While in recent years football has become the sport of choice among American spectators, we still fondly refer to baseball as “America’s Pastime.” For many men in America, baseball was a boyhood rite of passage and served as the backdrop of some their most cherished memories. Baseball was how many men bonded with their fathers as boys. Who can forget dad taking you to the sports store to buy you your first glove, showing you how to break it in, and playing catch with you in the backyard?
While baseball has shaped the lives of individual men for more than a century, its influence on American society is even more profound; it’s shaped our ideas of masculinity, buoyed our spirits during economic depressions and war, and served as a battleground for civil rights.
Woven as baseball is with personal ties, romance, and cultural weight, it’s not surprising that a lot movies have been made about the sport. Some funny, some poignant, and some utterly forgettable. Below we highlight the ones that stick with us–15 of the best baseball movies (in no particular order) to help you get into the swing of things as a new season starts.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that The Sandlot is the best movie about being a boy ever. My friends and I would watch this movie over and over again during the summer (in-between our games of Pickle and Pepper), and have a great time laughing at and repeating all our favorite lines (“You’re killing me, Smalls!” “You play ball like a girl!” “FOR-EV-ER!”) and drooling over Wendy Peffercorn. The Sandlot doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a simple movie about close boyhood friends and their shared love of baseball. Twenty years later I still make it a point to watch The Sandlot every summer, and every time I do, I’m taken back to my own childhood, playing baseball with the neighborhood kids in good ol’ Danforth Farms. Can’t wait to watch this one with Gus.
The Iron Horse’s talent and tenacity made him a legend. His courage in the face of a debilitating disease made him a hero. Lou Gehrig was one of the classiest baseball players America has ever had, and who better to play him than Gary Cooper (though, it’s kind of funny to see a 40-year-old Cooper, play a 19-year-old Gehrig). If you’re not tearing up at the famous “Luckiest Man” speech, you my friend, have no soul.
While Field of Dreams is primarily about a man’s reconciliation with his estranged dead father, it’s also about the power baseball has had in America to bind communities and connect generations. This quote from Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) beautifully sums up what baseball means for many Americans:
“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 us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
Ask any baseball player or film critic what the greatest baseball movie ever made was, and dimes to donuts they’ll say Bull Durham. Sports Illustrated ranked it as the #1 sports movie of all time. With good reason too. Bull Durham perfectly captures the ambition and gritty underdog mentality of minor league baseball. Writer/director Ron Shelton was a former minor league ballplayer himself, which probably explains why watching Bull Durham gives you the feeling of looking in on the lives of real minor league baseball players.
Kevin Costner plays veteran catcher Crash Davis who’s tasked with mentoring immature, young pitcher, Eddie Laloosh (Tim Robbins). The in-between-the-pitches banter between Laloosh and Davis constitutes some of the best dialogue in film history. The two not only battle over baseball, but also a seductive woman played by Susan Sarandon. At its core, Bull Durham is about a few guys working hard for something better in life–something that we can all relate to as men.
When we think of mythic heroes, we often think of characters from classical history like Achilles or Agamemnon. In The Natural, we see the archetype of the epic and mythological hero transposed from the battlefields of ancient Greece to the baseball diamonds of 1920s America. Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a baseball player whose promising career was cut short in his youth by a deadly dame. 16 years later, Roy is back to fulfill his dream of playing major league ball. Just as Achilles had his mythological armor made by the gods, Roy wields his mythic bat, aptly named “Wonderboy,” made from a tree struck by lightning. When you get down to it, The Natural is about re-birth and going after a dream no matter what it takes. Beautifully shot and masterfully scored, you’ll be bawling like a baby by the time the credits roll.
As a kid, I loved the grittiness and edginess of The Bad News Bears. It’s a movie about a bunch of hapless, misfit Little Leaguers coached by an apathetic ex-minor leaguer (played by the great Walter Matthau) who spends his time nursing a can of beer in the dugout instead of coaching. The kids swear and drink like sailors, which was both jarring and hilarious to my nine-year-old brain. But behind the cussing and pre-teen drinking is a film about finding and maintaining your self-respect despite setbacks and not letting competition ruin the fun of the game.
The owner of the Cleveland Indians dies and his cold-hearted widow inherits the team. She hates Cleveland, so she hatches a plan to cobble together a team so bad the franchise will lose their fans, allowing her to relocate to Miami. A washed-up catcher with bad knees, a crazy formerly-incarcerated pitcher with wicked speed but no control, a power hitting voodoo priest, and a pop fly-hitting base runner, make up the core of this team of misfits. Despite the team’s lack of talent, the players come together to win games just to spite the owner. Major League is a fantastic comedy, and I still laugh out loud whenever I watch it. Comedian and former American League ballplayer/WWF announcer/Mr. Belvedere star, Bob “I must be in the front row” Uecker provides some great laughs as Indians announcer Harry Doyle.
The sequel to Major League was pretty good (For an entire summer my neighborhood friends and I would heft our imaginary giant testicles and yell,”You have no marbles!” at each other. Ah, childhood.), but the original is still the best.
Eight Men Out masterfully chronicles baseball’s original sin. In 1919, eight players on the Chicago White Sox conspired together to throw the World Series in exchange for money from gamblers in Chicago’s underworld. The scandal tarnished the reputations of some of baseball’s greats (including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson) and nearly put an end to professional sports in America. While we often look back at baseball with Kodachrome and sepia-tinted nostalgia, Eight Men Out is a somber reminder that previous generations battled the same corrupting factors that we decry in sports today. The writing and acting in Eight Men Out is top notch, and it boasts some of the best ball playing scenes in cinema.
Who knew a movie about baseball statistics could be so compelling? Moneyball follows Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane as he breaks with convention by using statistics instead of scouts to put together a winning team full of undervalued ballplayers. The premise sounds boring, but it’s really another classic underdog story–here’s a guy trying to compete with much richer clubs like the Yankees and bringing together a bunch of players that everyone else had written off. It’s well acted by Brad Pitt playing Beane and Jonah Hill as his statistics man, Peter Brand. The chemistry between the two men makes the film work, and as you’d expect from an Aaron Sorkin-penned screenplay, the dialogue is smart and snappy.
It’s baseball’s Brian’s Song. In Bang the Drum Slowly, baseball serves as a backdrop to the story of an intense friendship between two men who face death together only to have one succumb and the other left a changed man. A young DeNiro plays a simple-minded catcher named Bruce Pearson who’s diagnosed with terminal Hodgkins disease. Bruce’s best friend, teammate, and roommate, Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) stands by Bruce through what will be his last season. Watching Bruce face death humbly and heroically while his friend supports and comforts him puts a lump in my throat every time.
This isn’t just a single film, but an eighteen hour documentary broken up into nine two hour movies. But because Baseball captures the epic sweep of America’s pastime so beautifully, I had to include it in the list. Documentary director Ken Burns has made a career out of resurrecting the ghosts of America’s past so they can tell their stories to us. In Baseball, Burns explores how the sport has intertwined with all facets of American life from racism and war, to labor relations and art.
If you haven’t seen Baseball before, do yourself a favor and queue it up on Netflix or Amazon. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you’ll gain an appreciation for the sport and its impact on America, for better or worse.
Fear Strikes Out is a PSA on the havoc overzealous Little League dads who live vicariously through their children can wreak on their progeny. Based on the real-life rise and public breakdown of professional baseball player Jimmy Piersall, Fear Strikes Out is less a movie about baseball and more of a psychological drama. Dads, if you don’t want your little slugger to grow up into a Jimmy Piersall, just keeping reminding yourself that “It’s just a game.”
What? A movie about a bunch of broads playing baseball on a site called The Art of Manliness? You betcha, brother. A League of Their Own is a classic baseball movie that gives us a glimpse into an oft-overlooked part of American history. Facing a shortage of men to field teams due to the WWII draft, baseball owners came up with an all women’s baseball league in order to keep interest in the sport alive during the duration of the war. A League of Their Own takes viewers along the ups and downs of a fictional example of one of those all-girl teams: the Rockford Peaches. This movie is simply a joy to watch. It’s a great story with great acting. Tom Hanks was brilliant as the alcoholic, former pro-player turned coach, Jimmy Dugan, and thanks to him, we will forever know that there’s no crying in baseball.
What would you do if you had a second chance at a dream? In The Rookie, we get to see the internal and outward struggle one man goes through when a second chance falls in his lap. Based on the true story of Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ pitcher Jim Morris, The Rookie tells the tale of how Morris went from being a washed-up minor league ballplayer coaching high school baseball in a small Texas town to pitching Major League ball at an age when most pro-pitchers retire. The Rookie is a Disney film, so it’s kinda schmaltzy and definitely tugs at your heart strings, but I don’t care. Morris’ story inspires me to never give up on the hope of finally fulfilling a long-held dream.
Up for Grabs
Remember when Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record in 2001? Did you ever wonder who the lucky guy or gal was that caught that historic and possibly lucrative ball? The documentary Up for Grabs tells the story of that famous ball and the two men who took part in one of the most epically humorous and head-shakingly sad legal battles of all time. My 1L property law professor used this film to introduce us to the famous textbook case of Pierson v. Post in which a NY court had to decide what constituted possession in a battle over a dead fox. In Up for Grabs the dead fox in Pierson is replaced by Barry Bonds’ home run ball. Up for Grabs is a comedic morality drama on the dangers of the greed and myopia that can creep into a man’s life if he doesn’t keep his guard up.
What would you do if everyone was rooting for you to fail? To make matters worse, what if the person everyone wanted to succeed happened to be a friend and teammate? In 61* director and diehard Yankees fan Billy Crystal shows us how one man responded when faced with such a situation. In the 1961 baseball season, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battled it out for the single season home run record. Yankee fans, seeing the gregarious Mantle as the heir to the Yankee dynasty created by Ruth, DiMaggio, and Gehrig, rooted for the Mick to beat the record and booed and even sent death threats to the more demure Maris. We get to see firsthand how both Maris and Mantle handled the pressures and scrutiny that came with breaking the record set by the Great Bambino, and how that pressure forged a manly friendship.
Now it’s your turn. What do you think are the best movies about baseball? What did we leave off the list? Give us your picks in the comments!