As a kid, my summers were filled with baseball. Sure, there were afternoons at the pool and bike rides with friends, but the majority of my activities were tied to the big green field with the dirt diamond in the corner. For instance, I attended one to three Little League practices and played in two games most weeks of the season. Another two or three nights a week, I watched my friends and/or rivals play their games. I often stayed for the adult softball games that commonly followed our games, or attended softball only nights, serving as an unofficial bat boy for any of the teams that would allow me. I frequently manned the score board for the games, child or adult, manually hanging the tiles as runs were scored. If I wasn’t at the ballpark, I’d likely be out back playing catch with my brothers, or playing an impromptu game with kids from the neighborhood. Once a week, I walked up town with my allowance in my pocket (one thin dime) and bought two packs of baseball cards. Several nights a week, one of my brothers would tune in the Minnesota Twins game (in those days they were carried by WHO) on the old tube radio that had been handed down to him by my parents once they’d gotten a transistor one. For years, I regularly watched Chicago Cubs games on Cedar Rapids’ KCRG-TV, and (while they carried them for a time in the sixties) Twins games on Waterloo’s KWWL-TV. On rare, special occasions, my parents took us to Veterans Memorial Stadium to watch Cedar Rapids’ Class A team take on a Midwest League opponent. All of these experiences helped form my love of baseball! Mind you, I wasn’t very good at it myself, but I still loved it. I still do!
I’ve also been passionate about movies since I was a kid – big surprise there, huh. I lived in a small town, but we were fortunate to have a movie theater: The Strand. I probably went twenty times a year. Almost everything it ran was a year or two old (I’m not kidding, theatrical distribution was a lot different then, but still). Not that it really mattered, as we’d seldom seen any movie before it made its way to The Strand, anyway. Strangely, The Strand didn’t sell popcorn (I also really love popcorn). I later read that 99 percent of theaters in that era sold popcorn; just my luck! About twice a year, as a family we went to Cedar Rapids to see some really big release at one of the three huge, single-screen theaters downtown, or one of the two huge single-screen theaters along First Avenue. Believe it or not, until the early seventies, Cedar Rapids, with a population of over 100,000 people, only had those five screens! Of course, I watched a lot of movies on television. Back then, before TV had been around very long, it didn’t have a large inventory of shows available to run and rerun endlessly. As a result, local stations played movies endlessly, especially late at night, but also weekday afternoons and just about any time on weekends. In addition, the three networks played movies in primetime several evenings a week. I loved movies, and as I’m sure you know from this blog, I still do.
You’d think that baseball – so extremely popular during the last century that it was nicknamed “America’s pastime” – and movies – which are considered the greatest new art form to be created during that same century, might have a lot of overlap. Well, to some extent, they do. There have been dozens of baseball-themed movies made over the years. The problem is, however, that many of them just haven’t been that good. There are several reasons for that being the case. For one, many thespians just don’t look comfortable (or should I say graceful) running, throwing, catching, or batting on a ball field. For another, if you say it’s the big time, then pay Major League Baseball for the rights to use their logos – none of that lame New York Knights crap that plagued The Natural, starring Robert Redford. Similarly, big league games draw thousands of fans, so you can’t go cheap by pretending that you’re staging a major league game in a minor league stadium with a few hundred fans. Conversely, if it’s a movie about neighborhood kids or high schoolers, don’t give them all brand new equipment and a field that’d take a professional grounds crew to maintain. And finally, don’t dumb down the game to attract moviegoers who aren’t baseball fans. Chances are that non-fans will go based on who’s in it, not because they’re seeking a faithful representation of the game, whereas actual baseball fans will only embrace it if they feel it doesn’t in some way denigrate the sport they love. The truth is, baseball-themed movies often spend very little time on the diamond anyway, so you don’t have to get that many details right in order to satisfy die-hard fans. So why alienate them?
Great baseball movies are ones that tell a captivating story, whether it’s dramatic, romantic, or comedic, while drawing on the sport’s considerable tradition, and evoking the passion of its followers. That’s simple enough, right? Then why do so few films achieve it? Fortunately, some do. So here’s an alphabetical list of ten baseball movies, representing all levels of play and various eras, that should entertain fans and non-fans alike.
1) Bull Durham – Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins form baseball’s greatest love triangle in this charming romantic comedy;
2) Eight Men Out – Baseball’s most notorious scandal (the “Black Sox” gambling on the 1919 World Series) gets an even-handed dramatization;
3) Field of Dreams – Kevin Costner, again, has big questions and baseball helps provide the answers in this Iowa-filmed fantasy;
4) The Final Season – Tiny Norway, Iowa’s outstanding baseball tradition (20 state titles between 1965 and 1991) came to an end due to a school merger, but they worked hard to make that 1991 season a memorable one in this by-the-numbers, but inspiring Iowa-shot, movie;
5) A League of Their Own – Starting during World War II and for about ten years after, women played baseball professionally, too, as shown in this comic drama about the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League;
6) Moneyball – Based on the book by Michael Lewis about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, this movie makes sabermetrics sexy, or perhaps that’s because Brad Pitt was cast as Beane;
7) The Rookie – The unlikely, but true story of Jim Morris, a former minor league pitcher turned high school baseball coach, who discovers that the injury that had forced him out of the game a decade earlier has heeled beyond all believable expectations;
8) The Sandlot – This kids’ comedy gets so many things right about childhood and the love of the game that it’s pretty easy to overlook the episodic nature of the movie generally.
9) The Stratton Story – Jimmy Stewart plays Monte Stratton, a major league pitcher for the White Sox, who doesn’t let a hunting accident that resulted in the partial amputation of his right leg beat him;
10) Sugar – Partially shot in Iowa, primarily in Spanish, Sugar tells the story of a pitcher from a small village in the Dominican Republic and his struggle to use his physical abilities to make good in America, for himself and for his entire family.
If you’re interested in seeing other baseball titles in the DMPL collection, perform an Any Word search using this phrase: baseball dvd. Your results list will include dozens of Hollywood movies, instructional titles, and historical documentaries about baseball.