While in recent years football has become the sport of choice among American spectators, we still fondly refer to baseball as “America’s Pastime.” For many men in America, baseball was a boyhood rite of passage and served as the backdrop of some their most cherished memories. Baseball was how many men bonded with their fathers as boys. Who can forget dad taking you to the sports store to buy you your first glove, showing you how to break it in, and playing catch with you in the backyard?
While baseball has shaped the lives of individual men for more than a century, its influence on American society is even more profound; it’s shaped our ideas of masculinity, buoyed our spirits during economic depressions and war, and served as a battleground for civil rights.
Woven as baseball is with personal ties, romance, and cultural weight, it’s not surprising that a lot movies have been made about the sport. Some funny, some poignant, and some utterly forgettable. Below we highlight the ones that stick with us – 15 of the best baseball movies (in no particular order) to help you get into the swing of things as a new season starts.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that The Sandlot is the best movie about being a boy ever. My friends and I would watch this movie over and over again during the summer (in-between our games of Pickle and Pepper), and have a great time laughing at and repeating all our favorite lines (“You’re killing me, Smalls!” “You play ball like a girl!” “FOR-EV-ER!”) and drooling over Wendy Peffercorn. The Sandlot doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a simple movie about close boyhood friends and their shared love of baseball. Twenty years later I still make it a point to watch The Sandlot every summer, and every time I do, I’m taken back to my own childhood, playing baseball with the neighborhood kids in good ol’ Danforth Farms. Can’t wait to watch this one with Gus.
The Iron Horse’s talent and tenacity made him a legend. His courage in the face of a debilitating disease made him a hero. Lou Gehrig was one of the classiest baseball players America has ever had, and who better to play him than Gary Cooper (though, it’s kind of funny to see a 40-year-old Cooper, play a 19-year-old Gehrig). If you’re not tearing up at the famous “Luckiest Man” speech, you my friend, have no soul.
While Field of Dreams is primarily about a man’s reconciliation with his estranged dead father, it’s also about the power baseball has had in America to bind communities and connect generations. This quote from Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) beautifully sums up what baseball means for many Americans:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
Ask any baseball player or film critic what the greatest baseball movie ever made was, and dimes to donuts they’ll say Bull Durham. Sports Illustrated ranked it as the #1 sports movie of all time. With good reason too. Bull Durham perfectly captures the ambition and gritty underdog mentality of minor league baseball. Writer/director Ron Shelton was a former minor league ballplayer himself, which probably explains why watching Bull Durham gives you the feeling of looking in on the lives of real minor league baseball players.
Kevin Costner plays veteran catcher Crash Davis who’s tasked with mentoring immature, young pitcher, Eddie Laloosh (Tim Robbins). The in-between-the-pitches banter between Laloosh and Davis constitutes some of the best dialogue in film history. The two not only battle over baseball, but also a seductive woman played by Susan Sarandon. At its core, Bull Durham is about a few guys working hard for something better in life – something that we can all relate to as men.
When we think of mythic heroes, we often think of characters from classical history like Achilles or Agamemnon. In The Natural, we see the archetype of the epic and mythological hero transposed from the battlefields of ancient Greece to the baseball diamonds of 1920s America. Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a baseball player whose promising career was cut short in his youth by a deadly dame. 16 years later, Roy is back to fulfill his dream of playing major league ball. Just as Achilles had his mythological armor made by the gods, Roy wields his mythic bat, aptly named “Wonderboy,” made from a tree struck by lightning. When you get down to it, The Natural is about re-birth and going after a dream no matter what it takes. Beautifully shot and masterfully scored, you’ll be bawling like a baby by the time the credits roll.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
As a kid, I loved the grittiness and edginess of The Bad News Bears. It’s a movie about a bunch of hapless, misfit Little Leaguers coached by an apathetic ex-minor leaguer (played by the great Walter Matthau) who spends his time nursing a can of beer in the dugout instead of coaching. The kids swear and drink like sailors, which was both jarring and hilarious to my nine-year-old brain. But behind the cussing and pre-teen drinking is a film about finding and maintaining your self-respect despite setbacks and not letting competition ruin the fun of the game.
The owner of the Cleveland Indians dies and his cold-hearted widow inherits the team. She hates Cleveland, so she hatches a plan to cobble together a team so bad the franchise will lose their fans, allowing her to relocate to Miami. A washed-up catcher with bad knees, a crazy formerly-incarcerated pitcher with wicked speed but no control, a power hitting voodoo priest, and a pop fly-hitting base runner, make up the core of this team of misfits. Despite the team’s lack of talent, the players come together to win games just to spite the owner. Major League is a fantastic comedy, and I still laugh out loud whenever I watch it. Comedian and former American League ballplayer/WWF announcer/Mr. Belvedere star, Bob “I must be in the front row” Uecker provides some great laughs as Indians announcer Harry Doyle.
The sequel to Major League was pretty good (For an entire summer my neighborhood friends and I would heft our imaginary giant testicles and yell,”You have no marbles!” at each other. Ah, childhood.), but the original is still the best.
Eight Men Out masterfully chronicles baseball’s original sin. In 1919, eight players on the Chicago White Sox conspired together to throw the World Series in exchange for money from gamblers in Chicago’s underworld. The scandal tarnished the reputations of some of baseball’s greats (including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson) and nearly put an end to professional sports in America. While we often look back at baseball with Kodachrome and sepia-tinted nostalgia, Eight Men Out is a somber reminder that previous generations battled the same corrupting factors that we decry in sports today. The writing and acting in Eight Men Out is top notch, and it boasts some of the best ball playing scenes in cinema.