I hope the new biopic about the great Jackie Robinson is as good as the hype, but even if it’s not I’m looking forward to seeing the film about No. 42 for a variety of reasons. It’s a great story and certainly Robinson deserves to be widely remembered and praised for his role in tearing down the awful barrier that existed prior to the 1947 season that prevented black players from reaching the major leagues. I’m also looking forward to the Harrison Ford portrayal of another hero in the story Branch Rickey. For at least a couple of hours this die-hard Giants fan can root for the Dodgers.
Another reason I hope 42 is worthy of becoming a classic is that there are relatively few really good movies about baseball. I think I’ve seen all of them. From the loopy Major League, best remembered for Bob Uecker stealing the show – “just a little outside” – and Renee Russo looking like, well Renee Russo, to the pretty awful Babe Ruth Story starring a classic actor, William Bendix, miscast as the great Yankee. As one description of that film put it Bendix “resembles Ruth slightly in looks and not at all in baseball ability.” That pretty much sums up the movie.
I remember watching The Stratton Story with my baseball loving dad. Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton, a successful real life Chicago White Sox pitcher who loses a leg in a hunting accident and makes a determined comeback in the minors. The movie wasn’t bad, but the trailer with narration from the adorable June Allyson, who plays Stratton’s wife, is a 1949 Hollywood classic. You can watch it here.
The laconic Gary Cooper looks a little better in pinstripes than William Bendix and does a passably good job of playing the great Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. The moving story of Gehrig’s career and tragic death has to be on any must-see list of baseball films. The real Babe Ruth along with Yankee greats Bob Meusel, a lifetime .311 hitter who probably belongs in the Hall of Fame, and catcher Bill Dickey, who is in the Hall and deserves to be, make appearances in the film looking very much like the aging stars they were when the movie was released in 1942.
But none of those films make my top five. The best of the best baseball stories on film are not about real players, but often about the game, its rituals and the fact that baseball more than any other sport has a mystery and rhythm to it that has been, at least a few times, translated very well on the big screen. Here in descending order are my five best baseball movies:
5) Field of Dreams is a classic for the sentiment and its myriad connections to literature, history and baseball lore. I was lucky to play catch with my dad and debate Shoeless Joe Jackson’s guilt or innocence. What baseball fan hasn’t? And, of course, “If you build it, he will come,” is a line that has passed into movie lore and found its way into everyday usage. To me the line and the film are really references to a fanciful dream that comes true and wonderful dreams are good, even if they sometimes don’t pan out. Who wouldn’t like to see the 1919 Black Sox playing on your own diamond out by the corn field? Enough said.
4) Bull Durham is a classic baseball movie (and, yes, a little raunchy, too) that is also about life, love and second chances. OK, maybe I like it a little because Susan Sarandon stars as the groupie who haunts the Durham Bulls Class A team. Kevin Costner plays aging catcher Crash Davis who once made it to “the show,” but now observes baseball’s curious rules in the low minor leagues. His “I believe in…” speech delivered to Sarandon and the dense, wild but fast pitcher played by Tim Robbins is great. “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,” he says, “I believe there ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter rule…” Need to see it again.
3) A League of Their Own makes my top five list for Tom Hanks’ outrageously good performance as the manager of a woman’s professional baseball team in the 1940’s. Also for Genna Davis’ sweet acting job as the team’s talented catcher and for some seriously funny and memorable lines. “There’s no crying in baseball” has entered the ballpark vocabulary and will stay there forever. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are both believable as players and are wonderful as teammates. Hanks explaining to one of his players the importance of hitting the cutoff man is a priceless scene.
2) The Natural is, well, a natural. Robert Redford plays “the natural,” outfielder and big stick Roy Hobbs, who mysteriously shows up in the major leagues after, as he says, waiting “16 years to get here.” The screen adaptation is of the fine novel by Bernard Malamud and is very generally based on a real life incident involving Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus. As with all these films a woman – or several in this film – play as big a role as the baseball does.
1) For my money the single best baseball-themed movie is the hauntingly beautiful screen adaptation of Mark Harris’ novel Bang the Drum Slowly. A young Robert DeNiro turns in a superb performance as a less-than-bright catcher, Bruce Pearson, who is dying of a terminal illness. Michael Moriarty is his pitcher friend, Henry Wiggins, and the film’s narrator. The fine character actor Vincent Gardenia is very good as the crusty manager. (Isn’t every baseball movie manager crusty?) The film is set around baseball, but it’s really about friendship, respect, teammates and ultimately living and dying. I love the film and particularly Wiggins’ last line – “from now on, I rag on no one” – which he delivers after telling us that none of Pearson’s teammates had bothered to show up for his funeral.
Three of these all-time greats were made in the 1980’s. Bang the Drum was released in 1973 and A League of Their Own in 1992. Here’s hoping the acclaimed Robinson film ushers in a new golden age of the baseball movies. I’m headed to the movies.