Baseball players and movie stars have a lot in common. Both are paid tons of money to do jobs that the rest of us would gladly do for free, and both are treated like royalty by an adoring public. It’s not surprising, then, that movie stars see something of themselves in ballplayers, or at least seem to enjoy playing them. Indeed, actors from Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees) to Gary Coleman (The Kid From Left Field), from Robert De Niro (Bang the Drum Slowly) to Madonna (A League of Their Own) have donned caps and gloves to take their shot at the big leagues.
But locating the drama in a baseball story can be a tricky business, and one that lends itself to sentimentality, cliche, or the coarse humor of a profession that encourages its professionals not to grow up. Just look at the mawkish Jodie Foster/Mark Harmon drama Stealing Home, the plodding biopic The Babe, or the crudely formulaic Major League series and you’ll get the picture. And let’s not even get into Penny Marshall’s wretched girls-play-ball dramedy A League of Their Own, which suffers from all three vices.
When a baseball movie does work, though, the results can be as spectacular as a Mark McGwire home run and there can be no doubt that the films below belong in the baseball movie Hall of Fame.
Bull Durham (1988)
Writer-director Ron Shelton was a former minor leaguer which perhaps explains how he was able to capture the humor, passion, and love of the game that permeates the bush leagues. The story revolves around the relationship between an aging catcher (Kevin Costner) chasing the minor-league career record for home runs and a young pitching phenom (Tim Robbins) on his way to “The Show.” Completing the triangle is Susan Sarandon as a baseball groupie who brings out the best — and worst — in both men. Costner is at his most likable here (especially in his memorable speech about what he believes in), Robbins brings a great comic energy to the wild man pitcher, and Sarandon combines sexuality and humor in a way modern movies usually find impossible. But the real star of the show is Shelton’s dialogue — it’s hilarious, irreverent, and surprisingly tender, making Bull Durham successful both as a baseball movie and a romantic comedy.
The Natural (1984)
Based on Bernard Malamud’s classic novel, The Natural refashions baseball drama as epic myth. Robert Redford is perfectly cast as Roy Hobbs, an amazing talent who, at the age of seventeen, strikes out the Babe Ruth-like Boomer on three pitches, then vanishes for more than a decade after a bloody tragedy involving a femme fatale. When he returns, he’s no longer a pitcher, but a tremendous slugger who leads his team to the World Series. Along the way, he reunites with his childhood sweetheart and confronts the demons of his past. The supporting cast — which includes Robert Duvall, Wilfred Brimley, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, and Barbara Hershey — is wonderful. Director Barry Levinson and cinematographer Caleb Deshanel use a lush, burnished palate to create a mythic atmosphere, and Randy Newman’s epic score is among the most memorable ever composed.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
Robert De Niro stars as a journeyman catcher with terminal Hodgkins disease, and Michael Moriarty plays the star pitcher who befriends him in this tremendously moving baseball drama. De Niro’s performance — his first following Mean Streets — is one of his least typical, as he slaps on a silly grin and a Southern accent and becomes a wholly believable country bumpkin. Based on the second of four novels by Mark Harris about the Moriarty character, pitcher Henry Wiggen.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The story of Lou Gehrig, the great Yankee first baseman and iron man, is one of the most heartbreaking in baseball history: after playing in 2130 consecutive games, Gehrig came down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and was forced to retire. He died shortly thereafter, and the disease became known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In The Pride of the Yankees, Gary Cooper stars as the slugger, and gives one of his most stoically heroic performances, particularly while reciting Gehrig’s famous “luckiest man alive” speech.
Eight Men Out (1988)
The 1919 Black Sox scandal is one of the most famous scandals in baseball history. Exploited by their cheapskate owner, Charles Comiskey, eight of the American League champion Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. This film (written and directed by John Sayles, from the book by Eliot Asinof) does a masterful job of fleshing out the story and revealing the internal conflicts and motivations of the players. Particularly good are David Strathairn as tormented pitcher Eddie Cicotte and D.B. Sweeney as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the game’s greatest hitters who was banned from the Hall of Fame for his part in the scandal.
The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
Set in the late ‘30s and drawing from the rich history of the Negro Leagues, Bingo Long is an entertaining and emotionally honest story that touches on the dark history of American segregation. Billy Dee Williams gives a charismatic performance as the title character, a star pitcher based on Satchel Paige, while James Earl Jones is a powerful presence as a slugger based on Josh Gibson, the Hall of Famer known as the Black Babe Ruth. Best of all, though, is Richard Pryor, who gives a comic, bittersweet turn as a marginal player who poses as a Cuban and as an American Indian in his efforts to sneak across the color barrier.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer and baseball fanatic who hears a voice (“If you build it he will come”) and carves a baseball diamond into his corn field. Based on the novel, Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella, Field of Dreams is a winning combination of baseball and fantasy that features fine supporting turns from Burt Lancaster as an aging ex-big leaguer and James Earl Jones as a reclusive writer who is kidnapped by Costner to help make his fantasy come alive.
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
Baseball takes a back seat to the dynamics of a father-son relationship in this biopic based on the autobiography of big leaguer Jimmy Piersall (played here by a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins). Pushed by his father (Karl Malden) to excel at baseball, Piersall becomes a star but eventually suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized. Perkins is more convincing as a fragile young man than a ballplayer, but overall the film works — though its deviations from reality caused Piersall himself to disown the film.
The Stratton Story (1949)
Jimmy Stewart stars as Monty Stratton, a real-life major league pitcher who loses a leg in a hunting accident and struggles back to the big leagues with an artificial limb. Stewart’s a bit old for the role, but he still turns in a fine performance, and June Allyson and Agnes Moorehead lend compelling support as his wife and mother.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
The kids’ baseball movie is a genre unto itself, but this is the one film of its kind that will also appeal to grown-ups. Tomboy Tatum O’Neal is terrific as a girl pitcher who joins a Little League team full of misfits and helps turn them around under the tutelage of washed up pitcher Walter Matthau. The kids are amply entertaining, but Matthau, who has never used his crotchety charm to greater effect, gets the MVP award for this one.