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February 1, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Undeservedly Obscure Baseball Films

by Baseball Prospectus

1) Bad Lieutenant
Bad Lieutenant is Harvey Keitel at his most intense. He's a drunk, a drug addict, a degenerate gambler, an unfaithful man, a sadist, and in every way among the worst human beings ever portrayed on film. He has countless enemies, from drug dealers to rapists to bookies he owes money to, but there is one that bothers him most of all. That person is Daryl Strawberry. Among the biggest of many weights dragging down on Keitel is his gambling debt, which he tries to eliminate by constantly going double-or-nothing on a fictional playoff series between the Mets and the Dodgers. After the Dodgers win the first three games of the series, Keitel continuously bets on the Dodgers to put the series away, and time and time again it's Strawberry, who in real life joined the Dodgers in 1991, who ruins his game and ultimately his bet. I've always wondered if Strawberry has seen the movie, as Keitel (his character's name is never revealed) rampages against him in ways that seem far more personal than any crowd simply chanting DAAAAA-RYL. It would disturb me. Hell, it would disturb anyone. —Kevin Goldstein

2) The Fan
The Fan is a delightfully creepy movie which features Wesley Snipes as a baseball player (how original!) and Robert DeNiro as a really angry, creepy guy (also very original!) named Gil. Snipes plays an outfielder named Bobby Rayburn who signs a big contract to join the San Francisco Giants and soon becomes DeNiro’s obsession. DeNiro quickly becomes the Pedro Gomez to Snipes’s Barry Bonds in San Francisco, tracking his every move on and off the field from a distance. I’m somewhat surprised that this movie isn’t listed among the pantheon of baseball cinematic classics, considering it has some of the best scenes in cinematic history. These include, but are not limited to: Gil killing another player on the Giants because he wouldn’t give Rayburn his lucky number, Gil kidnapping Rayburn’s son and then killing a man with an aluminum bat for helping the child escape, and at one point someone yells “HE’S CALLING FROM INSIDE THE STADIUM!” which is just wonderful.

In the thrilling conclusion, Gil tells Rayburn that if he does not hit a home run, his son will die. Rayburn doesn’t hit it over the wall but has a chance for an inside the park homer. Even though he beats the tag, he is called out by the umpire, who turns out to be Gil. M. Night Shyamalan would be proud. The cops swarm the field trying to take down Gil, who runs away from them and stabs and murders John Kruk in the process. How that scene alone didn’t net the movie an Oscar, much less more recognition as a baseball classic, is beyond me. I won’t ruin how the movie ends despite the many spoilers throughout this piece, but surely you’ve already added it to your Netflix queue. It might not be on the level of Field of Dreams, but The Fan is an enjoyable baseball movie that has unfortunately not received the recognition it so rightly deserves. —Sam Tydings

3) Eight Men Out
I missed my chance to get this in on our “Favorite Baseball Movies of All-Time” list, but since it’s both good and undeservedly obscure, it fits on this list as well. John Sayles’s faithful adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s classic history of the Black Sox isn’t a fast-moving film. It moves languidly, at a slower pace than you would expect of life in the chaotic, corrupt, and rapidly industrializing ragtime era. The colors are dark, the clothing drab, as if the postwar recession and Charles Comiskey’s penury had sucked all of the life out of the world. It exaggerates the greatness of the 1919 White Sox. They were a very good team but hardly a candidate for “the greatest team ever”—there was no need to up the pathos of what happened by exaggerating what was lost. However, the movie is accurate insofar as Asinof’s book was accurate, makes you feel for Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson (who might or might not have been treated unjustly in being banned), and does so without dismissing the important moral question of whether being “in” on a fix means participating or just knowing about it.

Sayles had a mammoth task, having two hours to identify eight players; establish the conditions that would lead to their interest in throwing the series; depict the scheming of the gamblers; and show action before, during, and after eight World Series games, the investigation of the fix and subsequent trial, and the aftermath for Jackson and Weaver. Along the way, he makes sure to work in key real-life lines like, “That’s the whimper of a beaten cur!” (Ban Johnson), “The Swede is a hard guy” (Jackson), “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” (nameless, likely fictional Chicago waif), and Ring Lardner (played by Sayles) singing “I’m Forever Blowing Ballgames.” All the boxes get checked, and if the machinations that result in the Sox being acquitted aren’t exactly clear, they weren’t in real life either.

No, the film isn’t perfect, but it has an excellent cast (including John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn, and D.B. Sweeney), a high degree of verisimilitude in both its fealty to facts and its depiction of Deadball era baseball—Cusack and company look like a baseball team, and the shots of them turning plays seem more real than the real thing (then again, what do I know—all I ever see is Derek Jeter). No one in the story is completely innocent—not even the tortured Weaver and the easily-led Jackson—but when you see them on the field, you know how high a price the Sox paid to get even with Comiskey and make a few dollars—neither of which did they actually achieve. The Black Sox were accused of conspiracy, but their real crime was to commit a particularly inept form of mass suicide. —Steven Goldman

4) Twilight
Movies targeted towards the Justin Bieber, female adolescent set don't generally include a whole lot in the way of team sports as a central plot point, so if one gets past the whole playing-in-a-thunderstorm-with-aluminum-bats, lack of catcher's gear, lack of baseball mitts on any of the defenders, poor fundamentals, awkward pitching motions, Kristen Stewart's umpiring skills, and everything else that would have a discerning baseball fan up in arms about the inaccuracies in the portrayal, it's actually kind of cool.

I mean, supernatural creatures doing something that is distinctly human, that seamless blend of mythological and present-day, is pure well-crafted storytelling. Who knows, maybe there are supremely talented (albeit better-fundamenteled) vampire baseball players out there (have you been to Forks, WA? How do you know there are no vampires, then?) that haven't been given the opportunity they deserve because of an unspoken "immortals" line, and wouldn't that be quite the oversight? Just think about how much more fun the game could be if it was played by athletes with 20 foot verticals, 100 speed on the 20-80 scale, an apparent imperviousness to lightning strikes, the non-necessity of robot umps when Kristen Stewart is making calls... —Rebecca Glass

5) Squeeze Play
The plot summary at IMDB sums it all up: "A male softball team is challenged by a female softball team to see who is best." One evening late in my preteen years, my father brought this movie home from the video store thinking that my younger brother and I would enjoy a sports movie. What I remember: during the title sequence, the screen is filled by a pair of male hands groping female buttocks clad in 1970s disco shorts. During the first scene, the third baseman moons the batter only to have a line drive become lodged where the sun is not meant to shine. Needless to say, my father was never again allowed to make unsupervised trips to the video store. By the way, two things I learned about this movie by pulling it up on IMDB: 1) the female lead was played by Vash from the Star Trek universe, and 2) it was co-written by Charles Kaufman. No, not the great Charlie Kaufman, just some guy named Charles Kaufman. —Bradford Doolittle

6) The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is a fictionalized account of a barnstorming team of ex-Negro Leaguers circa 1939. Directed by John Badham—who would go on to such diverse successes as Saturday Night Fever, Blue Thunder, WarGames, and Short Circuit—the 1976 movie is most notable for the star power of its cast. Billy Dee Williams plays Long, a Satchel Paige analogue who at one point calls in his outfield and strikes out the side. James Earl Jones plays Leon Carter, a slugging catcher à la Josh Gibson (albeit without the drug problems and mental illness). Richard Pryor plays Charlie Snow, alias Cuban Carlos Nevada and Native American Chief Takahoma—a player who attempts to pass himself off as anything besides black in order to defy organized baseball's segregated ways.

Other notables in the cast include Tony winner Ted Ross as Sallison Potter, the nefarious owner of the Negro League team Long jumps; former major leaguer Leon Wagner, aka "Daddy Wags," as slugger Fat Sam Popper; DeWayne Jessie, who would later serve as bandleader Otis Day in Animal House, as the team's batboy; and Stan Shaw as Esquire Joe Callaway, a center fielder who is sort of a cross between Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. At film's end, Callaway is set up to break the color barrier, which in fact didn't happen for another eight years.

The All-Stars were loosely based upon the Indianapolis Clowns (who continued to barnstorm after the real Robinson broke the color line), and several Clowns — the team was operational until 1988 — did the baseball-related stunts for the film. To the extent that I can remember it — I first watched it on TV in the late 70s and last saw it a few years ago on Netflix — it's a bit corny, sanitized and predictable, but the baseball scenes are fun, and Pryor's performance is particularly nuanced. —Jay Jaffe

7) Hardball
Hardball is a 2001 Keanu Reeves starrer, written and directed by workmanlike Hollywood pros and based on an engaging 1993 book by Daniel Coyle about Little League in Chicago's Cabrini-Green projects. The book concerns life in the ghetto, the struggles of getting together the resources, human and capital, to keep a league running, and a few of the exceptional people who gave their time and sweat to making it so. The book is about a drunk who coaches a Cabrini-Green team in order to get a loan and becomes a better person by engaging with the children, learning about their lives, and leading them to the championship game. It's wholly derivative of The Mighty Ducks, which is itself a cheap Bad-News Bears knockoff, but it's not without its charms—the players chanting "we're going to the 'ship" in a pizza place after a win has a way of sticking with you.

While the movie was fun at the time (except for the part where a kid quits the team and joins a gang), it's a legitimately important cultural artifact now, as the cast includes not only John Hawkes (before he became a Deadwood favorite and a Sundance star) but also Michael B. Jordan, who would go on to play Wallace in The Wire (don't click that link if you haven't seen the show) and Vince in Friday Night Lights before starring in the forthcoming and surely-amazing, super-powered Chronicle. Even if you saw the movie at the time, it's definitely worth revisiting now so you can try to spot Jordan. "Where Wallace at?" indeed. —Jason Wojciechowski

8) Battlefield Baseball
Battlefield Baseball is a Japanese baseball/horror film based on a manga series I haven't read. It's the weirdest. Just the weirdest. This is one paragraph of Wikipedia's plot summary: "When confronted by Four Eyes, Jubeh reveals why he has stopped playing baseball–in song. He musically laments his pitching skill, explaining how he became so skilled he was a danger to himself and others. Only his father, his hand confined to an absurdly huge catcher's mitt, will allow Jubeh to pitch. He soon regrets this, however, when an accidental ball to the head kills him. Jubeh vows never to pitch again." It's amazing, and it's… sort of awful? Yes, pretty awful, until the end, when in the final scene of the film you find out that [INSANE TWIST THAT I AM NOT GOING TO SPOIL BUT WHOOOOA!]. A great “bad movie night” movie, and if you're really into manga, maybe it's actually good, too. —Sam Miller

9) Long Gone
It came out a year before Bull Durham hit the silver screen and was a better movie, in my humble opinion, but good luck trying to find the movie anywhere for your viewing pleasure. The movie was based on a book by the same name penned by Paul Hemphill. Before William Peterson was a star in "CSI," he was Stud Cantrell. In fact, Peterson thought so much of the Cantrell role that he turned down a role in Platoon to play the part. Cecil "Stud" Cantrell was said to be a rising star in the Cardinals organization before shrapnel busted up his knee in Guadacanal, thus ending his dreams of playing in the big leagues. That, and Stan Musial was in his way.

Cantrell instead became a star in the Florida State League as the player/manager of the Tampico Stogies. The switch-hitting star hit the ball hard on the field and played even harder off the field—in bars as the town womanizer. Virginia Madsen was Dixie Lee Boxx, the young girl that finally tied Cantrell down by both playing to his vices as well as taking care of the aftermath. She was the exact opposite of the older and wiser Annie Savoy character in Bull Durham as she was young, fresh out of school, and incredibly attractive to a certain 14-year-old boy watching this TV movie on USA Network. 

Dermot Mulroney was the rookie second baseman Jamie Don Weeks, who was the prototypical rube from the hills that had more gosh darnits than base hits early in the season. He quickly found a girlfriend in town from a very religious family, and Weeks quickly sought the rather crude (yet true) guidance of the experienced Cantrell in bedding Esther Wrenn. This, even after the girl's father tells Weeks, "If you lay one finger on my daughter, I'll kill ya," with the kind of smile only a preacher can use when rebuking you. Weeks didn't help his cause when he impregnated said daughter later in the movie despite both of their efforts in praying hard for chastity. 

 The Stogies are a cast of characters that play in the Deep South pre-segregation, so the addition of "Jose" Brown causes a stir, but the team gets behind the cause when Señor Brown starts hitting home runs deep into the night. Brown was also pretty handy with a harmonica and had a voice made for gospel singing.

The movie is never on Netflix and rather tough to track down outside of the occasional vendor who makes it available on DVD at some insane price, but it is still my favorite baseball movie because the characters and the story are very entertaining. After all, Teller (of Penn and Teller) has a speaking part in the movie as one of the owners of the Tampico Stogies! —Jason Collette

10) Fear Strikes Out
Before the hype of Jimmy Fallon and Fever Pitch, there was Anthony Perkins and Fear Strikes Out. To understand and appreciate the poetic justice of the Boston Red Sox and the fanaticism that is Red Sox Nation, one need only look at these two films and the obscurity of a star player who buckled under pressure and of a math teacher who comically waltzed his way through the World Series. Once again, our country has fallen victim to the “Ooo Shiny” aspect of Hollywood. The comical Fallon gets all of the attention, of which he deserves much, but it is the understated role of Anthony Perkins that is lost in baseball obscurity despite being one of the most poignant stories in baseball history.

Perkins stars as the troubled yet talented star of the Red Sox, Jimmy Piersall, in Fear Strikes Out. The movie follows Jimmy's journey from the sandlots of Connecticut to center field for the Boston Red Sox. The twist to this All-American dream was his domineering father pushing a young Jimmy beyond all reasonable limits. Finally unable to withstand the pressures of his father and of stardom in Fenway, Piersall suffers a nervous breakdown, climbs the backstop, and is committed to a mental institution.  Fortunately, the story of Jimmy Piersall doesn’t end there, as he emerged from his breakdown with the childish attitude that he first had as a boy—that baseball should be played for fun. True baseball fans and Sox fans in particular know the story and own the movie, but the story of Jimmy Piersall is one which every overbearing sports dad should be forced to watch, regardless of the sport their kid plays. —Adam Tower

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