The end of the Major League Baseball season can seem interminable. Once the last out of the World Series is recorded, hardcore fans feel like an eternity opens up before them. The day pitchers and catchers report to a sunny clime can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, you have to tide yourself over with hot stove reports and trade speculation. While we enjoy these distractions as much as the next fan, there are times we want to leave the real world behind and enter a universe where game-winning home runs come in the bottom of the ninth with two outs; our favorite announcers are behind the mic; and your Little League coach is as drunk as you remember him.
These cinematic moments seem much more like baseball than a player blabbing to reporters after a meaningless April game or some sappy retirement speech. (We thought there was no crying in baseball, anyhow.) The writers and directors behind classic films about the game deserve heaps of credit for pulling off the feat. Here we have collected the ones that did it best.
Pardon us for shying away from the ultra-depressing (Bang the Drum Slowly), the overly dramatic (42), and the unabashed hero-worshipping (The Lou Gehrig Story) films that have appeared over the years. Baseball’s a game, after all. We’re leaving documentaries for another time, too. Here are the seven greatest baseball films ever made. Feel free to use them for a May rainout or February snowstorm as needed.
7. Major League
There are enough classic moments in this 1998 comedy that you can forgive the silly plot and other shortcomings. There’s Willie Mays Hayes sliding five feet short of second base in a steal attempt; Pedro Cerrano using a live snake to get him out of a slump; and the Indians beating themselves senseless in a one-bench-clearing brawl. What holds the film together is Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Uecker. Of the many hilarious one-liners he drops, we love his wild pitch call. “Ju-ust a bit outside,” Uecker drolls as the ball sails well beyond the catcher’s reach. Later, he gives a shout out to a slugger who is “leading the league in nose hair.”
6. Eight Men Out
While this John Sayles film veers into serious territory too often for our taste, the presentation of a lost era in baseball is more than worth the effort. Eight Men Out covers a time when being a ballplayer is a part-time job for the summer and the players walked to the park from their homes in the neighborhood. You get to see “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and other stars from the 1919 “Black Sox” as they grapple with their decision to throw the World Series as well, making it a companion piece to The Great Gatsby and other documents involving Major League Baseball’s darkest hour.
5. Field of Dreams
“If you build it, he will come.” The preposterous passion of Kevin Costner’s character captures the awe and devotion some baseball fans feel throughout their lives. For that reason alone, this 1989 film is worthy of a high place on any list of this kind. Then there is the way the main character ignores common sense and financial prudence in favor of more innocent motives. Sound like any fan you know? Repositioning the game in the heartland of America is a brilliant stroke by the writer and production team. Fans happily expand their willing disbelief for Field of Dreams.
A statistical revolution took place in baseball in the 1990s, and Moneyball was Michael Lewis’s 2003 depiction of how it went down within the Oakland A’s organization. As with The Big Short and other Lewis works, we see how the manipulation of numbers created an edge for a team of outsiders (in this case, an A’s team trying to bump off the last Yankees dynasty). It took until 2011 to get the film made, but Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay and Brad Pitt’s performance in the lead role were worth the wait. This film is a lot of fun, and the Academy even went to bat for it with a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
3. The Natural
You can forgive The Natural for its sentimental sidetracks when you consider the epic moments it delivers in style. Start with the light-popping, show-stopping home run that is the best baseball scene in cinema. Barry Levinson’s pacing, masterful cinematography, and Robert Redford’s stoicism are just a few elements that make this film sing. Other details — the nastiness of the clubhouse chatter, Wilford Brimley’s mustache — lend an air of authenticity that keeps the long-shot story grounded. Try being unaffected by the climax to The Natural. We’ve never seen any human pull it off yet.
2. The Bad News Bears
For those who prefer your baseball with a wad of chewing tobacco and a can of beer, we present the funniest baseball film ever made. The Bad News Bears has it all: foul-mouthed kids, a freakish Little League squad sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds, a drunken manager who’d rather be cleaning pools, and a female pitching phenom who wants to keep selling maps to the stars. The Southern California setting and period (1976) make it perfect for the subject matter, and we relish the trip back to a simpler time in the lives of every amateur player.
1. Bull Durham
Bull Durham‘s position at the top is hardly debated by anyone, and it’s probably the greatest sports movie, too. Every bit of madness surrounding baseball gets touched on in this film. You have the mundane bus trips between towns; the goofiness of meetings on the mound; bizarre superstitions; awkward love interests; and what it’s like to toil away in obscurity for an entire career. In that sense, baseball is like any other job when it’s not going well.
Kevin Costner’s “Crash” Davis knows the ins and outs of life in the game better than anyone, and there’s an underlying sadness because he’s the best at a lower class of baseball. But there’s nothing sad about this film. The great jokes about the game and life resonate with viewers no matter what feelings they have about baseball. Best of all, the material has hardly aged since it first appeared in 1988.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.