It’s spring, the flowers have sprung, the air is clean and the breeze soothing. For sports fans, it means baseball season, whether it be the return of comparatively-overpaid major league players to our television sets, or the chance for some of us to shake off the winter doldrums and toss the ball around.
Warner Bros. isn’t oblivious to this, which is why this Friday sees the release of “42,” the Brian Helgeland-directed story of Jackie Robinson. One of the best second basemen of all-time, Robinson changed the face of sports forever by breaking the color barrier and taking his skills all the way through the Dodgers’ minor league system to become the first black major leaguer in sports history.
Baseball is a cinematic sport, not reliant on a narrative-fueling time clock to speed up the action but instead requiring human action, or inaction, to drive the story. As a result, some of the best baseball films have the potential to be about outsiders and insiders, stars and scrubs, managers and front office types. It’s exactly that type of awareness of dramatic potential that has led “42” to focus not only on Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) but on paradigm-shifting owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Of course, the movie seems to emphasize what makes baseball so pivotal in creating America’s national identity: Rickey isn’t interested in making history, he just wants to win more ballgames.
The Playlist staff came together to celebrate the very best in films about baseball, and we cast a wide net. In this list are tales of the Negro Leagues and the Black Sox, from New York Yankees to Durham Bulls. We found ourselves sympathizing with rich general managers and poor kids, prospects and superstars, legends and has-beens. What’s thrilling is that we found the best films in this subgenre don’t just tell the stories flickering on the screen in front of us, but about the history of the game, both where it’s been and where it’s going.
“The Sandlot” (1993)
There’s a reason why so many baseball films are about, and geared towards kids. As much as it remains a complex game with elaborate rules, it still appeals to that childhood sense of community and togetherness that ensures everyone plays an equal part. Which makes “The Sandlot” not just a children’s comedy about baseball, but a film about a small community. The story centers on new kid in town Scotty Smalls, but using very broad strokes, writer-director David M. Evans captures a collection of misfit personalities at each position, each one friendly enough to assist Smalls in his rites of initiation, whether it be coping with his somewhat ornery father-in-law (an intimidating Denis Leary) or learning the difference between Babe and Baby Ruth. Through one 1962 summer, this group of boys manage to find and lose love, develop new friendships, and defeat "The Beast," owned by kindly neighborhood geezer Mr. Mertle (baseball movie veteran James Earl Jones). "The Sandlot" captures why baseball thrills younger kids: it's the association to summer, when the days are long, the temperature runs hot, and it feels as if each day holds infinite possibilities, both before and after a quick nine innings. With the sort of touches that make a film like this a cultural touchstone for legions of young boys (chase sequences, urban legends and Wendy Peffercorn), "The Sandlot" is actually something of a classic.
“The Bad News Bears” (1976)
“The incredible story of how a disaster combined with a catastrophe and somehow became the greatest champs who ever played ball.” If you’re looking for a tale of pristine sportsmanship and great baseball, this is not the film for you. With a drunken Little League baseball coach, kids using foul language, and a cavalcade of off-color jokes, “The Bad News Bears” is not your typical baseball movie. Rather than starting with some great talent being discovered, the film’s premise stems from a lawsuit against the league for preventing less talented players time on the field, resulting in a team of the worst talents (including a near-sighted pitcher, an overweight catcher and a bigoted shortstop) in need of a suitable coach. This is where Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) steps in. Not quite what one would hope for in a Little League coach, Buttermaker is a curmudgeon (based off on the screenwriter’s father – Burt Lancaster) and spends the film cradling a beer can like a newborn. Getting to work on the near-hopeless squad, Buttermaker recruits the sharp-tongued, fast-pitching daughter (Tatum O’Neal) of one of his exes, and the “best athlete in the area” (Jackie Earle Haley) who smokes cigarettes and rides a Harley Davidson. Between Matthau’s blank stares and O’Neal’s spunk, The Bears win where it counts, and the film spawned two sequels (one set in Japan), a TV series and a remake in 2005 along with inspiring a generation of childhood crushes (including Vince Vaughn and Quentin Tarantino) on Tatum O’Neal.
“The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)
Samuel Goldwyn condemned the idea of a baseball movie – “It’s box office poison. If people want baseball, they go to the ballpark!” If that was the case, this list wouldn’t exist and “The Pride of the Yankees” wouldn’t have been named 3rd best sports movie and 22nd most inspiring film in American cinema by the AFI. The story of Lou Gehrig is an inspiring, albeit tragic one – a Columbia engineering student becomes a ballplayer and works his way up from the minors to the New York Yankees. While playing for the Yankees, Gehrig (Gary Cooper) finds love with a baseball fan (Teresa Wright) and becomes a fan and team favorite. In a recreation of one of the most touching (and oft-parodied) moments in baseball history, Gehrig promises a crippled boy (Gene Collins) that he will hit two home runs during the World Series in his honor, and does just that. Things start to turn when Gehrig begins to feel weaker and we find out why -- it's ALS (later known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Finding out he has little time left to live, Gehrig addresses the crowd at Yankee Stadium and the film ends with the tear-jerking line, "People all say that I've had a bad break, but today... today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." The film was released just 17 months after the actual Lou Gehrig passed away. Featured baseball players include a very funny Babe Ruth (a former roommate of Gehrig’s on the road) and cameos by Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig. Interesting trivia includes the fact that Gary Cooper had never played baseball before getting the role and that with his right-handedness (compared to Gehrig’s left-handedness) they had to use image reversal for at least one sequence.
“Angels in the Outfield” (1951)
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite film when he was president, “Angels in the Outfield” is about Pittsburgh Pirates manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas), who begins to hear voices, and reporter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) who hounds him about the Pirates' losing streak. The voice turns out to be an angel who promises to help the Pirates if McGovern cuts out his and the team’s foul language and behavior, true to the era of Ike and the 1950s . With the help of the ghosts/angels of past baseball players, the Pirates make it to the pennant. Unfortunately for McGovern, Paige gets a real scoop in an 8 year-old orphan (Donna Corcoran) who can see the angels (which makes sense as she’s the one who prayed for them to appear). A vengeful sportscaster (Keenan Wynn) takes the story and tries to get McGovern thrown out of the league. In the end, McGovern is forced to rely on his team’s talents - winning not only the big game, but possibly a family (if he marries Paige and adopts the orphan as hinted in the ending). For baseball fans, some great scenes were shot at Forbes Field (the old Pirates stadium) and cameos include Bing Crosby (who owned 15% of the actual Pirates), Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio. A bit schmaltzy, it’s an enduring classic about believing in baseball and happy endings in general. Many of you will remember the 1994 remake, which features the California Angels instead of the Pirates and doesn’t include the romantic plot, but boasts a cast that includes Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd, a prepubescent Joseph Gordon-Levitt and ball-players played by Tony Danza, Matthew McConaughey and Adrien Brody.
“A League Of Their Own” (1992)
The story of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which started in 1942 with all the male ballplayers fighting in WWII, "A League of Their Own" is something of a touchstone for any female athletes of a certain age told they simply weren't good enough. With a snappy script of quotable one-liners, the Penny Marshall-directed comedy also manages to tug its share of heartstrings. “A League of Their Own” managed to not only make baseball accessible and riveting to non-fans as well as fanatics, it showed that the sport was grueling and the girls (and guys) who played it played hard and suffered for the game they loved. It features a great ensemble cast, including alpha female Geena Davis fresh off "Thelma And Louise," Madonna in one of her better acting turns, Tom Hanks, playing against type as the blotto Jimmy Dugan and a scene-stealing Rosie O'Donnell as Madonna's loudmouth BFF. The narrative unspools in extended flashback, illustrating the conflict between Dottie Hinson (Davis) and plucky younger sister Kit Keller (Lori Petty), as two sides of a coin: one who is settled in the traditional values of marriage and family, and the other who yearns for the new freedom the AAGPL offers. Their reluctant alcoholic and antagonistic manager Dugan (Hanks) doesn't take it seriously and instead Hinson steps up as manager, fueling an inevitable separation, creating a rift both personal and professional. Though at moments “A League of Their Own” can veer into sappy cliché territory, Marshall's ability to keep baseball at the cinematic center, as well as effectively combine laughs, gasps and tears (even though “there's no crying in baseball!”), make this film a heartfelt favorite, baseball fans or no.