Friday, July 13, 2007

10 Greatest Baseball Movies

When the season is long, and your team terrible, there is not much to do if you want to remain positive, or to keep yourself from the point where you start to feel that you too could play just as badly for league minimum. With that in mind, I constructed my list of the 10 Greatest Baseball Movies. In no particular order of merit, they are as follows:

Bull Durham (1988): Any list of the greatest baseball movies of all-time has to include Bull Durham. It is, to me, probably the most realistic of any of the Hollywood productions on the life of professional baseball players, which is not saying much, because most baseball movies tend to be pretty terrible. Bull Durham was different. It was not overly romantic, save Susan Sarandon’s charismatic spiel, Annie, and it showed a side of professional baseball you do not see in this day and age of the multimillionaire athlete (minor league players struggling to make it). Everyone has their favorite lines and scenes, like Crash Davis’s treatise to Annie on baseball, life, and the JFK assassination before leaving her for the evening to “meat,” as Crash liked to call his understudy and romantic rival for Annie’s attention, Nuke Lalush. For me, I most enjoyed the human rain delay scene, the sight of the players trashing a field, and in the process manufacturing a much-needed day off during a long road trip.

Certainly, there are flaws with this movie. Supposedly, Tim Robbins’s character, Nuke Lalush, is promoted at the end of the movie to the big leagues, even though the Durham Bulls are supposedly an A team in the film. I have periodically seen in my lifetime, particularly when I was younger, a player promoted from AA to the majors, but I have never seen anyone promoted from A. And while Kevin Costner portrays a believable professional baseball player (with an astonishingly smooth swing [and a switch hitter to boot] for someone who never played beyond high school ball), Tim Robbins (a fine actor in every other respects) was not at all convincing as a big league-caliber pitcher. His delivery, a cheap imitation of Fernando Valenzuela’s, was an eyesore. Then again, compared to Anthony Perkins’s rendition of Jimmy Piersall, Robbins looks like a god, which is my greatest complaint against baseball movies. Are there so few actors who can play baseball that I have to endure the exhibition of Brendon Fraser pretending to be able to hit a ball 500 feet and throw it over 120 mph?

Field of Dreams (1989): It was evident by the late ‘80s that Kevin Costner was a huge baseball fan. I should begin by emphasizing that this movie is really two parts. The first part, the slow-developing plot of two ex-hippies, wannabe farmers, having a hard time surviving the financial hardships of their chosen endeavor, all the while defending the writings of their favorite ‘60s writers at PTA meetings, was not as engrossing for me, albeit these subplots were certainly more plausible than what was to follow. The second part, sentimental though it was, brings us on a journey from the cornfields of Iowa, from where Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, builds a baseball field in the middle of his farm, after he hears voices telling him to “build it and ‘he’ will come.” From there, Ray kidnaps an ex-60s radical writer, in which James Earl Jones masterfully plays a reclusive cynic, Terrance Mann (a same-name lift from the famous 20th century writers Thomas and Heinrich Mann), taking him on a cross-country tour to the East Coast--and all to watch a baseball game at Fenway Park, so Costner’s seemingly hallucinogenic character can receive an otherworldly message from his voices and tell him what to do next.

By the end of the movie, after watching several dead baseball greats come back to life to play ball in Ray Kinsella’s field, Costner’s character sees a youthful image of his father (an ex-catcher) and plays catch with him. By this point, we realize whom the voices referred to when they told Ray that ‘he’ would come and would ‘ease’ his pain, as Ray did not make peace with his dad before he passed away. In almost any other movie, I would have been prepared to lay torch to the screen, much like I was after Brad Pitt single-handedly butchered the ending of Se7en with his dramatic ineptitude, but by the end of the Field of Dreams I felt almost ready for anything, even an impromptu appearance by Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb (who wasn’t allowed to play on the field out of common hatred from the dead players). It worked in this film, which retained the rare quality of balancing the sentimental aspects of the love of the game and family with the seemingly strange reality, or portrayal thereof, of a farmer building a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield.

Pastime (1991): One of the most underrated and greatest baseball movies ever made, Pastime is about the story of two minor league pitchers. One, Roy Dean (played by character actor William Russ), a veteran past his prime, who played briefly in the bigs before being sent back down, and who can’t face up the fact his playing days are over, and a black teenager named Tyrone (played by Glenn Plummer, of Saw III and ER fame), a talented young pitcher, but a young man who is unsure of himself, his potential, and shy about being a black player on a professional baseball team in the 1950s.

Roy has been assigned with the task of taking Tyrone in and to be his mentor, teaching him about life and baseball. The notable part of the film, other than the crossing of racial boundaries (at a time when such a thing was not tolerated in most sectors of our society), is the sight of an older pitcher, in the last years (weeks and days) of his career, taking in a younger player and showing him the fine art of his craft, imparting his knowledge, and instilling in him the love of the game. This is all the more amazing not just because of the issue of race, but the fact older players in those days typically did not mentor potential replacements.
Also included are cameos by Harmon Killebrew, Don Newcombe, and Bob Feller.

Eight Men Out (1988): A wonderful movie and one that showed why there was a time in America, hard as this may be to accept with today’s conditions, when a player’s union was actually necessary. The movie obviously portrays the events surrounding the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, in which eight Chicago White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, took money to throw a World Series (allowing the Cincinnati Reds to win the championship).

Granted, there were moments in the film when many of the players who were portrayed would never be mistaken for real professional baseball players, but the element of depravation and oppression (again, laughable by the standards of how players are paid and treated today) is what made the movie so compelling. Meaning as no apologia for Charles Cominsky and the hypocrisy of Kennesaw Landis, I felt that the gist of the film was to depict the players in a more sympathetic light than they probably deserved. To be sure, gambling went hand-in-hand with baseball in those days (much as it does with the NCAA tournament today), the players were underpaid and treated like chattel with the reserve clause, but at the end of the day, and the film, one glaring fact continued to recur--they took money to throw a World Series.

The most tragic figure in the film (as in life) was Shoeless Joe Jackson (one of the greatest hitters in baseball history). Shoeless Joe took the money, like his other teammates, but he never held to the pact and played very ably during the 1919 World Series (hitting .375 and helping to keep the White Sox in the Series for as long as possible). Nevertheless, his status as someone who accepted the payoff doomed his future in the Major Leagues, particularly after Commissioner Landis banned all of the players for life.

What is most interesting about this case, and may be telling for future Hall of Fame voters with players from the steroid era (post-1993), is that not one of the players were ever convicted in a court for their crime (even though they admitted to accepting the money from gamblers and throwing the Series).

A League of Their Own (1992): It is World War Two, the men are off to the front, and women for the first time in American history are filling traditional male roles in the factories, workplace and, for a time, on the baseball field. To take advantage of the war-time circumstances, a popular candy manufacturer (a loose adaptation of George Wrigley) starts the first professional women’s baseball league.

Included in the all-star cast of players are Geena Davis (as the team’s star catcher Dottie Hinson), Lori Petty (Dottie’s brooding little sister and pitcher Kit Keller), Madonna (as “all the way” Mae), Rosie O’Donnell (third baseperson/woman Doris Murphy), and Megan Cavanagh as the stereotypical not-so-feminine Marla Hooch. They go on to form the Rockford Peaches, who is managed by Tom Hanks, as the hard-drinking, middle-aged ex-home run king Jimmy Dugan (bearing similarities to Jimmie Foxx).

Of course, like all good baseball films, the game is but a backdrop to the story of the players and characters associated with the team. In a real acting stretch, Madonna’s character Mae is an ex-stripper using baseball to get away from the clubs. Dottie Hinson and her sister are constantly at war with each other in a classic case of sibling rivalry. Jimmy Dugan is trying to keep himself from falling off the wagon and stay awake during the games. And the league’s director is doing everything possible to attract a fan base and prevent the league from collapsing.

Last but not least, it should always be remembered, there is no crying in baseball.

The Natural (1984): Yes, it is a sappy film, one which all the stat geeks hate because it does not portray their version of reality. Yes, the film deviates from the book, which has Roy Hobbs striking out, not hitting a game-winning home run (not alone knocking out the stadium lights and seemingly creating a fire hazard while rounding the bases in his final walk-off home run). And not all of the teammates look like presentable baseball players, either, although it is quite obvious that Robert Redford played the game when he was younger. That said, he also looked his age in the movie, 47 at the time, not like a prospect out of nowhere in his mid 30s. Probably most annoying of all, the Babe Ruth-like ‘Whammer’ that Roy strikes out at a fair when he is a young prospect, the feat which elicited Barbara Hershey’s demented character to shoot Roy and seemingly ruin his chances for baseball stardom, is a right-handed batter! I know it sounds small, even petty, but it is the little things like this that annoy the dickens out of me and makes me hate most baseball movies.

Be that as it may, there was much to like about the film. First, Robert Redford, even in his late 40s, looked like a big league baseball player. His pitching delivery and swing looked, well, natural. As aforementioned, these details may sound trivial, but they are not. It is that one detail that usually makes or breaks a baseball movie, and in spite of everything the main character in this film gave the appearance of a big league player. Second, the story line, while predictable, was accompanied by fine acting performances, and the sight of Buffalo’s old War Memorial Stadium. If it accomplished nothing else, this movie succeeded in depicting the game of baseball in the late 1930s.

Bad News Bears (1976): How can one not like a film with a chain-smoking, borderline alcoholic Little League baseball coach, seeking redemption with a bunch of kids who look like the future cast of a Jerry Springer episode?

Walter Matthau is a drunken ex-professional baseball player that has decided to coach the Bears, a team of misfits who you would never imagine winning a baseball game. How bad are they? After getting crushed in one of their first games, the players storm off the field in disgust, with one of them stripping his uniform and climbing up a tree in embarrassment.  That's pretty bad.  The coach responds by looking for talent, recruiting a young girl (an ex-girlfriend’s 11 year old daughter) that has a mean curve. Also included is the young ruffian and hood wannabe Kelly Leak, who apparently is a great hitter and a winning addition to an otherwise terrible team. Overnight, the Bears become a good team and compete for the league championship with their nemesis the Yankees (yes, the Yankees have always been the most hated team in baseball).

As a satire piece The Bad News Bears was ahead of its time. An indictment of the ueber-competitiveness of youth sports, it showed the manner in which parents, living vicariously through their children, drive them to feats and abuse that many adults would not tolerate. The last game exemplifies this when the opposing manager publicly pushes and slaps his own player and son in front of his team, umpire, and fans.

What also made this film so exceptional for the time was the frank language. The kids cussed, like real kids do (whether or not we like to admit it). The coach was a heavy drinker, even taking the kids for a ride in his convertible while drunk (and without seat belts). Their best hitter, an eleven year old, was a heavy smoker (today, that might be grounds for prosecution). And the team’s motor mouth, Tanner (played by Chris Barnes), used the kind of slurs you would never get away with today without therapy. In short, it was the baseball equivalent of Blazing Saddles, and like the latter it was undeniably funny and entertaining.

Cobb (1994): An unappreciated film about the last days of Ty Cobb, and the sports writer assigned to ghostwrite his autobiography, it is also about the struggle of a man with his own life and soul before death. An unsympathetic person on the field and off (this is a man who was once suspended for going into the stands and pummeling a wheelchair-bound heckler), Tommy Lee Jones did a masterful job of recreating the problematic Cobb from his youth (marred by an incident when his mother shot and killed his father), to his travails in baseball (distinguished by hard living and playing), and a post-playing career as a successful businessman and investor (but without the lasting friendships and companionship we most all desire in life).

The closest thing Cobb has to a friend is a reporter, Al Stump (played by Robert Wuhl [also in Bull Durham]), a real life baseball writer who was volunteered to befriend and help write the maestro’s autobiography. At first horrified and later acclimatized to Cobb’s racism, hatred, and apparent nihilism, Stump begins to absorb Cobb’s character and understand why this objectionable person played the way he did and why he was such a nuisance to all those that crossed his path. It is a difficult task, as Stump is constrained to jettison his original biography, which whitewashed his subject’s character flaws, and instead write a more accurate life story of the Georgia Peach.

This is director and screenwriter Ron Shelton’s second baseball film, next to Bull Durham. Not surprisingly, Shelton is an ex-minor league player. His sensibilities of the game and the people who play it are far more penetrating than the average baseball film. This is what makes Cobb such a success, at least artistically, if not commercially.

Favorite line of the movie. Ty Cobb on Babe Ruth. “He could run OK for a fat man.”

Stealing Home (1988): Like Pastime and Cobb, a greatly underrated flick, and one of Mark Harmon’s best acting performances. It is about a middle-aged ex-minor leaguer trying to make peace with the death of a childhood friend.

This is not an easy film to watch. It is a series of flashbacks by Harmon to his youth, in the 1960s, when he befriended his recently-passed friend. It takes place right after her suicide, when Billy Wyatt returns home from the midst of his fading professional baseball career, as he has been entrusted with Katie’s ashes. Not knowing what to do with the ashes, he wonders back to the time he spent with Katie during his youth, her free spirited ways, and how he must reconcile his life’s disappointments (at not being a more successful baseball player) with what ended up happening to his first love.

Like Field of Dreams and The Natural, Stealing Home is a sappy film. And by sappy, I mean a film about unrequited love, which Harmon’s character (Billy Wyatt) felt for Jodie Foster (Katie Chandler). It is a doomed love, of course, like all good ones should be in film (a secret of success for love stories that used to be the hallmark of great operas and romantic tragedies of the past), which is imbibed with the times, as well as Billy’s friends, who ease his transition into adulthood, even without Katie.

Since this movie received limited play, I will not spoil the ending or what happened to Katie’s remains, but it is peculiar in that for a baseball movie there is probably less than a few minutes worth of actual baseball in the film. Nevertheless, the remainder of the film is so alluring and the characters heartrending and yet enjoyable, it is barely noticeable.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976): A fictionalized account of the Negro Leagues and traveling baseball during the Great Depression, this gem is the tale of three great barnstorming black baseball players--Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams), Leon Carter (James Earl Jones), and Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor), who form the troika of stars who go from city to city, playing local teams to make ends meet and eventually compete for professional baseball contracts. A loose portrayal of Satchel Paige (Billy Dee Williams’s Bingo Long), Josh Gibson (James Earl Jones’s Leon Carter), and Jackie Robinson (Stan Shaw’s “Esquire” Joe Callaway), much of what constituted the fiction was actually a reflection of the realities of the time.

In brief, the barnstormers were the baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters, dressed in outrageously loud uniforms (appearing almost like the Houston Astros in the 1970s), and anchored by the brilliant pitching and wily ways of Bingo Long. The team was so good they ended up competing with a real Negro League team to continue gaining the right to travel its cities (as their antics, showmanship, and skill for the game began to divert fans from Negro League games).

By the end, one of the players actually receives an offer to play in the big leagues (as with Jackie Robinson in real life, obviously). The movie does not dodge the impact of this on the game, as the players understand it means the death of the Negro Leagues. The future will be denoted by the desire of players to play in the big leagues, instead of the Negro Leagues, along with traveling teams operating as a dying sidekick, which is exactly what happened. It is a fascinating insight into the game during the 1930s from the perspective of those marginalized from its highest ranks.

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