“I hate losing things, but as I age, more things get lost, such as an internet article on what its author considered the best baseball movies. I wanted to save it not because it was a good list, but because it was a terrible list. Some really bad movies were on it and really good ones omitted.
Before the article was “lost,” I sent it to friends who are serious baseball fans. They, too, agreed, it was a bad list. So, what would be a “good” list of baseball films?
I asked my friends to submit their choices for the best baseball movies. The film mentioned most often would be rated the best, the one with the second most mentions would be second best, etc. Some participants sent a list of 10 films, some sent several, and a few selected only one movie.
Choices could be a feature film or TV movie, a comedy or drama, or a documentary.
I also asked the group to explain their selections for the best baseball film.
Participants included two film critics, several current and retired college professors, a retired book critic, a retired Hall of Fame baseball writer, a public relations executive, a minister, and writers who have published much about baseball.
Some historical tidbits:
The first baseball film was The Ball Game, produced in 1898 by Thomas Edison, it is less than 30 seconds long, and portrays two baseball teams – one has Newark (not far from Edison’s home) on its jerseys — playing each other.
Pride of the Yankees, the bio pic of Lou Gehrig starring Gary Cooper as The Ironman, received 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture – the only baseball film so honored – and best actor. Its one win was for best film editing.
According to actionnetwork.com, these are the highest-grossing baseball films (while adjusted for inflation, it’s not surprising there’s nothing before 1975):
- A League of Their Own (1992) — $209 million
- Field of Dreams (1989) — $186 million
- Bad News Bears (1976) — $155 million
- Moneyball (2011) — $134 million
- The Natural (1984) — $126 million
- The Rookie (2002) — $122 million
- Major League (1989) — $120 million
- Bull Durham (1988) – $117 million
- 42 (2013) — $114 million
- Rookie of the Year (1993) — $107 million
The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has 72 inductees — players, coaches, managers and owners – who played themselves in feature films (TV movies and TV shows were not included). This list includes both credited and uncredited appearances, cameos, speaking roles and voice-overs.
Babe Ruth and Ernie Banks appeared in six films, the most of any member.
Ruth was in Fancy Curves, Headin’ Home, Home Run on the Keys, Just Pals, Little Miss Bluebonnet, Over the Fence,Perfect Control, Slide, Babe, Slide, Speedy, The Babe Comes Home, and The Pride of the Yankees.
Banks appeared in Blackjack, Diminished Capacity, Pastime, Promised Land, Reversal of Misfortune, Roman, and The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
Other members’ appearances include:
Henry Aaron appeared in Summer Catch; Frank Baker, the Short-Stop’s Double, Home Run Baker’s Double; Yogi Berra, Damn Yankees, Henry and Me, That Touch of Mink; Roy Campanella, Roogie’s Bump; Ty Cobb, Angels in the Outfield, Somewhere in Georgia; Dizzy Dean, Dizzy and Daffy; Joe DiMaggio, Angels in the Outfield, Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, Pride of the Yankees, The First of May; Larry Doby, It’s My Turn, The Kid From Cleveland; Bob Feller, Pastime, The Kid From Cleveland; Ken Griffey Jr., Little Big League, Summer Catch; Tommy Lasorda, Americathon, Ed, Homeward Bound II, Ladybugs, Ya Gotta Believe; Mickey Mantle, Damn Yankees, It’s My Turn, Safe At Home, That Touch of Mink; Pedro Martínez, Ponchao; Christy Mathewson, Breaking Into The Big League, Matty’s Decision; Willie Mays, When Nature Calls; Satchel Paige, The Kid From Cleveland, The Wonderful Country; Jackie Robinson, The Jackie Robinson Story; Bill Veeck, The Kid From Cleveland; Honus Wagner, In The Name Of The Law, Spring Fever; Dave Winfield, The Last Home Run.
Bull Durham, 1988.
Beginning in 2006, The Hall of Fame held an annual baseball film festival. It was cancelled the past two years, but officials are hopeful it will resume this summer.
Bruce Markusenk, Manager of Outreach Learning at the Hall, said the festival “started as a response to inquiries from the public. Fans and filmmakers contacted us to ask if we had a film festival; it reached the point where so many people expressed interest that the decision was made to create one. It has been very popular.
“Most of the films tend to be documentary-style dealing with some aspect of baseball history, a current issue affecting the game, or a biographical profile,” said Markusen. “We’ve run documentaries that run anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. We have shown 30 for 30 films from ESPN, but also films from independent and first-time filmmakers. We have occasionally run short films on fictional topics. We have also shown feature-type films that were released in theaters, such as Million Dollar Arm and American Pastime. Those tend to run the first night of the festival weekend as a kind of kickoff to the event.”
“We have also occasionally turned down films because the content featured adult material, such as coarse language or explicit themes. We tend to prefer films that are family friendly, but we have nonetheless featured films about controversial topics,” noted Markusen.
One retired college professor, Jack, who is 98, said, “I feel compelled to fulfill my role as the old guy, and bring up Elmer the Great starring Joe E. Brown.”
Based on a play by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan, the movie is about “Country bumpkin Elmer Kane joins the Chicago Cubs as the greatest hitter in baseball. His skill with a bat takes the team to the World Series, but on the way to the championship has to deal with gamblers and crooked pitchers.”
“It came out in 1933, and I remember my father commenting, ‘Now that’s the kind of movies they ought to make,’” said the “old” professor.
Another retired professor, also named Jack, had Eight Men Out as the top baseball movie because, “As an historian, I enjoyed the way it told the story of baseball’s worst moment, one that came close to ruining the sport. I also thought that the actors did a good job of looking like major leaguers.”
He believes The Natural, which was on his list, “is not really a baseball film, but Redford looks good hitting.” He also thought Kevin Costner in Bull Durham “looks like a real ballplayer.” He listed two films that were remade (but weren’t as good as the originals): Angels in the Outfield (1951 version) and Bad News Bears (1975 version). He put Major League on his list because his wife laughs every time she sees it.
Eight Men Out, 1988.
Eight Men Out was also the top choice for a writer, Chuck. He chose it because, “the film (is) about a fascinating true story that is really evocative – and accurate– of the era, and has a spectacular cast of character actors, including the late John Mahoney as Kid Gleason. And the actors generally appeared athletic–something that is not always the case with baseball movies.”
Another retired professor, Peter, said the best baseball film is Bull Durham:
“I watched Bull Durham last night since I had not seen it for years. It reaffirmed my pick as the best baseball picture ever. This movie intermingles romance, comedy, and baseball like no other sports flick. This is due to the outstanding performances of Kevin Costner as an aging minor league catcher, Susan Sarandon as a baseball groupie and Tim Robbins as a dim-witted but street – wise pitcher. Without question this is the best overall cast of any baseball movie. I do not understand why it did not garner any major film awards,” he said.
“Sports Illustrated, however, did call it the greatest baseball movie of all-time,” he said. “From my perspective the pitcher-catcher meetings at the mound are not only hilarious but in many ways realistic of the banter between a seasoned catcher and erratic rookie pitcher. These were my most enjoyable moments of the movie,” Pete added.
A writer, Howard, was so impressed by Pete’s list he said to that for his contribution.
Agreeing with Peter about Bull Durham was Paul, a member of the baseball writers’s section of the Hall of Fame.
“Sure, life in the minor leagues doesn’t have quite the pizzazz writer/director Ron Shelton might have you believe. But he captures the spirit of life in the bushes with razor-sharp portrayals of pivotal characters, such as the grizzled veteran (Kevin Costner), the hotshot prospect (Tim Robbins), the world-weary lifer manager (Trey Wilson) and the perky coach (Robert Wuhl). Plus Susan Sarandon! This movie doesn’t really take a false step, unlike some otherwise really good films that just didn’t button down the details. Like Moneyball. Or 42 ,which has Jackie Robinson hitting a pennant-clinching, walk-off home run. On the road,” said Paul.
He added, “Also had to eliminate Eight Men Out which includes a scene in which White Sox owner Charles Comiskey said something like, ‘To hell with newspapermen. You can buy them with a steak.’ This from a guy whose team was tanking the World Series!”
Paul and Chuck were the only two respondents who put Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary on their list of best films.
Bang the Drum Slowly, 1973.
Gerry, a film professor, listed Eight Men Out as his top choice. He is the author of a biography of director John Sayles, and interviewed many people associated with the movie.
“Let me admit my bias. My research started with a phone call from Studs Terkel,” said Gerry. (Terkel played Hugh Fullerton, the reporter who broke the Black Sox scandal.)
Gerry cited several of the film’s assets: Terrific casting of leads and support characters; the opening credits under a long fly ball; metaphor: the players agreeing to the fix as (one) stands at a urinal pissing away his career.
“I like the way the film connects baseball to the wide picture of American society of the time. It’s also a film of many moods: tense during the National Anthem with a gunman sitting in the stands menacing the wife of the pitcher, (the players are) depressed by the cheap owner, the dirty uniforms (which the players had to pay to have washed) vs. the need to buy food for a family. The contrast between those images to the dugout’s smart ass give and-take and the envy about Eddie Collins, (his) college (Ivy League), and then to the feel-good times when the players are tossing the ball around—see under closing credits.”
“Talking to actors in the film, I learned about the hours they put in practicing baseball in those baggy unis with those old gloves and bats. As always with a Sayles film an excellent score by Mason Daring. What’s not to like: too much information packed into the film and too many look alike characters,” he said.
“Sayles’ mom found it hard to follow. Sayles was a Pirates fan. He used to stay up at night listening to their games, then would fall asleep during class,” Gerry said.
Ed, who has frequently written about baseball, said his choice for the best film, Everybody Wants Some, was influenced by its similarity to his family.
“It’s my favorite of the moment since it’s about a college baseball pitcher as a freshman and it reminds me of my eldest son Eddie’s adventure, and my younger son potentially in a few years since he may be going the pitching route,” he said. “Anyway, Richard Linklater knocks it out of the park with this playful, realistic story about college baseball players away from the diamond just before the first day of college class.”
Also on his list are The Natural and Field of Dreams: “There’s just something about a catch between a father and a son.”
A few respondents had the little-known Bang the Drum Slowly on their lists, which stars Robert DeNiro in one of his first film roles.
The Bad News Bears, 1976.
There are so many baseball films, but so few about other sports. Since football became the country’s favorite, there haven’t been that many movies about the game, and most of them didn’t make a big impression either among critics or at the box office.
I asked the group about this.
Bruce, the retired minister, said, “Too many football movies are dramatically driven by death! Brian’s Song; The Express; We Are Marshall; Knute Rockne Story, with Ronald Reagan as the Gipper, Concussion; Heaven Can Wait.”
He believes the best baseball movies “are driven by hope.” Among the films on list that feature hope are A League of Their Own, The Natural (author’s note: the film offers hope; the book doesn’t), Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, 42, and The Sandlot.
Other reasons Bruce suggested for why there are more baseball than football films: “They have sharp and memorable characterizations: Ham Porter, Scotty Smalls, Benny Rodriguez, “Squints” Palleadorus, Pop Fisher, Roy Hobbs,” and, he added, “they are evocative. They take you to a different place and time. And they grab you.”
Mike, the public relations executive, said this about more baseball and fewer football films:
“The reason there are more baseball films is because baseball has more stories, and more people appreciate the nostalgia, the history and the characters of the game. Also, for decades upon decades, almost every kid played little league before they could play any of the other sports. Now many of those other sports are prevalent and baseball is losing its grip on kids.”
Irv, one of the film critics, believes baseball movies are more plentiful than football films is “because baseball lends itself to underdog stories and people overcoming the odds to succeed—a decidedly All-American theme. The fact that baseball players look like common people who happen to be professional athletes also has helped people relate to baseball movies. Baseball films’ underdog-wins-against-the-odds premise has invited exploration of such important themes as racism (such as) Bingo Long, 42, women’s rights, A League of Their Own, anti-Semitism, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, father-son relationships, Field of Dreams, and second chances, The Rookie. Even though the sport’s popularity seems to have dipped over the last ten years, I think there will always be baseball movies.”
Irv chose The Bad News Bears as the best baseball film:
“On the surface, The Bad News Bears is pitched like a family movie, but it’s not. It’s actually a movie for kids and adults, but it’s not a family movie and not for kids and adults at the same time. Like some of director Michael Ritchie’s films from that era, Downhill Racer, Smile and The Candidate, the film is a meditation on winning, on what it takes to be a winner, the stakes of winning and how winning or the pursuit of winning can corrupt people. Kids could learn a lesson from The Bad News Bears, but they could also enjoy the antics of the members of the Bears squad and relate to some of the issues they face. As Coach Morris Butterworth, Walter Matthau turns in one of his finest performances, making a grouchy alcoholic a likable and, eventually, heroic character,” he said.
The retired book critic, Frank, said his favorite baseball film is Pride of the Yankees. He said when he saw it as a boy he cried. He also placed Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Moneyball, and The Babe Ruth Story, with William Bendix playing the Sultan of Swat, on his list.
I chose not to participate in the survey, but want to mention two films fans either don’t know about or don’t consider a baseball movie:
The first is the 2006 Director’s Cut of The Natural. Filmmaker Barry Levinson said he was rushed while editing the film to make its release date. Twenty-three years later, he cut the movie the way he feels it should have been done.
Levinson removed some scenes, and added several new ones, most of which improved the movie. One new scene is remarkable how it succinctly yet powerfully shows how Roy Hobbs will never escape his past.
The director’s cut is about two minutes longer, but feels tighter than its original version. The DVD release also has an outstanding collection of extras on the making of the film, including why Hobbs wears number 9, and Randy Newman on composing his iconic score. And who would have thought that after nearly four decades Kim Basinger has an Oscar and Glenn Close doesn’t?
And I’ve always wanted to include The Naked Gun as an “Honorable Mention” of the best baseball films.
While not a baseball movie, the final section was filmed at Dodger Stadium, and every baseball cliché – players spitting, adjusting their crotches, and more – is satirized, along with the worst version ever of The Star Spangled Banner and umpires arguing with each other as opposed to players. And how can a fan not love a movie with Mel Allen, Dick Enberg, Curt Gowdy, Tim McCarver, Jim Palmer and even Dr. Joyce Brothers in the announcers booth – and Allen getting to say, “How about that?” Two respondents put The Naked Gun on their list of top 10 baseball movies, so others see the merit of it as well.
So, based on the responses, here is the not-definitive list of best baseball movies:
Field of Dreams had the most mentions, making it number 1.
Eight Men Out was second. Bull Durham, A League of Their Own and Pride of the Yankees tied for third. Moneyball was fourth, and Major League and The Natural tied for fifth.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, persons attempting to find a be-all and end-all of baseball movies here will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find logic in this list will be banished; persons who want to make their own list and criteria for the best baseball films are welcome to do so.