All right, so the Baseball Hall of Fame has not inducted any movies yet, but that doesn't mean that baseball fans who love movies—feel free to reverse that if you are so inclined—don't have their favorite baseball movies. I know I do. And here they are—my Starting Nine, baseball's Hall of Fame-quality movies.
More so than any other sport, baseball lends itself to the dramatic devices that make a feature film effective. For one thing, the fundamental conflict in baseball—the pitcher-hitter confrontation—makes for an ideal one-on-one confrontation. Moreover, the individual focus on a player translates to dramatic character study like a double-play transfer toss at second base. For another, the very pace of the game (and, yes, non-baseball fans might liken that pace of the game to Oscar Wilde's description of a Wagner opera: "Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror") allows for the kind of climactic moments ripe for slow-motion shots and stings of thrilling music swelling on the soundtrack, with sufficient time for reaction shots from the bench and the bleachers (think: The Natural). Finally, the claim that baseball was the "national pastime" persisted throughout the 20th century, allowing Hollywood to begin mythologizing the game early on.
Indeed, early baseball movies tended to be afflicted with either the aw-shucks corniness of B-list comedies or the stagy melodrama of B-list tragedies; even the outstanding Pride of the Yankees can't quite project the grandeur of Lou Gehrig's story. Worse than that is The Babe Ruth Story, with William Bendix hamming it up as the Bambino; don't get me wrong: I love Bendix, a broad comic actor (The Life of Riley) who could take a serious turn in World War Two flag-wavers (Wake Island, Guadalcanal Diary) including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat—he's just not broad enough to do justice to the Babe (nor is John Goodman, for that matter, in the much later The Babe). Even our fortieth President, Ronald Reagan, couldn't keep the schmaltz from The Winning Team, the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander that soft-pedals Alexander's alcoholism and epilepsy while presenting Doris Day as his savior. (In his later years as President, Reagan claimed to have portrayed Grover Cleveland in a film; aides had to remind him it was the 20th-century baseball player, not the 19th-century President, whom he portrayed.)
Another issue with earlier baseball movies is that the baseball itself just never looked very convincing. It looked staged, not natural, and much of that had to do with the actors who played the players. Sure, sometimes the filmmakers would get actual players, credited or uncredited, to be in the scenes; Jackie Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, a heartfelt if earnest low-budget picture. But while Anthony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out had the acting range to convey all manner of emotions churning through the mind of Jimmy Piersall, the Red Sox outfielder with bipolar disorder—and in the process Perkins previewed the quiet, creepy Norman Bates kind of character with which he would become synonymous—the slight-of-build young man was not at all convincing as a ballplayer. (And let's not discuss his manic freakout during the middle of a game in which he literally climbed the walls.)
However, in that respect, the quality of baseball movies has kept pace with the quality of baseball. As talent compression now produces better teams because there are more quality players available, so has the evolving art and craft of filmmaking enhanced the quality of contemporary baseball movies, which both sophisticated moviegoers and baseball fans demand. Actor Kevin Costner, an avid baseball fan for decades, has proved to be a one-man cottage industry for baseball movies, one of which is a brilliant classic and another of which drowns in the kind of bathetic fluff that symbolized earlier Hollywood baseball movies. (Read on to discover which is which, if you haven't figured them out already.)
And although the asinine premise of Bernie Mac's Mr. 3000 keeps it firmly in the bush leagues, it does raise a point about how we evaluate legacy: Mac's character, a selfish hitter who retires immediately after reaching 3000 hits, discovers that a clerical error erroneously credited him with three more hits than he actually got. This leaves him with 2997 hits—and that in large measure keeps him from the Hall of Fame. Readers of this site know that just because he didn't get to a nice, round number doesn't make him more or less of a Hall-worthy candidate, but that is what got greenlighted at the studio. (This logic means that Al Kaline doesn't deserve to be in the Hall because he only batted .297, failing to reach .300, and hit only 399 home runs, failing to reach 400.)
In any event, my starting lineup does feature more films made since the 1970s because of the more effective realism of both the drama and the baseball in those movies.
Before I list that starting lineup, here are a few words about three well-known baseball movies that didn't make the cut:
- Field of Dreams. Tries way too hard to be both mythical and mystical. It's a nice sentiment, but drawn out to even less than two hours it wallows in bathos, with every Meaningful Moment literally in capital letters, particularly Moonlight Graham's Wrenching Dilemma. James Earl Jones is the only bright spot here, although Amy Madigan gets points for spunk and for putting up with Kevin Costner. Additional demerit: The real Shoeless Joe Jackson batted left-handed; Ray Liotta, who portrays him here, bats right-handed. Hey, they were able to jimmy the film back in 1942 to make righty Gary Cooper look like lefty Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees.
- Bang the Drum Slowly. Another one churned out from the Mawk-o-Matic, baseball's Brian's Song has the added deficiency of being both portentous and pretentious. Dim-witted catcher Robert De Niro strives to have one good season before an incurable illness permanently crosses him off the lineup card. Urbane pitching pal Michael Moriarty wants to help him do that. Yes, this one choked me up when I was a kid, but then I grew up. And speaking of kids—
- The Sandlot. Paint-by-numbers Boomer reminiscence—a feature-length episode of The Wonder Years (and apologies to that rather fine show)—that leaves no cliché unturned, from Smalls's newly reconstituted family to bonding with your buddies to learning about girls and the eternal mystery of life—how to really reach home plate. That James Earl Jones is again the only good thing here doesn't speak well for his choices. Look, the sandlot was as close as I got to playing ball on a regular basis, and I was that kid who moved every year or two and had to keep making new friends—but please tell me that my life wasn't this hackneyed?
Now, onto the starting lineup:
9. The Natural (1984). Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Robert Duvall, Darren McGavin.
Baseball movies are prone to myth-making, which can inflate them to ludicrous proportions (hello, Field of Dreams!), and The Natural would fall into that category if Levinson's artiness didn't make it look so impressive. The movie looks sumptuous, which lends richness to the mid-20th century feel of the quasi-metaphysical story. Also helping is Redford's understated performance as the symbol of hopes hobbled and dreams deferred. Or something. And why is Darren "Kolchak" McGavin not given a screen credit?
8. It Happens Every Spring (1949). Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Starring Ray Milland, Jean Peters, Ed Begley, Alan Hale Jr., Ray Collins.
This delightful trifle cannot be taken seriously: Milland is a baseball-loving chemistry professor who invents a liquid that repels wood—naturally, he uses it on baseballs to stymie every hitter he faces while wooing Peters and ducking his college boss Collins as he goes AWOL to pitch in the Majors. It Happens Every Spring has fun with its silly seriousness—Milland in particular is convincingly sincere—and it is the precursor of both secret-formula films (Flubber) and, at the end, gut-it-out-for-the-team films (The Natural).
7. Pride of the Yankees (1942). Directed by Sam Wood. Starring Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, Walter Brennan.
Sentimental and very "gosh-golly!" in places, Pride still packs a wallop as the (basically) true story of Lou Gehrig, the Yankees' slugging first baseman and baseball's "Iron Man" forced to retire because of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, now called Lou Gehrig's disease) that killed him prematurely. Lantern-jawed Cooper projects the quiet dignity and stoicism that contrasted Gehrig from the flamboyant Ruth, with Wright as his devoted wife (a role Wright played throughout her career, most notably in The Best Years of Our Lives). The real-life ending has been spoofed many times, but it still raises goose bumps. And I'm a Red Sox fan.
6. Sugar (2008). Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland.
Few baseball movies outside Bull Durham convey how hard it is to become a major-league ballplayer—and before Sugar, none conveyed that struggle from a foreign ballplayer's perspective. Soto plays Sugar, a pitching phenom from the Dominican Republic who earns a berth in the American minors. Struggling just to adjust to the cultural and language barriers, he soon finds an injury challenges not only his physical ability but, more seriously, his psychological mettle as well. Told in effective pseudo-documentary style, detailing the plush baseball academy and Sugar's poverty-stricken home town in the Dominican to the coffee shops, host-family homes, and ballparks in the United States, Sugar is the first to acknowledge the accomplishments and influence of foreign, primarily Latin—and specifically Dominican—players, making it a compelling immigrant story that overcomes the flat acting and journeyman scripting and direction.
5. Baseball (1994). Directed and produced by Ken Burns.
By now, Burns's PBS documentaries have attained "event" status, and Baseball, along with The Civil War, codified his blending of a popular subject with an accessible narrative. Interviewees and anecdotes galore lay out both the history and the allure of the national pastime along with the wealth of still and moving photography that compose the "Ken Burns Effect," also apparent in the emphasis on key figures such as Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Particularly instructive are the "early innings" that illustrate the rough-and-tumble dead-ball era, and "Shadow Ball," about the impact and influence of the Negro Leagues, making Buck O'Neill a star long after his ball-playing career. Oh, and let's tack on those Extra Innings updates as well.
4. The Bad News Bears (1976). Directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow, Jackie Earle Haley, Brandon Cruz.
The Sandlot without the schmaltz, The Bad News Bears tells you in no uncertain terms that while you might be a winner just for playing, you're not going to get the trophy unless you actually beat them. Tough lesson, but better to learn that when you're younger—it'll be a rude shock later on. Matthau is hilarious as the Bears' coach, with O'Neal and Haley helping to blend the rah-rah kids' message with adult dimension. The way Cruz holds onto the ball to spite overbearing father Morrow in the film's "big-game" finale is classic '70s cinematic nose-thumbing. And how can you not love a Little League team that's sponsored by . . . Chico's Bail Bonds?
3. A League of Their Own (1992). Directed by Penny Marshall. Starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, David Strathairn, Jon Lovitz.
Neither Marshall nor her screenwriters for League, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, ever lost their sitcom mentality, and everything about this movie conforms to sports-movie cliché, from the sibling rivalry between Davis and Petty to the obligatory "big-game" showdown at the end. So why is this movie so good? Because not only is it as well-executed as a run-scoring squeeze play, it gives recognition to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a little-known but significant historical accomplishment in women's empowerment. Davis leads the cast of distaff—and disparate—ballplayers, while Hanks (his character loosely based on Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx), Strathairn, and scene-stealing Lovitz hold up the men's side. Look for Marshall's Laverne and Shirley pals Carmine (Eddie Mekka) and Squiggy (David L. Lander) as well. "Dirt in the skirt," indeed!
2. Eight Men Out (1988). Directed by John Sayles. Starring John Cusack, David Strathairn, Clifton James, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Christopher Lloyd, D.B. Sweeney, Gordon Clapp, Studs Terkel, John Sayles.
One of the grittiest baseball movies ever, both in presentation and in content—Eight Men Out is the unsentimental dramatization of the "Black Sox," the powerhouse Chicago White Sox team that lost the 1919 World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds because key Sox players took bribes from professional gamblers to throw the series. Sayles makes it clear that unsympathetic stinginess on Sox owner Charles Comiskey's (James) part and financial need on the players' part were crucial factors in the fix—not that ballplayers of that era, whom Sayles doesn't soft-peddle, were paragons of virtue. Strathairn is terrific portraying pitcher Eddie Cicotte, the Sox ace who was probably more vital to the fix than hitting superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson (Sweeney), whose involvement in the "Black Sox" scandal has kept him from the Hall of Fame. Cusack, in the fulcrum role portraying zealous competitor Buck Weaver, heads the rest of the strong cast that includes Sayles regular Clapp playing Ray Schalk. (Bonus points for realism: Sweeney's Shoeless Joe, unlike Ray Liotta's in Field of Dreams, bats left-handed.)
1. Bull Durham (1988). Directed by Ron Shelton. Starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl.
The greatest baseball movie ever, Bull Durham might also be the greatest sports movie ever. Writer-director Shelton was a career minor leaguer; his knowledge of what it takes to make it to the "Show"—or not—permeates every moment of this terrific comedy that is more about deconstructing myths, about both baseball and moviemaking, than perpetuating them. Costner shines as veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis who can see his career ending with no more than a cup of coffee in the Show, but he hangs on for two reasons: He wants to break the minors' career home run record, and he's been asked to groom a young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh, a hilarious Robbins, for the majors. Sarandon is sexy and touching as Annie Savoy, the literate disciple of the "Church of Baseball" who forms the love triangle with Costner and Robbins. Bull Durham might have created new sports clichés but it studiously avoided the old ones (such as "the big game") with its unblinking look at ambition, failure, and acceptance. Memorable utterance by Costner to Robbins: "Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls—it's more democratic."
Speaking of democratic, what are your favorite baseball movies?
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