Baseball season is underway. One way to celebrate is with movies about baseball. Actually, I use these movies to fill the first three months of many years, keeping the spirit of baseball alive in me until spring training is nearly over and the real season is about to start.
These happen to be the movies that I own and like to watch. I do not pretend to have a list of the best baseball movies ever made, and I do not want to try to rank the movies from least favorite to most favorite. For that reason, I am listing them in alphabetical order. Even though I like some better than others, I am not a qualified film critic. I don’t even play one on TV.
SPOILER ALERT: In some cases, to describe a movie fairly, I will have to comment on the way it ends. If you have not seen these movies and think you might want to see them, you may want to stop reading now. You have been warned.
Bad News Bears (1976): starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal. A former baseball player is persuaded to coach a community team of misfits and losers in the summer league. Naturally, he grows as a person by working with these children, and they come together as a team under his guidance. Because this movie was made in the 1970s, one of the lessons they learn is that they do not need to win the game in order to be champions.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty. A baseball version of Brian’s Song, but in this case the catcher (De Niro) has Hodgkin’s Disease, and his friend the pitcher (Moriarty) is at first the only person on the team to know this secret. The pleasure of this movie is to see the back scenes of baseball, the way the players talk and act in the locker room and in their motel rooms and other places off the field. Especially memorable is the way they con money out of fans by inviting them to play a card game called TEGWAR—The Excellent Game Without Any Rules.
Bull Durham (1988): starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. An aging catcher in the minor leagues must mentor an up-and-coming young pitcher, while both are being followed by a mystically-minded fan who wants more than just to watch the game. This is the only R-rated movie on my list; it is one to watch only after the children are in bed.
Damn Yankees (1958): starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, and Jean Stapleton. A fan of the Washington Senators sells his soul to the devil in order to become a star baseball player and lead his team to victory, especially to success over the New York Yankees. It is a Broadway musical about baseball (and about temptation), so the characters sometimes break into song and dance. The movie’s choreographer, the great Bob Fosse, dances in one scene (that has nothing to do with baseball). That scene alone makes the movie worth the price of admission.
Eight Men Out (1988): starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, and D. B. Sweeney. This movie is a dramatization of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight players were barred from the game because they took money from gamblers who wanted their team (the Chicago White Sox) to lose the World Series on purpose. As a baseball movie it succeeds, although I cannot vouch for its historical accuracy, and – despite the fine cast – I am not sure it ranks as a successful movie over all.
Field of Dreams (1989): starring Kevin Costner (again), James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan, and Burt Lancaster. This movie is about baseball and about much more: about family and loyalty, about following one’s dreams at any cost, and about perceiving the magic that surrounds us in the everyday world. An Iowa farmer hears voices telling him to build a baseball field. When he builds it, the eight players portrayed in Eight Men Out appear and play baseball. A lot more happens after that. Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, written by W. P. Kinsella. He wrote a good novel, but they made a great movie from his story by cutting out about half his characters and shortening the drama. Someday I may write an entire post about this one movie.