Baseball season has arrived, and with it comes baseball movie season — at least, it used to. This year, that by and large consists of 42, Brian Helgeland's Jackie Robinson biopic, which opens this weekend. But there was a time not so long ago when America's pastime was an essential staple of summer movie season. Today, the Grantland staff looks back on some of our favorites.
Mark Lisanti: There's a familiar and comfortable rotation of baseball movies playing on cable at any given moment early in the season: Major League, The Natural, The Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams … you know them all. Movies you probably watch, in whole or in part, anytime you come across them on the channel guide. Your baseball comfort food.
But Sugar is the hidden gem of baseball movies. It's beautifully shot and moving, and about baseball in a way the other films in the usual lineup aren't, following the rise of a Dominican pitcher through the minors as he tries to adjust to life in pro ball and life in America. It's fantastic, and you should watch it immediately if you haven't already. Major League will still be there for you when you're done.
Little Big League
Jonah Keri: The '90s were a boom time for kids sports movies. Some of them were lamentable (sorry, Ladybugs, Angels in the Outfield, and Air Bud); others perfectly fine films, though not all that enjoyable for adults (Little Giants.) But a shocking number of them remain rewatchable today, and not just for nostalgia purposes. The Mighty Ducks lives on today in everything from knucklepuck references to an actual NHL franchise. Space Jam remains a classic if only because we get to see Shawn Bradley act. And the decade was practically overflowing with baseball offerings, from The Sandlot (read this great 20th anniversary retrospective from the Big League Stew crew) to Rookie of the Year (one of the sillier kids sports movies of the decade, but this still makes me laugh, possibly because I have the brain of a 10-year-old).
Then there's Little Big League, which ranks up there with the best of them. First, you've got a cavalcade of (then-) current and former players, front-line players like Carlos Baerga, bit players like Eric Anthony, and superstars like Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. cast in the role of dream-crushing baddies. The story's fun, as 12-year-old Billy Heywood inherits ownership of the Minnesota Twins from his grandpa, names himself the manager, then tries to juggle a kid's life with making tough decisions in the clubhouse. The baseball scenes are actually really good, which never ever happens in a baseball movie, such that when it does happen, a true baseball nerd like me really appreciates it. Many of the downtime scenes are funny as hell, with logic puzzles(!!!) driving much of the humor, another huge plus for nerds. MLB Network aired Little Big League last weekend, and half the baseball crazies I know live-tweeted it — myself included — which says a lot about this random 19-year-old movie that never got its due in mainstream circles.
But the most Internet-friendly parts of the movie are Little Big League’s three montages. Set to an eclectic collection of pop and fun-rock classics, each of the three clips feature quality baseball footage, lots of humor, and amazing cameos. "Stuff You Gotta Watch" is the most baseball-oriented, while "Centerfield" sees Billy get his mojo back after a long Twins losing streak that turns him into an overbearing jerk (See the lanky kid with the backward baseball cap? That's Pete Campbell!). But "Runaround Sue" is my favorite, a feel-good romp of Twins power-hitting, Twins baserunning exploits, and a spectacular double play started by fictional Twins shortstop Pat Corning (played by the great Kevin Elster) that belongs on every This Week in Baseball highlight reel.
Plenty of baseball movies are more critically acclaimed (Bang the Drum Slowly) or more adored by mass audiences (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams), but none make me smile more than Little Big League. The new market inefficiency will always be starting Wedman.
Rookie of the Year
Robert Mays: In my lifetime, I have seen Rookie of the Year at least 20 times. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it came out in 1993, when I was five years old, and it was one of the VHS tapes that stayed in constant rotation during my kindergarten days. The second is that I was raised a Cubs fan, and the events in Rookie of the Year amount to the third-best Cubs-related moment of my lifetime (1. ALDS win over the Braves in 2003. 2. Sammy Sosa hitting 61 and 62 against the Brewers in ’98). It’s because of this that anytime Rookie of the Year is on TV, I have to watch it to the end, no matter where I start. Did I mention that I hate baseball?
Emily Yoshida: I devoured basically every piece of baseball-related pop culture I could get my hands on from roughly 1992 to 1996, which, as Jonah noted above, ended up being a good time for a kid to be obsessed with the game. The result is that a ton of movies have blurred together for me, especially the ones I haven't watched since. I had gone into this thinking that Rookie of the Year was the movie with Griffey and Randy Johnson in it, but that was Little Big League, of course. But what Rookie of the Year lacked in cameos from my beloved Mariners, it made up for in squeaky armpit sounds and evocative catchphrases like the one above, which was featured in the trailer. I was not usually allowed to see movies in which adults got hit, even via magical broken arms, but somehow this and the fantastically sleazy The Bad News Bears Go to Japan got the OK, which says as much about the wholesome power of baseball as anything.
Bill Simmons: I still can't believe they killed off G-Baby.
Michael Weinreb: The first baseball movie I ever saw that felt at least somewhat "real" in its portrayal of actual professional baseball was not Bull Durham. In fact, the first time I watched Bull Durham, it seemed strangely derivative to me, almost like a rip-off, if only because I had watched, and recorded, and re-watched, and recorded again, an HBO film called Long Gone, about the player/manager of a last-place, low-level, minor-league team in Tampico, Florida, called the Stogies. I imagine I watched Long Gone at least 25 times in the late 1980s; I watched it so often that when Virginia Madsen turned up, years later, in Sideways, I thought to myself, "She's the woman from Long Gone." (I also always just presumed Henry Gibson and Teller were actually father and son.) Of course, I haven't watched Long Gone one time since I turned 18. It's one of those early artifacts of premium cable that appears to have been buried under the weight of the Dream On era. I don't know if it was ever any good, or if it compares to Bull Durham, or if it holds up at all. But it's here, in its entirety, on YouTube, because apparently I'm not the only one who never got it out of his head.
Angels in the Outfield
Rembert Browne: If it weren't for this scene in Angels in the Outfield, I might've never fully understood what the placebo effect is.
The Upside of Anger
Bryan Curtis: More than 15 years after Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, and more than a decade after Tin Cup, Kevin Costner was in a rough patch. 3000 Miles to Graceland … For Love of the Game … The Postman … you remember. Costner’s strategy was to get back to two archetypal film genres that made him famous. He did another western (Open Range, 2003) and he did another baseball movie.
Except The Upside of Anger (2005) wasn’t really a baseball movie. Costner played Denny Davies, an ex-big leaguer who’d found his way to sports radio. (Think Rob Dibble with a bigger heart.) Davies’s alcoholism and thinning hair and growing gut seemed to signal a kind of meekness in Costner. He didn’t have to own a movie; he didn’t have to mug like a dreamboat. Costner could just kind of be there as a comforting part of the ensemble.
In this scene, Davies gets fed up. He’s had it with Terry (Joan Allen), with whom he functions as drinking buddy, surrogate co-parent, love interest, and, finally, truth-teller. “I am so sick of being your bitch,” he says. Davies adds, “It’s a tall order for a patient motherfucker, and I’m the farthest thing from that that you’re ever going to lay eyes on.” Costner had become a utility player, but he was back.
The Winning Team
Charles P. Pierce: Ronald Reagan began his public career "re-creating" baseball games over the radio, taking the Teletype play-by-play and dramatizing it for his listeners. (One time, the Teletype jammed, and Reagan stalled by having the previous batter foul off pitch after pitch.) Here we have him "re-creating" — with the help of a very young Doris Day — the life of dipsomaniacal Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander. This being a movie of the 1950s, Old Pete's love for the amber-colored liquids is largely laundered as an undefined sort of "nervous disorder." He does manage to sober up … er … overcome adversity enough to have the big moment against the Yankees in the 1926 World Series. Thus do young mythmakers hone their chops and thus comes, one day, Morning in America.
How Do You Know
Andy Greenwald: How Do You Know isn't a great movie. It's probably not even a good one. But there are the chalk outlines of quality there, like the way you could always see the football yard markers streaking across the infield of poorly attended Florida Marlins games. Anyway, among the many potentially better films hidden within this occasionally charming, mostly clunky rom-com Frankenstein is the one about Owen Wilson as a quirky relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals. Even though the punchline of this scene is kinda eh, I would definitely spend my hard-earned $14.50 to see 90 minutes of Owen knuckleballing his way through life with his best buddy Herc-from-The-Wire by his side. But then I think again and realize what I'm actually doing is hankering for another version of Major League. And then I take a drink of rum, remove my bat warmers, and imagine doing it myself.
Fear Strikes Out
Sean Fennessey: Something I realized about myself: I don't like baseball movies. I like baseball. And I like movies. But movies about the game, from The Babe Ruth Story to Moneyball, are like watching Steve Trachsel pitch out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Slow, ugly, and with a mess on the other side. The exception is single-topic issue movies. This is generally a weak-sauce brand of American filmmaking that produces sizzling dreck like The Help and I Am Sam. But if you add sports to the frame, I'm in. That's true for The Scout and Bang the Drum Slowly and especially Fear Strikes Out, a biopic about bipolar Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall. There's a lot of potential glop in play here, particularly for a movie made in 1957 — director Robert Mulligan went on to direct To Kill a Mockingbird five years later, so he wasn't afraid of a little starchy emotionalism. But the movie, which is wildly over-the-top, sort of works if you think of it like Kabuki theater on the diamond. This was Anthony Perkins's big breakout, and the trailer will have you think he's the next Monty Clift (he wasn't), and Karl Malden, as Piersall's overbearing and paranoid father, seems to be eyeing a follow-up role as Megatron's dad in Transformers 4. But there's something thoughtful, if not rigorous, about the depiction of Piersall's story. I found myself thinking of this movie in the winter when Royce White was embattled by the Rockets' front office, his illness, and his own steadfast commitment to his ideas. It isn't great, but it's better than Fever Pitch.