My Top 10 Baseball Movies

It’s summertime! The weather is getting warm here in New England, and the Red Sox are playing well (after two abysmal seasons). That’s right, I’ve got baseball fever, so this month’s Top 10 List is devoted to baseball movies. Whether you think I strike out or hit a home run with this batting order doesn’t matter, these are my favorites.

SPOILER ALERTS! I will be revealing things about the plots of several of these films. You have been warned.

My apologies to 42, The Pride of the Yankees, Summer Catch, Bang the Drum Slowly, and The Rookie. I’ve heard wonderful things about all of these movies, but I haven’t seen them yet.

Play ball!

 

#10 – Rookie of the Year

Yeah, this one seems like a wild pitch. A kids’ movie about a kid who breaks his arm only to have it heal so well that he can pitch a super-nasty unhittable fastball and is signed by the Chicago Cubs? I’m sure some of the films I just apologized to are higher quality films than this, but this movie is just unabashed fun. It’s a fun kids’ fantasy story made up of quirky characters, and Thomas Ian Nicholas’s performance as Henry Rowengartner (running gag: the team manager mispronounces his name) is charming. If you ever had a childhood dream of playing in the majors, this is the film to watch. It came out a year before Little Big League about a kid inheriting the Minnesota Twins and naming himself the manager. That’s a decent kids film too, but this one I like a little better. There’s a nice theme about friendship and being a kid throughout, and in the end, Henry has to use his wits more than his ability. But one final moment when he learns that his baseball glove comes not from his absent father but from his awesome mother is a tearjerker moment.

 

#9 – Fever Pitch

I’m a Red Sox fan, so placing this movie so low on the list is blasphemy, right? Let’s just say that I’m giving it #9 in honor of Ted Williams, and we’ll call it fair. This is less of a baseball movie and more of a romantic comedy, but it’s on the list because of the reverence with which it portrays Red Sox Nation pre-2004. Jimmy Fallon plays Ben and he falls for Drew Barrymore’s Lindsey during the off-season. They start dating and all goes well until the baseball season starts. Ben has season tickets and lives in a small apartment that can only be described as a Red Sox shrine (bedsheets and all). She tries to get him to “grow up” but learns to accept his love of the Sox. And he makes a big mistake by choosing a Sox homestand over an impromptu trip to Paris with her. Look, I’m a Sox fan, and I’m not that dumb. Set amid the backdrop of the historic 2004 season (which the producers/writers scrambled to make changes to reflect the real events—particularly the ALCS 0-3 comeback against the Yankees), it holds a place in my heart.

 

#8 – The Natural

This almost didn’t make the list, but a friend of mine reminded me of the film and what a natural inclusion it should be. (See what I did there?) It’s a great American fable about the fleeting nature of success and the gift of second chances. The cast is absolutely top-notch, and the film is expertly made. I have some plot quibbles with some of the conveniently timed deaths in the film, but it’s a fable—it’s not supposed to be true—so I can suspend the disbelief easily, mainly because Robert Redford gives a great performance as young phenom/middle-aged rookie Roy Hobbs. There are iconic images in this movie such as the lightning strike, the ball smashing bulbs on the light tower, and the whole idea of Wonderbat. You know you’re part of the pop culture when The Simpsons is paying homage to you when Homer makes his own “Wunderbat” in the classic power plant softball episode with all the then-MLB superstar cameos. (Side note: If that episode were a full-length film, it would be on this list!) Anyway, the story tells us that whether we’re a natural or not, we all deserve our chances to do what’s right and good.

 

#7 – Major League

An underdog story in the vein of The Bad News Bears (which just missed the cut) but for adults. This time, the team is The Cleveland Indians, and the owner wants to relocate the team to Florida (before there were teams there). The only way for her to get the team out of its stadium lease with the city is for the team to end up dead last. She assembles a new team, composed of crazy but completely memorable characters. Charlie Sheen (his first of two appearances on this list) played Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, a fastball pitcher right out of a penitentiary. Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, who can run and steal bases but can’t hit. Tom Berenger as Jake Taylor, an aging catcher looking at his last chance. Corbin Bernsen as Roger Dorn, who doesn’t want to get injured on-field. And a pre-24 (and pre-Allstate commercials) Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano, a home-run hitter who can’t hit a curve ball and treats his bat as a voodoo god. The team bonds when they learn of the owner’s true plans, and it has a Hollywood-ized baseball game ending, but the movie is silly and funny (and raunchy in places). Don’t bother with the sequels, but catch this.

 

#6 – Moneyball

How do you take a book about using statistics to put together a Major League Baseball team on a (comparatively) small budget? Not only that, but how does it become Oscar nominated for Best Picture? You get Aaron Sorkin to do some of the adaptation and get Brad Pitt to star as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. His portrayal of the charismatic, superstitious, intelligent, haunted-by-his-past character is mesmerizing. Just as strong is Jonah Hill’s performance as number-crunching Peter Brand (an amalgam of a few different people). It’s based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name which documents the 2002 season, during which the team won an American League record 20 consecutive games. I remember that vividly, especially how they had acquired former Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg (played by Chris Pratt) because of his on-base percentage and converted him to a first baseman since they had a catcher. Some of the people involved with the real 2002 A’s have criticized some liberties taken with the facts, but if you’re a fan of how baseball teams function, the movie and the book are worth checking out.

 

#5 – The Sandlot

The final kids’ movie on the list, and it’s by far the best. It’s just a beautiful coming of age story about a bunch of boys in the summer of 1962 who play baseball in the titular lot, fearing they’ll lose their baseballs over the fence to the giant dog that they call “The Beast.” There are many other antics that the kids share throughout that summer, but the game of baseball is what bonds them together. No formal team—major, minor, or little league—is needed for these boys. That’s how it should be, you know. The kids in the story feel so authentic that anyone seeing this movie could identify with them—you either knew many of these kids or you were one of these kids. It’s got such a nostalgic vibe to it that it transports any baseball-loving adult to their childhood, and it’s got enough child humor and slapstick to appeal to the younger folks. My kids have seen this and enjoyed it. Add to the story a madcap race to save an autographed baseball and a great cameo by James Earl Jones (any movie is elevated with him in it), and you’ve hit the sweet spot of a flick. “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”

 

#4 – Eight Men Out

Another true story, this time of the “Black Sox Scandal” where eight players of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were paid by gamblers to lose the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The movie shows reasons why those players felt compelled to throw the series, epitomized by the poignant performance of David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte, their ace picture. There are some criticism that the story moves too slow, but I think the pacing is perfect. Not only is this a great baseball film, it’s a fantastic period piece. There are many great performances in the film, particularly Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, and D.B. Sweeney. Director John Sayles claimed that they were hired because they could play baseball, adding a level of realism to the on-field scenes. Special note must be made about the handling of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (played by Sweeney). He is implicated as one of the eight, but his stats for the series indicate he played to his full ability. The film suggests he may not have even known what he agreed to. If not for the scandal, Jackson would most likely have made the Hall of Fame. Such a black mark on the sport of baseball.

 

#3 – A League of Their Own

During World War II, fearing a potential shutdown of Major League Baseball, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed. Though the characters in this film are fictional, the league was not. Not only is this a great baseball story, but it’s a story of people giving of themselves for their country—in this case, providing entertainment for the people at home. They were playing for something bigger than the game, and the movie is sensitive to that. The movie sports a solid ensemble cast, which is necessary in baseball movies. This team, the Rockford Peaches, has its quirky characters, played by the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Geena Davis—the latter being a pair of competitive sisters who respectively pitch and catch. Dorothy (Davis) is the better player, who’d rather stay home and wait for her husband to return from the war, but they’ll only let Kit (Petty) play if Dorothy comes along. The sibling rivalry is played out as one of many effective subplots of the movie. And it has perhaps the most-quoted and best lines ever uttered in a baseball movie when exasperated manager Jimmy Dugan (Hanks) whines “There’s no crying in baseball!”

 

#2 – Field of Dreams

If I ever do a Top 10 List of my all-time favorite movies, this would make that list (where the following movie would not). It’s an outstanding movie for reasons beyond the baseball elements in it. But why only #2 here? Because even though baseball figures prominently in this baseball, it’s used metaphorically and poignantly in the end, the one movie remaining handles the baseball stuff better. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, and one evening he hears a voice while walking in his cornfield. It tells him one of the best lines ever in a movie: “If you build it, he will come.” So he plows down the corn to build a baseball field, believeing the he is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson—Ray’s father’s idol (who Ray had once called a cheater, starting an estrangement between them). This time, Jackson is played charmingly by Ray Liotta. Jackson’s spirit arrives and later brings the other seven “Black Sox” players. Then Ray goes searching for radical and reclusive author Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones), and they also find a young Archibald “Moonlight” Graham who never had an official at-bat in the major leagues. There’s fear of the house being foreclosed, but Kinsella and his family follow their dreams. The players, Mann, and Graham all receive some renewed faith, thanks to the power of baseball, but it is the final scene, when Ray (and the viewer) learns who the he really was that makes this Oscar-nominated film the treasure that it is.

 

No extra innings to this list, just a save by the closer…

#1 – BULL DURHAM

Kevin Costner again, this time as veteran minor league catcher “Crash” Davis at the end of his career. (Side note: Costner would also appear in For Love of the Game, playing a pitcher throwing a perfect game in his final appearance while ruminating on his career, love, and life in general). He is sent all the way down to the single-A Durham Bulls to mentor a young, talented, dimwitted, erratic pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Crash is resentful at first, but he’s a good man and does his job. Meanwhile, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is a local superfan of the team who chooses one player to hook up with for the season. Nuke and Crash are the top two candidates. It’s a story with themes of young-vs.-old, inexperience-vs.-experience, fleeting-fame-vs.-security, appearance-vs.-depth, and the beauty of baseball. The team has quirky characters, and the off-field scenes are apparently so accurately portrayed that many professional baseball players cite the film as their favorite for its realism. I especially love the “rain out” Crash creates on a field by running the sprinklers all night (and the younger players sliding in the infield mud). The comedic and sexual chemistry between Costner, Sarandon, and Robbins is perfect, and Crash’s speech about what he believes is exemplary dialogue. Baseball has never been so sexy! I won’t spoil this one with Annie’s ultimate choice because it’s worth a run around the bases watching this grand slam of a movie.

 

Agree? Disagree? Comments, compliments, complaints? Pitch ‘em at me!

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