Currently, seven teams are vying for the coveted World Series Championship of Major League Baseball, an autumnal tradition that, save two years in 1904 and 1994, has taken place since 1903. From generation to generation, America’s pastime has united and inspired all walks of life, enduring scandals and national tragedies along the way. Football may claim Sunday and Monday night, basketball may claim “Air” Jordan and hockey may claim “The Great One”, but no other sport has been steeped in as much culture and history as baseball.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has 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 of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
See, even Darth Vader himself can’t resist the sport.
To many fans, stadiums such as Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium, and Camden Yards are more than just stadiums, they’re practically cathedrals. Hall of Fame stars such as Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams and Robert Clemente have been revered throughout time not just as great players, but as mythic Olympian legends. Moments that define unforgettable are innumerable: Ruth’s called shot, Gehrig’s farewell, DiMaggio’s hit streak, “The Giants win the pennant!”, Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 World Series-winning home run against the Yankees, Jackie Robinson stealing home, Willie Mays making “The Catch”, Don Larsen’s World Series perfect game, Mantle vs. Maris, Koufax’s Game 7 shutout of the Twins on just two days rest, Hank Aaron’s #715, the Big Red Machine, Carlton Fisk’s World Series home run off the foul pole, Mr. October, the ’86 Mets, “Touch ’em all, Joe!”, Cal Ripken’s tip of the hat to the fans, Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz, the ’97 wildcard Marlins winning it all with two outs in the bottom of the 11th, and David Freese turning from unknown to hometown hero for the 2011 Champion Cardinals.
I could go on and on.
They’re not just great moments. They’re memories etched in time forever.
So in honor of the upcoming 111th Fall Classic, I’ll be giving you my picks for the very best baseball films to ever grace the screen. Honorable mentions go to 42, Cobb, Fear Strikes Out, For Love of the Game, Game 6, A League of Their Own, Off the Black, The Rookie, The Sandlot and The Stratton Story.
Having said that, let’s play ball, leading off with…
10) Major League
1989 – Yes, the plot is predictable, the characters aren’t the freshest and at its core, it’s just another “rags to riches” tale. But Major League is a fine example of a film that works despite viewers knowing how it will end, simply ’cause it does what any comedy worth its salt is supposed to do – make the audience laugh. Writer/director Davis S. Ward provides a light, sometimes goofy, touch to the R-rated humor, and also does a spot-on job creating a crowd-pleasing, exciting atmosphere during the climactic games. Adding to that is a game comic cast featuring Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, Rene Russo and some of the most quotable commentary from real life Hall of Fame sportscast Bob Uecker. Yes, even the Cleveland Indians deserve a little respect.
9) Eight Men Out
1988 – During the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, the purity of America’s pastime became stained by the infamous “Black” Sox Scandal, where eight White Sox players were accused of intentionally throwing games in exchange for money (though “Shoeless” Joe Jackson did accept the money, 12 hits, a .375 batting average and committing no errors is hardly what I consider fixing a game). The players were acquitted in court, but they were nevertheless banned for life from baseball. Led by John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D. B. Sweeney and David Strathairn among the tarnished eight, Eight Men Out is a compelling look back at baseball’s original sin from writer/director John Sayles that deals with the scandal and the tensions with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey that motivated it. Though Sayles constructs some first-rate ball playing sequences, he doesn’t romanticize the game. Today’s steroid era has turned even the most die-hard fans cynical and littered the record books with asterisks, but Eight Men Out is a reminder that baseball corruption existed back during them good ole days of the game as well.
8) Bang the Drum Slowly
1973 – Football has Brian’s Song; baseball has Bang the Drum Slowly (coincidentally, James Caan of Brian’s Song and Robert De Niro of Bang the Drum Slowly are both Godfather alums). Featuring two star-turning performances from De Niro, Michael Moriarty and an Oscar-nominated turn from Vincent Gardenia, Bang the Drum Slowly opens with De Niro’s simpleminded but earnest catcher Bruce Pearson being given the news that he’s diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and then following him on his final season before his death. Obviously, the fact that Bruce’s dying isn’t overlooked, but the film doesn’t dwell on death like the usual “Disease of the Week” Lifetime special would, and instead focuses on what remaining time he has left and him making the best of it with his friend, teammate and roommate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) by his side. Sorry, Tom, but in this case, it’s okay to cry in baseball.
7) The Natural
1984 – Starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger and directed by future Oscar-winner Barry Levinson just getting his career warmed up, The Natural is adored by baseball romantics and loathed by jaded moviegoers. Yes, it wears its heart on its sleeves like a proud sentimentalist and Roy Hobbs is placed on such a high pedestal, the name on the back of his jersey might as well say “Messiah”, but when taken as a fable about second chances, childhood dreams and never letting a good lightning-struck tree go to waste it’s pure escapist fun that would make the ghost of Frank Capra proud. Bonus points for the king of all slow-motion home runs, one that shatters one bulb and then like dominos, blows up the all the stadium lights like a boss.
2001 – Chronicling the game’s memorable race to beat Babe Ruth’s longstanding 60 home-run season record by Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, 61* is not just one of the best baseball biopics, it’s a damn good period piece in general. Despite being a well-known Yankee fan, director Billy Crystal, delivering his best effort behind the camera, doesn’t blow sunshine up his idols’ asses, taking an objective approach that celebrates the accomplishments of both the charismatic yet self-destructive Mickey Mantle and quiet Roger Maris and acknowledges their flaws as well. More so, it’s a treat to see Thomas Jane and Barry Pepper, two character actors who never really hit it big as leading men, get an opportunity to carry such a great film. It’s certainly a plus that their appearances to Mantle and Maris are uncanny, but it’s their performances, some of the strongest work of their respective careers, that truly shine.
5) The Bad News Bears
1976 – “Alright, boys, let’s get back to basics… This is a baseball. The object of the game is to keep the baseball within the confines of the playing field.” It’s safe to say you won’t ever see a PG-rated film this crude get released again, but the Chico’s Bail Bonds Bears prove they can be just as hilarious as the big boys in a comedy that captures the spirit of little league baseball better than any other film of its kind. The late, great Walter Matthau is boozy, curmudgeon perfection in one of his funniest performances ever, and when combined with his team full of piss and vinegar-filled rascals, among them Tatum O’Neal and Jackie Earle Haley, it’s comedy gold. Yes, it spawned two crappy sequels and a million other sub-par copycats, but none of them take anything away from the gloriously foul magic produced by this classic.
4) Field of Dreams
1989 – Like The Natural, Field of Dreams divides those who love it as grounded, real-life fantasy and those who hate it as cornball hokum, but it’s near impossible to not get caught up in writer/director Phil Alden Robinson’s love letter to baseball. Touching on themes of redemption and the bond between father and son, the sentimentality is at a all-time high, but thanks to a strong family dynamic shared between Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan, and a top-notch supporting cast that includes Ray Liotta, James Earl Jones and a wonderful Burt Lancaster in his final performance, the emotion is well-earned. A simple game of catch has never been as heart-tugging as it is here.
2011 – Legendary producer Sam Goldwyn once referred to doing a film on Lou Gehrig as “box office poison”. Imagine Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin going to him with this pitch – a film not exactly about baseball, but the behind-the-scenes analytics of the sport. In this case, it’s Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane taking a sabermetrics approach to assembling a competitive team out of the league’s leftovers. Sounds like a cinematic Valium pill, huh? Well, think again. Who knew then that a film about baseball-centric numbers crunching could be so compelling? Thanks to Bennett Miller’s sharp direction, Sorkin and Steven Zaillian’s snappy dialogue, one of Brad Pitt’s best performances and a revelatory turn from Jonah Hill, Moneyball is able to make a potential phone call trade between Pitt’s Beane and Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski as riveting as Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western duel.
2) The Pride of the Yankees
1942 – Based on the life of former New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig and co-starring a few former teammates of his (chief among them being Babe Ruth), The Pride of the Yankees may not deal as much with the baseball side of Gehrig’s life as it does his personal life away from the game, but as a stirring tribute to the former World Series/AL MVP-winning Yankee it succeeds and then some. Gary Cooper gives one of his most memorable performances as “The Iron Horse” and both he and Teresa Wright generate sparks in a love story that comprises most of the film. I challenge anyone not to be moved by Cooper’s reenactment of Gehrig’s farewell speech, which closes out the film fittingly with the immortal line, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
Well, here we finally are at the #1 spot. Hopefully, you didn’t put all your betting money on The Benchwarmers. Okay, drum roll, please…
1) Bull Durham
1988 – Screenwriting 101: Write what you know. Having played five seasons in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system before turning to a career in filmmaking, writer/director Ron Shelton gives us not only the most authentic take on baseball on the field, off the field and in the clubhouse, but also one of the least annoying uses of the dreaded love triangle. Costner, appearing for the second time on this list, arguably gives the best performance of his career as the seasoned catcher. Tim Robbins turns in a star-making performance as the young, not-so-bright, rocket-armed pitcher, and Susan Sarandon is both sexy and smart as the baseball groupie whose knowledge of the game can rival baseball’s smartest minds. The chemistry between the trio of A-list leads is electric and Shelton’s hilariously smart script brings much more to the table than just its many great one-liners. Even in the game’s most minute details, Bull Durham boasts a love and intelligence for our national pastime better than any other baseball film.
And there you have it, readers. The best of the best silver screen homages to America’s pastime. For those of you that are gravely offended that Major League: Back to the Minors didn’t make the cut, feel free to throw in some of your favorites in the comments section.