Opening day is less than a week away, and while you wait, why not whet your appetite with one of these ten films that capture, from many diverse angles, the best stories America’s pastime has to tell. There are so many baseball films that for each film I’ve offered alternatives that are similar, but you should know, similar does not equal as good. These are the ten best, organized chronologically.
It Happens Every Spring(1949)
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
I first saw this film as a kid and for whatever reason its goofiness still appeals. A college professor develops a substance that repels wood and decides to forsake both life in the academy and his fiance for life as a major league pitcher throwing doctored balls. It’s stuck in its time with all that entails, but it’s a fun little quirky movie from a moment in history when everyone, even college professors, wanted to have one good run in the majors. Enjoy this for what it is.
Like this? Also try: Damn Yankees (1958), The Pride of St. Louis (1952)
Bang the Drum Slowly(1973)
Directed by John D. Hancock
This film, starring Michael Moriarty and a not yet renowned Robert De Niro, is more about friendship and loss than about baseball, but it is still thoroughly a baseball film. Moriarty plays a star pitcher whose best friend and catcher, De Niro, is diagnosed with cancer. The two keep the diagnosis quiet for as long as they can, but in the close knit confines of a baseball clubhouse, the truth will out. In addition to the heavy existential questions the film grapples with, the film provides insight into the behind the scenes life of major league players moving from hotel to hotel and dealing with fans and groupies while trying to live their lives. Anyone up for a game of TEGWAR?
Like This? Also Try: Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Directed by Barry Levinson
Robert Redford took a swing at baseball nostalgia in this imaginative story of a man with immense talent who gets sidetracked on his way to fame on the ball field. The best thing about this film is its aesthetic, capturing the look and feel of what you’d expect 1930s baseball to be while also embracing the magical image of the tall tale for the big screen. This is a story about the baseball player as mythic hero, undergoing the trials and temptations that come with immense ability. If the ancient Greeks told a story about baseball, this would be it.
Like this? Also try: Eight Men Out (1989), The Rookie (2002)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Honestly I’m not sure I fully understand or appreciate the love triangle between Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. I do know that this is both overall the best film on the list (certainly the best written), and probably the most insightful when it comes to understanding the mystique of the game of baseball. Costner’s and Sarandon’s various lessons throughout the film help bring to life the game’s existential import to its fans and players despite also acknowledging that “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a while.” Every little leaguer who’s played for me has heard that quotation, but be warned. This is not a movie for kids.
Like this? Also try: Long Gone (1987)
Field of Dreams(1989)
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson
There are two reasons to love baseball. One of them is captured by this second Kevin Costner entry. Baseball is a means of connecting across generations. Unlike other sports where past iterations of the game are almost unrecognizable, baseball has remained fairly constant, and that constancy in the midst of immense change allows us a relationship with both the past and future. The film shows us that while we don’t always like our fathers (and they don’t always like us) on a beautiful summer day we can forget the rest of the world and have one more game of catch. At least until we can’t anymore. I misted up just writing that line, so be prepared to pretend to have something in your eye. If you’re not choking back tears by the time Burt Lancaster makes his final appearance, I don’t even want to know you.
Like This? Also try: Max Dugan Returns (1983)
A League of Their Own(1992)
Directed by Penny Marshall
Loosely based on the story of the development of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was initially conceived as a way to continue the national pastime when the men were suddenly drawn away to war, but managed to survive for 12 full seasons. As a film it has compelling performances by a slew of gifted actresses, most notably Gina Davis, and manages to both fill a gap in our historical knowledge, and shed light on the trials associated with being a contemporary woman in athletics. It also gives us the line, “There’s no crying in baseball!” (fun fact: that quotation has also been said by me to little leaguers)
Like This? Also try: Bingo Long’s Traveling All Stars (1976)
Rookie of the Year(1993)
Directed by Daniel Stern
Before 2016, the only thing that Cubs fans had to hang their hats on was this film about a kid who breaks his arm and can suddenly throw major league heat through a quirk of the way it heals. For as dumb of a premise as it is, I think it really doesn’t strike a false note. By putting a kid on a major league team, the film reminds us that baseball is a game and games are meant to be fun. And if you’ve ever coached little league, you’ve had a kid taunt you with “pitchers got a big butt” as you thew batting practice. Or maybe that’s just me.
Like this? Also try: The Sandlot (1994), The Kid From Left Field (1979)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Sometimes our heroes aren’t very heroic. This biopic of perhaps the most talented, but also likely the most hated baseball player of all time introduces us the the abusive, racist, and generally intolerable Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) as he approaches death, famous but unloved; wealthy but alone. What’s so well done about this pic, besides Jones’ acting, is that Cobb is never redeemed. The closest we get to embracing Cobb is feeling sorry for him, and we know, and Cobb certainly knows, it is better to be hated than pitied. In a long list of baseball biopics, this is the best.
Like this? Also try: 42 (2013), Fear Strikes Out (1957)
Soul of the Game(1996)
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan
The great tragedy of Major League Baseball is that its deepest shame, segregation, prevented some of the greatest ball players from ever seeing the major leagues or its accolades. First and foremost on this list is Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest hitter to ever play the game at any level. This film tells the story of the Negro League Stars, Satchel Paige and Gibson, as they wait for the recognition they deserve even as they see time running out for them. The beauty of this film is that it captures not just the tragedy, but the relentless optimism needed to fight seemingly unbeatable injustice. Sadly for Gibson, and for us, victory came too late.
Like this? Also try 61* (2001), The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990)
Ken Burns’s Baseball(1994)
Produced by Ken Burns
More so than any other professional sport, baseball’s allure is tied to its historical, almost mythical, past. It’s difficult imagining a baseball fan for whom the history isn’t as important as the present. While Burns’s ten part documentary may be overly sentimental in many ways, it really is a masterwork of documentary film making, expertly handling a subject so many people consider sacred in both its highs and lows without ruining the mystique. It’s difficult to imagine calling anyone a true baseball fan who hasn’t seen it.
There are other documentaries, but nothing like this.