The Best (and Worst) Baseball Movies of All Time
I wrote this piece for MSN seven years ago, for the 2004 post-season (that glorious post-season), but it's no longer available in uncut form. The site used it for spring one year, fall the next, and eventually trimmed away the negative. It turned it into this. Below you'll find the pure uncut stuff. Just in time for the first game of the 2011 World Series.
Question: Where would you rank recent baseball movies, including “Moneyball,” “Sugar,” “The Perfect Game,” “The Bronx is Burning,” “The Benchwarmers,” “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” and “Fever Pitch”? In the Hall of Fame? In the Majors? Minors? Not fit to carry Costner's jockstrap? Feel free to add thoughts in the comments field.
Arguing with the umpire is encouraged.
This may be the best time ever for fans of baseball movies. Early versions of the genre tended to be black-and-white hagiographies where the actors weren’t athletic, the baseball wasn’t exciting, and kids with names like Jimmy or Timmy were forever stricken with crippling diseases that could only be cured by homeruns hit by big-name sluggers. After the publication of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four in 1970, baseball heroes were finally allowed to appear less heroic—and usually seemed moreso as a result.
But what makes a good baseball movie? After immersing myself in the genre, and seeing more than my share of called shots, key strikeouts, and bottom-of-the-ninth-inning-on-the-last-day-of-the-season homeruns, I’ve come up with the following guidelines:
- It’s better to focus on a season than a career. Probably because the rhythm of a season is closer to a dramatic arc than the rhythm of a life.
- Employ actors who look like they can play. Please.
- Be passionate about your subject. Check out Billy Crystal’s 61* and Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg for an indication of what passion can do.
- Yankees suck! (OK, not a guideline. Just fun to say.)
The movies below are divided into four categories of descending importance. Play ball!
Hall of Fame
Bull Durham (1988)
Written and directed by Ron Shelton.
The sexiest and wittiest baseball movie is also the most real. Nice triumvirate. It’s less concerned with how a team matures than how people mature. Millie gets married, Annie falls in love, and Nuke Laloosh, so hopeless he needs two teachers, becomes…a little less hopeless. The movie suffers when he leaves. I love Crash and Annie, but they’re both teachers, and when they get together the best parts of her character are subsumed by the dullest parts of his. (This could be every wife’s lament.) But this is just in the last five minutes of the movie. The first 103 are still brilliant.
Heroes: Sexy women and Walt Whitman.
Villains: That one extra hit per week (a flair, gork, a dying quail) that doesn’t fall or get through, and that keeps the .250 hitter from becoming a .300 hitter.
Verisimilitude: Costner’s swing is the prettiest of any actor in any baseball movie. (Redford and Tom Selleck come close.) Robbins’ motion ain’t in the same class but it’s workable. But no A-ball pitcher – I don’t care how good – leaps past Double-A and Triple-A for the majors. Just doesn’t happen.
Baseball cameos: Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball.
Awards: Best screenplay from all the major film critic groups. The Academy gave the Oscar to Rain Man.
Quote: “Oh my.”
Directed by Billy Crystal. Written by Hank Steinberg.
OK, so Billy Crystal is a spoiled little shit of a Yankees fan who, in Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” laments the Yankees’ 1960 World Series loss with The Whine Heard ‘Round the World: “I still hurt about it. I still feel bad about it.” Billy, you grew up watching the most dominating team in sports history – 14 pennants in 16 years – and you still feel bad about this one season? Shut up already! … And now his due. With a fantastic script from Hank Steinberg, the little S.O.B. has directed a great baseball movie. The verisimilitude is unparalleled, right down to those odd, fuzzy-looking batting helmets they wore in the sixties. His lead actors (Barry Pepper and Tom Jane) are uncanny, and can act. He doesn’t skimp on supporting cast either: Richard Masur; the always-fascinating Bruce McGill; and Billy’s daughter, the very sweet Jennifer Crystal. Best of all, there’s dramatic tension. It’s about an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure. It’s about a decent man who’s treated as a villain, and an often indecent man who’s treated as a hero. It’s about the friendship between the two. I hate the Yankees as much as Billy loves them, but man I love this movie.
Heroes: Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
Villains: Ford Frick; sportswriters; punctuation.
Verisimilitude: You’d need a time machine to get a more exact rendition of the 1961 New York Yankees.
Awards: 12 Emmy nominations. Won two: casting and sound editing.
Quote: “We’re chasing a ghost, Rog. You go into that clubhouse, he’s there. At homeplate, he’s there. In the outfield, he’s there. The fat fuck, he’s everywhere! We’re playing in his house!”
The Natural (1984)
Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based upon the novel by Bernard Malamud.
Author Bernard Malamud condemned his characters for the slightest breach of morality (Roy Hobbs, for example, strikes out at the end), and his novel was an amalgam of real myths and baseball myths, so its transfer to a 1980s movie screen with requisite happy ending feels forced at times. I mean: the whole good luck/bad luck thing? Pop is jinxed but Roy overcomes his jinx. Memo is bad luck but Roy can’t overcome her bad luck. Iris is good luck so she counteracts Memo. Why? And why the gambler if there’s no “Say is ain’t so, Roy”? And enough shots with the kids in the stands already. … So with all of these complaints, why is The Natural still in my Hall of Fame? Because every time I see the effin’ thing I start to cry. It’s our An Affair to Remember.
Heroes: Roy Hobbs; golden light from the setting sun.
Villains: Sexy women and the dark. Which is odd because this combination is usually a plus in my life.
Verisimilitude: Redford is completely believable as a baseball star but not as a teenager. It was the last time he played one.
Awards: Four Academy Award nominations. 0-4. Hardly Hobbsian.
Quote: “Some mistakes I guess we never stop paying for.”
Also inducted: Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994); The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000)
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Directed by Michael Ritchie. Written by Bill Lancaster.
The script is unfair to minorities – blacks, Mexicans, Iowans – and the journey of Coach Buttermaker from thesis (doesn’t care about winning) to antithesis (cares too much about winning) to synthesis (cares about the kids) is a little extreme. But it’s still the movie for anyone who ever failed athletically. Which means most of us.
Heroes: Misfits and underdogs.
Villains: Businessmen and the North Valley League Yankees.
Verisimilitude: The Bears look like every kid who ever had trouble catching a pop fly; that’s its charm.
Awards: Matthau was nominated for a BAFTA.
Quote: “Hey Yankees, you can take your apology and your trophy and shove it straight up your ass!”
Major League (1989)
Written and directed by David S. Ward
The quintessential Hollywood baseball story concerns a team of misfit underdogs who, through some galvanizing force (and with or without spinning newspaper headlines), rise from the cellar and contend for the pennant on the last day of the season. This conceit describes everything from Bang the Drum Slowly to Angels in the Outfield, but its purest example is Major League. The misfits here are all colorful and memorable, each is given equal time, and the subplots are kept to a minimum. Best of all? It’s funny.
Heroes: Misfits and underdogs.
Villains: Ex-showgirls and the New York Yankees.
Verisimilitude: Charlie Sheen’s pitching motion is the best I’ve seen from an actor. The others look pretty good, too.
Ballplayer cameos: Pete Vukovich and Steve Yeager.
Quote: “Juuuust a bit outside.”
The Stratton Story (1949)
Directed by Sam Wood. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper
This is a simple story simply told. It’s about a country boy who makes the bigs, suffers a horrible injury, and then begins to explore the limits of his new circumstances. What can he do now? How much of his former life can he reclaim? The film relies heavily upon the considerable charm of its star, Jimmy Stewart, and when his character turns bitter and quiet the movie flags. But this is only temporary. Worth watching for the shot of Stratton’s one year-old son learning to walk, with Stratton, beside him, doing the same.
Heroes: Monte Stratton.
Villains: Shotguns and the New York Yankees.
Verisimilitude: A good pitching motion is probably the only area of acting where Charlie Sheen could’ve given Jimmy Stewart pointers.
Ballplayer cameos: Bill Dickey.
Awards: Academy Award for Best Story.
Quote: “A man’s gotta know where he’s going.”
Also in the show: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973); Eight Men Out (1988); Field of Dreams (1989); Pastime (1991); A League of Their Own (1992); The Rookie (2002)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Directed by Sam Wood. Written by Jo Swerling, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Damon Runyon
I can hear the complaints already. For decades this biopic of Lou Gehrig was considered the best baseball movie ever made, but time hasn’t been kind. Gary Cooper’s cutesy-pie acting? The idiotic “Tanglefoot” business? Gehrig learning to hit with power from a nerd at the county fair? Slugging two homeruns in the World Series for a crippled kid who’d already been promised a homerun by Babe Ruth? MGM’s weird dance interlude with Veloz and Yolanda? How about this awful line from manager Miller Huggins after Gehrig plays the first of his 2130 consecutive games? “What do we have to do – kill you to get you out of the lineup?” No, not kind at all.
Hero: Lou Gehrig
Villain: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Verisimilitude: They both had shy smiles, but long, lean Gary Cooper had the wrong body to play the sturdy Iron Man of baseball. He couldn’t swing, either.
Ballplayer cameos: Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey.
Awards: Ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Writing, Actor and Actress. Won Film Editing.
Quote: “Today I consider myself the luckiest man (man man) on the face of the earth (earth earth).”
Damn Yankees! (1958)
Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Written by George Abbott, from the novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglass Wallop.
There are two big baseball musicals and each lacks what the other has. Take Me Out to the Ball Game has personality (Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), but the story’s no great shakes and the songs aren’t memorable. Damn Yankees! has a great story (Faust) and great songs (“You gotta have heart”; “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO”) but no personality. Ray Walston and Jean Stapleton are delightful, but Tab Hunter just doesn’t cut it. Gwen Verdon’s a fine dancer but not someone you’d sell your soul for. And the team? Well, they’ve got heart anyway.
Heroes: Faithful wives and faithful husbands.
Villains: The Devil and the New York Yankees. Not necessarily in that order.
Verisimilitude: My Sunday softball team could beat these guys.
Awards: Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Score.
Quote: “Wives! They give me more trouble than the Methodist Church!”
For Love of the Game (1999)
Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Dana Stevens, from the novel by Michael Shaara.
With tighter editing this could’ve made the bigs. It’s got a cool lead character who thinks over his life as he pitches a meaningless game near the end of a meaningless season. And he’s got reasons to think over his life. He’s lost his woman and maybe his career. Halfway through he suddenly realizes he’s pitching a perfect game.
Hero: Billy Chapel
Villains: The past and the New York Yankees
Verisimilitude: John C. Reilly’s got the mug but not the chops to be a catcher. Apparently Costner can play any position.
Awards: The Razzies nominated Costner. It’s time they stopped riding his ass.
Quote: “How do you like to be kissed?”
Also grabbing pine: Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949); Fear Strikes Out (1958); Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976); Mr. Baseball (1992); The Sandlot (1993); Cobb (1994); Little Big League (1994); Major League II (1994)
Not Fit to Carry Kevin Costner’s Jockstrap
The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Written by George Callahan and Bob Considine, from the book by Bob Considine and Babe Ruth.
The Babe (1992)
Directed by Arthur Hiller. Written by John Fusco.
The greatest baseball player of all time has been the subject of two of the worst baseball movies of all time. In the Bendix version he throws like a girl, hits infield pop flies that magically leave the park, and gets in dutch with his manager for taking a sick dog to the hospital. In the Goodman version, he throws like a girl, hits infield pop flies that magically leave the park, and is hugely fat from the start – when Babe was in pretty good shape for much of his career. At least the nineties version is honest about Babe’s drinking and womanizing, but then they try to make his excesses and tantrums the stuff of tragedy. Both movies have him hitting homeruns for sick kids in the hospital. Both have him calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. The Bendix version actually combines the two: Babe calls his shot for a sick kid in the hospital. I’d call it ruthless efficiency but there was too much Ruth in it.
Heroes: Babe Ruth, and the people who put up with him.
Villains: Hot dogs, booze, and Colonel Ruppert.
Verisimilitude: For the next movie about the Babe? Try hiring a lefty.
Baseball cameos: Mark Koenig played himself in the ’48 version.
Quote: “How can you manage a baseball team when you can’t even manage yourself?”
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Arthur Mann and Lawrence Taylor.
Jackie Robinson plays himself in this low-budget film full of dull apple pie pronouncements and paternalistic back-patting. There’s odd comic relief from a character named “Shorty,” baseball is presented as Jackie’s best, favorite sport – when it wasn’t either – and at the end Jackie delivers a sudden, embarrassing anti-communist speech. And where’s his famous fire? Only visible for a second when Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) gives him an example of the kind of abuse he’ll face. In a way the movie confirms how far we’ve come by revealing what passed for racial enlightenment in 1950.
Heroes: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.
Villains: Southern “lodge” members.
Verisimilitude: You’re not going to get a better ballplayer than Jackie Robinson, but you could get a better actor.
Quote: “We’re dealing with rights here. The right of any American to play baseball, the American game. You think he’s our boy, Clyde?”
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)
Directed by Michael Pressman. Written by Paul Brickman.
The Bad News Bears Go To Japan (1978)
Directed by John Berry. Written by Bill Lancaster.
In the first sequel they lose Matthau and O’Neal, and in the second they lose Tanner (“Crud!”) Boyle. The first sequel insults Texas, the second Japan. The first sequel includes a Fonzie rip-off, the second goes for the cute black kid. Rudi Stein keeps getting taller. Kelly Leak keeps getting creepier. Yet the filmmakers insist that Kelly’s a cool kid who deserves his own subplots: estranged father in Breaking Training, romance with a Japanese girl in Japan. Apparently they’re re-making The Bad News Bears with Billy Bob Thornton in Matthau’s role. If it happens, I’d advise them to stop right there. These sequels are as unwatchable as movies get.
Heroes: Misfit underdogs.
Villains: Jocks and businessmen. And the New York Yankees. OK, I’m making that up.
Verisimilitude: Anyone who thinks Jackie Earle Haley is a stand-out player can clear out their locker right now.
Awards: The Razzies hadn’t been invented yet.
Quote: “You’re really just a second place team from the Van Nuys League.”
Also unfit for jockstrap-carrying duty: Rookie of the Year (1993); The Scout (1994), Angels in the Outfield (1994); BASEketball (1998); Major League III: Back to the Minors (1998); Hard Ball (2001)