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Wednesday, April 8, 2020


GUEST BLOG / By Zachary Rymer, reporter, Bleacher Report--It's hard to talk baseball while Major League Baseball is taking a break because of the coronavirus pandemic. So instead, let's talk baseball movies.

For your convenience, we ranked the best baseball movies—i.e., feature-length narratives and not documentaries—that can help pass the time while you're practicing social distancing.

We're not professional film critics, nor did we choose to take our cues from those who are. Instead, we focused on the films that have strong audience ratings with the film industry (IMDb) and (critics at) Rotten Tomatoes.

The Stratton Story (1949)
Monty Stratton was an All-Star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox until he lost his right leg in a hunting accident in 1938. But with the help of a prosthetic leg, he continued to pitch in the minor leagues from 1946 to 1953.

It's an unlikely tale, and it's told well in The Stratton Story courtesy of an Oscar-winning script by Douglas Morrow and a star turn by the legendary James Stewart. Just be warned that this one requires at least a mild appreciation for black-and-white movies from the distant past.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)
Despite its loose relation to the facts of its subject matter's life, Fear Strikes Out offers a compelling and certainly ahead-of-its-time look at Jimmy Piersall's struggles with bipolar disorder during his career as an All-Star outfielder.

This one is worth seeking out just for star Anthony Perkins. Three years before he brought a quiet menace to his role as Norman Bates in Psycho, he channeled fury and pathos to craft a genuinely heartbreaking performance as Piersall.

The Bad News Bears (1976)
As a story about a disinterested drunk (Walter Matthau) who accepts a gig coaching a Little League team full of foul-mouthed misfits, The Bad News Bears drew a shocked yet enthusiastic reception when it was released 44 years ago. Nowadays, it might play as a proto-South Park for modern audiences.

If nothing else, the original Bad News Bears is a hell of a lot more genuine than the watered-down 2005 remake. It also boasts an impressive cast of kid actors, including Oscar winner Tatum O'Neal (Amanda Whurlitzer) and future Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak).

Eight Men Out (1988)
Beyond popularizing the famous line, "Say it ain't so, Joe," Eight Men Out offers a thorough retelling of how and why the White Sox—or the "Black Sox," as they're known today—conspired to throw the World Series in 1919.

This film was a passion project on the part of director John Sayles, and it comes through in its palpable authenticity. It's also buoyed by a terrific cast that includes John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn, Christopher Lloyd and future Guardians of the Galaxy star Michael Rooker.

Sugar (2008)
Speaking of people who later made it big in the Marvel Universe, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck co-wrote and co-directed Sugar more than a decade before they helmed Captain Marvel in 2019.

Sugar is a fish-out-of-water tale about the trials of phenom pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos (played by Algenis Perez Soto) on his journey from the Dominican Republic to the American minor leagues. Though entirely fictional, it serves as a generally authentic and profound window into what Latin American prospects go through to make it in affiliated ball.

Field of Dreams (1989)
Unable to ignore the menacing voices in his head, a deranged farmer (Kevin Costner) builds a useless baseball diamond, ruins his family's finances and travels across the country to kidnap an unsuspecting writer (James Earl Jones).  If we must begrudgingly give Field of Dreams credit for anything, we'll go with its unapologetic love for baseball as an institution. It's most apparent in Jones' monologue about how baseball "reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again." Surely, that's a message that rings as true now as it ever has before.

The Sandlot (1993)
Neighborhood kids bond while playing pickup games at the nearby rundown baseball diamond, which unfortunately shares a border with a beastly dog with a taste for balls signed by Babe Ruth. Summarizing what, exactly, makes The Sandlot so special is oddly difficult. That's probably owed to its disjointed nature, as it is equal parts a goofy kids movie and sincere coming-of-age story that occasionally veers into horror-comedy sequences that would make even Sam Raimi blush.

Yet there is an authenticity to it all that largely stems from how, mainly by way of their near-endless ribbing of each other, the kids come off as real kids rather than kids as written by out-of-touch adults. The ultimate effect is a love letter to the notion that baseball is, at heart, a kids' game.

Plus, it's nice to see James Earl Jones (Mr. Mertle) in a baseball movie that isn't overflowing with sentimentality.

42 (2013)
Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) recruits Negro Leagues star Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), resulting in the breaking of baseball's color barrier and the making of an American icon.
If you want the gist of what Jackie Robinson went through in his historic rookie season with the Dodgers in 1947, 42 has you covered. For good and ill.

The film is generally accurate, and it doesn't shy away from dramatizing the racist attacks—both physical and (warning: NSFW) verbal—Robinson endured. Yet there's also a paint-by-numbers feel to it, and it's a shame that the hugely interesting life that Robinson lived after '47 was left unexplored.

Still, 42 is a fine showcase for its actors. Ford hams it up as Rickey in one of his more underrated performances. Boseman, who went on to star in Black Panther, has an inherent intensity that serves him well in his depiction of Robinson.

It's a must-see that nobody will regret having seen.

Moneyball (2011)
With the help of an enterprising young executive (Jonah Hill), general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) turns the Oakland Athletics into a powerhouse contender by exploiting market inefficiencies.

For anyone who closely followed the 2002 A's or read Michael Lewis' groundbreaking 2003 book by the same name, watching Moneyball might turn into an exercise in spotting inaccuracies.

For instance, real-life stars Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are barely in the movie, which instead focuses on not-as-important role players such as Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) and David Justice (Stephen Bishop). The film also portrays Beane as being clueless about sabermetrics until he meets Peter Brand (a stand-in for Paul DePodesta), which in real life was...well, not true.

Nevertheless, there is something miraculous about how a book about the inner workings of a baseball front office was turned into an Oscar-nominated hit. And if you can suspend your disbelief, there's good fun to be had in watching Pitt and Hill play off each other.

Moreover, it's thanks to this film that the layman now knows how incredibly hard it is to play first base.

The Natural (1984)
With help from his magic bat, "Wonderboy," a mysterious middle-aged nobody named Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) comes out of nowhere to become the unlikely savior of the New York Knights. The Natural is probably your dad's favorite baseball movie. We kid in part because The Natural is frankly a little boring. It also doesn't much bother with realism in its baseball scenes, and we'll even dare to say Redford's performance is about as wooden as his lightning-bolt-adorned bat.

Fortunately, Redford is a rare actor who can get by on sheer charisma. And in The Natural's defense, its flimsy commitment to realism is clearly intentional. Director Barry Levinson was more so trying to make an Arthurian fairy tale of a baseball movie, and we'll grant that he succeeded.

Further, The Natural is perhaps the best looking and sounding baseball movie ever made. Consider the climactic home run, in which Caleb Deschanel's photography and Randy Newman's score combine to make pure cinematic gold.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The life and times of Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper), all the way from his days as a bright-eyed stickballer to a star for the New York Yankees to his tragic and untimely demise. Despite its high viewer scores, one can't help but wonder if a nearly 80-year-old movie such as The Pride of the Yankees is one that everyone appreciates but relatively few have actually seen.

It's an oldie, all right, and it plays like one. It was made during the time when the Hays Code strictly policed the morality of what came out of Hollywood, and as such, it lionizes Gehrig so as to make him an infallible role model for the youngsters of America.

Thankfully, such hokeyness is actually appropriate for the eminently non-controversial Gehrig, who's beautifully played as an "aw, shucks" mama's boy by Cooper. The film also stars Babe Ruth as himself, which is that much more surreal if you watch the color version of it that's available through Amazon Prime.

Despite some minor alterations, Gehrig's famous "luckiest man" speech is handled with great care at the end of the film. And the closing shot, in which Cooper walks alone toward the Yankees dugout to a standing ovation, will hit you right in the feels.

Bull Durham (1988)
Career minor leaguer Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) mentors hotshot prospect "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) on the finer points of life in professional baseball, all while they compete for the affections of the Durham Bulls' resident superfan, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon).

Will Leitch of recently ranked Bull Durham as the best baseball movie ever made. Given its reputation, we dare not underestimate how many people agree with him.

But as the standard internetgoer has apparently noticed, Bull Durham isn't perfect. Some parts of it haven't aged well over the last 32 years. That includes its general sense of humor, which is more blunt than clever. Plus, Robbins' pitching form will make any experienced baseball watcher cringe.

It's a good thing then that Costner, Robbins and Sarandon have such delightful chemistry with one another. There are also memorable scenes aplenty, from "He hit the f--kin' bull" to "Lollygaggers!"

At the least, Bull Durham is unquestionably the best movie ever made about minor league baseball. That's a testament to writer-director Ron Shelton and writing partner Kurt Russell, both of whom had real-world experience in minor league ball.

Major League (1989)
When the Cleveland Indians' new owner (Margaret Whitton) tries to sabotage the team so she can move it to Miami, hilarity ensues when the resulting squad of never-has-beens and never-will-bes endeavors to win the whole thing. In lieu of Bull Durham, one can make a strong case that Major League is the best baseball movie ever.

Above all, it's still funny even 31 years after its release. That has a lot to do with Bob Uecker dropping (warning: NSFW) quotable line after quotable line as fictional announcer Harry Doyle, but everyone else in the film's ensemble cast—Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, James Gammon, Dennis Haysbert and Chelcie Ross—gets their moment to shine, too.

Major League is also proof of how life can imitate art. One of the film's centerpieces is when hard-throwing ex-con Ricky Vaughn (Sheen) enters the climactic game to the tune of "Wild Thing." That scene inspired real-life closer Mitch Williams and popularized the trend of closers warming up to raucous music.

So what doesn't work in Major League? Well, it's a little weird that the central plot of the movie involves Jake Taylor (Berenger) basically stalking an old flame (Rene Russo). Other than that, it's a hoot.

A League of Their Own (1992)
With Major League Baseball's ranks diminished by World War II, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League forms and offers a chance to shine for the women of the Rockford Peaches as well as a shot at redemption for their washed-up manager.

It's because of A League of Their Own that everyone is familiar with baseball's cardinal rule: No crying (NSFW).

That famous line was spoken by Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan, a fictional composite of Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson. It's one of Hanks' best roles, as he somehow maintained his natural charisma while also bouncing back and forth between pathetic and sympathetic in his portrayal of Dugan.

Primarily, however, it's obviously the women who make A League of Their Own work. Late director Penny Marshall's affinity for the AAGPBL and baseball in general come through in every frame, and Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna make for a wonderful ensemble.

Beyond being a generally great film, A League of Their Own is also an important one. For evidence of that, one need not look further than its place in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

The year is 1961, and Yankees stars Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) find themselves in a race for Babe Ruth's single-season home run record that will change both baseball history and their lives. 61* is a baseball movie made by a baseball fan (Billy Crystal) explicitly for baseball fans. And it's basically perfect.

The film was released three years after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa upstaged Maris by launching 70 and 66 home runs in 1998. Whereas that was a decidedly jubilant occasion for both players, 61* shows how Maris' dream season in 1961 was actually something of a nightmare.

The real Maris faced a ceaseless barrage of negativity from writers and fans, which comes through in the film thanks to Pepper's ability to channel anxiety and exasperation. Not to be outdone, Jane brings Mantle to life through a sort of tragicomic aloofness.

To boot, the actual baseball depicted in 61* makes the grade for realism. Chalk that up to Crystal's uncanny memory, the wonders of CGI and even real-life knuckleballer Tom Candiotti's playing knuckleball pioneer Hoyt Wilhelm.

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