What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
Now that baseball is back, I can actually take it in for what this anomaly of a season will ultimately be. There’s no way this won’t be an interesting ride, what with a 60-game regular season, the designated hitter in the National League, and new rules for extra innings. Not to mention, were aren’t far from an expanded play-off season much like the oddity that was the strike year of 1981. But no matter the tweaks, no matter the oddities, it’s still honest-to-goodness Major League Baseball.
Don’t get me wrong, I grew to appreciate Korean baseball on ESPN at 5:30 in the morning. I learned how many non-Koreans there are in this league (beware Chicago Cubs fans…there’s a Mel Rojas Jr. in this world). I learned that even with no fans, Koreans still kept their cheerleaders employed. And I also figured out which teams to cheer for. See, all the teams in the Korean League have corporate sponsors, so picking teams was as simple as looking around my house…to my Samsung phone, LG television, and Kia Soul.
But baseball fans, especially this one, cannot live off Korean food alone…although I make a mean bulgogi. Another thing I filled those baseball-free months with was revisiting the better movies about “America’s Past-Time.” That means I’ve finally put together the list of what I consider to be the ten best baseball movies.
10) Bang The Drum Slowly
This movie centers on the fictional Major League Baseball team the New York Mammoths. At the outset, the team’s ownership is in a dispute with their star pitcher Henry Wiggen (played by Michael Moriarty) who is holding out for a new contract and more money. You have to remember that in the early 1970s, the “mega-money” era in baseball hadn’t hit yet, so most players had jobs in the off-season.
Henry Wiggen was no exception. When he wasn’t pitching, he sold insurance for the Arcturus Corporation having several ballplayers as his clients. One of his clients is also his friend and the team’s catcher Bruce Pearson (played by Robert DeNiro). Henry and Bruce really couldn’t be anymore different; Henry is intelligent and called “Author” by his teammates because he’s been published. On the other hand, Bruce chews tobacco and talks like the simple, uneducated Southern boy he is; in fact he calls Henry “Arthur” because he misunderstood the nickname.
The plot begins when Bruce finds out he is terminally ill with Hodgkin’s disease. At Bruce’s request, he and Henry drive to Bruce’s hometown in Georgia. Bruce considers Henry to be his only friend and he’s always wanted him to see it. Once they get there, Bruce burns all of his baseball memorabilia acknowledging his life will soon be over.
Once Henry and Bruce return to the Mammoths, they keep the news about Bruce’s health to themselves. But at spring training, Mammoths’ manager “Dutch” (played by Vincent Gardenia) plans to release Bruce in favor of a young prospect, another country boy named Piney Woods (played by Tom Ligon). To protect Bruce, Henry ends his contract hold-out by agreeing to a new deal on one condition: that he and Bruce come as a package. In other words, keeping the star pitcher means keeping the dying catcher, conversely releasing or sending Bruce to the minor leagues means losing Henry as well.
Naturally, such an unconventional tactic arouses the suspicion of the Mammoths’ management. As such, “Dutch” goes full investigator in an attempt to discover why Henry has essentially made Bruce his “personal catcher.” Later, this became a not-so-uncommon practice for “star” pitchers, but in 1973, it was unheard of. Meanwhile, the Mammoths are struggling on the field, and the consistent losing is affecting team morale; locker-room quarrels are becoming common.
While the team sinks in the standings, Henry and Bruce are dealing with his end-of-life issues. Bruce asks Henry to change the beneficiary on his life insurance policy from his parents to his girlfriend Katie (played by Ann Wedgeworth). Henry knows Katie a a “gold-digger;” despite the fact this is before baseball players started making huge dough, the average salary for a major-leaguer in the early 1970s was right around $30,000 dollars. The minimum salary for a big-league ball-player was $12,000. In contrast, the median income for a wage-earner at that time was $8,060. Since he knows Katie’s only interest in Bruce is financial, Henry lets Bruce believe he’s made the change when he in fact has not.
As the rest of the team knows nothing about Bruce’s condition, the day comes when one of his teammates starts riding him about his declining performance. Henry explodes, and in his impassioned defense of Bruce, he lets the proverbial “cat out of the bag” that Bruce is dying. Henry asks that the news stay on the “down-low,” but that proves to be an exercise in futility. In no time, the entire New York Mammoths organization knows Bruce is terminally ill. Nobody again “rags” on Bruce, and the team both unifies and rallies, although that is never shown in the shop-worn “win one for the ‘Gipper'” sort of way.
Even as the team moves on to and eventually wins the Wold Series, during the process Bruce eventually becomes to ill to play. Finally, Bruce returns home to his parents where he eventually passes away.
9) A League Of Their Own
A dram-edy-ization of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), “A League of Their Own.” may very well be the movie on this list with both the purest message about the importance of baseball to the American culture at the time as well as the depth of the American love of the game. Major League Baseball, as well as the other professional sports, were not shut down in America during the Second World War by decree of President Franklin Roosevelt; they were deemed “essential to morale.”
The problem was that a great number of the players were now in the military fighting the war. The National Football League was so short of players it resorted to combining teams, and since every town in America had a baseball team who were now struggling to find players, the birth of the AAGPBL was inevitable. After all, America of 1942 was the birthplace of “Rosie the Riveter;” emblematic of women taking the place pan-industrially of men now in the military.
“A League of Their Own” features a great ensemble cast, including Tom Hanks playing against type as the whiskey-sponge ex-big leaguer Jimmy Dugan, Geena Davis fresh off “Thelma And Louise” as star catcher Dottie Hinson, Lori Petty as the “bratty kid sister” to Davis, and a scene-stealing Rosie O’Donnell before she became a deranged Rose Bowl float. Even Madonna offers a performance which almost makes you forget she also made that shit-pile “Shanghai Surprise.”
8 ) Cobb
I love Robert Wuhl, and I actually mourned when his podcast Ipso Facto went away. That was one of the only places I knew other than this very blog where the world of sports intersected with classic movies. His love of both (the man has been the head writer for 7 Academy Award ceremonies) likely contributes to the fact he is in two movies on this list.
“Cobb” is a film based on a book written by journalist Al Stump (played by Robert Wuhl). The story comes from Stump’s spending some strange days with baseball legend Ty Cobb (played by Tommy Lee Jones). While some have accused Stump’s work as being “exaggerated,” and while the film does have a bit of an “over the top” feel, there are some things which really can’t be denied.
While Ty Cobb was one of the greatest to ever play the game, he was a genuinely deplorable human being. Even though this film is set near the end of Cobb’s life, the overpowering performance offered by Tommy Lee Jones makes it clear that even at his advanced age and on the cusp of infirmity, Cobb still offered a foreboding if not outright dangerous presence. But it also weaves together that the same river of hatred in Cobb’s soul made which him an unrepentant racist, sexist, and all-around bad guy also made him an unstoppable competitor and undeniably one of the greatest hitters to ever hold a bat.
Wuhl’s “Stump” offers the springboard off which Jones propels his portrayal of Cobb into a world where this decidedly dark film strips the veneer of blind hero worship off athletes to expose the depth of their humanity…even when that isn’t exactly the prettiest of pictures.
7) The Natural
This is easily the most polarizing movie on this list; people either love it or hate it. I recuse my self from that argument as I have an admitted bias. I am not what you would a call a fan of Robert Redford.
As for the movie itself, “The Natural” polarizes baseball fans into two camps. There are those who revere this film; sensing it as some sort of rite of passage completely ensconcing the mythic properties of baseball. Then there are people like me, who think this movie’s need to be painfully symbolic completely monkey-wrenches the story, so much so the movie has an ending diametrically opposed to the conclusion of the 1952 Bernard Malamud novel upon which it is based. Don’t be surprised to see this as an installment of Movies Everybody Loves That I Hate.
My problem with this movie starts at the elementary level. “The Natural” seems to spend it’s entire running time struggling with it’s own identity. The over-dripping need for symbolism contorts this film into not knowing whether it wants to be a baseball movie or a weird cocktail of Homer’s Odyssey and Arthurian legend. From the minute young Roy Hobbs carves the “Wonderboy” bat out of the lightning-struck tree, the symbolism never stops.
The “high-altitude” view of the plot offers the best perspective to see this. Following Roy Hobbs form the moment his father dies and lightning hits the tree, his life proves to be an odyssey of high and lows; the oscillations coming from his own spate of bad choices. Despite that, he eventually achieves his goal and avoids a host of temptations so the woman he truly loves is still around to provide crucial inspiration at his moments of greatest need.
As far as the legend of King Arthur is concerned, let’s just start with “Wonderboy.” The bat is obviously Arthur’s sword “Excalibur,” and just like Arthur, eventually Hobbs must prevail without it’s power. From there, the rest becomes even more apparent. It’s no accident the name of the team Hobbs ends up with is the “New York Knights.” The truncated name does little to hide the “Knights of the Round Table” aspect; this matters because there’s an element of Sir Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail coming up.
This is another time when this movie can’t figure out which way it wants to go; is Roy Hobbs King Arthur or is he Sir Percival? In fact, he’s another odd combination of the two. He has Arthur’s sword/bat, but his odyssey is more like that of Percival. Roy Hobbs and Percival are born unsophisticated bumpkins with aspirations of better things, both are waylayed along the way by women, both end up on a quest for the “Holy Grail,” and they both must overcome their own self-centered nature in order to achieve the goal.
The final nails here are the legends of the “Waste Land” and “The Fisher King” represented by the parched field the Knights play on and the team’s manager “Pop Fisher.” The playing field is a clear stand-in for the Waste Land. The field is bone-dry and crunchy brown Roy arrives, but after his first hit rain falls for three days and restores the field to a vibrant green. The name isn’t the only thing which identifies “Pop” as “The Fisher King;” Pop’s “athlete’s foot of the hands” are “The Fisher King’s” wounded hands, and the condition ebbs and flos with Roy’s performance.
That’s just for openers. Once can even get into a whole Christian-style “good vs. evil” with “Iris” and “The Judge.” The bottom line is there a reason why this movie is on this list despite the fact I don’t like it. But a lot of people do.
Watch it and decide for yourself.
6) The Sandlot
Way back in the day, we did a “March Madness”-style bracket for the greatest sports movie ever. “The Sandlot” started as a #13 seed and ended up in the Final Four, taking down #1 seed “Raging Bull” along the way. The reason is simple. “The Sandlot” isn’t a great movie like “Raging Bull,” it’s a “favorite” movie for a lot of people. “Favorite” movies get votes.
This movie is a “favorite” for the same reason as the one which leads this list; baseball and kids are synonymous. That’s why so many great baseball films are either about or geared in a way that kids understand (yet ANOTHER reason I hate The Natural…but I digress). The common thread shared by all such movies is to show the bonds built by playing a simple game within a framework of established rules and sportsmanship and how that exercise effects the sense of community and togetherness. “The Sandlot” shows baseball as every kid in my generation discovered the game; by every kid in the neighborhood playing it. Everybody had a part, and everybody played…if for no other reason than you needed so many people to play a “real” game, so even the lousiest player in the neighborhood was important – if for no other reason than sheer numbers.
That’s why “The Sandlot” resonates with so many people. Beyond that, it touches people who never played baseball as it uses that formula to break out of the bounds of being a children’s comedy about baseball to being a soul-connecting statement about community. The story of new kid in town Scotty Smalls and how his baseball buddies walk him through the “rites of initiation” through the summer of 1962 connects with people of a certain age. That’s because we all had a “Smalls”and we all had the neighborhood dog who was as much folklore as bite (“The Beast”).
And every once in a while Mrs. J-Dub is nodding off on her chaise, I might get on InstaFace and look up our old neighborhood’s “Wendy Peffercorn.”
5) Major League
I have to admit, the first time I saw this movie, I found it mildly amusing but I never though I would have it on a list like this. That’s because the late 1980’s is when I’m just entering adulthood; before that I didn’t really pay attention to the business of sports. That’s the angle which gives this characteristic most movies on this list have…they are timeless. To this day, we all know of the team across the world of sport that “tank the season” for a variety of reasons.
In the case of “Major League,” owner Rachel Phelps is the media personification of a “Georgia Frontiere-esque” owner; a showgirl who inherited the team from her dead “sugar daddy” husband. She wants the team to finish last in attendance so she can break the stadium lease in Cleveland and move the team to Miami. To that end, she fills the Indians’ roster with assorted baseball flotsam and jetsam; the idea being the team will be so terrible no one will come to see them.
Another aspect of great baseball movies is the team itself which allows for the classic “cast of characters.” This film is no exception; “Major League checks off the list of standard baseball movie character types. There’s the “grizzled veteran” in catcher Jake Taylor (played by Tom Berenger), his comic foil in pitcher Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn (played by Charlie Sheen), the overpriced, washed-up star Roger Dorn (played by Corbin Bernsen), the insufferably loudmouthed showboat Willie Mayes Hayes (played by Wesley Snipes), all led by by one of the great movie baseball managers Lou Brown (played by James Gammon).
Then comes the main story line; as “trope-ish” as it may be, it almost always works in all sports movies…the “rag-tag nobodies learn to win.” Take Americans inherent love of an underdog, spice it with an event which unifies the team, and the “losers start winning” theme carries the rest of the movie.
4) Eight Men Out
A dramatization of the of the “Black Sox” scandal in which the Chicago White Sox had eight players banned from baseball for life for rigging the 1919 World Series, “Eight Men Out,” starts out with a quick pace. The first half of the film sticks largely to on-the-field action, which sets the plot for the second half, when things slow down dramatically and get decidedly serious.
Director John Sayles does a remarkable job covering the nuances of the conspiracy, it’s unraveling and the subsequent trial…all while keeping the running time around two hours. A lot of directors might have tempted to bloat this story line out past three hours, but that would have made this movie hard to watch given most baseball fans already know the end. That’s the price of going “non-fiction” with a baseball film.
The cast is another example of a cavalcade of familiar faces, although many of then are still “up-and-comers” when this film was made. What “Eight Men Out” comes down to is the loss of innocence; it marks the dawn of the era of cynicism and the transition from the time when players sang a tune about “the love of the game”…and the fans still listened.
3) Bull Durham
It’s a small miracle this movie is this high on this list considering it has so two things I can’t stand.
First, for my money, this movie may very well represent the zenith of Kevin Costner’s career. This is one of the best baseball movies ever made; but from here, almost every film he makes is some sort of quasi-intellectual slop which usually gets to wrapped up in it’s own symbolism it forgets what the fucking story was in the first place (like two of the worst baseball movies ever made – “Field of Dreams” and “For The Love Of The Game”). If you are getting ready to comment how wrong I am, I’ve got $50 that says you agree with “Dances With Wolves” winning Best Picture over “GoodFellas.”
Second, I can’t tell which is more ridiculous; the fact that Susan Sarandon’s “Annie” exists despite the complete absence of a need, or that the writers attempted to hide her floozyish nature in the thinnest of literary cellophane. You can dress “Annie” up all you want in all the faux sophistication of a junior college English instructor; she recites poetry to tied-up ballplayers and thinks misquoting William Blake constitutes foreplay. But the fact is she’s a menopausal baseball bar-fly whose chronological age belies her complete lack of emotional maturity. That explains why she sticks to games of “stroke and poke” with overgrown teen-agers in jockstraps.
Other than Hollywood’s infatuation with the formulaic non-sense of needing a “love interest,” Sarandon’s “Annie” adds nothing to the plot. The greatness of this movie is 100% about baseball. If you doubt that, name a scene in the “baseball” part of the movie (with the sole exception of the “Rose goes in the front, big guy” garter belt scene) that suffers from the loss of the “Annie” character? Don’t even try to give me the “batting cage” scene; that’s all about selling the viewer on the viability of a love triangle, and attempting to portray “Annie” as a modern, sexually-liberated woman while in fact she is little more than an aging trollop clinging to the last vestiges of her physical allure.
Despite all that, the reason why this movie is on this list is writer/director Ron Shelton. He wrote this story from his own experiences as a former minor-leaguer. That might also be why he has two movies on this list, and why Bull Durham’s “Nuke” LaLoosh is based on a legendary real-life figure named Steve Dalkowski. It’s also why this move drips with amazing scenes which are exceptionally true to what baseball is all about. I’ll just list a few. “Lollygaggers.” “Candlesticks are always nice.” “What’s it like in the ‘show?'” If you love baseball and you’ve seen this movie, you’re already getting ready to tell your own favorite scene.
Sometimes, the truth makes for a story no screen writer could concoct. That’s why even Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner couldn’t keep this movie off this list.
2) The Pride of the Yankees
Samuel Goldwyn understood making movies. But he didn’t understand his audience and their love of baseball and how it produced mythic figures. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig have both been dead for roughly three-quarters of a century, but they are still household names in America. Despite that, Goldwyn didn’t want to make a movie of the story one which would feature the other saying it was “It’s box office poison. If people want baseball, they go to the ballpark!”
That may very well have been the worst call of Goldwyn’s career. “The Pride of the Yankees” was named by the American Film Institute as the 3rd best sports movie and the 22nd most inspiring film in all of American cinema. It also has arguably two of the most iconic scenes in all of Hollywood history.
The first is easily the most parodied scene from any baseball movie; Gehrig promises a crippled boy that he will hit two home runs during the World Series in his honor, and does just that. This propels Gehrig to being a fan favorite, but at the same time Gehrig begins to notice something is wrong. He continues to feel weaker and weaker; eventually he is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis…which would become known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
This leads the second iconic scene…which gets it’s fair share of parodies as well. Now that he knows there’s little time left, Gehrig (played by Gary Cooper) gives his farewell speech to the adoring crowd at Yankee Stadium in which he utters the immortal line “People all say that I’ve had a bad break, but today…today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
Another example of non-fiction baseball movies in which everybody already knows the ending, “The Pride of the Yankees” was released just 17 months after Lou Gehrig’s death, and as such features a lot of the faces of the game at the time. The aforementioned Babe Ruth nearly steals a few scenes with his wit, and Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig also appear in the film.
1) The Bad News Bears
The charm of many baseball movies stem from their portrayal of the beauty of the game, it dedication to sportsmanship, or it’s ability to generate a truly inspirational tale. “The Bad News Bears” is not one of them. The premise of this movie stems from a lawsuit filed against a Little League claiming it conspired to keep the less talented players time off the field. The result is a team of cast-offs (Remember that theme?) led by an equally cast-off manager.
Earlier, I said that reality makes the best stories. No movie on this list come close to “The Bad News Bears” for “punch-in-gut” level of reality reflecting the time in which it was made. That’s why it not only tops this list, as of this writing it’s only one to gets it’s own installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies. In that piece, I told you that every character in that movie actually existed in 1975, and many still do to this day in Little Leagues across America. Just like the piece I did a while back on how I might be a little bit of each of the characters from the seventies cop comedy Barney Miller, you could do something very similar with me.
I spent a significant chunk of my childhood in southern California in the 1970s, and there may very well have been times I might have been a motorcycle-riding, cigarette-smoking juvenile delinquent like “Kelly Leak.” Anybody who knows me wouldn’t be surprised to hear me say I might a bit have of the pugnacious, foul-mouthed shortstop “Tanner” in me. I also have a fair amount of the near-sighted numbers nerd “Rudy Stein;” he’s the one who got me through college. Then I grew up to be the hard-drinking, curmudgeon manager Morris Buttermaker.
They say it takes one to know one; that’s how I knew all these characters really did exist.
Beat that for reality.
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