04 April 2018

The Greatest Baseball Movies...

Gosh, I have no idea what the greatest baseball movie is or how one would definitively justify one as being the end all.  But, the topic of baseball movies is of interest to me.  In late February, I discussed on Twitter quite a bit about my dislike of the movie Sandlot and how those feelings are from some foggy memories of watching it a few decades ago.  The Twitter feed found my view to be rather unique as many have great affection for the film.  As I began my tenure as a tee ball league coach, I have seen many a grown man don homemade t-shirts paying homage to the movie.

All that made me think that perhaps I should give the film another chance, but, alas, it was not easily available on any streaming service I have without having to pay a couple bucks and I simply am not motivated enough to do that.  Meanwhile, Hannah Keyser took the plunge for Deadspin with a rather unflattering video that, to me, feels a little pedestrian, but what can you really do in a four-minute video?

So, it made me think about the movies I have seen and what I generally think of them.  With it being early in the season and not much else happening, let's hash some of this and share your thoughts in the comments.  I will provide the movies from best to worst based on my spotty memory.

Sugar (2008) drama
Sugar was able to utilize the film format to tell a wonderfully fresh and enlightening film about Dominican baseball players.  It truly is a great film and one I suggest everyone should watch.  It fleshes out a bit more what Pelotero was unable to do in a documentary format.
Five Gloves

Bull Durham (1988) comedy
It is one of those films that hits everything just right.  Yes, there is a simplification in representation of the minor leagues.  The baseball performances of the actors are generally terrible and should have been shot differently.  That said it is an excellent movie.  It has great pacing and is funny.
Four Gloves

The Natural (1984) drama
The Natural is one of those films that I always will stop and watch.  The treatment lightens up and mythologizes the subject.  Some parts of the film feel rushed, too full.  The cinematography is great.  However, it is a film always seems to speak to me, but I probably am overlooking a lot of errors.
Four Gloves

Major League (1989) comedy
I fear watching this one again.  It inhabits a very fond place in my heart and I fear the film may have aged poorly.  Anyway, I spent many a summer watching this movie incessantly.  I would wake up.  Make myself breakfast and them watch this film until it was time for Magnum PI re-runs to show on TV.  Then I would begin my day playing ball or going to work.  This was my teenage youth.  Anyway, it is a lovable movie about improperly valued players.
Four Gloves

Ballplayer: Pelotero (2011) documentary
Truth be told, I was an investor in their enterprise.  One of the guys who made this film is from Baltimore.  We interviewed them a bit back in the day.  All that said, it is a fairly eye opening documentary about the condition of kids learning to play baseball in the Dominican and how the system (including Major League Baseball) exploits and manipulates these kids.  Quite fascinating.  It also notes how close the Orioles were to sign Miguel Sano (or that bit is from my memory of discussing what was going on with one of the filmmakers).
Four Gloves

The Bad News Bears (1976) comedy
Everyone knows what this is and I tried many a time in the 1980s and 1990s to like this film when it played on TNT or AMC.  I simply never could connect to it.  It has been about 20 years since I last saw it, so I might well need to revisit this one.
Three Gloves

Eight Men Out (1988) drama
This drama handles rather rich material in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  However, it hits some of the apocryphal aspects of the story and spends time too long gazing upon its own reflection.  It is a film that I have a hard time bothering with sitting through again, but I can acknowledge it was made well.
Three Gloves

Knuckleball (2012) documentary
This film is about the brotherhood of the knuckleball with a particular focus on Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey.  I enjoyed it.  It is a part of baseball that really has a pariah aspect to it.  Now, it has been several years since I have seen it and Dickey's book is bleeding together with this movie in my head, but I remember telling a whole lot of people to check this one out.
Four Gloves

Moneyball (2011) drama
What can be said about Moneyball?  It is a decent story that takes Michael Lewis' over simplified narrative and turns it into an even more over simplified screenplay.  The mechanisms of baseball are wrong and the extremes each character represents is also more or less the image in a funhouse mirror.  Still, it is a decent movie.
Three Gloves

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) drama
Excellent film about a baseball player who develops an incurable disease, based on a Mark Harris novel.  Robert DeNiro shows up early in his career here.  While the story is anchored by baseball, it is about the relationship between the star pitcher and the suffering catcher.  It is story that I would really be interested in seeing revisited as a miniseries or a new feature.
Three Gloves

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014) documentary
This film is about the last of the independent teams playing in MLB organized minor leagues, the Portland Mavericks.  It is a fun movie that celebrates an anti-establishment perspective.  Though it does unwind a bit at the end as it must.  The team simply sputtered out and it is difficult to keep that pacing going.
Three Gloves

For the Love of the Game (1999) drama
The story is about a once dominant pitcher coming to the end of his career, putting up one last great performance.  This event is interspersed with personal experiences that greatly impacted him.  I recall it being a bit sappy and overwrought in telling its love story, but it was fairly enjoyable.
Three Gloves

Cobb (1994) drama
Cobb did what The Babe was too worried about to do, which was to actually make you dislike the guy.  Cobb is certainly not a great film, but it tries to illuminate the figure and break beneath the legend of him.  I found the move interesting and far superior to The Babe.
Three Gloves

Jordan Rides the Bus (2010) documentary
I remember thinking it was alright.  The movie covers Michael Jordan's sidetracked career into baseball.  At the time, it was considered quite a farce, but looking back it is actually astounding what he was able to do.  Some folks bring up Tim Tebow, but Jordan...I think he could have made it as a decent fourth outfielder.
Three Gloves

A League of Their Own (1992) drama
Part of the baseball nostalgia era in film, but was a topic that the studios felt very free with taking liberties.  Some of the star power can be disruptive to the story, but they are able to tell a pretty good story by not being all that bothered to stick to history.  It was decent.
Three Gloves

Mr. Baseball (1992) comedy
Another film I kind of dread to revisit.  I remember it fondly, but I remember all things Tom Selleck fondly.  It is about an aging baseball player going to Japan to finish his career.
Two Gloves

Pyne Point (2016) documentary
This movie is a somewhat clumsy documentary about a struggling yet successful children's baseball league in Camden, NJ.  Although uneven, I liked it.  It has a number of interesting subjects to follow, but seems to be largely absent from its subjects when anything interesting happens.  Therefore, your connection to rather meaningful trials and tribulations the children is accomplished in debriefings.  Or, mindsets at one point in the film will drastically change as the child grows up, but that growth is not captured.  I found it to be informative, at times heart breaking, but overall a sub-par film.
Two Gloves

The Babe (1992) drama
From the late 1980s and into the 1990s there was a run of nostalgia films and the Babe was one of those stories that got sucked up into that engine.  The screenplay is simply a paint by numbers run through Babe Ruth's life with not much really pulling it all together.  There does not seem to feel to be an overarching theme to connect it all other than this is about one guy.
Two Gloves

Field of Dreams (1989) drama
A lot of people love this film, but I think it is fair to note that there is not much to it.  Any depth of any character is undermined by nostalgia and how nostalgia is unwittingly monetized.  You will often hear about how it is a story about a father and son, but that seems to be more or less a meaningless detail in the great tale.  I think the acting is decent and it is shot well, but the story is terrible.
Two Gloves

Mr. 3000 (2004) comedy
I remember wanting to love this Bernie Mac vehicle about a narcissistic baseball player who retires having reached his 3,000th hit.  A scoring error shows he was actually three hits short and he tries to reclaim those hits.  I found that the film pulled a lot of punches and was fairly uninteresting, but I watched this a long time ago.
One Glove

The Sandlot (1993) drama/comedy
This is the film that made me think about going over my baseball film recollections and I really have a poor taste for this.  I did not like it when it came out.  I thought it sexist and that it white-washed racism in baseball.  It was a glorified look into 60s culture.  Everything felt off based on what I knew from my parents about when they grew up.  Others loved it.  Eh.
One Glove

The Pride of the Yankees (1942) drama
My primary memory about this Lou Gehrig biopic is when they are all in the train and the players take bites out of Babe Ruth's straw hat.  It was something to watch when my local Bump's video had three baseball movies to watch and I tired of trying to like Bad News Bears.
One Glove

Rookie of the Year (1993) comedy
Angels in the Outfield (1994) comedy/drama
Little Big League (1994) comedy
The Scout (1994) comedy
Despised them.  Nothing more to say. Everyone was green lighting baseball trash films.
One Glove


Anonymous said...

Jon, I don't disagree too much with your assessments of the movies. Not having seen the documentaries, I had already come to the conclusion that Bull Durham was the best of the lot. No sports story could be told well without some "fantastical" elements (see how Michael Oher feels about The Blind Side) because sports, while exciting and dramatic to watch are really a grind with a lot of hard work which people don't really care about as storyline. So you can't really judge a movie by how "true" it is to how the game actually works. That is why movies like Major League and Bad News Bears and The Natural and Field of Dreams can work while being obviously inaccurate or simplistic about the game itself. And the only movie I think you have underestimated is Field of Dreams. That's probably because it speaks specifically to a certain type of person - baby boomers who spent their early lives rebelling and being part of the counterculture and becoming jaded and unfulfilled and trying to find who they are and what is really important to them. It speaks to them very strongly so people either love it in the extreme or hate it in the extreme. I actually completely disagree with you about it monetizing nostalgia. I think that's embodied in JEJ's monologue when he says "for it's money they have and peace they lack" indicating that the money is totally unimportant. That is the key theme (redemption) for all the main characters (except Annie who is the "control" - she already knows, accepts, and loves her place in life). Movies like Major League and Bad News Bears are fun but have no deeper meaning or intent. Bull Durham strikes the best balance between reality/fantasy, comedy/drama, sublime/slapstick. The Natural is the most artistic/theatrical because the storyline is mooched from the Arthurian legend. What makes any baseball movie work is how well it elevates the game, as part of the story, to a mythical, magical level without being cheesy.

In fact, that's the main thing wrong with Moneyball (although I kinda feel about Brad Pitt how you feel about Tom Selleck) is that it elevates the Moneyball concepts and importance in re-building the A's in a cheesy way to the detriment of the real talent on that team. It's a lot easier to lose Giambi and Damon and Isringausen when you have Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Chavez, Tejada, Dye, and Koch still there. I mean, please, does anyone really think it was Hatteburg and Rincon and Mabry who made that team great? It's a pleasant story but kind of elevates Billy Beane more than even Billy would agree with. (I do have to admit that the Dave Justice character nearly stole the show for me)

Jon Shepherd said...

Re: Scripts and fiction. Yes, many years ago, I worked on treatments for films. There is always a pull between what happened and what would improve the story (e.g., theme, pacing). Technical accuracy was something a little different that impacted neither, but helped with feel.

Re: Field of Dreams. I do not really want to tell anyone that their opinion on the film and how it imparts meaning on them is wrong. What I mean to say, and you note, that it does not impart on me the same things it does for you. What I take from the movie is that idealism and progression of thought is morally empty. It does not lead to fulfillment. What leads you to fulfillment is casting away those dreams and toeing the shadow of tradition. And, somehow, that can be bought. It strikes me as weird. Just how quickly and without reason people give up core ideals to find their childhood where burdens are less realized, more accepted, or just forgotten.

Re: Moneyball. I am still surprised they figured a way to film it. Scott Hatteburg was HUGE. To lose Giambi and to pick up a 3.4 bWAR player off the scrapheap at 900k was indeed a major plot point. Chad Bradford was a major contributor at 1.6 bWAR. I think what was hard to articulate, so they didn't, was how important these players were to maintain that level of performance. Yes, the team was the big three, Koch, Tejada, and Chavez, but what they were able to do with those other acquisitions was impressive. So, yeah, they got a movie out of it, but I still think they have not been able to communicate what happened.

Pat said...

You are missing one of the best movies. The Perfect Game. Final Season worth watching, though not as good.

Pip said...

Did you watch "The Rookie"?
I do not remember the name of the character, but I remember listening to a Rangers game when he made his debut. Oh it was a wonderful scene. I actually can't remember whether he was successful or not, but it is a great story, and the movie kind of tells it truthfully

Pip said...

And although it's not specifically about Baseball, how can you omit "the Naked Gun"?

Jon Shepherd said...

Pat - I have always intended to watch the Perfect Game, but have not had the time. Final Season has passed by my radar.

PTCello - I considered watching the Rookie and paid attention to the trailers, but the scene where he threw the ball with a side of the road radar gun made me pass. I do remember following Jim Morris when it was actually happening. I think the whole Disney approach made me worry enough.

Yeah, Naked Gun, but if I am going down that road I think I have to put Brewsters Million in front.

Anonymous said...

Jon, re Field of Dreams, man, I think you have that thing totally twisted. You are definitely "half-empty" while I'm "half-full" on that movie. I'd love to discuss it more but too much for a comment section. Bottom line is that when tradition (or regret) has become so burdensome that it keeps you from knowing your true self and finding peace with your path that a little magic on the diamond (the ultimate representation of Americana - baseball on a field in Iowa with a hot dog) is nice to have to help lead you there. It is a little overwrought and maudlin but there's a lot of "there" there. And Field of Dreams brings out some of the worst in Kevin Costner whereas Bull Durham brings out some of his best.

WRT Moneyball, I didn't mean to imply that Hatteburg et al were not significant contributors and that Hatteburg embodied the essence of the Moneyball concept, but replacing Votto with Hatteburg would not make the Reds a winner. Without the returning core (and the starting pitching staff!!), they just would not have been a winning team. That "rebuild" does not compare to what the Astros/Cubs/etc.. have done. This was not a Marlins teardown from World Series winner to basement dweller. It is extraordinarily difficult to profoundly change a profession (the baseball GM and scouting professions) that has been mired in a staid process for so long. I think what Beane (and Bill James, of course) started was almost equivalent to going from the dead ball era to the live ball era. It is worthy of a story/movie and was played well. The scenes of Beane taking on the manager and the scouting staff were fantastic and embodied just how difficult that change is. There is no way the existing core of the A's was appreciated well enough in that movie. Wasn't Chavez or Tejada or Zito worth a banner on the side of the stadium or only Justice? If I recall, Tejada is the one that won the MVP not Giambi. Not much was made of the Moneyball failure of Jeremy Giambi. He was part of the "Moneyball Three" (Hatteburg, Justice, and Giambi). One other thing that was not treated well enough is the importance that statistics and Moneyball analysis treats fielding. That turned me off a little. The scene in Hatteburg's living room is truly classic with Beane and Wash but it flies in the face of how we treat the WAR value of defense. In the movie, "runs scored" is the only valued statistic as opposed to "runs prevented". I also don't think the difference between playing Pena and Hatteburg was all that close a decision as they implied - Hatteburg was the clear winner there.

Pip said...

I thought the rookie was charming, but I don't have the knowledge that you have about the intricacies of the sport, so something that was blatantly in accurate would not bother me as much as it probably does you.
Mark twain made a very perceptive comment in his book "life on the Mississippi" where he talks about being on deck of the steamship with a young woman who is commenting about how beautiful the water looks, and to Twain is pointing out that everything that she sees as beautiful and charming and picturesque, He sees as potentially deadly.
The skill that he has developed in the subject made it difficult for him to appreciate the surface aspects.
As a musician, I have experienced that myself multiple times. I hate nothing more than watching movie musicians blatantly faking their instruments.
By the way, what did you think of " million dollar arm"? Probably not much, but my wife and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Jon Shepherd said...

PT - I do not really watch many movies these days and Million Dollar Arm slipped by me. I am well aware of the story and know people involved, so I kind of have less inclination to watch it.

I would love to see someone do a mashup of Sandlot and IT. That sounds like a good movie. Like we all know the monster dog is not really a monster, but what if there is one?