Friday, April 6, 2012

Celebrating Opening Day: My 12 Favorite Baseball Movies

My baseball team of choice is the Chicago White Sox. Today is Opening Day for the White Sox, and the first regular season game with new manager (and one of my all-time favorite players) Robin Ventura on the bench.

In honor of Opening Day and Robin Ventura, as well as a piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune online recently, I am choosing my own ten favorite baseball movies. Actually, I am going to pick twelve, mostly because I have twelve and I can't decide among the last three. My choices are not at all the same as the ones in the Tribune piece, and they are, in fact, likely to be different from pretty much everyone else's list of baseball movies, since I have included musicals and some old gems and I have NOT included the "boy pics" that don't really appeal to me.

By that, I mean that I am aware that "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural" are on everybody's lists but mine. So I feel I should tell you right off the bat (see how I worked that bat in there?) that I find both of them less than appealing. I read "Shoeless Joe," the W.P. Kinsella book that "Field of Dreams" is based on, and I mostly didn't get it. I watched "Field of Dreams," with grown men weeping on all sides, and I mostly didn't get it.

"The Natural," meanwhile, I found to be decidedly odd. The symbolic women characters and mysticism regarding the special bat struck me as silly, and as pretty as Robert Redford was as Roy Hobbs, I just never believed him as a new phenom of a baseball player. Redford was in his late 40s when the movie was made, and for me, it showed. (In case you're wondering if this is a girl thing, my baseball fan husband didn't really get into these movies, either. He wants me to point out that, though he was at my side, he did not shed a tear.)

Without further ado, here are MY top twelve baseball movies:

1. Eight Men Out (1988)
This is both a fine movie (written and directed by John Sayles) and a wonderful recreation of what baseball was like, economically, emotionally and as a game, in 1919. Terrific actors like David Strathairn, John Cusack, D. B. Sweeney and John Mahoney lead the cast in this American tragedy, about how poorly players were treated and how the most wealthy and most educated in society took shameless advantage of the others.

2. Bull Durham (1988)
This one takes place in the minor leagues, where a catcher who had a cup of coffee in the majors and a green, wild pitcher meet up to play some ball. One is on his way out, while the other is on his way up. Coming between them is a veteran groupie who chooses one player each season to focus her amorous attentions on. Kevin Costner plays down-on-his-luck Crash Davis with the perfect world-weary shrug, Susan Sarandon plays easy Annie with more affection than sluttiness, and Tim Robbins is hilarious as "Nuke" LaLoosh, the new kid who needs some strong guidance. Writer/director Ron Shelton clearly loves baseball, and that scuffy, lovable world inhabits every frame of his film.

3. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Other people weep at "Field of Dreams." I weep when Gary Cooper starts the famous "Luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech in "The Pride of the Yankees." I honestly don't know if Lou Gehrig was as great a guy as this movie tells us he was, but I want to believe that. Babe Ruth and other Yankees players give the film a touch of truth playing themselves, and Gary Cooper does a fine job, making you believe that Gehrig was a true All-American hero.

4. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
When you find out this is the story of a not-very-bright catcher who is terminally ill and the successful pitcher who befriends him in the last year of his life, you'd probably think it's an overly sentimental weeper. It's not. Instead, it's a sweet, low-key movie about friendship, about two guys doing the best they can with the hands they were dealt. Robert DeNiro is terrific as dumb guy Bruce, the dying catcher, while Michael Moriarty is natural and pretty great himself as his more talented friend.Vincent Gardenia was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as their potty-mouthed manager.

5. Damn Yankees! (1958)
And now it's time for a more cheerful choice! Every baseball fan with a losing team can relate to Joe Boyd, who makes a pact with the devil to win a pennant for his Washington Senators. In this movie version of a Broadway hit, Ray Walston ("My Favorite Martian") is a delight as the devil, with Gwen Verdon quite amazing as Lola, the devilish sidekick who always gets what she wants, performing dances choreographed by Bob Fosse. The Richard Adler/Jerry Ross score includes "Heart" (AKA "Ya Gotta Have Heart') and "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo." Okay, so the baseball part is silly. It's still a fun, crazy movie and a good representation of how hated and how dominant the Yankees were in the 50s.

6.  The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
 Like "Eight Men Out," "Bingo Long" tells the story of players used and abused by ownership. In this case, they're playing in the twilight years of the Negro Leagues, with players not allowed to play major league baseball but still pushed around by white owners. With a cast that includes James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, "Bingo Long" is funny, sad, fascinating and irresistible.

7. Fear Strikes Out (1957)
"Fear Strikes Out" shows a different side of high-level sports, as Jimmy Piersall battles mental illness and a domineering father as he also tries to succeed as a major league outfielder. Anthony Perkins is not my idea of a baseball player and he is never completely convincing as Piersall in that aspect, but he is definitely convincing as someone whose mind is unraveling. Karl Malden is also convincing as his father, the one who demands perfection at all costs and simply won't give up until his son achieves it. Director Robert Mulligan was nominated for a Directors Guild Award for the film.

8. Angels in the Outfield (1951) 
Guffy McGovern, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (played by Paul Douglas), is foul-mouthed and hot-tempered, and a female sports reporter (Janet Leigh) keeps blaming him and his mouth for the team's poor performance. But then an orphan and some friendly nuns show up, with divine intervention helping the team win and putting extra angels in the outfield. The Los Angeles Angels didn't exist as a major league team in 51, and it certainly would've changed the tone of the film if it'd been set in LA instead of Pittsburgh, but the angels idea is creative and fun, and the movie works as a sweet redemption pic for crusty old Guffy McGovern.

9. Rhubarb (1951)
As far as I know, there is only one baseball movie with a cat in it. "Rhubarb" is that film. The plot tells us that a rich old man dies, leaving a ton of money and a baseball team to his cat, an orange tabby whose name is Rhubarb. The cat turns out to be good luck for the ailing team, and a few complications later (Allergies! Catnapping!), all is well with Rhubarb and his RBIs.

10. A League of Their Own (1992)
Tom Hanks is hilarious as a manager stuck with a bunch of women in the early years of female professional baseball leagues. With Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna as baseball players. Madonna! Like "Bingo Long," above, the movie points out the unfairness of only allowing white guys to play America's pastime, using warm characters, humor and drama to tell its tale.

11. It Happens Every Spring (1949)
This is Ray Milland's second appearance on this list, since he is Cat Protector #1 in "Rhubarb." In "It Happens Every Spring," Milland appears as a scientist who accidentally invents a substance that can repel wood. With his special goo in hand, Millan's professor heads for the St. Louis Cardinals, putting the stuff onto baseballs that he pitches at batters who can only swing in vain while their bats repel the ball. The baseball scenes are pretty awful, and the whole idea is pretty idiotic. And yet the movie still works as a little gem from the past, when innocence was a good thing.

12. Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Another musical! And a real blast from the past, as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin portray baseball players (O'Brien, Ryan and Goldberg) in the early 20th century. O'Brien and Ryan tour in vaudeville during the off-season, just like real players Al Schacht and Nick Altrock did, to give Kelly and Sinatra plenty of opportunity for musical numbers. Their team's owner, played by Esther Williams, is a romantic foil for both of them, and the movie includes a song "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg" reminiscent of "Tinker to Evers to Chance," the catchphrase about the Cubs double-play combination.


  1. Good list, but I would replace Take Me Out to the Ball Game with Elmer the Great (1930). Most people haven't seen this, but I'm a huge Joe E. Brown fan and his performance is priceless. It runs on TCM quite often.

  2. Yeah, "Take Me Out" is pretty bad. I just enjoy the silliness of it. I've never seen "Elmer the Great," but Joe E. Brown appearances are too rare, so I'll have to find it.

  3. Joe E. Brown made several baseball movies in the early 1930's. I believe that Elmer the Great is an adaptation of a play by the same name. Other Joe E. Brown baseball movies are Alibi Ike and Fireman, Save My Child. If you like Joe E. Brown, they are all worth seeing.

  4. I knew "Eight Men Out" would be on the list, and in fact it's at the top! Fine by me -- I think it's Sayles at his best, and I would say the same for all the wonderful actors in it. I know you can only mention a few when you're covering a whole list like this, but I also smile to recall Charlie Sheen (yes!), Bill Irwin, Perry Lang, James Read, Christopher Lloyd, Gordon Clapp, and Mr. Sayles himself. Love that movie.

    I like the whole list, with the proviso that there are a few I haven't seen. And I would encourage a reading of the original Bernard Malamud "The Natural," as it's almost the opposite of the movie. I remember how you and I mocked its unbelievably primitive "woman in white! woman in black!" symbolism at the time it was released, and of course it gave the guy a happy ending in the tritest Hollywood style (whereas Malamud's point was that, given a second chance later in life, he'll mess it up the same way again).

    Did you know that a summer theater in Ogunquit, Maine, has announced a production of "Damn Yankees" this year starring Carson Kressley as the devil?

  5. I forgot Bill Irwin! Such a good movie. There's another actor who is very memorable -- he's a big gambler -- whose name I don't know. But he certainly creates a type. I think he also played Locke's father on "Lost."

    I had no idea Carson Kressley was doing theatrical roles like that. Can he sing? Oh, dear. That doesn't sound promising, although I suppose if 900-year-old Jerry Lewis can do it, Carson Kressley can. I think I saw Victor Garber in NY. Did Sean Hayes take the role, as well?

  6. Kevin Tighe is the actor I was thinking of.

  7. I fear that "can s/he sing?" is a quaint question asked only by old diehards like you and me. Remember Reichen Lehmkuhl "starring" in that off-Bway musical?''

    Yes, you saw the revival in which Victor Garber played Applegate. And I saw Sean Hayes do it in the "summer Encores" run (off-book, full staging and sets for a short summer run). Very likable and charming (they even worked in a chance for him to play piano), but maybe lacking the ability to turn menacing at unexpected moments. Also in the cast: Jane Krakowski as Lola, Randy Graff as the wife left behind, and Cheyenne Jackson as Joe. He got a huge laugh when the old guy first transformed into him, because... yeah. If we can be magically made 50 years younger, that's what we want to look like.

  8. And of course in the realm of baseball PLAYS, let us not forget "Take Me Out."

  9. I did think of "Take Me Out" when I referred to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" by that title. There are a bunch of (non-musical) baseball plays, including "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" which was performed this year at Lookingglass. Mike Trippiedi, who commented here, directed "Bleacher Bums," the Cubs play, as I recall.

    Plus I think there are others -- Rebecca Gilman's "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" was performed somewhere not too long ago, I think Richard Dresser and Ken Weitzman both did baseball plays, and... There's one about Ty Cobb and another on the tip of my tongue about Honus Wagner or somebody like that.

  10. Also, when I saw Damn Yankees with Victor Garber, the guy who played Joe was out and his understudy took the role. Unfortunately, the real actor was a tall, broad-shouldered, athletic blond, sort of in the Tab Hunter tradition, and the understudy was a short, slender guy with dark hair, more like an Al Pacino type, who did not in any way resemble the Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo on the posters that dropped down behind him. Next time, they need to pick an understudy who resembles the other actor if they are going to have posters on stage with the first one's face on them.

  11. According to IBDB, there were two Joe Hardy understudies. I don't know which one you saw, but one of them was Michael Berresse! He's slender and dark, at least, but it would be kind of a kick to have seen him in the part. In any case, such are the perils of cast alternates in an age of multimedia staging.

    You mentioned "Bleacher Bums." That was created collaboratively by Chicago's Organic Theater, set among the diehard fans in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. It's been televised twice: first taped for PBS, which I saw (Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz). Then a 2002 tvmovie, which I never saw and didn't even know about (Brad Garrett, Wayne Knight, Peter Riegert, Charles Durning), directed by Saul Rubinek.

  12. Must've been Michael Berresse. My memory is somebody who looks pretty much like him. I don't actually know him from any role in particular. Ad the understudy was perfectly fine. Just not Cheyenne Jackson or Jarrod Emick. Ironically, when looking for the name of the person who normally played Joe (that would be Jarrod Emick) I found that Cheyenne Jackson understudied him in some show about Elvis where Emick ended up not doing the show and Jackson stepped in.

  13. Sorry -- "All Shook Up," the show in question, used Elvis's music but was not about Elvis.

  14. Right, that was Jackson's "here I am" on Broadway. (He had done standby/ensemble/understudy work in both Aida and Thoroughly Modern Millie before that -- in the latter, he understudied both Gavin Creel and Marc Kudisch!) I have yet to see Jarrod Emick. He was scheduled for Strike Up the Band at Encores but Jason Danieley did it instead. And he was widely rumored to be taking over as Woody when Finian's Rainbow was preparing its Broadway transfer, but they got Cheyenne after all.

    Gosh... I've seen Michael Berresse in so much now, starting with Fred Casely in the opening minutes of the Chicago revival, followed by Bill in the Kiss Me Kate (doing gymnastics up 3 levels in his big song). And then Light in the Piazza. I carelessly think of him as being familiar everywhere, and that's obviously not true.

  15. Oddly enough, no one ever picks two of my favorites... the 1997 Joe Torre biopic, "Joe Torre: curveballs along the way" ( and a 1949 Hollywood baseball story with little Rusty Tamblyn, "The kid from Cleveland" (

  16. More baseball movies to look for! I haven't heard of the Joe Torre biopic, but I have vague recollections of "little Rusty Tamblyn" in something like that. I also remember him in Tom Thumb, and then nothing major hit my wavelength till West Side Story.

    1. Kid from Cleveland is packed with the 1948 Cleveland Indians players and Bill Veeck (Hawaiian shirt and all), and the Joe Torre movie is just all kinds of wonderful bad. I linked to things I wrote about them years ago, because I'd have to go into too much detail for this little reply box :)

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