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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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