It’s that time of year, when America’s pastime is in the hearts and minds of fans around the country. The Spring Training has kicked off the grind. Baseball is as much a thread in the fabric of our history, and baseball movies have almost always followed in its footsteps. Throughout the years, baseball movies have stoked the fires of our love for the game as much as the game itself; maybe they are even more important these days. Say what you will about the corporatization of the sport, baseball at its core is still pure and beautiful, at least to this fan of the game. And the greatest baseball movies carry that spirit with them. Here are 10 essentials.
10. Bang the Drum Slowly – Part baseball film, part terminal-illness melodrama, one of Robert De Niro’s earliest roles had him playing a dimwitted catcher suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease. De Niro’s Bruce Pearson and star pitcher Henry “Author” Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) are the focus of the film, and their friendship carries the emotion of the story. This is a baseball film about the way tragedy can cloud even the most beautiful and purest of games.
9. Moneyball – Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller’s surprising 2011 hit was based on what seemed to be an unfilmable book by Michael Lewis. The focus here was less about the game on the field, and more about the influx of analytics into the game and Athletics’ eccentric GM Billy Beane struggling to change the way we see the game. With all the mechanics of a plot like Moneyball, one of the greatest achievements of Miller’s film is the way it captures the essence and emotion of the truest baseball movies, and Pitt delivers a complete and layered performance with a fantastic assist from Jonah Hill.
8. The Bad News Bears – Arguably the most infamous character in the history of baseball movies is one Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a burnout and a lush former minor-league manager tasked with coaching a ragtag group of little league miscreants. The Bad News Bears became shorthand for any sad-sack team throughout the years, and the hilarious glimpse at late 70s little league organizations is a wonderful time capsule of a bygone era.
7. The Sandlot – The Sandlot was an important film for a generation of kids. Here, the magic of baseball was encapsulated by the unwavering desire of neighborhood kids to play the game anywhere and everywhere. They lived and breathed baseball, and it shaped almost everything in their young lives. And the imaginative framework of the film – like the fantastic embellishment of the junkyard dog eating their errant baseballs – captures what it means to be a child, yet unfettered by harsh reality.
6. The Pride of The Yankees – Gary Cooper delivered an Oscar-nominated performance in one of the most celebrated early cinematic glimpses into the world of baseball. Cooper plays New York Yankees star Lou Gehrig, who was forced to retire from the game after being diagnosed with ALS, a disease which would eventually carry his name. The most heartbreaking moment here is also one of the more heartbreaking moments in the history of baseball; Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech. And Cooper nails it.
5. Major League – While it did borrow a great number its colorful characters from Bull Durham, Major League amped up the nuttiness and built a great comedy on the shoulders of truly convincing performances. There is the aging catcher, the flashy speedster who isn’t as great as he thinks, the imposing voodoo masher who can’t hit the curve, and a wild thing. And on and on we go through a delightful summer journey with the hapless Cleveland Indians.
4. A League of Their Own – Such a unique baseball movie, not only because it focuses on the short-lived women’s baseball league that sprung up during the height of World War II. Geena Davis and Lori Petty anchor a stellar team of female actors, and Tom Hanks ties the whole thing together with one of his best and brightest comedic roles. I still wanna know what he says when he hops off the bus and yells at the girls to get back on board.
3. The Natural – Barry Levinson’s love letter to an era of baseball that has long since disappeared, The Natural strikes all the right chords of melodrama, triumph, and longing. Robert Redford’s aging masher Roy Hobbes is so ingrained in the culture of baseball he almost feels like a real player from the past. The Natural captures something magical at the core of baseball, the mystical side of a sport played, at one time, by hardworking men. And that final shot, it’s one for the ages.
2. Field of Dreams – And now we get to Kevin Costner, who is as much a part of this country’s baseball narrative as some of the players who have come and gone. Field of Dreams, much like The Natural, deals almost entirely in the magic intangibles that elevate baseball beyond sport. Ray Kinsella hears the voice in his field, he builds a baseball diamond to resurrect “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, he travels to Chicago to rescue a former revolutionary author and a doctor who played one inning in the big leagues, and he eventually is given the opportunity to make amends with his late father. none of it makes sense in the real world, but in Field of Dreams, flights of imagination supersede reality. We go with it, and we are swept up in the very human emotions in this very inhuman world.
1. Bull Durham – What makes Ron Shelton’s seminal baseball movie so incredibly textured is the authenticity at play. Shelton played for a cup of coffee in the minors, so he knows the material, and he loves the sport, and this all is woven masterfully into a film about the nostalgic charm of a town and their minor-league Durham Bulls. Kevin Costner is the aged vet, Tim Robbins the dopey superstar pitcher, and Susan Sarandon is the woman in the middle of these two vastly different representations of minor-league ballplayers. These hopefuls ride buses and carry their own luggage, and they love the game. And Bull Durham loves them back.