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January 17, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Favorite Baseball Movies of All-Time

by Baseball Prospectus

1) Field of Dreams
To be perfectly honest—and when discussing a movie sewn through with themes of simplicity and the supposed erosion of classic American values, honesty should be required—not only isn’t Field of Dreams my favorite baseball movie, it’s not even my favorite Kevin Costner baseball movie. That, of course, would be Bull Durham, and as both films arrived in theaters when I was in my twenties, Bull Durham’s irreverent comedy was far more likely to strike a nerve than the overwrought sentimentality of Field of Dreams. Enjoying Field of Dreams at that point in my life would have been akin to copping to a fondness for Steel Magnolias. Sure, I made the two hour pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams film location at Dyersville—after all, there’s not much else to break up the drive from Madison to Iowa City—but when I ran the bases and smacked a few batting practice lobs into the left field corn, I did so with a practiced smirk. I rolled my eyes when I overheard comments about how “peaceful” and “pure” the experience was, chuckling at the ongoing squabbles over commercialization between the two families that then owned portions of the site.  I enjoyed myself, reveling in my ironic detachment… until my girlfriend asked me if I wanted to play catch, shattering all my pretension and reminding me that I hadn’t been immune to the film’s melodramatic charms after all.

You see, Field of Dreams may be a Capra movie without Capra, burdened with Costner’s sub-replacement-level Jimmy Stewart, but you can’t deny the power of its Capital M Moment. After ninety minutes of fully ripe Iowa cornball, it’s hard to believe that the appearance of Ray Kinsella’s father and their game of catch could pack such an emotional wallop. It seems completely unearned, but when I saw it in the theater, I teared up—one of only five times a film has done that to me. This was despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I had a very happy, baseball-filled childhood and didn’t suffer from Paternal Catch Deficiency. What’s more, I’ve had at least a dozen friends or acquaintances tell me they had the same experience of not particularly enjoying the film but welling up during the game of catch. I can’t explain it, and in many ways it’s completely counterintuitive, but it’s true. It happened, and even now I get a little misty just writing about it. Whatever your opinion about Field of Dreams as a whole, it’s hard to deny its ability to get under your skin, and while that doesn’t make it the best baseball movie of all time, it certainly makes it one of the most memorable. —Ken Funck

2) Bad News Bears (Original)
There's no room for romanticism in the original "Bad News Bears". Usually, our romantic notions of baseball—the poetry of the game, the father-son bonding experience of having a catch, reading Walt Whitman in your underwear—are the minted currency of a baseball flick, but not in the tale of Morris Buttermaker's Little League team. This is a team of real kids with real problems "enjoying" their time together. They cuss, they smoke, they fight, they're lousy at baseball, but they still want to play and they still want to beat those cursed Yankees. The movie is yet more proof that Walter Matthau is a genius, but it truly works because of the children: Kelly Leak, Amanda Wurlitzer, even Tanner Boyle, Timmy Lupus, and Ahmad Abdul Rahim. They're all spot on. And there's no better ending, with the Bears enjoying their loss (with a Red Stripe shower!) to the overbearing, over-coached Yankees more than any of the victors enjoyed their win.

Hmm... maybe there's a small bit of room for romanticism in the "Bad News Bears", after all.—Larry Granillo

3) The Sandlot
Every American boy dreams of being the hero in “the big game,” and every kid plays in that game as a kid at one point or another.  We were all Ruth, Kaline, Griffey Jr., or Big Mac at one time or another; rounding those bags on the sandlot or our parents’ back yards. This movie, in one moment, shared our collective story with the world; just as we were all those great players, we were each Smalls, The Jet, The Great Hambino, and certainly Squints.  We could all picture ourselves being any of the latter three, and a select few have been able to live the life of “The Jet,” making it to the show and being the hero in that game.

The late great Hall of Fame voice of the Detroit Tigers, Ernie Harwell, put it best: "Baseball is a tongue-tied kid from Georgia growing up to be an announcer and praising the Lord for showing him the way to Cooperstown."  The dream for Ernie was the same as it was for Ruth, Kaline, Griffey Jr., Big Mac, The Jet, The Great Hambino, Smalls, and Squints. The dream was to be in the Major Leagues, and it didn’t matter how you got there. The Sandlot ranks as one of the greatest baseball movies of all times for its portrayal of Americana, for its ability to make every viewer feel safe and secure, and most importantly for its portrayal of baseball in its purest form.  Good, bad, or ugly, everyone can play on the sandlots of America. —Adam W. Tower

4) Brewster's Millions
Do I really think Brewster's Millions is the best baseball film ever made? No. It's a really stupid movie. But it's one of those awful movies that every time it pops up on one of my 15,000 DirecTV channels, I fall into some sort of drooling trance in which time stands still. I don't know that I've ever watched the thing from start to finish, but I've probably seen it about 30 times in fits and starts. There are some things the film did well. First, it proved that you can stick John Candy and Richard Pryor in the same movie and not only render them completely unfunny, but you can in fact make them seem almost child-like. I mean, this is Richard freaking Pryor, and I'm pretty sure he didn't use a single swear word in the entire film.

The other thing about this movie is that it fits into the canon of 1980s flicks in which the payoff for doing the right thing or reaching your plot-given goal in life is some kind of material payoff. Think about it. So many big budget films in the '80s—Back to the Future, Trading Places, Coming to America, Arthur, Risky Business, The Secret of My Success—rewarded their protagonists with a fat monetary prizes or some other sort of superficial compensation. In Monty Brewster's case, it was $300 million, and it came at just the right time—when his career as a ham-and-egg starting pitcher had apparently come to an end. Baby's father from Dirty Dancing was the manager and told Monty that his junk just didn't work anymore, or maybe he said something about being overly reliant on a low BABIP. I forget. It was heartbreaking. For some reason, that meant that Candy, his catcher, was done as well, so he basically followed Pryor around wherever he went. It would be touching if all pitcher-catcher relationships were so tight.

There is one scene in the movie that always makes me laugh and not in a "my God that is so horrible it's funny" sort of way. In the exhibition game that Monty sets up between the Hackensack Bulls and the Yankees, the Yanks' leadoff hitter, named Dixon, is up at the plate. Candy starts gabbing with him, acting all star-struck. Then he says, "I saw your wife on TV the other day. She sure is an ugly bitch." The discombobulated Dixon promptly takes strike three; I don't think Brewster was capable of making anyone swing and miss. Maybe it was because Pryor was a 5'10", 45-year-old starting pitcher who threw what I'd judge to be about 39 miles per hour. —Bradford Doolittle

5) Damn Yankees!
Of all the musicals ever made about baseball, Damn Yankees! certainly is the finest.  Not that it has any real competition. For those unfamiliar with the 1956 Tony Award winner for best musical, Damn Yankees! follows Joe Boyd, a loyal Washington Senators fan who actually succeeds in selling his soul to his history teacher to beat those damned Yankees, just... this... once. 

Joe Boyd, local schlub and loyal husband, is transformed into Joe Hardy, who possesses Micky Mantle's power and speed, Luis Aparicio's defense, Tab Hunter's rugged good looks, and the sudden moral ambiguity of a real major leaguer after a torrid affair with the literally immortal sexpot, Lola.

Well, Joe tries to back out of the deal but gets caught in an identity scandal when news surfaces his real name is Alvaro Aristy, and only the righteous Ford Frick-esque commissioner and some small sample size defensive luck can save the Senators as we all learn a valuable lesson about accepting our place in life and not tempting the occult.

Most of the broadway cast revives their parts in the film, including the afore-alluded to Ray "Mr. Hand" Walston as Lucifer (Mr. Applegate). It's a wild romp.

Furthermore, amateur sabermetricians can use it as one more example that adding a strong OPS presence in the lineup means a great deal more than "heart". Plus, it's more realistic than Neil Simon's "The Slugger's Wife." —Mike Ferrin

6) A League of Their Own
It's perhaps odd that in a movie about women, the most memorable (and debatable) line is from Tom Hanks: "There’s no crying in baseball! "

It's a line quoted often, usually used in a humorous context, but think about it a bit and it's a little more unsettling: would a manager have felt the need to say this to his player if that player was male? (The answer, one assumes, is "of course not", because "boys don't cry"). The movie, based on the true story of the woman's professional baseball league that was created to help fill the gap left by the absence of available major leaguers is both a fun and uplifting feminist flick (yeah, girls can play just as rough-and-tumble as the boys) and a stark reminder that while baseball may have crossed racial barriers a long time ago, gender-based ones are still staunchly in place. —Rebecca Glass

7) Bull Durham
In the late 80's, Kevin Costner got an unprecedented chance to play Kevin Costner in a movie about baseball. No, not that one about ghosts. The one that's about baseball.  The one that scored 98 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes about the grind in the minor leagues, about the little things in the game, and about doing everything you can to help the team. Bull Durham stands as one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, if not the best. Lessons in baseball, romance, and life abound as Bull Durham features a little of everything—thrill of making it to the show, love triangles, clichés for interviews, sex in the clubhouse before the game, and even some poetry. This masterpiece is a great baseball movie because of the on-field scenes, the subtlety of the elements of the game that are shown here and in few other movies—like a routine pop up or a meeting on the mound. Further, it's an engaging movie for all patrons because it also features elements of romance and comedy, plus plenty of captivating speeches and memorable quotes to make it worth a watch every year. —Ben Murphy

8) Moneyball
If you’re reading this, you already know the story of Moneyball; you’ve either read the book, watched the movie, or like many, you’ve done both several times and can’t get enough (where have you gone Jeremy Bonderman?). The question here is not whether or not Billy Beane had a stroke of genius when he developed his system (he did) or whether Brad Pitt is a good actor (he is), but the question here is, “Is Moneyball a good baseball movie?” The simple answer is, without a doubt, “Yes.” In fact, it might yet rank as the greatest baseball movie of them all. No other baseball movie rivals Moneyball from an anticipation standpoint, and much like an 18 year-old phenom who goes on to make the Hall, it lives up to and even surpasses expectations.

Moneyball tells the story of the ultimate underdog, of a man with a vision to beat the big boys with what amounted to smoke and mirrors, to take on the Yankees and Red Sox dollars with what amounted to baseball gold prospecting.  To that end, what better place to tell the story (by the way, read the book if you haven’t) than on the big screen. The fact that Moneyball was overlooked at the Golden Globes is poetic in the sense that much like the players Beane (Pitt) drafted and signed, it was undervalued by outsiders and appreciated to its fullest by those on the inside. The film itself was well done, a true buffet for the entire family, kind of like a ballpark hotdog. It was a touching family story of bonding between Beane and his daughter while paying tribute to our national pastime with more than enough believable baseball action and jargon. —Adam W. Tower

9) Rookie of the Year
If you look in MLB’s record books, you will find that the youngest player is still listed as Joe Nuxhall of the Reds, who made his debut at age 15. This egregious error overlooks the story of 12-year-old former Cubs pitcher Henry Rowengartner, whose story is detailed in the movie Rookie of the Year. For those of you unfamiliar with this incredible story, Henry is an awful Little Leaguer who breaks his arm trying to catch a fly ball. During his recovery, his tendons fused too tight—something that would only happen in a movie where a 12-year-old makes the majors—so Henry could then throw 100-mph. This talent is discovered by the Cubs when he catches a home run ball and fires a frozen rope back to the catcher, drawing the eye of the Cubs’ owner (inexplicably in this scene, when Henry throws the ball back, the catcher tries to tag the hitter as he is crossing the plate but misses, so the umpire calls him safe). The Cubs sign Henry as a closer, and he struggles in his debut against the Mets but eventually is able to hone his fastball, as he strikes out Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds while plenty of ’12-year-old playing baseball’ hijinks ensues. Henry is taken under the wing of his personal idol, Gary Busey, which is hilarious in retrospect.

To make a long story short, everything comes down to one game versus the Mets to make the playoffs. Henry has to come in for a three-inning save because, apparently, in 1993 it wasn’t frowned upon to send out a 12-year-old to get a three-inning save. He gets through the first two innings, but before the 9th inning, he trips and lands on his arm, which causes him to revert back to being awful. It comes down to him vs. the Mets’ best hitter, and Henry is able to strike him out with an underhand eephus pitch that is swung on and missed, sending the Cubs to the playoffs and creating the most typical Mets ending to a season that could be scripted. The movie ends with us seeing Henry wearing a Cubs World Series championship ring, which brings up a few points:

1. As this movie came out before the wild card era, we as viewers are led to believe that the Cubs make it through two playoff series either without Henry or with him in his diminished capacity.

2. If Henry stayed on the team and was able to remain the closer despite him relying on eephus pitches, hidden ball tricks, and other methods of preying on the stupidity of MLB players, why couldn’t they have shown it as the climax instead of focusing so much on the regular season? This was a real missed opportunity by the directors and producers to detail the Cubs finally winning the World Series on the back of a 12-year-old.

3. If Henry was replaced on the Cubs’ playoff roster after his arm gave out, what does it say about the possible sabermetric tendencies of those behind Rookie of the Year? Clearly the point of the movie in this scenario is that having a “closer” in the traditional sense is not that important, if Henry can be replaced and have the team not skip a beat. Perhaps Rookie of the Year should be the darling of those who want to prove once and for all that relievers are fungible.

4. There is a distinct chance I’m looking into the ending of this movie way too much. —Sam Tydings

10) Sugar
The standard-issue list of best baseball movies generally features films with star power—Cooper, Redford, Costner—and often features a climactic scene in which our hero prevails in a pivotal game, or at least gets the girl.

Sugar, a subtle 2008 movie directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is having none of it. The film tracks the travels of a young pitcher, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, from a baseball academy in his native Dominican Republic to a minor-league town in Iowa to the rush of the South Bronx. In keeping the focus on Santos’s journey—and not necessarily his results— “Sugar” serves as a reflection on universal themes that transcend the game. Expectations, pressure, and family. Culture, race, and money. Love, temptation, and success. Work, luck, and the American Dream.

Ultimately, Santos’ baseball career flounders, but he matures, survives, and comes out the other side. Sometimes, that’s heroic enough. —Jeff Euston

76 comments have been left for this article.

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