Reese Kaplan -- Best Baseball Movie of All Time?


Just as people have a particular emotional and often irrational allegiance to a single ballclub, the same holds true when it comes to favorite songs, favorite books and favorite movies.  Baseball has been the subject of a great many cinematic efforts, some good and some bad.  Let’s take a chronological look at some of the more popular baseball-themed movies and then hear from you about your favorites:

Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper plays Iron Horse Lou Gehrig, chronicling his ascent into baseball immortality and then the disease, ALS, that cut short his career.  Babe Ruth played himself in this movie and there’s not a dry eye in the house when you hear Cooper at his “day” celebrating his career after the disease made it impossible for him to continue playing say, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” 

The Stratton Story (1949)
Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson starred in this tale about All Star pitcher Monty Stratton who attempted a comeback after a gunshot wound from a hunting accident cost him his leg.  He spent parts of five additional seasons pitching in the minors with a wooden leg. 

The Pride of St. Louis (1952)
This biopic starred Dan Dailey as Dizzy Dean who ruined his arm when, against medical advice, he returned to the mound prematurely after taking a line drive off his toe and breaking it.  The altered mechanics ruined his arm and cut short a terrific career which saw him win 133 games between 1932 and 1937 for the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Fear Strikes Out (1957)
This biopic tells the story of Jimmy Piersall, a solid ballplayer so driven by a father who never seemed satisfied with the effort his son was giving that it eventually caused him to become institutionalized as a result of a nervous breakdown.  Anthony Perkins and Karl Malden give terrific performances in this story of a ballplayer coming to realize his motivation to succeed and his road back to the game he loved. 

Damn Yankees! (1958)
Tab Hunter stars in this musical about a down and out Washington Senators ballplayer, Joe Hardy, who wants more than anything to become the best in the game in order for his team to beat the hated NY Yankees.  He makes a literal deal with the devil, but as such stories usually unfold, things do not turn out quite as planned.  Ray Walston does a nice job as the devil, but perhaps the movie is best known for the seductive musical number, “Whatever Lola Wants” done by Gwen Verdon.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
This little seen movie had the double whammy of being released during a newspaper strike in New York City and following two years after the single biggest TV movie of all time, “Brian’s Song”.  This fictional story about baseball was actually written in 1956 but the story paralleled the real life drama of NFL player Brian Piccolo.  In this movie, pitcher Michael Moriarty, catcher (then unknown) Robert De Niro and manager Vincent Gardenia gave stellar performances showing how a team came together when it was revealed that De Niro was in fact dying.  Gardenia got an Academy Award for his performance as Best Supporting Actor. 

The Bad News Bears (1976)
Walter Matthau is a drunk, womanizing ne’er do well who is looped into coaching a misfit team of Little Leaguers, headed by a female pitching star and a bad-boy outfielder who take it down to the final out in the championship against the hated Yankees. 

The Natural (1984)
Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, Bernard Malamud’s complex depiction of a terrific talent who fashions a bat from a tree struck by lightning where his father dropped dead of a heart attack.  He carried “Wonderboy” with him everywhere yet saw himself as more of a pitcher than a hitter.  At a county fair he struck out a legendary professional hitter and was rewarded by being picked up by sultry Barbara Hershey who lures him up to her hotel room and shoots him.  He’s vanished from baseball for over 15 years when he’s hired on as a 35 year old rookie who helps lead his team to a championship against the backdrop of illegal gambling.  The nearly final scene with the right field lights exploding from his home run is one of cinema’s all-time greats. 

Bull Durham (1988)
Kevin Costner as minor league slugger Crash Davis is called upon to tutor the na├»ve and somewhat full of himself Nuke Laloosh in how to become a major league ballplayer.  Susan Sarandon gives a great performance as the ultimate baseball groupie and love interest of both ballplayers.  There are some memorable lines from that movie that are quoted and spoofed regularly outside the realm of baseball.

Eight Men Out (1988)
Acclaimed director John Sayles’ take on the 1919 Black Sox scandal was dramatized in this popular movie starring John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Charlie Sheen and D.B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson.  Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned all eight involved for life for not coming forth about being approached by gamblers. 

Field of Dreams (1989)
An Iowa corn farmer hooks up with a baseball writer and with his encouragement builds a baseball field on the property of his failing farm.  Sure enough, upon its completion baseball players from a long bygone era start appearing out of the cornfield, including eventually his father who comes along to play catch with his son. 

Major League (1989)
In this rally-round-the-evil-owners tale, the hapless Cleveland Indians have an owner hell bent on moving them to Florida and needs for them to finish poorly in order to make her case that it would be more economically viable to relocate the franchise.  With a rag-tag bunch of misfit players, they stage an improbably run to the pennant on the arm of “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), the bat of Jobu’s disciple, Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) and the legs of Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes).  Bob Uecker cemented his status as the most colorful play-by-play man ever with a series of memorable one-liners. 

A League of Their Own (1992)
This tale was a story about the real life Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that was formed to fill the void during World War II when many of the game’s star players were off fighting.  Tom Hanks was a former player and now alcoholic manager who was saddled with this team but showed little interest until one of his players, Geena Davis, demonstrated both the desire and talent to win.  The cast also included performances by Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. 

Mr. Baseball (1992)
Tom Selleck plays an over-the-hill slugger and former MVP who has been traded to the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan.  There he must adjust both to no longer being the center of attention, to the nuances of how the Japanese game and the American game differ, and how to reinvent himself in this new environment.  The fictionalized account is not the stuff of Academy Awards, but the glimpse inside Japanese baseball culture is something most fans have never seen.  

Cobb (1994)
Before there was John Rocker, Hall of Famer Ty Cobb was the poster child for racist, hate-mongering bigotry.  However, he also had a lifetime batting average of .367, so people were willing to look past his rather fiery personality.  Tommy Lee Jones gives a tour de force in the lead role telling his story in flashbacks to his biographer, Robert Wuhl. 

Trouble With the Curve (2012)
This very recent Clint Eastwood flick has a connection to the NY Mets as most of it was filmed at the Grayson Stadium, home of the Savannah Sand Gnats.  It tells the story of an old-school baseball scout who’s losing his vision but not his instincts for finding talent.  He advises against drafting a top-rated slugger due to his inability to hit the curve ball.  His daughter picks up the mantle of scouting for him when his eyesight won’t let him continue and she finds a remarkable pitcher who used to sell peanuts in the stands at the ballpark.  At the end of the movie the pitcher makes the top draft pick hitter look silly on a hellacious curve. 

Here in alphabetical order are some other baseball movies that may or may not be on your radar:

  • 42
  • *61
  • Angels in the Outfield
  • Alibi Ike
  • The Babe
  • The Babe Ruth Story
  • Ballplayer: Pelotero
  • Baseball (Ken Burns)
  • The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings
  • Blue Skies Again
  • Brewster’s Millions
  • Chasing 3000
  • The Comrades of Summer
  • Fever Pitch
  • For the Love of the Game
  • Hardball
  • It Happens Every Spring
  • The Jackie Robinson Story
  • The Kid from Left Field
  • Kill the Umpire
  • The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
  • Little Big League
  • Long Gone
  • Moneyball
  • Mr. 3000
  • Mr. Destiny
  • The Naughty Nineties
  • Pastime
  • The Rookie
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Rhubarb
  • Safe at Home
  • The Sandlot
  • Stealing Home
  • Sugar
  • Take Me Out to the Ballgame
  • Talent for the Game
  • Tiger Town
Are there any significant titles that I missed?  What is your all-time favorite?  My vote goes to Bang the Drum Slowly whose movie rendition was word-for-word true to the excellent Mark Harris novel on which it was based.


Thomas Brennan said...

Nice list, Reese. I have a top 6 list from yours, and a TV show favorite.

1) The Rookie
2) The Natural
3) Trouble with a Curve
4) Moneyball
5) Field of Dreams
6) Jackie Robinson Story

TV: The Beverly Hills episode where Leo Durocher is catching Elly May and Jethro, who both throw so hard that Durocher keeps getting knocked backwards into the pool. Drysdale also in the show. Loved it as a kid. Think it is on Youtube.

Hobie said...

Any number on your A-list are fun to watch--more than once even.

But two on your "also" list are must sees for hardcore baseball fans. Both concern IFA fodder from the DR.
Ballplayer: Pelotero, a documentary that follows some youngsters as the magic 16-yr old signing date approaches, and
Sugar, a fictional DR youngster in his first stateside exposure on the Iowa prairie.

vtmet said...

While it's not directly a "baseball" movie, one of my favorite movies that has baseball in it, is "Frequency" (2000). Part of the subplot of the movie is the son, 30 years in the future, using "predictions" about the 1969 Mets winning the World Series to warn his dad that the dad (and then the mom) are in eminent danger.

A rare atmospheric phenomenon allows a New York City firefighter to communicate with his son 30 years in the future via HAM radio. The son uses this opportunity to warn the father of his impending death in a warehouse fire, and manages to save his life. However, what he does not realize is that changing history has triggered a new set of tragic events, including the murder of his mother. The two men must now work together, 30 years apart, to find the murderer before he strikes so that they can change history--again.

Thomas Brennan said...

Saw Sugar and Frequency and liked both. Interestingly, Dennis Quaid was the main actor in Frequency and the Rookie.

Kind of shocked to see Quaid is 60 years old. I really liked him in Vantage Point (which had nothing to do with baseball).

Reese Kaplan said...

I have to admit I kind of liked "Brewster's Millions" which is only peripherally about baseball in that the main characters portrayed by Richard Pryor and John Candy are minor league ballplayers. The main story has to do with Brewster inheriting money from his uncle in whose will it stipulates he must spend $30 million in 30 days to get the frivolous largesse out of his system before inheriting the full $300 million of his estate. He is not allowed to destroy anything inherently valuable such as buying a Rembrandt and burning it. It becomes a challenge and one of the ways he chooses to spend the money is to book his team against the NY Yankees in an exhibition game.

Hobie said...

I couldn't for the life of me figure out why Brewster's Millions was on the list.

Dates me, but I had not seen the Pryor/Candy version and the Dennis O'Keefe/Joe Sawyer version (1945) had absolutely no mention of baseball. So it goes.

IBfromWhitePlains said...

Cobb was fantastic. Saw it a couple of times.

Very Honorable mention:

The Naked Gun.
The baseball scene was hilarious.

IBfromWhitePlains said...

I saw "Safe At Home" at the movies
when it came out. I was just a little kid. Don't remember the film, but do remember me and my buddy Lanny Ginsburg being gaga over seeing Mantle and Maris. wow.

Hobie said...

Baseball Bugs (1946)http://www.wimp.com/bugsbunny/

Stubby said...

An impressive list. I'm glad you've got "The Comrades of Summer" on there; that was a very fun flick. You are missing a couple I enjoy, though.

Among recent releases, you missed Disney's "Million Dollar Arm" (2014). Jon Hamm stars as a sports agent on the brink of losing it all when he has a brainstorm to find the first baseball player from India. Based on a true story. And, sure, Disney sugar-coats it to death, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Also features Alan Arkin as an old school scout and Lake Bell as the love interest.

An older title you missed is "Soul Of The Game" (1996). Like "Comrades", I believe "Soul Of The Game" was an HBO movie. Where "42" was about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, "Soul of the Game" was about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson NOT breaking the color barrier. Delroy Lindo stars as Satchel. Mykelti Williamson is Gibson. Blair Underwood is Jackie. Edward Herrman plays Branch Rickey.

If we're including television, you could also have included "The Bronx Is Burning" (2007). The ESPN mini-series follows the ups and downs of the 1977 Yankees. I'm just watching that one again, now, and, again, I think its better than a lot of people thought it would be. John Turturro is exceptional as Billy Martin. And Erik Jensen is excellent as Thurman Munson. Oliver Platt gets to be Boss Steinbrenner. Daniel Sunjata has the Reggie Jackson role.

Of all the baseball movies, the ones I make it a point to watch regularly are "League of Their Own", "Major League", and "Field of Dreams". Plenty of others on that list I like a lot but I'm afraid I didn't like "Bang The Drum Slowly" that much. A little too ponderous and maudlin for my tastes.

Thomas Brennan said...


I did like Million Dollar Arm a lot. Hamm was good in it, and story was intriguing.

The new Costner movie out, McFarland, is about track, not baseball, but is excellent. Go see it, folks.

Mack's Mets © 2012