Bull Durham is the greatest Hollywood film ever made about baseball. We can all agree on that, can't we? Okay, maybe we can't. In fact, when it comes to evaluating art, perhaps the most subjective of all intellectual pursuits, you'll always be able to find at least one person to disagree with any opinion you put forth.
For that reason, Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database, did a very brave things this weekend when he posted his list of "The Ten Greatest Baseball Movies of All Time." After all, outside of politics and religion, those subjects you never bring up at Thanksgiving dinner, no topic is more fertile ground for argument than one that combines baseball, a sport whose fanbase is defined by its zeal for impassioned disagreement, and art.
Though baseball and the movies are two of my greatest passions, I'll admit to not having seen every baseball film relevant to such a list. Part of the reason for that is, with the exception of boxing, I don't think sports translate particularly well to film, at least not for me. What's great about all sports is that they're unscripted. No one, not even the participants knows the outcome (that boxing can at times be an exception to this may be one reason why it works so well in movies). In baseball, that effect is compounded by the frequency with which a bad team is able to beat a good one. The suspense in a close game is tremendous and something film just can't recreate because of how infrequently the good guys lose in commercially successful films.
That's also a large part of the reason why I believe Bull Durham is the greatest baseball film ever made. Because it's not about the Durham Bulls chasing a championship. It's about the players and fans as people, their love for the game and the ways in which their relationship to baseball reflects and informs their lives. It's also hilarious and full of wonderful little inside-baseball details, the sort of things that go unseen in plain sight in actual games but that film can reveal.
Simanton has Bull Durham ranked third, behind Field of Dreams and The Bad News Bears. I obviously disagree. I also disagree with Fever Pitch and Mr. 3000 being anywhere near the top 10, but then, I haven't seen either. Still, if you look at the user ratings for the 10 films Simanton listed, they are the only two to fall below seven stars (out of 10). Films I have seen that could replace either one include Major League, perhaps Simanton's most egregious omission (which he acknowledges in his introduction, he just doesn't love it), Eight Men Out, and 61*, which have user ratings of 7.0, 7.2, and 7.7, respectively.
Simanton also runs into trouble by including Ken Burns' Baseball on his list. I'm not sure how one is supposed to measure a 19-hour documentary covering the entire history of baseball up to the early '90s against conventional feature films, most of which are works of fiction. I mean, if Baseball counts, then that shoots to number one for me. Heck, I'd be tempted to put the 30-second clip of Buck O'Neil singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at number-one all by itself. Simanton includes Baseball, but ranks it 10th.
Simanton gets a lot right as well. Bull Durham, Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, The Natural and Moneyball all deserve to be here, and are. So, likely, does The Pride of the Yankees, though I'll admit I've never seen it because I hold the actual footage of Lou Gehrig's speech (which is also included in Baseball, albeit in an edited version) so sacred that I've never wanted to see the Hollywood recreation.
I thought I'd try something, though. Using IMDb's own user ratings, I found the 10 highest-rated baseball films, not counting documentaries (Baseball, would rank first if I included it with an 8.6 rating), mini-series (The Bronx is Burning got a 7.8), shorts ("Baseball Bugs" is a classic, but it's not a movie), or little-seen TV movies from before the home-video era (1967's made-for-TV version of Damn Yankees! got a 7.9, but with just 26 votes). This is the list I found (ties broken buy total number of votes):
1. The Pride of the Yankees (7.7)
1. 61* (7.7)
3. Moneyball (7.6)
4. The Sandlot (7.6)
5. Field of Dreams (7.5)
6. The Natural (7.4)
7. The Soul of the Game (7.3)
8. Eight Men Out (7.2)
9. Slide, Kelly, Slide (7.2)
10. The Bad News Bears (7.1) Bull Durham, Major League, and A League of Their Own all scored a 7.0. I guess there's no accounting for taste.