America's favorite pastime is a label uniquely applied to baseball. The game itself is simple enough that millions across the world enjoy it, but the treatment baseball gets in movies is anything but simple. In order to make a baseball movie something other than a highlight reel, elements from other genres must be used such as comedy, drama, or mystery. Over the decades baseball movies have incorporated each, so that there is a bevy of great baseball-themed movies for everyone.
Kid's Baseball Movies
In general kids' movies about sports are famed more for their generic conventions than their quality. You know the type, a group of gawky kids that can't catch or throw but are trained to victory by a cynical coach who they win over with their kind hearts. Yet for some reason, there are enough good baseball movies for kids that when they are not transcending these cliches, they are inventing them.
- The Bad News Bears (1976) is an interesting movie. It has all the aforementioned cliches, but this was the movie that pretty much invented them. Walter Matthau is the gruff coach, and Tatum O'Neil and Vic Morrow are two of the unlikely sports stars that make up his team. They don't win the championship, but they come close enough for it not to make a difference.
- Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch (2002) is one of those films that only young kids can really appreciate. Most adults are just too cynical to accept a live action film about one dog's struggle to make it into the major leagues.
- Angels in the Outfield (1994) Although there are two versions, (the first one starring Janet Leigh and made in 1951), it's the second one starring Danny Glover and made in 1994 that most audiences know. Both are about a child who manages to enlist the help of dead baseball players to help out his team. The 1994 version was popular enough to inspire two sequels: Angels in the Endzone (1997) and Angels in the Infield (2000).
- Sandlot (1993) has a simple enough plot - a kid moves to a new town and joins a baseball team to make friends. What makes it rise above similar films is an excellent cast that includes Dennis Leary and James Earl Jones, a soundtrack that includes Green Onions and Wipe Out, and an unpretentious storyline that doesn't try to be about anything more than finding yourself.
Baseball dramas run the gamut from supernatural plots to dealing with serious issues like Lou Gherig's disease.
- In Field of Dreams (1989), Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), hears voices urging him to build a baseball field in his cornfield. What follows is a journey that leads the viewer all through the fields of innocence that grow between happy memories and epic dreams.
- Death on a Diamond (1934) features a younger Robert Young as Larry Kelly, a star pitcher who finds time to romance his manager's daughter, catch killers, and foil a plot to take the team away.
- In Damn Yankees (1958), Ray Walton as the satanic Mr. Applegate wickedly snarls his way through a clever plot that enlists the aid of the sexy Lola (Gwen Verdon) to make sure the handsome, young Joe (Tab Hunter) doesn't renege on his bargain to defeat the much-hated Yankees for the national pennant. In the end Joe comes to learn that the love of a good woman, his faithful wife, is ultimately more important to him than his love of baseball.
- Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) is a fictionalized account of two professional ballplayers, one of whom is diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The movie chronicles young Bruce Pearson's (Robert DeNiro) last season and how his teammates rally around him. Bang the Drum Slowly is a remake of a Paul Newman film of the same name from 1950.
- The final scene in The Natural (1984), starring Robert Redford, is literally stomach churning. Against the doctor's advice, the veteran hero steps to the plate for the final game of the season, but each time he strikes out, an old stomach wound opens up. The audience knows that if it opens up too much, he will die.
Sometimes we forget that baseball is a game played by flawed human beings dressed in uniforms that look more 1920s than 21st century. Luckily there are more than enough baseball comedies to remind us.
- Calvin Marshall (2006) is a small, independent film about a college student named Calvin who keeps trying, and failing, to make the college baseball team. When he finally gets selected he has to choose between the sport he loves and the girl he loves.
- Major League (1989) is more raucous comedy with an ensemble cast of misfits, including Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Tom Berenger, and Corbin Bernsen. The movie leaves no page of slapstick or cliches unturned as it goes through a pennant-clinching season. The team's s frustrates the exotic dancer-turned-team owner (Margaret Whitton) who wants to move the Cleveland Indians to Florida.
- A League of Their Own (1992) is a fictional version of the struggles women went through at the start of women's professional baseball in the 1940s. Geena Davis and Madonna star as two competitive sisters trying to get their team into the World Series. Their coach, played by Tom Hanks, does his best to keep them both apart but playing together.
- Bull Durham (1988) features Susan Sarandon as Annie, a baseball groupie. Every year she chooses one player to sleep with for the entire season. This season she has narrowed her choice down to the rookie pitcher Nuke and the veteran catcher Crash who was brought onto the team to look after him. This interesting setup evolves into a wonderful film, thanks to some great dialogue and serious chemistry.
The typical defining moment in baseball games is winning the big one in the bottom of the ninth. However, not all baseball moments are the stuff of mythic proportions. There are a number of films that chronicle more significant and personal struggles of ball players.
- The Babe (1992) chronicles Babe Ruth's (John Goodman) rise from living in an orphanage to hitting his now famous home run at the 1932 World Series.
- The Winning Team (1952) shows the struggles and successes of the great pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander (Ronald Reagan), who suffered from both alcoholism and epilepsy.
- In Fear Strikes Out (1957), Anthony Perkins portrays Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Piersall, who suffered from bipolar disorder. The movie, an adaptation of Piersall's book of the same title written in 1955, was ultimately disavowed by Piersall. However, the movie remains a highly-regarded baseball film and, like Piersall's life itself, a cautionary tale for those who would pressure their children to succeed at all costs.
- Eight Men Out (1988) is about the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox team that earned the name "Black Sox" for throwing the World Series. A scandal ensued, and by 1921 eight members of the team were banned from baseball for life - including Shoeless Joe Jackson.
- Pride of the Yankees (1942) is an excellent film of the life of New York Yankees' first baseman Lou Gehrig, who died of what is now known as Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The film stars Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright and Gehrig's teammates Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig, and Bill Dickey. The final scene is a reenactment of a farewell speech he made to thousands of supporters at Yankee stadium, which includes the famous line, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Baseball Movie Greatness
In the movies, America's pastime becomes a vehicle for exploring life, love, and dreams. Whether it is a metaphorical coming-of-age story, or a drama featuring high intensity scenes, great baseball movies draw the viewer in to see past the theme of baseball to deeper meanings.