Article: 25 Classic Baseball Movies to See Before You Die: Howstuffworks
25 Classic Baseball Movies to See Before You Die
Image: Ken Burns / Lynn Novick
About This Article
When Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball, it's unlikely he understood quite the cultural impact he made. The game is a mirror held up to American culture. Baseball evolves with time, not just because of changes in the wider culture, but also because of technology. The first earth-shattering change to the baseball world was when Lip Pike became the first professional baseball player, a move that happened because of economic forces in the late 1800s more or less in line with similar changes in other businesses. Later, the color barrier would break, followed by changes to rules and strategy driven by our ability to measure every nuance of the game and quantify it with mathematics. Baseball changed with the times in America in ways that make it the art imitating American life.
Similarly, film evolved over the decades. Today, movies are much more complicated both in terms of writing and in terms of cultural implications. One point of common reference that came up again and again in American cinema is the baseball setting. It has been used to describe the nature of ego, the effects of biases, both ethnic and gender-based, war and peace, our relationships with the past, and our ability to dream. Of these films, there are 25 great ones you really need to see. Read on, and start adding them to your queue!
Field of Dreams
If you haven't seen this masterpiece of American cinema, drop what you're doing right now and rectify that. On the surface, "Field of Dreams" is the story of a man connecting to his roots, but like the team sport it glorifies, the film is really a story about all the other characters whose pasts, lives cut short, or unfulfilled potentials are made whole on a magical baseball field behind a simple house.
Baseball is as much about continuity and nostalgia as it is anything else, and the film "The Sandlot" is a wonderful example of this. Set in 1962, the sandlot is about a group of children who play baseball together near a fabled, scary dog they call The Beast. Like childhood, much of the film is about confronting fears and transforming one's perspective, including the embrace of the dog as a mascot, instead of an enemy.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
A fascinating baseball documentary, this film follows the life of Detroit's first baseman Hank Greenberg, who hit 58 home runs in 1938, equaling a record set by Jimmie Foxx, but coming up just short of Babe Ruth's record, when pitches just stopped throwing to him late in the season. A WW2 veteran, Greenberg was the first Jewish superstar in sports, and among other things, known for having publicly welcomed Jackie Robinson to professional baseball when doing so meant being booed by some fans.
A League of Their Own
This movie would be worth seeing just for the tremendous talent in the cast. Featuring Hollywood's cream of the crop at the height of their powers, "A League of Their Own" is based on the true story of the short-lived female professional baseball league that existed during WW2. Starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna (yes, that one), and Lori Petty under the direction of the late Penny Mashall, "A League of Their Own" is a masterpiece by any measure.
A fairly recent documentary, "Knuckleball" is a film about the most mysterious pitch in baseball, a technique practiced by fewer and fewer pitchers as the years go on. Long considered one of the game's dark arts, the knuckler is the most difficult pitch to throw effectively, and to hit; a throwback to an age before analytics that drove players to train in less esoteric or risky skills. As of 2019, there are only two active knuckleball pitchers in the majors.
Indiana Jones wasn't supposed to shoot the swordsman, but Harrison Ford was sick, so they improvised, creating a classic moment. Sometimes things happen that change the actual plot of movies. "Fever Pitch" was supposed to be a romantic comedy with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, the latter of whom played a Red Sox-obsessed fan, disappointed at the end when the Sox are taken out of contention. It was even filmed at Fenway ... during the 2004 season. Of course, when the Red Sox won for the first time since 1918, they had to rewrite the script, producing this oddball film.
Some classic baseball films are great as films, and others that are great historical showcases. "61*" is very much the latter. Directed by none other than Billy Crystal, "61*" tells the story of the so-called M and M boys Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris as they pursued Babe Ruth's home run record (60 home runs) in 1961. The flawed but loved Mantle overshadowed his teammate's personality, but it was Maris who broke the record despite being heckled by his own team's supporters who saw breaking the record as blasphemy.
The next time you want a feel-good baseball movie that doesn't ask much of its audience, watch "Mr. 3000." Starring the late Bernie Mac as the titular baseball player, the story is a parable about ego, as the hero comes out of retirement to pursue one last hit so he can retain the nickname that he has turned into a brand in retirement, despite his time away from playing being a real detriment to the team. Covering such issues as entitlement, ageism and class in America, this movie covers a lot of ground while still feeling like a silly, Saturday afternoon movie.
Before Brendan Fraser was fighting mummies, he starred opposite Albert Brooks in this film about what happens when you get everything you wanted. Brooks plays a baseball scout just fired by the New York Yankees while in Mexico, who stumbles upon a phenom player who pitches over 100 mph, hits nothing but homers, but has deep psychological scars from a rough childhood, scars he has to resolve with Brooks's character before he can play ball. Tackling the pressures of work, identity, selfishness and father-son relationships, this film will make you shed a tear, even if you hate the Yankees.
If you know someone who hasn't seen "Major League," you need to have a serious conversation with them. A classic 1980s comedy about an owner who tries to tank her team (the Cleveland Indians) on purpose to justify moving it to another media market, the film's highlights include performances by very young Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Tom Berenger, and of course Bob Ueker as the frustrated radio announcer forced to watch every disastrous game, until of course, the heroes turn the team around.
Disney loves a true tear-jerker. The Rookie is the true story of Jim Morris. Who? Jim Morris was a baseball coach in rural Texas who had once been drafted by the Yankees but turned it down for a more stable career. To motivate his team of high schoolers, he promised that if they made the playoffs, he would go try out for a team, despite many arm surgeries. When his team made the playoffs, and he went to a tryout to humor them and keep his promise, he discovered that he could consistently throw the ball 98 mph, and he made his major league debut for the Tampa Devil Rays.
Today's age of statistic-dominated baseball didn't materialize out of thin air. At the dawn of the 21st century, Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics employed math nerds to teach his front office a thing or two. They put together a $44 million team that, in 2002, went toe to toe with teams like the Yankees, and held their own. This innovative approach earned the story a 2003 book, and this 2011 film written in part by Aaron Sorkin of "The West Wing," and produced by and starring Brad Pitt.
Do you like your sports movies with a side of romantic comedy? Try "Bull Durham." The archetypal 1980s rom-com, Bull Durham is about a veteran catcher assigned to a minor league team to help develop a pitcher, where he and his mentee both end up romantically mixed up with a groupie. Bearing in mind this was made in the 1980s, the film stars Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Sarandon's future husband, Tim Robbins. A film with something for everyone, it's an easy win when people argue about movie night.
Robert Redford. That's enough of a reason to watch nearly anything. Throw in some Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, and have Barry Levinson direct it and you've got "The Natural." This film, inspired by but barely following a true story, is about a baseball player born with almost supernatural gifts, whose career is temporarily derailed by an incident with a romantic partner whose affection turned to malice. It's a wonderful film, and you'll quickly notice it gets referenced all the time by announcers during baseball calls on radio and TV.
The same people who made the documentary "Knuckleball" followed it up with a film entirely devoted to the history, techniques, and impact of the fastball. The "old number one" may seem like a straightforward subject, but nothing about it has ever been simple. From the different styles and movements of the fastball to the methods people used to measure its speed over the decades, to the players who popularized it and made it their own, the inescapable takeaway of "Fastball" is that as any batter will tell you, there's more to this pitch than meets the eye.
Eight Men Out
Movies have relished their role in reminding us of the darker chapters in our history. Baseball has quite a few of those, but none more notorious among fans of the game than the 1911 "Black Sox" scandal depicted in "Eight Men Out," in which the Chicago White Sox deliberately lost the World Series in exchange for bribes paid by sports bettors. This sounds crazy today since the lowest paid major leaguer gets paid over half a million dollars every year, but it could still happen. While not everyone on the White Sox was bribed, the act tarred the whole team for all of history, overshadowing their accomplishments as some of the finest athletes in history.
For Love of the Game
In yet another classic Kevin Costner baseball movie, the hero is a pitcher near the end of his career, set to pitch against the New York Yankees during their 1990s reign over the American League. Lost in thought during the game, Costner's character ruminates about his life, both professional and personal. He thinks about his regrets, the people who came and went from his life and comes to terms with the fact that there's not much time left. What he doesn't realize is that while his mind may be elsewhere and his team may be out of contention, he's pitching a perfect game.
The Pride of the Yankees
Towering Hollywood legend Gary Cooper plays equally storied slugging Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig in this film about the player's life. Gehrig batted behind Babe Ruth, forming a hitting duo feared by every pitcher. Tragically, Gehrig's career, indeed his life, were cut off in his prime by ALS, an illness known mostly as Lou Gehrig's Disease until the Ice Bucket Challenge a few years ago. In this film, Cooper recreates Gehrig's tearful speech at Yankee Stadium when he announced his retirement, stating "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
Everybody Wants Some!!
Right on the edge of what makes a baseball movie, "Everybody Wants Some!!" is a recent film by Richard Linklater. "Everybody Wants Some!!" follows the lives of college baseball players in 1980, who, when told they can't drink or have girls over to their dorm, do what teenagers in comedies set in colleges in the 1980s do and break the rules. While "Everybody Wants Some!!" uses baseball as a point of reference for where American culture was at the time of the story, it's only barely a baseball movie. Still, it's a classic.
Bang the Drum Slowly
Terminal illnesses feature prominently in baseball history, and "Bang the Drum Slowly" is about just such a disease. Released in 1973, "Bang the Drum Slowly" starred a totally unknown actor by the name of Robert DeNiro as the intellectually challenged catcher of a stand-in for the Yankees, who is diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. His struggles mirror the team's struggles, until the secret of his illness is revealed to his team, who turn around their play, having a new perspective. In the end, the hero dies, but the team who used to make fun of him honor his memory by changing their behavior.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Frank Sinatra. Gene Kelly. Esther Williams. "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is a golden age of Hollywood musical and a baseball movie! While this film is a must-see for its performances and artifice, it's a study in how culture, especially baseball culture has changed. Set in the early 20th century, it follows the lives of ballplayers who moonlight as a variety act (players weren't well paid back then) and are shocked beyond belief to discover that the new owner of their team, and thus their boss, is a woman. Released in 1949, this film says a lot about where the nation was back then.
"42" is a baseball movie that hits all the right notes. Following the life of Jackie Robinson, the player who broke the baseball color barrier, "42" stars Chadwick Boseman (of "Black Panther" fame) as Robinson, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. "42" isn't an Oscar contender, but it will wring tears from the stoic, and as it turned out, cash from the box office. Featuring some rare good baseball reenactments, "42" is a fun film and has everything a baseball nerd might want as well.
What don't you get in many baseball movies? Stories from outside of the United States? Also, you don't get much Tom Selleck. In "Mr. Baseball," Selleck plays an aging New York Yankee traded to a Japanese ball club where he (of course) is every stereotype of the unpleasant American and the egotistical professional athlete. Of course, the hero learns to respect the way his team does things, and by the end of the movie, he happily sacrifices personal glory for the sake of his team. Also, you get to see young, buff Tom Selleck's body.
Some people are endlessly fascinated by the dark side of baseball. Those folks must love "Cobb." The movie stars Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb, the astonishingly talented baseball player and terrible human being known for sharpening the spikes on his cleats so he could hurt opposing players when he slid into second base. Drinking, racism, all the dark facets of Cobb come out in this film about author Al Stump researching Cobb's biography, revealing that at least in Cobb's case, all the stories are true.
The Bad News Bears
One of the best-known baseball movies of all time, "The Bad News Bears" is best described as an underdog story. The titular team is the newly added worst team in their regional league, and a pro baseball burnout played by Walter Matthau is hired to coach them. Unable to succeed with the team as is, he recruits a girl who he knows can pitch, and an outsider who sees himself as a 1976 James Dean. Together, the Bears take on the league, ultimately facing the most dominant team in a test of not just their skills, but their sportsmanship.
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