Baseball on the Big Screen

Baseball on the Big Screen
I was thrilled when Peter, my editor here at South Jersey Magazine, told me that this issue’s cover story was going to be about Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm. It got me thinking about the sport and its great representation in film over the years. There are more baseball movies than any other sport except maybe boxing. There are plenty of football and basketball films as well, but because baseball had a 50-year head start, history wise, there just are more baseball flicks than the others. Also, because there are pauses between each pitch, baseball lends itself to more natural drama. And laughs, too. Here are a few of my favorites, listed in alphabetical order.

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THE BAD NEWS BEARS, 1976
Not only is it hilarious and exciting, but it also paints an accurate picture of what local Little League life is truly like. Anyone who has played youth league baseball or had a kid playing or maybe even coached a Little League team will recognize the characters in this movie. The talented but juvenile delinquent star player, the chubby catcher, the overzealous coach portrayed by Vic Morrow (who, by the way is the late father of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), the lousy hitter who is told to get hit by a pitch when he is needed to get on base. But the stars of this classic are Tatum O’Neal as the star female pitcher who is forced on to this all-boys team and the always great Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker, the gruff and hilarious beer-guzzling manager who’s only coaching for the money.

BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, 1973
Here’s an obscure one. Robert DeNiro, very early in his career, plays a catcher for a fictional pro baseball team, the New York Mammoths. DeNiro’s character is a painfully shy, dimwitted athlete. He is battling terminal cancer. The star pitcher, played by Michael Moriarty, befriends DeNiro after he discovers that he is dying. Moriarty and DeNiro are teammates who are the only ones who know this tragic secret. When Moriarty’s contract is up, he won’t sign unless the team reups DeNiro as well. The owners can’t figure out this unusual request and the movie is up and running. Please seek it out. It’s worth it.

BULL DURHAM, 1988
It’s difficult to make a sexy baseball movie but Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and particularly Susan Sarandon pull it off. Director Ron Shelton loves a good sports movie and later makes three more of them: White Men Can’t Jump (basketball), Cobb (another baseball flick) and Tin Cup (golf).

FIELD OF DREAMS, 1989
Amy Madigan as Kevin Costner’s wife gets on my last nerve but everything else about this movie (and I’ve been waiting to use this pun) hits a home run. Ray Liotta, against his typecast gangster self, actually plays a normal nice guy. Who would have thunk? It’s a very good movie that turns into a great movie with the last line: “Dad, do you want to have a catch?”

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, 1992
Whenever I am asked what is two-time Oscar-winning Tom Hanks’ best movie, I never hesitate to say A League of Their Own, where he plays the hard drinking manager Jimmy Dugan, a role that calls for an older and more beat-up actor. Hanks pulls this off by gaining weight and throwing a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. “There’s no crying in baseball!”

MAJOR LEAGUE, 1989
I love the movie that has no other intentions but to make you laugh. Sure, there’s a tiny thin plot about the owner selling the team but that’s only really there to keep the laughs coming. And they sure do, thanks to Charlie Sheen, who portrays a four-eyed, hard-throwing and partying relief pitcher named Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn (I guess he was playing himself). Dennis Haysbert is also great as Pedro Cerrano. This was before he became the Allstate insurance commercial tycoon. See how much money Haysbert makes pitching insurance and you’ll see why I use the word tycoon. “Safe drivers save 40%!”

THE NATURAL, 1984
Did you know that in the book this fantastic movie is based on the hero strikes out at the end? Which not only would totally change the movie but would deprive us film watchers of the ending, which includes 77 edits before Roy Hobbs hits that grand homer. Seventy-seven! The Randy Newman score is quite possibly the greatest soundtrack ever produced for a sports movie. And did you ever notice that The Natural and Field of Dreams have the same ending? A son having a catch with his dad.

THE SANDLOT, 1993
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” Finally, a baseball movie featuring kids playing pickup baseball in a yard. No uniforms. No umpires. No manager. However, you still need a ball and much of The Sandlot’s plot centers around one. Or losing one, because no one has the money to buy a new one. There’s also a crazed dog and his owner and a mean and cranky stepdad who is played by Denis Leary. (I once filmed a Showtime comedy special with Denis and the next time I saw him we were working competing comedy clubs and I was hanging backstage with him when he asked the club owner for $100 advanced pay. The owner said that all of that night’s receipts had been locked up already. So I said, “Here’s $100, pay me back tomorrow,” which he did. The next year Denis hit it big with appearances on The Tonight Show and a big Nike deal. I had never lent money to a millionaire before.) By the way, one last tidbit about The Sandlot. The music was composed by Randy Newman’s cousin, Dave.

61*, 2001
This biopic directed by lifetime Yankees fan Billy Crystal (Billy once batted for the Yankees in a spring training game) centers around Roger Marris and Mickey Mantle chasing Babe Ruth’s record 60 home runs in one season. It’s heartfelt and a real tribute.

Did I miss one? Email me at BigDaddy295@AOL.com with your suggestions.


Author: Big Daddy Graham

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