Static Media invited me to rank fourteen baseball movies, and then explain myself. I’m not sure why the counting was to fourteen, no more and no less, but that was the only rule the editor gave me. (Also when he asked if I was available to write anything at all, he asked which topics interested me, then immediately followed that sentence with “Please nothing about Star Wars.” I do not think he appreciated my earlier article suggestion that proposed a 7000 word, frame-by-frame analysis of Pedro Pascal and Ewan McGregor interviewing each other for Variety.)

The first order of business here was to find fourteen; you’ll not be surprised to hear that this was a list I needed to narrow down. I didn’t have to hunt for a second. There was no consideration of including that bizarre Cincinnati-set version of Babes in Toyland in which Pete Rose gets a mention. I did cheat somewhat by including the documentary installment “Catching Hell,” but if you think I was going to pass on an opportunity to point at Cubs fans in their worst possible moment, you don’t know me at all.

I ranked, but lightly; I don’t have the emotional bandwidth of making moral distinctions between #9 and #11, and all that matters is the bottom and the topper, anyway. If you’re grievously offended that I favored Major League one place over Bull Durham, please humbly believe me when I say:  Good.

What struck me as I worked through the list was how many movies I needed to sift through; I didn’t even consider the obnoxious Fever Pitch, or the subpar Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but they were there if I wanted them. Despite our clutch of horseracing and football movies, there cannot be an American sport so insistently enshrined on film.

In fact, in order to broaden the topic to “sports movies,” one must pull in Cool Runnings, all the hockey movies (the entire list consists of Slap Shot and every available form of Mighty Ducks), all the basketball movies (Space Jam, the fake Space Jam, and Hoosiers), and the smattering of offerings on gymnastics, figure skating, and soccer. We will never want for sports movies in this nation because the structure of sport fills the template so easily: There’s an underdog, and then the underdog wins.

But in baseball, that formula can twist and shift every which way, even within the space of an inning. There’s no clock to speak of. A game can last an hour or a day, sprawl across a front yard or a billion dollar stadium. Movies about baseball are, in the end, movies about us. We’ll hold up the mirror again and again, because even though the game might change, our feelings about the core of it won’t.

So, when my brother-in-law and my godson lined up with their gloves on the grass of Great American Ball Park at a Family Catch event, the crowd of parents and offspring were understandably subjected to the final scene of Field of Dreams on the scoreboard. This was a dirty trick on the part of the Reds, and well they knew it, because it worked. Standing in the concrete upper reaches of the stadium–I was on duty for the Hall of Fame– I saw the little faces and the teetering-on-middle-age faces looking up at the flickering images of a dad and his son playing catch. Before the scene was done, I grabbed a crappy concession stand napkin. No reason.

I asked my brother-in-law what the reaction was on the grass. “It got really quiet,” he said. It usually is when we look in the mirror.

39 Responses

  1. LDS

    What? No Mr. Baseball (my wife’s favorite baseball movie for some reason). As for Moneyball? The adoption of sabermetrics is IMO one of the great tragedies of modern sports. Two Costner movies may be over the top. At least, neither promoted mediocrity as a lifestyle as did Tin Cup.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I think Costner also narrated at least one baseball documentary. No shortage of him, Ray.

    • Mark Moore

      If you include that movie, you have to include “Mr. 3000”, don’t you LDS?

  2. NorMichRed

    “The book was better.” As much as I enjoyed “Field of Dreams,” Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” is a beautifully written book that I was lucky enough to find and read many years before the movie and it remains superior to the film in my mind. Kinsella’s other allegorical baseball novels are great reads, but most wouldn’t be adaptable to a screenplay. The movie is my # 1 baseball movie, followed fairly closely by “Bull Durham,” “Major League.” Malamud’s “The Natural” is better than the movie IMO but I thought the cinematography in that film was exceptional. Thanks for keeping baseball flames flickering in this training-less “almost Spring.”

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I enjoyed “Shoeless Joe,” but the other one– can’t remember the name… it was about a neverending baseball game in the rain? Anyway, it was weird.

      • NorMichRed

        “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy,” if I remember the full name correctly. Weird but fascinating book, tying the old Midwest tradition of semi-pro teams in every town with MLB players coming to barnstorm, and statues and otherworldly things coming to life to participate in an allegorical baseball game that went on for 40 days/40 nights, a la the Noah Flood. Not for every baseball fan. But Kinsella was truly a writing talent. I also recommend his non-baseball short stories and novellas taking place on Native Reservation(s) in western Canada. A couple of good collections of them are (I think) still available.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        YES! The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. That’s the one! Thank you!

  3. Jeffery

    1970 to 1979 should be a movie. In fact it is in all our minds who lived through that time

    • LDS

      And not to be seen again in my lifetime. Even if Bob sold the team today, it’d take years to build anything close to a team as competitive as the 70s. And that’s if it’s even possible in the “modern” game.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’m very mad the Big Red Machine got barely a mention in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” but there was what seemed like a full half-hour on the “We Are Family” Pirates.

      • greenmtred

        Burns, great as he is, lives in New Hampshire. One must assume that he’s a Red Sox fan. Every mention of the BRM might well have been a little stake through his heart. Lots of boxing movies, Mary Beth, some of them good.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        That explains a LOT. All the best artists work from a certain level of butthurt.

      • NorMichRed

        Like a lot of the PBS so-called intelligentsia, Burns tries to ignore the “flyover States” in his works when it’s convenient. Baseball series is heavily NY-Boston-centric. And often more concerned about social engineering than baseball…though he fairly points out that Jackie Robinson presaged what eventually evolved for the better in society. There are many far better accounts of the Negro Leagues than his in “Baseball.” I just finished reading a really good one…”Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues” by Donn Rogosin. Just like MLB in its history, there were some pretty unsavory people that owned Negro League franchises (in some, not all cases) that allowed it to survive long enough to build a meaningful history. But, what I would have given to see Cool Papa Bell or Josh Gibson play and compare them to BRM greats and others I’ve been fortunate enough to watch! Another good one from a different perspective, from a Negro Leagues umpire: “Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars” by Bob Motley. (I think if I recall correctly the uncle of former Cleveland Browns’ star RB Marion Motley.) A little baseball reading helps me survive the long Winter and the apparently long Spring we might be entering…Thanks, MBE, for keeping our collective fires stoked!

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        I forgot about the East Coast bias. Bleah. But good suggestions on the NL! Will add to the list 🙂

  4. Gonzo Reds

    Looking forward to the interview with Pedro Pascal. Perhaps they can work in a baseball sequence on the next season of Mando. Have Baby Yo (er Grogu) raise his hand on the mound to send the baseball winging towards the plate where Mando can hit it with one of his rockets. Won’t need any fielders as that will essentially destroy each baseball used, kinda like the owners and players are destroying the game by not budging off their own selfish demands.

  5. Mark Moore

    The book is invariably better … but this is a pretty strong list. I’d have a difficult time finding 14 that I could rank as more than just passable. The three Costner flicks, League of Their Own, Eight Men Out, and The Natural are really high on my list. The Sandlot far outpaces Bad News Bears for me. 42 is just an outstanding performance by the late Mr. Boseman.

    Great stuff to ponder on a bit of a murky day outside my window. Thanks again, MBE.

    • Mark Moore

      Oh, and the Ken Burns series gets a special mention, especially the chapter about the Negro League. I may need to watch some of those “innings” again soon.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        aaaauuuuuugggggGGGGHHHHHH I’m so mad at myself for including “Catching Hell” but not thinking to put in “Baseball.” WTF, self.

      • Mark Moore

        You are forgiven. I omitted it in my original response and had to add on. Remind me to tell you sometime about my find in an antique mall in Fredericksburg, VA. It was a commemorative ball cap sporting over 20 logos of Negro League teams. I verified the NL Museum sold it about 35 years ago.

  6. Joe Shaw

    I almost hesitate to ask what you thought of “The Rookie,” starring the slightly less crazy Quaid brother (who clearly knows nothing about baseball).

    • Mark Moore

      You mean the Disney-ized feel-good version of the story? 🙂

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Is that the “Pitcher has a big butt!” movie?

      • Mark Moore

        No, that’s a kids’ movie you’re thinking of where the boy pitches for the Cubbies. It’s as bad a “Little Big League” where the kid owns the Twins.

        “The Rookie” is the one with the former prospect with a blown arm teaching high school science and coaching baseball, going to an open tryout, and getting a gig with the then Devil Rays.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Oh that! Yes I’ve seen that. Radar gun scene.

  7. Scott C

    No mention of one of my two favorite baseball movies, but you are forgiven they are both way before your time, “It Happens Every Spring” with Ray Milland as Professor Vernon Simpson who discovers a substance that makes the baseball avoid bats. Great movie even though it features the “Dirty Birds” Also it has the “Skipper” Alan Hale Jr in a supporting role. Or my other one “Damn Yankees” with Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston and Yogi Berra even makes an appearance. I do like some of those you mentioned but those were my first baseball movies and are special, at least to me.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I haven’t seen “Damn Yankees.” I almost auditioned for the musical version a couple years ago but chickened out once I discovered that I was expected to dance. We had the movie version in our Netflix queue and then we canceled Netflix and then I forget we canceled Netflix until somebody mentions a movie we had in the queue that I heartlessly abandoned.

      Thanks for bringing that up.

      • Scott C

        Sorry, but find a way to watch it. I am sure you will like it. Gwen Verdon is excellent as Lola.

    • NorMichRed

      Both good choices! I watch “It Happens Every Spring” about this time as my rites of passage into a new baseball season. Haven’t yet this year. And yes, Scott, Gwen Verdon was a GREAT Lola! As a dedicated Yankee hater, I never know whether to camp on and watch it or not!! But it’s a fun one.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        I haven’t seen that one at all! Must add to the defunct Netflix account 🙂

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      You never forget your first ones 🙂

  8. SOQ

    The book that “Damn Yankees” is based on is named “The year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”. I read the book over and over again in Jr. High. (It was practically the only book I would read) The movie does it justice (only there’s no singing in the book 🙂

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Wait, WHAT? Well I need to read this!

    • Scott C

      Yes it is. I read several times in my young years. Even wrote a book report for an English class.

  9. TR

    The musical ‘Damn Yankees’ is a great show. I was in it many years ago at the summer Municipal Opera in St. Louis. Now that the pandemic is decreasing, it would be a great show for a local musical group to stage.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Covedale did it before the pandemic. With, as I discovered to my sorrow, plenty of dancing.