Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

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