Oscar takes center stage tonight at the annual Academy Awards, and this is a good time to reveal my list of favorite baseball movies. The list is just that: my favorites, influenced as much by sentiment and personal experience as it is by objective judgments on quality film-making.
A few ground rules: It contains movies that primarily focus on baseball, which leaves out “Mr. Destiny” and a few other favorites in which baseball is featured but doesn’t dominate. And the list contains movies that I’ve actually seen at the theatre, on television, on cable, or on DVD or tape. That leaves out a few good ones that I still have on my “must see” list like “Bang the Drum Slowly.”
“Lights, camera, batter up!”
1. Field of Dreams: Unquestionably my favorite. This movie conveys the transcendent magic of the game as it explores the role the sport plays in family relationships, particularly those of father and son. I love the book on which the movie is based (“Shoeless Joe”), but I love the movie even more. It is baseball perfection on film.
2. A League of Their Own: This highly entertaining tale of women’s professional baseball shows an amazing reverence for the game. It evokes an era long gone is splendid style.
3. The Natural: Another superb period piece, a story of “what might have been” and of redemption. Robert Redford, Wilford Brimley and the rest of the cast are superb.
4. For Love of the Game: Even with its “chick flick” aspects, it’s still a great baseball story. “For Love” gets inside the head of the pitcher (“clear the mechanism”) better than any movie I’ve ever seen.
5. Pride of the Yankees: Gary Cooper is perfect as Lou Gehrig. This is the best of its generation of baseball biographies, marked by triumph and tragedy and an always-supportive spouse who keeps the scrapbook up to date.
6. Major League: The top all-out comedy on my list, I can’t help but love this movie, a fantasy about the Cleveland Indians winning the pennant. Bonus: It was filmed at Milwaukee County Stadium with Bob Uecker as the broadcaster.
7. The Rookie: This is a modern take on the plucky-player-overcomes-obstacles-and-the-odds to find success as a big leaguer, even if only for a brief time. Who among us doesn’t cling to the hope that given a chance, we’d make the team?
8. The Stratton Story: A great career cut down by a hunting accident, only to spur a great comeback.
9. The Winning Team: A great career derailed by alchoholism, only to spur a great comeback.
10. Bull Durham: I know this movie is tops for many fans. I like it well enough, but it didn’t move me.
11. Angels in the Outfield: Corny I know, but I still liked it. I’m still kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to be a crowd extra when the movie was filmed at the Oakland Coliseum.
12. Fear Strikes Out: It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen this bio on Jimmy Piersall, whose temper and inner demons tormented him. I watched this one with my dad, who told me about some of the crazy antics he’d seen from Piersall.
13. It Happens Every Spring: A bit on the obscure side, this film is about a magic formula that makes the ball avoid wood and hop over the bat. Bonus: A black and white film whose producers were so obsessed with realism that they painted the ball field grass green to make it more believable on screen. This was one of my dad’s favorites.
14. Mr. Baseball: I expected little from this movie about Tom Selleck as a washed up big leaguer making a go of it in Japan. It was surprisingly good.
15. The Sandlot: A nice yarn about a bunch of kids playing the game the way all kids play it, squeezing in a game wherever they can, hoping they don’t lose the ball.
16. Damn Yankees: This is one of the first baseball movies I ever saw, and I can’t recall liking it a whole lot. It did plant the seed of loathing the Yankees. While I’d never sell my soul in exchange for a Washington Senators’ pennant, I’m much more vulnerable when it comes to the Indians.