A Tale of Two Pastimes
By Jon Hueber
It's spring here in Arizona, which means longer days, warmer temperatures, and MLB Spring Training. For six weeks, the valley plays host to 15 of the 30 MLB teams, as they train for the grueling season ahead. While baseball is on the minds of many, film lovers have a lot to be excited for too. Awards season is over, the Phoenix Film Festival is on the horizon, and Hollywood is just now starting to roll out some of its bigger offerings, as the summer blockbuster season begins earlier and earlier.
So here, in Arizona, we see a convergence of these two pastimes as baseball and movies seemingly come together to give fans the best of scripted and unscripted entertainment. But baseball and the movies have so much more in common than just the time of year.
Baseball has long been considered a sport of poetry or prose. The constant confrontation between pitcher and batter is a story in itself, with a good guy and a bad guy battling it out, depending on whom you're rooting for. There is high drama with every pitch, and the blockbuster eruption of a booming home run swing that can change a game much like Bruce Willis can change the plans of a bunch of thieves at a Christmas party.
Baseball and the movies go so well together that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has an entire exhibit dedicated to the convergence. The exhibit features costumes and props, and some really interesting facts about the films made about the beloved sport.
Here are some of the most iconic baseball movies, in no particular order, that really highlight how our two pastimes have come together to create magic.
Pride of the Yankees
Gary Cooper's turn as Lou Gehrig in 1942's Pride of the Yankees marks one of the earliest marriages between film and hardball. In fact, baseball players in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s were just as big as movie stars, with icons like Babe Ruth, himself the feature of more than a handful of movies, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle commanding the same level of attention as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and James Cagney. Pride of the Yankees used Lou Gehrig's diagnosis of ALS, and his subsequent retirement from the sport he loved, as the basis for the drama, and it worked on every level, creating one of the most heart-wrenching and memorable baseball movies ever, and most of it is based on true events.
True stories of baseball icons have always been great foundations for movies. The Babe Ruth Story (1948) featured William Bendix as the Bambino, and the film covered Ruth's rise and reign over baseball, culminating in his mythical called shot in Chicago during the 1932 World Series. The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) actually featured Jackie Robinson in the starring role, telling the story of how he and Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) broke the color barrier in organized sports and changed not only baseball, but all sports forever. In 1952's The Pride of St. Louis, Dan Dailey portrayed hall of fame St. Louis Cardinal Dizzy Dean, one of the best pitchers of his era.
Not all baseball movies featured heart breaking, or inspiring true stories. Damn Yankees (1958) starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, and Ray Walston was a film adaption of a popular Broadway musical, with song and dance numbers and plenty of laughs, which showed that baseball could be fun too.
You're Killing Me Smalls
Baseball is a kids game, when it comes down to it, and Hollywood has tapped into that market multiple times with movies that feature the impact baseball has on children. The Bad News Bears (1976) featured Walter Matthau giving up drinking long enough to coach a dysfunctional little league team. The film was a huge success and created a franchise for a time in the 1970s. Skipping ahead a bit, films like The Sandlot , Rookie of the Year (both 1993), Angels in the Outfield, and Little Big League (both 1994) inspired a generation of young filmgoers. Seriously, mention the line, "You're killing me smalls" to anyone in their 20s or 30s and you will get a smile.
The 1980s saw some of the best baseball movies ever. Robert Redford was The Natural (1984), Kevin Costner turned a cornfield into a baseball diamond in Field of Dreams (1989), and also took an inexperienced, but talented Tim Robbins under his wing in Bull Durham (1988), a film that many professional MLB ball players consider the best baseball movie ever. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal was the basis of Eight Men Out (1988), and Neil Simon wrote the story for 1985's The Slugger's Wife, starring Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca De Mornay. But the '80s also produced one of the funniest sports films ever with 1989's Major League. The film features Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, and Charlie Sheen leading the sad sack Cleveland Indians to the pennant against all odds. Major League would get a sequel in 1994, and a third film was released, but by then, the series had gassed itself out.
There's No Crying in Baseball
Tom Hanks and Geena Davis teamed up in 1992 for A League of Their Own, a film dedicated to the women who took up the sport during World War II while the boys were overseas fighting evil. The ensemble cast, which also featured Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O'Donnell introduced movie lovers to an element of our nation's pastime that they may not have known before, and did so with laughs and tears and history. A League of Their Own continues to resonate nearly 25 years later, and is up there with the best baseball movies. Plus, it reminded us that there's no crying in baseball.
Now At Bat
Recent films about baseball have carried on the tradition, with some major league talent involved. Films like Moneyball (2011), starring Brad Pitt, Trouble With The Curve (2012), starring Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams, and 42 (2013), starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, have proven that the marriage between baseball and film is still strong, and will continue to thrill fans of both -- or either -- going into the future.
This list is in no way comprehensive of the films about baseball. It is only meant to highlight how, for almost 100 years, the two pastimes have come together time and again to thrill and entertain audiences, whether they are in the stands on a warm June evening, or a dark theater in late July. Baseball and movies have a long and storied history together, and as baseball has been the backbone of our society for the last 150 years, film, too, has contributed to what makes America, well, America. Baseball and the movies are meant to go together like the battery of a pitcher and catcher, and while they don't need each other to succeed, when they work together as a team, fans are the true winners.
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come." - James Earl Jones' Terence Mann to Kevin Costner's Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams.