Classic baseball movies
Baseball, in the immortal words of Bull Durham’s manager (Trey Wilson), is a simple game: ”You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.” A great baseball movie, on the other hand, is a dying art. But that’s no excuse for cinematic lollygaggers like last year’s Benchwarmers or 2005’s Fever Pitch (if karma exists, a sequel won’t be necessary for another 86 years). Can’t anyone here film this game? With Opening Day upon us, perhaps these nine classic tales of saints, sinners, and screwballs will inspire Hollywood to end its long slump of no-hitters.
Lou Gehrig had been dead only a year when The Pride of the Yankees (1942) hit screens, so viewers were spared details of the drugs and the whores. Kidding, folks! Gehrig was a Boy Scout, and Gary Cooper’s stoic performance cemented both men’s legends. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) revisited death and New York baseball as well. But it also illuminated the life of the then-modern ballplayer (contract holdouts, off-season jobs) and featured a bungling manager (Vincent Gardenia) whom The Office’s Michael Scott would idolize.
Inspired by the great Negro Leaguers, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) couched social commentary in laughter. When Bingo (Billy Dee Williams) pitches in a gorilla outfit, the tragedy is that such practices actually existed. That same bicentennial year, The Bad News Bears ratcheted up political incorrectness with a beer-guzzling manager (Walter Matthau) supervising a collection of ”booger-eating morons.” You couldn’t make this irreverent classic today. (Sadly, Richard Linklater tried in 2005.)
In Bull Durham (1988), the secret of success is ”Don’t think; it can only hurt the ballclub” — except for minor-league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who spills the sport’s great truths, like: Strikeouts are fascist. Major League (1989) brings Durham’s clubhouse humor to ”The Show,” where the moribund Cleveland Indians battle the hated Yankees. Bob Uecker is brilliant as the Tribe’s announcer, excusing him from the fourth circle of hell, where the rest of Mr. Belvedere’s cast reside.
Joe Jackson and the notorious 1919 ”Black Sox” inspired not one but two beloved films. John Sayles accurately depicted Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) as a rube manipulated by disgruntled teammates to fix the World Series in Eight Men Out (1988). But when a ghostly Jackson (Ray Liotta) emerges from Kevin Costner’s cornfield in Field of Dreams (1989), he’s surprisingly eloquent and — erroneously — a right-handed hitter.
The Rookie (2002) exploits countless baseball movie clichés — an aging long shot, father-son tension — but when 35-year-old Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) finally makes the bigs, Tom Hanks could not have been more wrong in A League of Their Own. Just as in The Pride of the Yankees and Field of Dreams, there is crying in baseball.