Still, it’s close. True, you need to know a little about the history of the game to watch this film, and when Ray Liotta’s “Shoeless Joe” Jackson appears, you think you know the meaning behind “If you build it, they will come.” The late-night pick-up games in the cornfield turned baseball diamond are thrilling and sublime. Costner treats the game with the same reverence as those of us who cherish it. And James Earl Jones makes any movie better (even Conan). The cinematography and storytelling are top notch. I won’t spoil it if you’ve never seen it (I just won’t ever talk to you again), but you’re so wrapped up in the story and the weight of the tale that the end is like a hammer blow to the head.
Major League (The original): I know, I know. A lot of people think this one is the best. Not me. I loved it, don’t get me wrong. Charlie Sheen – who actually played baseball and has hit a MLB batting practice pitch over the wall at Dodger Stadium – is pitch-perfect (see what I did there?). Tom Berenger looks – and acts – like a catcher. Bob “Juuuuust a bit outside” Uecker is in top form. Wesley Snipes is channeling Deion Sanders and MC Hammer at the same time. Even the character actors pull it off. The baseball scenes almost look real. And Randy Quaid’s performance is unforgettable (as usual). The comedy is like the real Major Leagues (from what I’ve heard): slightly off-kilter, bawdy and personal. When Uecker announces, “Vaseline ball to the shortstop,” you can’t help but laugh. And like many comedies, there should never have been sequels to this.
Eight Men Out: Before the steroid era, there was the Chicago Black Sox, the infamous White Sox team that threw the 1919 World Series. In the aftermath of the scandal (which remains controversial to this day), eight players, including “Shoeless Joe” Jackson (who hit .375 in that Series), were banned for life. The movie, of course, gives the scandal – which has some still-murky details – a new spin, and puts Jackson (played superbly by a young John Cusack) in a sympathetic light. Besides Cusack, the cast is loaded: Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker, David Straithairn (who also starred in A League of Their Own) and Christopher Lloyd. And you get solid performances from all of them in a movie that’s more about the scandal than it is about the actual playing of baseball.
The Rookie: True story. Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, the real-life regular guy with a killer fastball who gets a shot and makes it to The Show. Yep, it’s a Disney film, and it shows, but in all the good ways. Morris is a high school teacher and baseball coach in Texas, a married man with a family and bills. And a dream never fulfilled. You get plenty of touching family drama and wholesome inspiration, but Quaid makes Morris believable and you pull for him every step of the way. He finally gets his shot, and ends up, at age 35, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ newest rookie pitcher. The baseball scenes are well-done and Quaid is a believable athlete. There’s good stuff here about never letting your dream die.
Bull Durham: No surprise, right? Best baseball movie ever. Hands down. The baseball scenes are far and away the most authentic ever put on film. Costner moves like a baseball player – and he plays a switch hitter to boot. He even managed to hit two home runs with the cameras rolling. With a swing you could use to teach young players. The first time I saw it, I thought I was mistaken on this point, so I watched it again. Yes, that’s Kevin Costner switch-hitting. Tim Robbins barely passes as a real pitcher, but you can easily overlook that in all the authenticity of the rest. The language is dead-on, from “Crash” Davis’s opening line (“I’m the player to be named later”) to one of his last (“I hit my dinger and hung ‘em up.”). The idiosyncrasies of the game, the players, the whole thing that is baseball are so hysterical that you wish you played baseball (or still did). Susan Sarandon, Robert Wuhl, Tim Robbins and Trey Wilson as the Bull’s manager are a joy to watch. A little trivia: the movie’s writer himself played minor league baseball, and originally wanted Kurt Russell to play the part of “Crash” Davis. Russell played minor league baseball as well, and was, at one time, a promising prospect in the California Angels system. As a second baseman, he hit .573 in the Texas League (go ‘head, look it up).
If you don’t like this list, check out Baseball America’s Top 10 (in reverse order). If you think I missed one, let me know in the Comments section.
Baseball America’s Top 10 Baseball Movies (in reverse order)
- Major League
- The Sandlot
- A League of their Own
- The Natural
- Bad News Bears
- Pride of the Yankees
- Eight Men Out
- Bang the Drum Slowly
- Field of Dreams
- Bull Durham