So, right now, I am reading The Church of Baseball, by Ron Shelton, the guy who wrote and directed the iconic film, “Bull Durham”. In the book, Shelton, a ballplayer himself who made it to AAA in the minors, examines how he came upon the idea for “Bull Durham”, what it took to pull the production together, casting choices, and cool anecdotes from the filming sessions.
While reading the book, it got me to thinking, what are the best baseball movies of all time? Baseball flicks, or good ones, anyway, have traditionally outdone films made about other sports as a whole. (In numbers, too: according to Wikipedia, there have actually been 180 movies made about baseball.) I think perhaps that baseball lends itself to theatre more so due to the nuances of the game and the often poetic stories it creates.
As I started to form a “best of” list of baseball movies in my mind, I found that most of my candidates came from more recent times. There are some oldies that are interesting—“Pride of the Yankees” (1942), “The Babe Ruth Story” (1948), and “Fear Strikes Out” (1957) come to mind. However, these films featured actors that weren’t plausible ballplayers. Anthony Perkins as Jimmy Piersall in “Fear Strikes Out” is really painful to watch, even though the storyline is compelling. In all the movies that ultimately made my final list, the players are all quite believable. For instance, Kevin Costner, the lead in two of my entries, was a very good player in high school and had a cup of coffee at Cal State-Fullerton. Interestingly, all of my selections come from the 80s and 90s.
I’ve done these “best of” lists before, and like all of them, this one is just my opinion and quite subjective. Take a look and see what you think.
1. “Bull Durham” (1988)
This is the tale of an aging minor leaguer, Crash Davis, who is brought to the Class A Durham Bulls to tutor a talented but immature phenom pitcher, Nuke LaLoosh. A triangle of sorts develops including local baseball groupie and philosopher Annie Savoy, who says she worships at the Church of Baseball. I actually got to visit the old ballpark in Durham where the movie was filmed—very cool. What strikes me about the film the most is the dialogue, which is just superb. When Annie asks Crash what he believes in, this is his reply:
“I believe in the soul, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good Scotch, and that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, opening your presents on Christmas Day rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow deep, wet kisses that last for three days.”
2. “Major League” (1989)
This one has grown on me over the years as I catch reruns. I mean, we have a fictional, but somewhat realistic, Cleveland Indians team including guys named Willie Mays Hayes, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, voodoo worshiper Pedro Cerrano, and gravel-voiced manager Lou Brown. Charlie Sheen, who played Wild Thing, had been a star pitcher in high school, and it showed. Plus, who can forget Bob Uecker, the team’s radio announcer, describing a pitch that hit the backstop as “juuuust a bit outside”.
3. “A League of Their Own” (1992)
This is a compelling and educational story, based on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which existed from 1943-1954. Tom Hanks, who plays the skeptical, boozy manager, should have received another Oscar for this effort. Then you have the athletic Geena Davis portraying the star player and Madonna sliding into third base as center fielder “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. This movie’s enduring, iconic line: “Are you crying? Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball!”
4. “Field of Dreams” (1989)
Some think that this one is too corny and sentimental, others think it’s a masterpiece. I’m somewhere in between, and it does have a poignant message and some great scenes, like when Shoeless Joe Jackson walks out of the cornfield or when Moonlight Graham reminisces about the one game he played in the major leagues. Don’t tell me you didn’t have a tear in your eye right at the end when the protagonist, Ray, speaking to the ghost of his father, says, “Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?”
5. “The Natural” (1984)
This film is partly (and loosely ) based on the true story of Eddie Waitkus, a major leaguer in the 40s and 50s who was shot by a mystery woman in a hotel room and eventually recovered to resume his career. The great Robert Redford does impressive work as the hero here, Roy Hobbs. Another example of using the right people: out of high school, Redford received a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado. Memorable line in this film is Hobbs saying, “And then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game”, which was taken from a statement once made by Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who actually WAS the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Honorable Mention: “It Happens Every Spring” (1949), “Moneyball” (2011), “61*”(2001), “Long Gone” (1987).
So there you have it, the RBL List of Top Baseball Movies. As always, your mileage may vary. Let me know what you think of the grouping and what some of your favorites are that are not included. Baseball movies do seem to strike a chord with us. Leave it to Terrence Mann, the novelist/philosopher in “Field of Dreams” to sum it all up.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game—it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Richard Lucas may be contacted at [email protected]