- What is the essential baseball film? We surveyed our staff and the answers varied.
The 2018 Best Picture award will likely go to a film about a mute woman's love affair with a divine sea creature, an Irishman's analysis of Middle America or a horror film centered around the legacy of America's evisceration of blackness. Pretty heavy stuff, right? So with the Oscars arriving on Sunday, some of the SI staff offered their takes on their essential baseball film. This doesn't mean the best baseball film of all-time, but the writer's individual defense of which baseball movie means to most to them. Head over to SI TV to find several baseball titles (Eight Men Out, Bull Durham and Cobb among them) to complement a host of original SI programming. If you can't find the sports movie you're looking for on other streaming platforms, there's a near certainty that we're hosting it.
And the winners are...
Major League (1988)
Andy Gray, Senior Editor: It happens every spring training. The players line up for speed tests, two at a time. The coaches surround them with stopwatches, eager to see who worked on their speed in the offseason. Then, out of nowhere, a random guy in pajamas and bare feet joins them midway through the race and leaves both runners in the dust.
Willie Mays Hayes is just one personality on my favorite baseball team of all-time. And I fully understand that it’s a fictitious team but I don’t care. Major League is not only my favorite baseball movie, it’s my favorite sports movie. You can have your Bull Durham or Field of Dreams all you want. I’ll stick with the flick that still makes me laugh, nearly 30 years later.
There are way too many classic scenes to recall so I’m going to list my three favorites:
1. Roger Dorn argues with Manager Lou Brown about how his contract states that he “doesn't have to do any calisthenics I don't feel are necessary.” The manager responds by urinating on his contract.
2. Ricky Vaughn can’t find the strike zone, and after one particularly terrible pitch, announcer Harry Doyle says, “Juuuuuuust a bit outside.” You still hear that line today.
3. The funniest line of the movie (that somehow didn’t make the final cut of the movie). A dejected Ricky Vaughn sits in a bar after a particularly rough outing. Jake Taylor tries to cheer him up. It does not go well.
Let’s see Field of Dreams come up with a line like that!
Michael Beller, Writer: "Is that you, Tolbert?"
"Yo, bartender, Jobu needs a refill."
"This guy here is dead."
Those are just three lines from the funniest, most quotable, most relatable baseball movie ever made. It took me about 12 seconds to think of those lines, and isn't that part of what a great movie is all about? There's
no shortage of candidates for best baseball movie, but Major League rises above them all. What other baseball movie has this many great characters? The desperate determination, on the field and off, of catcher Jake Taylor, the cocky swagger of center fielder Wille Mays Hayes, the devil-may-care attitude of pitcher Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn, the voodoo magic, and home run exploits, of left fielder Pedro Cerrano, and the gruff leadership of manager Lou Brown. Heck, even Roger Dorn has a few good lines and at least one redeeming scene. This ragtag bunch was built for the sole purpose of losing, but instead thwarts the plans of evil owner Rachel Phelps, not to mention the hated Yankees. Along the way, they keep us laughing, and teach us a valuable lesson about life. If you believe in yourself and play for those around you, your dreams are always within reach. Just be sure Jobu gets his rum.
Quick shoutout to 12-year-old me, who would've died on Little Big League's hill.
The Kid from Leftfield (1979)
Chris Stone, Editorial Director: Overshadowed—truth is, I don’t know that this forgotten, made-for-TV, gem even had a shadow—by the Bad News Bears, which debuted two years earlier, The Kid From Left Field starred Gary Coleman and Robert Guillaume, both of whom were in the prime of their TV acting careers. Bull Durham is a fine choice, but my baseball-flick preferences have always run toward the pennant-race ouevre, such as Major League and, yes, The Kid From Left Field. The protagonists of the movie are the San Diego Padres of the Dave Winfield, Gene Richards and Gene Tenace era: mustard yellow and brown unis with an even more drab place in the NL West standings.
Guillaume plays a down-on-his-luck, exiled (from the dugout at least) former Padre who is working as a peanut vendor at Jack Murphy Stadium. Coleman, his son, is a team bat boy, whose accrued baseball wisdom from his father, passed along to the players in the on-deck circle, prompts the team to name him the manager after a characteristically poor Padres start. San Diego advances to the World Series (did you expect them to finish 73–89?), but not before Coleman—having been moved from his widowed father’s custody because of poor home conditions—has to step down as manager. The team, having learned that Guillaume had been acting as a Cyrano de Bergerac-like baseball whisperer to his son all along, coaxes him into skippering San Diego to what remains, fictional or otherwise (sorry Lee Jenkins), the only World Series title in franchise history.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Amy Parlapiano, Producer: I am writing this blurb through cloudy eyes because I just rewatched the last five minutes of A League of Their Own and I have now yet again been reduced to a puddle of tears. This movie is already rightfully considered a truly great sports film: it has a superb cast (shoutout to Madonna and Rosie O' Donnell, who are arguably the greatest characters in the film), some hilarious writing, moving plot lines about family, love and loss, and, of course, one of the most memorable lines in film history.
But it's also a movie with a special meaning for any woman who grew up playing softball, or any sport, as a kid. This was me. I used to write "become the first female baseball player" as the answer to all of those "what do you want to be when you grow up" journal questions growing up, and Geena Davis's Dottie was the hero—the player you always wanted to be, the put-together, smart-as-a-whip one who can catch a fastball with her bare hand and easily out-coach the lazy Jimmy Dugan.
But I also have always felt a reluctant kinship with Kit—easily one of the most grating, frustrating characters in the film—because she is an insecure younger sibling. This was also me. Her envy toward the much-more impressive Dottie (“Why do you gotta be so good?”) rang true to me as a kid, and though I always wanted to be a Dottie, I sometimes felt like there was a part of me that would always be a Kit. That conflict makes the scene where our beloved Rockford Peaches lose the World Series to bratty-but-determined Kit’s new team even more complex. It’s disappointing, and it’s not necessarily the happiest ending we could have been given, but it also, in a way, feels like a fitting, even satisfying conclusion. Denying the great and deserving Dottie her championship is the reason why this film captures the true essence of the sport so well. That’s how baseball works, anyway, right? It breaks your heart. (And when it does, you better not cry about it.)
Mike Harris, Senior Editor: Tom Hanks has played a lot of memorable roles and his turn as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own probably won’t make many people’s Top 5 Hanks movies. But it probably should. The chemistry he has with Geena Davis, who plays star catcher Dottie Hinson, is incredible and the movie is just plain fun. The movie also starred Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. The movie gave us the great line, “There’s no crying in baseball,” and there was no faking, either, in this film. Director Penny Marshall wanted the actors to actually play, and they underwent months of training before filming started.
The Library of Congress, in 2012, chose A League of Their Own for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Which doesn’t necessarily give it cache as a great baseball movie but trust me, it is a great baseball movie.
There was also a TV series based on the movie but it only lasted one season.
Battlefield Baseball (2003)
Chris Chavez, Wire Producer/Editor: Baseball has inspired one of the best movies of all time: Field of Dreams. Baseball has also inspired one of the weirdest movies of all time: Battlefield Baseball. My college roommate at Marquette, Travis Smith, and I watched it once on a Friday night. It's his favorite baseball movie of all-time and so here's how he describes it:
"The ballclub from Seido High School in Japan is finally succeeding, thanks to star player Gorilla Matsui. The side's winning ways take them to the famous Koshien Stadium Tournament, where they unfortunately have to play Gedo High School, a team that opts not to play baseball so much as simply murder their competition. Equipped with intricate deadly weapons that somehow passed the corked-bat inspection, these monsters—they all have green, rubbery skin—intimidate the Seido players, who quickly realize that they'll probably die on the field. The game begins, and the majority of Seido's team is indeed slaughtered.
But since this is a true Cinderella story, hope of course endures. Seido's principal shows up midway through the murderous frames, and he and Gorilla (both of whom are now somehow cyborgs) proceed to defeat Gedo, relying on Gorilla's new ability to throw actual fireballs along with this strange baseball bat that's apparently equipped with poison. The movie ends with everybody dying, and then all the good guys are of course resurrected buy a dude's tears.
For anyone looking for a break from the normal Kevin Costner flick on America's Pastime, hop across the Pacific and enjoy Battlefield Baseball. It's nine innings of magic, bloodshed, and monsters—all strung together by a little bit of baseball.
Oh, it's also a musical."
The Rookie (2002)
Bette Marston, MMQB Producer: The Rookie tells the heartwarming but ultimately predictable underdog/comeback story of Jim Morris, a pitcher who toiled in the minor leagues for years before settling down in Texas as a high school teacher and, of course, baseball coach. On a bet from his players, he agrees to try out for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and gets a minor league offer, which turns into a call-up to the majors and a debut against … who else? … The Texas Rangers.
The movie is about as familiar as your favorite bedtime snack, as it slides familiar storylines—athlete can never please his dad! The wife wants her athlete husband to be happy and chase his dreams, but also reminds him that there are mouths at home to feed!—throughout the narrative. And the cherry on top is everyone’s favorite dad actor Dennis Quaid, who excels in the starring role. Many may think that this movie not worth your time (or that you may have seen a movie just like it), but I don’t think that you can go wrong with this plot line. Maybe that’s just because I’m both a Dennis Quaid fan and a Rays fan.
Molly Geary, Associate Producer: Dennis Quaid's turn as the real-life Jim Morris, who made his major-league debut at the tender age of 35, is almost like a two-part movie wrapped in one that's high on emotion, humor and the simple joys of the game of baseball. Morris's story is the kind that usually only seems possible in Hollywood, and the film weaves everything from watching him turn a rag-tag group of high-schoolers into champions to his minor-league tryout process to the family sacrifices he must make to pursue his improbable dream and finally, of course, to his triumphant MLB debut. It's schmaltzy, sure, but a winning score by Carter Burwell transports you right into the oil rigged fields of Texas, and Morris's final scene with his father is a bittersweet moment with gravity far beyond baseball.
Fever Pitch (2005)
Jimmy Traina, Writer: Let’s be clear about something right up front: I’m not claiming that Fever Pitch is the best sports movie ever made. In reality, it’s more rom-com than sports movie. But I’m here to defend it. Baseball fans hate Fever Pitch. Soccer fans hate Fever Pitch (because the movie was based off a book about soccer, not baseball) and general movie fans seem to hate Fever Pitch.
Boo to all those people, I say.
Was the cheese factor in Fever Pitch through the roof? Yes. Was it a tad painful to watch Jimmy Fallon try to portray a die-hard Red Sox fan? Yes. Did you know the guy would get the girl in the end? Yes.
But here’s why I love Fever Pitch and usually lock into it while flipping through the channels on a rainy weekend day when it airs on FX or USA or Comedy Central: I can relate to Ben. Every sports fan can relate to Ben.
Ben was irrationally superstitious about his team. So is every sports fans.
When Ben’s girlfriend springs a surprise trip to Paris on him, he says, “We’re two games out of first with three games left. This is when they need me.” Lindsey cannot relate to this comment on any level. But every single sports fan can.
Ben tries to put his love of the Red Sox on the backburner so he can enjoy an evening with Lindsey. He missed a historic comeback and freaks out—just like every sports fan would. Ben goes to spring training and goes nuts cheering for the Red Sox while being interviewed on ESPN. Maybe that’s not a move every sports fan would make, but most certainly would and have.
Perhaps the most telling line in the entire movie, though, comes from one of Ben’s students, who summed up what it’s like being a sports fan when he asked Ben, “You love the Sox, but have they ever loved you back?”
Of course, no team has ever loved a fan back. Yet, as sports fans, we always go back from more and love unconditionally for no rational reason whatsoever. Just like Ben.
The Sandlot (1993)
Daniel Rapaport, Wire Producer/Editor: If you don’t enjoy The Sandlot, I don’t know what to tell you. Released in 1993 but set roughly 30 years earlier, it is the most delightfully nostalgic sports movie I can think of. After watching it, you’ll long for the days when all you needed to be entertained was a buddy, two gloves and a worn-out baseball—whether you actually grew up playing baseball with your friends or not. It is about simpler times, simpler friends and a simple game that transcends generations.
Not to mention, the movie is downright hilarious. Often times movies from your childhood aren’t nearly as funny when you’re grown up. The Sandlot is the opposite. Three unforgettable cinematic moments come to mind that only get funnier as the years fly by: the fake-drown kiss, the rabid (?) dog chase scene and, best of all, that failed chewing tobacco experiment. “You’re killing me, Smalls!"
The Natural (1984)
Dan Gartland, Associate Producer: There may be baseball movies better than The Natural but there is absolutely not a better baseball movie scene than the climax of the 1984 Robert Redford vehicle. “Wonderboy” breaks and Hobbs, bleeding through his jersey, hits a game-winning home run using the bat he helped the bat boy make. It’s hokey, but that’s the 80’s.
What puts that scene over the top, though, is the score. It’s one of the most iconic musical accompaniments in the history of film. It’s the sound I subconsciously add in my head whenever I see any dramatic home run. You know that Twitter account that puts the music from Titanic over basketball highlights? That’s old and lame. I need a new one that puts the Natural soundtrack over every walk-off.
Gabriel Baumgaertner, Producer: Bull Durham is the most classic film about the minor league journey and the inexplicable cosmic forces of baseball. The love story may be a bit forced, but it features the single most creative scene in baseball cinema, the most salient piece of advice to any aspiring star ("When you win 20 in the show, you're eccentric; until then, you're a slob) and a delightful pitching truism ("strikeouts are boring—besides that, they're fascist—so get some ground balls, those are more democratic). The problem with Bull Durham, which turns 30 this year, is that it's dated, even if it remains delightful.
That's why Sugar, a poignant portrait of a Dominican pitcher's journey through the minor leagues, is the best film about baseball to be released since the turn of the century. The story revolves around Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a promising young hurler whose dreams of stardom are challenged by power hitters, the language barrier and life in the American Midwest. The best scenes don't revolve around the game action, but Sugar's inability to read a menu, cope with the blandness of diner food and block out the jeers of his home fans. Too often, baseball fans forget that players from outside of the U.S. are bred to be baseball players by the time they're 15 or 16, and so many of them fail with nothing to return to at home. Sugar isn't the celebration of those who made it, but a love letter to the players who sacrificed everything to become a ballplayer and still came up short.
It's a beautiful and highly emotional experience that is essential to understanding contemporary baseball.