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Play Ball: The Best of Baseball on the Big Screen

The grass is cut, the air is getting warmer, and thousands of cows have shed their skin. Today the first games of Spring Training began and that can mean only one thing: It’s baseball time! Hope springs eternal and that maxim translates to the big screen as well. Though it has sadly lost its title as “America’s Pasttime” baseball still reigns as the champion when it comes to the silver screen. Baseball lends itself to cinema whether by sheer nostalgic force or the structure inherent to the game. The Bad News Bears, The Sandlot, and A League of Their Own are all great films but today’s lineup of great baseball movies are all major league based, whether directly or indirectly. So sit back, open a box of Cracker Jacks, and enjoy.

Batting leadoff…

Field of Dreams

One of the great crowd-pleasing movies of all time sees Kevin Costner in his element as a man with close ties to the sport of baseball. It’s the perfect sports fairy tale complete with ghosts, ethereal voices, and seemingly ludicrous choices that lead to decisions that border on self-destructive. In the end, the result is a film that is life affirming and enriching to people of all shapes and sizes. There’s a warmth that radiates from Phil Alden Robinson’s movie that makes it a staple passed from one generation to the next. Costner is fantastic but enough cannot be said about James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster’s work in the movie. The old-timers are the film’s crotchety, beating heart. It’s charming and inspirational but doesn’t pander. A rare gem of a film.

Major League Baseball gave the film one of the ultimate tributes, having their star players recite James Earl Jones. If you’re a purist, it may get the emotions stirring.

Moving the runner over…

Bang the Drum Slowly

Before he went on to great fame using baseball bats on people, Robert De Niro played a ballplayer for the fictional New York Mammoths in this haunting 70’s sleeper. As a catcher suffering from a fatal disease De Niro delivers one of his first great performances alongside character actor legend Michael Moriarty in a movie that still remains one that has eluded most fans. It’s one for the ages and though it suffers a little bit from its era it’s a truly moving story and a reminder how life’s fragile nature can affect anyone.

Knocking it to the wall to set up the slugger…

Eight Men Out

John Sayles is one of America’s finest independent filmmakers. His spate of blue collar films through the 80’s and 90’s reveal a talent in touch with the things pulling America from within but it’s this film that married his grassroots beginnings with his ability to entertain on a grander scale and with an all-star cast to boot. Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, DB Sweeney, Michael Rooker, Christopher Lloyd, and Sayles regular David Strathairn are on point as the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox”, the team who threw the World Series. It’s a bona fide classic.

In the Clean-up spot to drive them all home…

Bull Durham

Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham is sexy, vulgar romp that made huge stars out of Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon. It’s rare that a film can make the gulag knowns as the Minor Leagues seem like a blast and a rarer one that can cut to the meat of what makes the game so enduring. Robbins plays the lunkheaded Nuke Laloosh in a way that makes him charming despite his arrogance and ignorance and Costner has the cagey veteran thing down to a science. It’s Sarandon though, who makes the whole thing sing. She’s a muse, a confident woman who lovers her men, and a baseball Merlin who knows just how to remedy every problem on and off the field.

The film also brought the term “lollygagging” back into the vernacular, which is even better:

Batting in the five hole…

For Love of the Game

When “Splatstick” virtuoso Sam Raimi decided to make a baseball romance his fans were understandably worried. In truth, the romance half of the equation doesn’t hit the bullseye, but the baseball element in For Love of the Game is fantastic. At the twilight of his career, we meet Costner’s Billy Chapel pitching the game of his life in more ways than one. The film showcases the unseen side of being a big leaguer in a way both glamorous and extremely lonely and nomadic. It’s a terrific baseball movie even with a love story that doesn’t resonate. It even succeeds despite John C. Reilly as possibly the least convincing “athlete” portrayed in a serious major motion picture.

If only we could all “clear the mechanism” this easily:

Hitting sixth, and wielding Wonderboy…

The Natural

Everyone has heard the music from this Robert Redford classic even if they didn’t realize it. The film’s score has almost taken a life of its own and has been repurposed constantly since the film’s release. Though it’s a work of absolute fiction with fantastical elements there’s something about The Natural that’s like a warm blanket for fans of the sport. Redford’s Roy Hobbs in an amazing creation and wrapped in the film’s gauzy golden light it rises to levels well beyond its means.

Batting seventh and spitting at bad pitches…

Major League

David S. Ward’s comedy about the maligned Cleveland Indians and the crazy cast of characters the team is populated with is one of the most ageless comedies ever made. The jokes still pop, the anecdotes are still relevant, and each actor brings so many quotable moments to the screen it’s become a rare sports franchise that audiences can get behind. Charlie Sheen, Corben Bernsen, Dannis Haysbert, Wesley Snipes, Tom Berenger, James Gammon, and Chelcie Ross (look him up and you’ll remember him from dozens of things) are terrific and real-life announcer Bob Uecker almost steals the show. Rumors still circle from time to time that the original cast will return for one more romp but until then we’ll always have this classic and its increasingly less classic sequels.

I found it very difficult to locate clips from the film without profanity, but I finally found one!

Batting eighth and taking the intentional pass…

Mr. Baseball

This is the worst movie on this list by far but Tom Selleck’s charm is so strong that it’s hard not to fall in love with Mr. Baseball. Especially with the phenomenal and now deceased Japanese actor Ken Takakura squaring up against him. It’s also a great representation of that particular era in the sport, right as greenies were becoming steroids and the All-American innocence of the game was forever lost. Plus, Tom Selleck is great and people need to be reminded whenever possible.

Now batting for the pitcher…

Moneyball

Michael Lewis wrote a book that changed the sport. It seemed like a great story that wasn’t cinematic enough to warrant a big screen effort. Not only was it cinematic, it was nominated for a bunch of awards. The praise was warranted as Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, and more character actors than you can count delivered a film that is magnificent. It’s surprisingly strong upon repeat viewings and when the dust settles on the best baseball films of all time this one may ultimately reign supreme.

 

Postscript: If you ever want to have a movie night featuring movies with baseball bats figuring prominently but aren’t a fan of the sport may I recommend Signs, Office Space, The Warriors, Inglourious Basterds,  The Untouchables and Casino?

 


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