Baseball has its greats, and so do baseball films, here they are
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball…it reminds of us all that once was good and it could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come." Field of Dreams
For those of us who truly consider it the greatest game, that speech James Earl Jones, as Terence Mann, gave near the end of Field of Dreams touched us in very special way. It was all the words we had tried to say, the words that we had tried to find when we wondered what we would tell our children about The Game. It was love, it was magic, it was baseball. For some of you, maybe, for me most certainly, the game of baseball is right there with our families, is there in our dreams, is part of what made us who we are today, and will be part of what we will be tomorrow.
Part of the problem with trying to make a movie about baseball is just that level of passion and love The Game carries with it. Tell me a story about a serial killer, or a dog that can talk, or an asteroid that could destroy the world. I'll have fun; I'll play along. Tell me a story about baseball and you'd better get it right, because I know this game, and more to the point, I love this game. The best baseball movies have always been made by people who know the game, people who love it the way I do, but it takes more than that. It takes knowledge of film, a craftsmanship that is rare. Ask me for great thrillers, great gangster films, great sci-fi flicks and I could go on for days. Ask me about great baseball films and the list is comparatively short.
Thus I will give you a list, but not the traditional top twenty/ten/five. I'll put them in a context that we baseball lovers can understand, in categories easily recognizable to those who truly look at it as The Game.
We'll start where every baseball player started, at the bottom.
Minor Leagues: Maybe these films never made the show, but they did get paid to play.
Bang the Drum Slowly: If you are not in the right mood this early Robert DeNiro performance plays like a disease of the week film wrapped in a catcher's mitt. But DeNiro has his trademark intensity as a major league catcher playing one last season with a terminal disease. Michael Moriarty (you Law and Order fans should recognize him) is heartbreaking as the one true friend determined to make the last season the best one it can be, and the last few scenes, cliched as they have become, still make me believe that for one more day in the bigs, it might all be worth it.
When It Was A Game: This documentary (actually three separate documentaries) is unique because it consists entirely of 8mm and 16mm footage taken by players themselves. Spanning an amazing nearly 40 years (if you count all three) of baseball from the late teens on takes young bucks like me far beyond our years and reminds and introduces us to players we should know, whether we do or not. All the while it reminds us that once upon a time players played for the same reasons we all say we would. For the love of the game.
Bench Warmers: They didn't play much, but they wore the uniform with pride and could honestly say, "Yeah, I was in the show."
A League of Their Own: The most popular of all the films on the list (at least in terms of money taken in at the box office), League certainly contains the most recognizable quote ever in a baseball film, "There's no crying in baseball!" Notable for the high level of play within the film (Geena Davis really can hit), the very real idea of a man (Tom Hanks) just doing anything he can to stay in the game, and the fact that Madonna didn't completely suck in a movie. Bonus points for showing the downside of (this particular) major league, where the players were expected to be sexy just to keep their jobs. If Barry Bonds had played in this league I have a feeling we'd get more than one voluntary interview every two years.
The Bad News Bears: Forget the lame ass (and short lived) TV show featuring a young Corey Feldman, this is the original with the late great Walter Matthau. Of course the story has been done a million times, a bunch of misfits come together to win it all. But here there are a couple of funny hops to make the film that much better. First of all the raunchy dialog (one of the first kids films not necessarily aimed at kids), second a (very) young Tatum O'Neil as the stud girl pitcher, and third the fact that this brutal, cut throat league really felt like the little league I remember. You know the one where before the game Dad was telling you to just go out and have fun and then in the third inning he was calling the umpire names not suitable for this website. And don't forget this one is guided by director Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Scout, Diggstown, not to mention Fletch) who certainly knows his way around sports films. This is his best sports flick, and one my kids will see, over and over again.
Everyday Players: Nobody confuses these guys with the Babe or Big Mac, but if they played for your home team (or even in the division of your home team) you recognized their names, if not their faces.
61*: This film, directed by baseball lover (and minority owner of the Diamondbacks) Billy Crystal, for HBO took what is obviously one of the greatest stories in baseball history and made it human, and superhuman, at the same time. Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan), as Roger Maris, gives a gut wrenching performance that makes you root for Maris even though you already know what happened. And Thomas Jane (The Thin Red Line, the upcoming Dreamcatcher) playing what could have very easily been a cardboard cutout of the legendary Mickey Mantle, brings heart, soul, and Yankee truth to the Mic. Tastefully using Mark McGwire's breaking of Maris' record to bookend (and bring all the kids into) the story Crystal manages to make everybody except Commissioner Ford Frick (Donald Moffat reminding everybody that as bad as Bud Selig is it could always be worse) look good, while at the same time showing us that everybody took a side, because it is baseball, and somebody always wins.
The Sandlot: One of the sweetest, greatest children's films of all time, this featherweight story of friendship and baseball captures the bonding power of baseball. As the new kid in town looks for friends it is baseball that helps him find them. As a 10 year old kid I remember moving to the new town, meeting some people and then finding real friends on the Diamond, people who I knew, even then, I had something bigger than skin or hair color in common with, people who loved baseball the way I did. This film captures the bond the baseball can give children who need friends, the type of bond that can only be achieved when one pitches while another hits and a couple more play short, third and left, and then you rotate.
All Stars: Maybe it was one great season, but they almost certainly had their names announced right next to future Hall of Famers, and for one day they were one of the fifty best in the world.
Pride of the Yankees: Cal may have broken the record, but even he will admit Lou Gehrig was the true iron man, if for no other reason than Gehrig did it will a terminal, debilitating disease that would later, tragically be named after him. This biopic of the great Gehrig starred Gary Cooper, and that hero of many a western was perfect for the quiet and overly modest Gehrig. Babe Ruth appeared in several films in his day, but only in this one did he not appear to be winking at the camera, perhaps he was told not to, but I'd like to believe even the Babe had so much respect for Gehrig that he knew he wasn't the focus here, and shouldn't try to be.
Eight Men Out: Another story of baseball before I was born, and here we shift from one of the great tragedies (Gehrig's disease) to one of the great travesties of baseball. The 1919 Black Sox scandal that rocked baseball and (unjustly) cost one of the potential greats the opportunity to continue playing is almost like a horror story you tell kids who play the game. If you read this and don't know the story then you absolutely must rent the film, but if you do know the story then let this film tell you again. These greedy, selfish men took the innocence of one man (Shoeless Joe Jackson) and one nation at the same time. Director John Sayles (if you've never seen another of his films please search them out, the man is a genius) never shies away from the darkness of the story but at the same time doesn't ignore the bright shining light of Buck Weaver and Jackson. The rare baseball film where you cry not because of the story being told onscreen, but because of the story itself.
MVPs:These are films that raised the bar and made everyone take notice.
Major League: As a die-hard Cubs supporter, I know of perennial losers and the toll that takes on the city, players, and fans. This flick took all that pain and loathing, mixed it with a good deal of cynicism, and then asked us all to laugh until we felt better, and we did. All the baseball necessities are here. The aging catcher hanging on with knees that aren't hanging anymore. The crazy kid with the golden arm and tin brain. The superstitious free swinger, the cagey pitcher with a thousand ways to make the ball do things his arm can't make the ball do anymore. The brash athlete whose mouth does more talking than his game, and of course the two keys. The bitchy owner who's out for the bottom line and the manager who just wants to find a way to win. It's a classic with too many good lines ("Don't steal home without it," "Juuuust a bit outside," "Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help me with the curve ball. You trying to say Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball?" "Forget the soft stuff Ricky, give him the heater!" "This guy threw at his own kid in a father son game") to count, and even though the baseball is horrible (and I do mean horrible) it captures one thing in a way very few films do. Baseball, at its essence, is fun.
Baseball: The single greatest documentary about The Game in history. This exhaustive (the nine tape set runs over 13 hours) and amazingly comprehensive series can teach even the most knowledgeable fan a thing or 50 about the origins, myths, fantasies, and moments that have made baseball what it is. Director Ken Burns has treated jazz and the Civil War with equal reverence and respect, but what stands above about this film is the love which the players (Aaron, DiMaggio, Ruth), actors (Anthony Hopkins, John Cusack, Paul Newman) writers (Steven King, Studs Terkel, Arthur Miller), politicians (Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, Tip O'Neil) and sportscasters (Vin Scully, Bob Costas, Abe Stark), not to mention Burns himself, speak about this game which has given some a job, but given all joy. Divided into nine ‘innings' each spanning roughly a decade of the game, the tapes become addictive and draw even non-fans into their very personal stories. As beautiful to watch as the game it chronicles.
The Hall of Fame: The greatest ever. Any questions?
The Natural: Baseball is as much about myth as it is about reality. You saw it, and you remembered every detail, and then weeks, months, years later you told the story and the ball went a little farther, the pitch a little faster, the catch a little more amazing. How high did Tori Hunter jump to rob Barry Bonds in the All-Star Game last year? How high will he have jumped 10 years from now? How far was McGwire's home run? How far from home was Jeter's toss in the playoffs? The Natural understands the power of myth, for it both is one, and then incorporates them within the larger myth. The bat, struck by lightning, the bullet lodged in aging rookie Roy Hobbs' abdomen, knocking the cover off the ball. Every kid who loves baseball has all these dreams, in one form or another, and The Natural places these dreams gently on a pillow and hands them to us, hoping that for two hours and 14 minutes we will accept and embrace them the same way we did when we were children, and we do.
Field of Dreams: Let's get one thing straight right at the beginning. Field of Dreams is not a movie about baseball. It is a movie about a boy who wants to have a catch with his father. It is a movie about a man who needs to connect to a world he has pushed away. It is movie about a man looking for himself. And it is a movie about a man who has done so much for others, and would just like to have one moment for himself. It just so happens that all of these things finally happen to all these men when one of them plows under his crops and builds a baseball field. The first time I remember my mother crying was in 1985 when the Cardinals lost to the Royals. As a Cubs fan I remember rooting against the Cardinals. Years later, after watching Field of Dreams I realized how much the loss hurt her, and how much I had hurt her. I remember thinking that I was lucky she was still here so that I could, if I wanted, have a catch with the woman who instilled the love of The Game in me. Now I root for the Cubs, and I always will, but I love the Cardinals too, and next time I'm home, I want to have a catch.
Bull Durham: "Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once—the 21 greatest days of my life."
I made a concerted effort not to rank any of these films in the traditional sense, but Bull Durham is the greatest baseball movie ever. It's a great movie for many reasons, brilliant writing, incredible performances (has Kevin Costner ever been better?), sure-handed direction from Ron Shelton. What makes this the best baseball movie ever is the fact that it truly is about baseball. With the exception of the two documentaries I mentioned earlier, any one of these films could be in a different sport, maybe not in sports at all. No, they wouldn't have been the same, and they probably wouldn't have been as good, but they could have been special films about tennis, or office politics, or street sweepers. But without baseball Bull Durham wouldn't exist. Baseball flows through this film's veins. It is this film's oxygen, its food, and its passion. There is never a moment during Bull Durham when we are thinking of anything but baseball. And the film is better for that. There is love, hate, pain, love and madness about The Game in this film, and never for a second did I doubt that all those emotions walked right off the field and into the camera. When Costner gives his famous speech "…the soul, the hanging curveball, good scotch, high fiber…" the words everyone remembers first are "the hanging curveball" because those are the words that Crash means the most.
Maybe there were omissions on the list, or perhaps some of you out there disagree. While I'm usually brash and obnoxious, here I simply pay homage. Jump onto the message board, give me your opinion, because I will certainly give you mine, but remember, the one thing I ask of all of you is see these films, enjoy them, and always, always, enjoy the game.