It’s the San Francisco Giants versus the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. After the Giants gave a proper thumping of the St. Louis Cardinals last night in game seven of the National League Championship Series, 9-0, we thought we’d celebrate the great game of baseball with an ode to some of our favorite films about the sport.
As long as there have been movies, there have been sports movies. Since the advent of the medium, going as far back as 1894’s silent film Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, which captured a specially arranged boxing match between James J. Corbett and Peter Courtney just so that it could be filmed, we have thrilled at seeing athletes, already larger than life, portrayed on the big screen. Professional athletes and movie stars—who among us hasn’t dreamed of being one or the other at some point in our life? So it shouldn’t be surprising that films about athletes, about sports, are often some of the most beloved of all time. They’re also a screenwriter’s dream—with built in drama, easily identifiable heroes and villains, and clearly defined stakes. Whether it’s an unknown, blue-collar boxer agreeing to take on world champion Apollo Creed, or a ferocious football game between inmates and prison guards, sports movies fulfill a primal desire in the movie lover’s brain—watching the little guy fight back.
It would be another 25-years after Corbett until the silver screen got its first baseball movie, 1920’s Heading Home, a silent film directed by Lawrence C. Windom about a young ball player by the name of Babe Ruth. The film stars Ruth himself, and there’s a moment in the picture that captured the inherent mythology that all great sports movies possess—Babe Ruth cuts down a tree to make his own bat. If that sounds familiar to you, you’re no doubt a fan of The Natural, which came out 64-years later and stars Robert Redford as a ball player whose bat, cut from a tree felled by a lightning bolt, becomes practically an instrument of godlike powers.
So grab your peanuts and your cracker jacks, and take a look at our list of 11 baseball movies that were absolute homeruns.
–Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) Paramount Pictures
When this film was released, not many people knew who played terminally ill catcher Bruce Pearson. What they did know was that his performance was incredibly affecting. In the film (based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Mark Harris), star pitcher of the fictitious New York Mammoths, Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is engaged in a contract dispute with team management. The film opens with Henry and his best friend, catcher Bruce, leaving the Mayo clinic where Bruce has just been told he’s dying of Hodgkin’s disease. When Henry abruptly agrees to end his holdout, so long as the team doesn’t waive Bruce in favor of a hot-shot young catcher, management is perplexed. Eventually the team catches on that Bruce is dying, and, as they rally around him, they hit their stride. Eventually, the Mammoths make a run for the World Series, but unfortunately Bruce is too sick to keep playing. The actor playing Bruce, however, would be just fine. A few months after his fantastic performance as the dying catcher, Robert DeNiro’s star would continue to rise with the release of Mean Streets.
–The Bad News Bears (1976) Paramount
If there’s ever been a better curmudgeon than Walter Matthau, tell us where you’re hiding him. In Michael Ritchie’s film, Matthau plays the hilariously named Morris Buttermaker (there is nothing smooth about this guy), a former minor league player and an alcoholic (no other professional sport churns out more alcoholic characters in film than baseball, and yes, I can hear you, hockey fans) who’s tasked with fielding a little league team of lackluster athletes, all of whom were excluded from the incredibly competitive Southern California Little League. The hapless Bears lose their first game 26-0, having to forfeit before securing a single out. Eventually Buttermaker finds some local help for his Bears in the form of the talented daughter of an ex-girlfriend, Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal), and motorcycle riding, chain-smoking, super athlete Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley). The team, made up of singular personalities at each and every position, begins to gel. They eventually make it all the way to the championship game against their bitter rivals, the Yankees. The entire film is a boozy, hilarious riff on a team of misfits coming together, thanks in large part to the biggest misfit of them all—their coach.
–The Natural (1984) TriStar Pictures
There are images and ideas from The Natural that are seared into the brains of every film-loving American. Ideas like the mystical power of a bat, in this case Roy Hobb’s (Robert Redford) bat “Wonderboy,” which he made from the tree that his father died under while playing catch (the tree itself was split by a lightning bolt.) Images like Roy literally hitting the cover off the ball, and, of course, the penultimate scene, with all those lights exploding as Roy rounds the bases. There are also, upon reflection, many, many surprisingly dark elements to Barry Levinson’s film (he adapted it for the screen from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name), including bribery, attempted murder, and poisoning. If it’s been a while since you’ve watched The Natural, and all you can recall is a bloodied Hobbs at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the pennant on the line, revisit this classic…it’s a film that’s about a lot more than home runs.
–Eight Men Out (1988) Orion Pictures
Based on Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book “8 Men Out,” John Sayles wrote and directed this film about baseball’s biggest scandal ever (in the pre-steroid era), when the 1919 Chicago White Sox, favorites to defeat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, colluded with gamblers to throw the series in order to get paid (team owner Charles Comiskey was notoriously cheap.) Starring John Cusack as George ‘Buck’ Weaver, Michael Lerner as mobster Arnold Rothstein, and D. B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson, the film follows the White Sox’s descent from best baseball team into the league to becoming the infamous, dirty Black Sox. Journalists begin sniffing around the team, sensing something’s not quite right, as the White Sox star pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) deliberately pitches poorly while his fielders boot routine plays. As the games progress, the film’s pacing, and encroaching sense of dread, rival many crime movies.
–Bull Durham (1988) Orion Pictures Corporation
You know a movie’s great when there’s not one, not two, but multiple deathless lines. Writer/Director Ron Shelton simply nailed this script, giving his three leads big, meaty, funny lines. Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is the sage, aging minor league catcher, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), is something of a baseball mystic (and a sunny femme fatale), and ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is the promising, but very green, pitcher the older, wiser Crash and Annie circle around. The film follows Crash as he’s assigned to the Class A Durham Bulls to help LaLoosh, the team’s star rookie pitcher, get, and stay, focused. Sarandon’s Annie Savoy seduces both men (and steals every scene she’s in), creating the romantic triangle that a million and one stories have been birthed by. The film opens with one of the greatest bits of narration in the history of cinema, courtesy of Sarandon’s Annie Savoy: “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex.”
–Major League (1989) Paramount
Writer/Director David Ward offered so many characters to root for, with their own specific, absurd, wholly enjoyable quirks that it seemed everyone had a different favorite. Maybe you preferred the troubled bad-boy, Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen)? Or perhaps you loved speed demon Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), or strikeout plagued heavy hitter Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haybert). The film’s anchor was Jake Taylor (Tom Bergenger) the aging, past-his-prime-but-noble catcher (ever notice how in baseball movies, the catcher’s usually aging and noble?) And who could forget the vane pretty boy, Roger Dorn (Corbin Bersen), or the lovely Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). And don’t even get us started on Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker). Major League delivered a deliciously simple premise—the owner of the Cleveland Indians, the enjoyably awful Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) purposely puts together a terrible team so she can move the entire franchise to a Miami (without the players, mind you.) The lease she has on the Indians has but one clause keeping her from getting them away from ‘the mistake by the lake’—she can only do it if attendance is poor. When the players find out they were selected precisely because they are terrible, they start playing hard (and well) to spite her, and attendance soars. A team of misfits versus a cold and powerful owner, the perfect set up for a great baseball movie.
–Field of Dreams (1989) Universal
Well, of course. Field of Dreams is one of those films that it seems like everybody has seen at least once, and it seems silly to even write a synopsis for, but, alas, here we go. Based on the book “Shoeless Joe,” written by W. P. Kinsella and adapted for the screen by Phil Alden Robison, Field centers around Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a novice farmer who, while walking in his cornfield, hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray sees a baseball diamond and, despite concerns from his wife, plows under his corn in order to heed the call and build it. Kinsella faces financial ruin, skeptical in-laws, and his own increasing anxiety over the choice he’s made. That’s until his daughter, Karin, spots a man in a baseball uniform on the field. When Ray goes to investigate, he finds that the man is no other than long-dead Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). Thus begins a baseball fantasy that has captured the hearts of viewers for more than 23-years. If you don’t get choked up at the end, when the ‘He’ of that initial whispered promise arrives, you might have a tear-duct issue.-
–A League of Their Own (1992) Columbia
“There’s no crying in baseball!” an exasperated manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) yells at his weeping right fielder, Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram). Dugan is dressing her down in front of the entire team for letting the tying run reach second after she (stupidly in Dugan’s opinion) threw home. This bit of dialogue became an instant classic in instantly classic movie that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Penny Marshall’s film is set during WWII, when many of the country’s able-bodied ball players are off fighting the war. Chicago Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Gary Marshall) creates a women’s baseball league to make money. They send out scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to scout players, fulfilling another extremely satisfying film trope that is used in both sports and heist movies—the ‘assembling the team’ segment. If Oceans Eleven perfected this in our modern era for the heist movie, few sports films have done a better job than A League of Their Own did in introducing us to the players we will come to love. Guess who the tough, smart, noble player is? Yup, the catcher, Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis.) This film boasted a considerable roster of talent, including Lori Petty as Davis’s younger sister, Kit, Madonna as “All the Way” Mae Mordabito, and her best friend, Doris, played by Rosie O’Donnell. Hanks, playing against type as a mean drunk (although of course he comes around) is, predictably, fantastic, but so is the entire cast.
–The Sandlot (1993) Fox
Scott “Scotty” Smalls (Tom Guiry) is the narrator of this coming-of-age baseball film, directed by David Mickey Evans, that recalls the summer of 1962, when Smalls moves into a new neighborhood outside of Los Angeles with his mother (Karen Allen) and stepfather Bill (Denis Leary). Smalls eventually falls in with a group of neighborhood boys who play baseball on a field they call the Sandlot, which is bracketed by a fence that pens in a gigantic dog they call the Beast (they try not to hit any homeruns, lest they lose the ball forever to this gigantic canine monster.) Think of The Sandlot as a sweeter, baseball-centric version of Stand By Me, in which the young stars of the film have a series of unforgettable adventures that will shape the rest of their lives. The film also includes a man who is no stranger to roles in great baseball films, James Earl Jones (also in Field of Dreams, who plays the Beast’s owner (the dog’s real name is Hercules), a former professional baseball player in the Negro League, who ends up becoming a staunch ally of the boys. It’s a feel-good movie, a celluloid rite of passage for kids who love baseball, summer, and getting into a little trouble now and again.
–Sugar (2008) HBO Films
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the duo who made Half Nelson, Sugar follows the story of Miguel Santos, known as Sugar, a Dominican pitcher who follows his dream of playing professional ball in United States and earning enough money to help pull his loved ones out of poverty. At 19-years old, living in Bridgetown, Iowa, playing for the Single-A Iowa Swing, Sugar has to contend with dislocation, racism and a series of sharp turns in his fortunes. The family he’s staying with, an older Christian couple who live in an isolated farmhouse, treat him kindly as he struggles to achieve his dream. Yet Sugar is more than just a baseball film, it’s a film about finding yourself as a stranger in a strange land, and the struggle to define, and then re-define, who you are when life doesn’t go to plan. There are many Latin American players in the major leagues today, and Sugar beautifully shows what so many of these young men must endure to make it in the majors, a hard enough feat without also having to uproot yourself from everyone you know and love.
–Moneyball (2011) Columbia/Sony
Based on Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Bennett Miller’s film is about Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) struggle to compete against his big market rivals (the Yankees, the Red Sox) and their staggering financial advantage. Beane’s unorthodox attempt to buck the old school scouting tradition that’s been a part of baseball since it’s inception (and tradition in baseball is sacrosanct) to utilize data analysis to find undervalued players who have the right kind of stats ruffles feathers throughout the organization, especially with team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Beane’s ace-in-the-hole is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an obscure recent college graduate and brilliant number cruncher that Beane plucks from the Cleveland Indians. While Lewis’s book was rightfully praised, it was no sure bet it would translate well onto the screen, and when Sony stopped production before director Steven Soderbergh’s version could be filmed, it looked like it would remain on the bench. Instead, Capote director Bennett Miller stepped in, and with the help of his outstanding cast, pulled off what appeared to be something of an upset. Moneyball delivered everything you want in a behind-the-scenes baseball movie—the little guy (the A’s) versus the big guys (the Red Sox, the Yankees, over a 100-years of baseball tradition) while also being smart, beautifully paced and legitimately exciting. With fantastic performances from Pitt, Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moneyball satisfies throughout. Whether or not you believe Beane changed baseball forever, you’ll agree that Moneyball flat-out worked.
The featured image is of pitcher Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos, from the film Sugar, courtesy of HBO Films