Sunday, March 31, 2013

Celebrating Opening Day: My 12 Favorite Baseball Movies (The Reprise)

In honor of Major League Baseball's Opening Day, I am rerunning a piece I wrote for last year's Opening Day. My White Sox don't start till tomorrow, but today is a fine time to revisit this list of my ten favorite baseball movies, originally written in April, 2012.

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.

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