“The Natural” (1984)
“The Natural” resonates with any baseball fan, whether it is your favorite movie, a rite of passage during your Little League years, or, like some of our staff, a bone of contention as you disagree with the general consensus amongst critics that it is one of the best sports movies of all time. Based on the Bernard Malamud novel, the film begins with a father and son playing catch. The father suddenly dies and lightning strikes a nearby tree, splitting it in half. The boy carves a baseball bat out of the tree and names it “Wonderboy.” That boy is Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) and this is the beginning of a truly bizarre and inspiring baseball saga. From striking out “The Whammer” (based on Babe Ruth) to eating a bullet fired by alluring stalker Barbara Hershey, Hobbs endures a lifetime of highs and lows before finding his way onto the New York Knights at 35. From there, he proves his naysayers wrong by bringing the team out of its slump and hitting home run after home run. But the Knights’ owner tries to sabotage Hobbs using both an in-her-prime Kim Basinger and a poisoned éclair to distract the slugger. Temptation! Luckily, Hobbs powers through to win the big game and the love of the optimistic and near-saintly Iris (Glenn Close) with one of the most iconic baseball home-runs in cinematic history. Despite a controversial departure from the source material (imagine the EXACT opposite of Hobbes’ triumph, but worse), the movie has taken a life of its own, being referenced in other great baseball movies - “Field of Dreams” and “The Sandlot” - to being spoofed at least five times on “The Simpsons.”
“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings” (1976)
Loosely based on the exploits of Negro League players who opted to ply their trade outside of their poorly-compensated central profession, this John Badham-directed sports comedy manages to capture the strife and discontent of segregation-era baseball. When W.E.B. Dubois-reading catcher Leon Carter (James Earl Jones, in a role loosely based on Josh Gibson) holds court regarding the prospect of these mistreated athletes acting independently of their penny-pinching owners, charismatic pitcher Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams, effervescently channeling Satchel Paige) proposes their own amateur league as something of a sideshow. Traveling from town to town, barely getting by, these players employ showmanship and irreverence not only winning over racist white fans, but also eventually outdrawing their Negro League competition. The presence of Richard Pryor as Charlie Snow, a troublemaker eager to get into the majors, suggests that this would be a more lightweight film that skimps on the very real hardships faced by black athletes near the start of the twentieth century and beyond. But Snow ends up participating in the film’s darkest subplot, revealing that as many smiles as Bingo and Leon can muster (Williams and Jones are having a helluva time, and it's infectious), there’s always trouble waiting outside the diamond. The definitive Negro Leagues film has yet to be made, but 'Bingo Long' doesn’t short on the virulent racism faced by these great athletes, nor does it trivialize the more practical problems based in class and opportunism.
Animalistic, terrifying, and loaded with talent: those are the words that capture the essence of not only legendary outfielder Ty Cobb, but also Tommy Lee Jones’ ferocious performance as the infamous Georgia Peach in Ron Shelton’s woozy, disorienting drama. The film is based on a famous chronicle penned by journalist Al Stump (played by an overmatched Robert Wuhl), who famously printed the legend based on a collection of topsy-turvy days spent in an elderly Cobb’s company, later writing a more truthful and more incendiary account upon Cobb’s passing, documented here. What’s fascinating is the ornery depiction of Cobb not only as an unrepentant racist and sexist bruiser, but also as an unstoppable competitor, suggesting that the flood of hate coursing through his veins made him not only a monster, but, on the field, an unstoppable hitter with unmatched skill, complicating the hero worship held by Stump at the start of the film, seemingly a remnant of a lost era. Shelton, a former minor league ballplayer who has made films about golf (“Tin Cup”), boxing (“Play It To The Bone”) and basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of Stump’s book (which has been questioned for its veracity), making a decidedly downbeat film that smartly questions the idea of legendary ballplayers as heroes, creating a picture that grants viewers a greater understanding of the depth and humanity captured within America’s pastime.
There’s never been all that much love devoted to Billy Crystal the director, but based on his charming, wonderfully old-fashioned 1995 romantic comedy “Forget Paris” and this thoughtful, well-acted made-for-HBO baseball biopic, dude knows his way around behind the camera. Crystal focuses on baseball’s most famous and winning team, the New York Yankees, specifically the 1961 season that saw Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) usurp Babe Ruth’s long held single season home run record of 60. Crystal and his screenwriter, former sports reporter turned screenwriter Hank Steinberg, give the proper context for the uninitiated (Ruth as God to Yankees fans, his many records so monumental that the thought of another mortal topping them became sacrilegious) so anyone, fan or otherwise, can enjoy “61*.” But baseball devotees should enjoy it as well because it gets so much right: the importance of statistics; that amazing '60s era Yankees team; the historical accuracy; the ace casting (Pepper and Thomas Jane, playing legend Mickey Mantle, are perfect for their roles, looks and ability-wise); the legit look and feel of the baseball. Despite the use of a tired first person interview biopic structure -- which is actually pretty well utilized -- the film achieves a sense of sadness and appreciation for the two men it zeroes in on.
“Major League” (1989)
Director David S. Ward had a relatively minor career after helming the two “Major League” films, and it’s not exactly some sort of travesty that he never lived up to this iconic sports classic. Not to say he doesn’t do a phenomenal job with the material in “Major League,” which has become a significant clubhouse classic to an entire era of ballplayers. The bigger disappointment is losing Ward as a writer, as his real-life status as a Cleveland Indians fan allowed him to populate “Major League” with a crew of characters that were both inspired comic creations and instantly recognizable baseball “types,” the likes of which were, and remain, familiar to long-time sports fans. The narrative is common, and somewhat depressing for some fans, with a cheapskate owner intending to strip-mine the Indians and turn them into also-rans in an attempt to shuffle the franchise to Florida. But in the ragtag-leftovers-learn-to-win category, the lack of freshness regarding the story is offset by a fairly impressive group of comedic performances. As reliever Ricky Vaughn, Charlie Sheen perfectly taps into that insouciance of reckless youth and naivete. As alpha male veteran Jake Taylor, Tom Berenger perfectly captures that clubhouse leadership role mixed in with a dunderheaded jock appeal, an overtly romantic portrayal of a faded star. And stealing all of his scenes is Wesley Snipes as Willie Mayes Hayes, the insufferably bombastic showboat on the basepaths.