DVD Article

Baseball Survival Kit

David Everitt reviews some of the best baseball videos

The baseball owners' lockout did more than delay the start of the season. It also shortened spring training, the crucial warm-up that fans need to prepare. Only a full roster of exhibition games can give them a chance to fine-tune their pennant predictions and argue the great questions of the season: Who will start on opening day? Who should be sent down? How many managers will the Yanks have this year? These rituals can't be replaced, but video can provide a few good substitutes.

The Natural (1984, Columbia)
The Natural paved the way for the recent revival of baseball pictures by proving that baseball was not box-office poison. In the process, it dramatically lifted the level of play in films. Based on Bernard Malamud's novel, it turns the story of an overage rookie into a stirring hero myth. This makes good material for Joseph Campbell disciples, but for baseball fans the real clincher is that Robert Redford can actually swing a bat, a welcome change from Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees or, even worse, Anthony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out. A

Major League (1989, Paramount)
Unlike most recent baseball movies, Major League isn't an allegory for life or the American Dream. It's just about baseball: all the rowdy antics and unlikely heroics that make the game so irresistible (at least when players and owners find time to fit a few games into their busy negotiating schedules). The movie's crew of wackos includes an ex-con reliever and a voodoo slugger, a fitting lineup to enact the ultimate baseball fantasy: a pennant won by the Cleveland Indians. B+

The Boys of Summer (1983, VidAmerica)
No team has been the focus of more intense nostalgia than the Brooklyn Dodgers, and this enduring affection has been vividly crystallized in The Boys of Summer. Interviews with key members of the great teams of the late '40s and '50s provide reminiscences of their playing days as well as stories of what happened when they left baseball. Especially moving are their accounts of troubles that came their way, from Roy Campanella's paralyzing car accident to Clem Labine's son being wounded in Vietnam. Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey wanted to assemble men of intelligence and character, as well as playing ability. This tape shows how well Ricky's men were chosen. A+

Pinstripe Power (1987, Major League Baseball)
A fan pining for a less-troubled baseball era might want to take a look at the exploits of the '61 Yankees, a team so formidable that even a confirmed Yankee-hater is likely to extend his grudging respect. This documentary doesn't reveal anything that an educated fan doesn't already know, but it nicely recalls how Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle battled to break Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record, and gives credit to the publicized heroes who made this team one of the game's great juggernauts. C+

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973, Paramount)
Like Pride of the Yankees, Bang the Drum Slowly deals with a young athlete struck down by a terminal disease. The difference here, though, is that the athlete is not a college-educated, Hall of Fame slugger; he is a backup catcher, an ignorant, barely housebroken country boy who never has made the grade. In its understated way, the movie is genuinely heartrending, featuring low-key performances by a young Robert De Niro as the catcher and Michael Moriarty as the star pitcher who stands by him through his last season. A-

Grand Slam (1989, VidAmerica)
As a kind of graduate seminar on the art and science of baseball, Grand Slam connects. Just look at the players whose wisdom is collected here: Hank Aaron, & Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Tom Seaver, and a dozen other greats. More important than their names is what they say. Unlike the canned commentary most athletes deliver, these comments are thoughtful and revealing. For anyone who has wondered what it's like to play in the major leagues, it's all covered, from Aaron on the totality of a hitter's concentration, to Pete Rose on which plays ''get your picture in the paper,'' to Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale on the fine art of throwing at batters' heads. A

Bull Durham (1988, Orion)
No matter what sort of wrangling goes on between players and owners, one thing can be counted on: There will be a full season of minor league baseball. Bull Durham is the most successful movie portrayal of this overlooked part of the national pastime. Kevin Costner is the brainy catcher (he reads books!) and Susan Sarandon is the team groupie who believes the meaning of life can be found in baseball. She's right, of course. B+

Originally posted Mar 30, 1990 Published in issue #7 Mar 30, 1990 Order article reprints