MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

It’s baseball season now. Pitchers and catchers report in two days.

Ha! Fact.

The moment the Super Bowl ends means another season of boffo ratings conclude for #NFLTheTVShow, and if the ratings weren’t boffo for the one we saw on Sunday, then there is no such thing as boffo. But believe me, boffo is real. Although, I do have my doubts about the TVShow.

More on the Super Bowl later in the week. In the meantime, since it is now finally baseball season again, in response to last week’s entry about USA Today’s top 25 football movies of all time, we enter today, by semi-popular curiosity, the best so-called baseball movies of all time.

To remind: Football, like baseball, is not easy to replicate on the large or small screen for a number of reasons. Most of the good sports movies have a main storyline about something other than the sport in the movie. The sport itself is merely an important subplot – it’s what brings everybody to the point of the storyline – which is what makes a good sports movie a good movie period.

Thus, my greatest baseball movies ever made …

 

  1. A League of Their Own (1992): An absolutely beautiful film by Penny Marshall, from the music of Carole King and Madonna (who also plays some pretty good baseball in this) to the perfect storyline and cast.

It is the story of the real-life World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the growing rivalry that exists between two sisters (unbeknownst to the oldest sister) who join the league. The cast features Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, Bill Pullman and Jon Lovitz, who steals every scene he’s in.

It’s gripping, heartwarming, funny, accurate and true. And the actual baseball in the film is pretty darn good. The only myth about League is that the film’s most famous line — “There’s no crying in baseball.” — is the film’s best line. Not so.

The best line of the film is delivered by manager Jimmy Dugan (Hanks) when he tells his best player Dottie Hinson (Davis), who is about to quit because baseball has become so hard for her, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.”

And besides, everybody knows there is most certainly crying in baseball. The game, after all, as Bart Giamatti reminds us each fall, “is designed to break your heart …”

 

  1. Bull Durham (1988): The day to day (and night to night) of minor league baseball, written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former Baltimore Orioles farmhand, and starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

Costner plays Crash Davis, an aging minor-league catcher who is sent down from Triple A to the “bus leagues” and the Durham Bulls to mentor Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Robbins), a young pitcher who has “a million-dollar arm and a 5-cent head.” Both, however, become involved with baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Sarandon), and the story goes from there.

Actually, the story and the movie begin with Annie’s brilliant sermon on The Church of Baseball.

Best line: “It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it. I’ve tried ‘em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

Most brilliant and timely (in retrospect) line: “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls — it’s more democratic.”

Best tune: “Sixty Minute Man,” Billy Ward and his Dominoes

 

  1. Eight Men Out (1988): True-life drama about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal and how it nearly ruined baseball. Accurate to the word of the book written by Eliot Asinof, it has a great cast and tells a great story because, like “All The President’s Men” and “Spotlight”, it really happened, which should still just make us sick.

It covers, beginning to end, the game’s most disastrous scandal that nearly became its fatal one. A great reminder that, yeah, what Pete Rose did was pretty bad, and that he should never be allowed back anywhere near the game.

Then again, MLB and the NFL are now both linked arm-to-arm with gambling, which is the stuff of hypocrisy and greed.

Best line: “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”

 

  1. The Natural (1984): This adaptation of the Bernard Malamud novel is the one that got the 1980s baseball movies (goodbaseball movies) boom going.

Doesn’t stay accurate to the book, but in a movie like this one, in which Robert Redford is the star and has a gorgeous left-handed swing to boot, that’s okay. Directed by Baltimore’s Barry Levinson, “The Natural” also stars Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger and Wilford Brimley, who plays New York Knights manager Pop Fisher, but who will remind you of former Allegany football coach Jack Gilmore.

The film recounts the experiences of Roy Hobbs, a one-time phenom with great “natural” baseball talent, spanning decades of Hobbs’ life and career and the decisions he made along the way that proved costly.

Best line of the film? Roy Hobbs telling Iris (Close), the woman he has always loved, from his hospital bed, “God, I love baseball.”

 

  1. The Sandlot (1993): Any kid who was not allowed to be in the house during 1960s summer days, other than to eat and to sleep, is in this movie. It’s about growing up, being on your own and finding great adventure with your buddies. It’s about the evolution of leaders (pee wee sports had thankfully not come along yet), lifelong friendships, family, and doing the greatest thing you’ve ever done in your life — play baseball all day long with your friends.

Every character in this movie is somebody you know and somebody you grew up with. You can name them as the movie plays out.

Best line: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”

 

  1. Field of Dreams (1989): A laid-back Berkeley dude from the ’60s, played by Kevin Costner, and his former hippie wife build a baseball field in the middle of their Iowa farm and discover ghosts of baseball greats, including Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919 White Sox, are living in their cornfield.

The guy also comes to discover he has Dad issues (who doesn’t?) but gets it all straightened out by finally asking his dad to play catch, as though that’s going to help anything. But since the dad is a ghost himself, it works here …

Burt Lancaster is fabulous as Dr. Archibald (Moonlight) Graham. James Earl Jones, who plays a version of J.D. Salinger, steals the show with his haunting and stirring soliloquy on baseball and capitalism.

Best line: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

 

  1. Major League (1989): Only thing you need to know — Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle.

The story is really kind of stupid, truth be told. It’s silly, it’s fun and not at all realistic (See “The Replacements” for latter-day football version). What does come through as real is how a great old city like Cleveland (even if the baseball scenes are shot in Milwaukee’s old County Stadium) will rally around and embrace its baseball team.

Best line: Anything from the mouth of Harry Doyle.

 

  1. The Bad News Bears (1976): The way little league baseball is supposed to be. Walter Matthau is perfect as the beer-drinking ex-minor league pitcher Morris Buttermaker, who agrees to coach the Chico’s Bail Bonds-sponsored Bears team, which is made up of players who are likely future clients of the team sponsor.

Tatum O’Neal plays Amanda, the team’s pitcher (in our neighborhood, that would have been Willie Samples). Jackie Earle Haley plays Kelly Leak, a neighborhood loan shark, who happens to be the best player in the league (that would have been Willie Samples as well), and Chris Barnes plays Tanner Boyle, the team’s mouthy little tough-guy shortstop.

Essentially, a coming-of-age comedy that’s about not being taken for granted, standing up to the bully and, in the end, the beauty of sticking it to The Man, even in defeat.

 

  1. Moneyball (2011): A human look at baseball analytics during a time when the Oakland Athletics and general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, were the first and only ones who did analytics. Now everybody lives by them. Jonah Hill is great as the organizational stat geek.

Best line: Billy Beane on the A’s 20-game winning streak, “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. This kind of thing, it’s fun for the fans. It sells tickets and hot dogs. Doesn’t mean anything.”

 

  1. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976): Two of the greatest entities of American culture can be found in this movie — the Negro Leagues and Richard Pryor.

Billy Dee Williams plays pitcher Bingo Long, who steals a group of his fellow Negro League players away from their teams so they can make their own fortune on their own terms by barnstorming. The players include slugger Leon Carter (James Earl Jones) and Charlie Snow (Pryor), a player scheming to break into the segregated major leagues of the 1930s by masquerading as Cuban player Carlos Nevada.

Best line: “You tryin’ to get my dander up, but I is unwrathable!”

 

Honorable mention

 

The Bronx Is Burning (2007): Adapted from Joseph Mahler’s non-fiction bestseller, “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bronx is Burning,” this production rates very special honorable mention because it’s not a movie. It’s an ESPN eight-part mini-series that chronicles the turbulent year of 1977 in New York City — the Son of Sam serial killings, Jimmy Breslin, the city-wide blackout, the New York City mayoral race, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and the 1977 New York Yankees.

 

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): In an adaptation of the Mark Harris novel, Robert DeNiro, two roles before we came to know him as the young Vito Corleone, plays the not-too-bright journeyman catcher for the New York Mammoths who learns he is dying. The real story involves his relationship and unlikely friendship with the team’s sophisticated ace pitcher, played by Michael Moriarty.

 

61* (2001): Billy Crystal’s period piece about the 1961 home-run record chase by Yankees teammates Roger Maris (who won, sort of) and Mickey Mantle, and how it affected both players on and off the field. Great portrayals of both Maris and Mantle by Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane.

 

Cobb (1994): Tommy Lee Jones was pretty scary as the mean, hateful and bigoted Ty Cobb. And since the mean, hateful and bigoted Cobb would have appreciated that it must have been a realistic portrayal.

 

Pride of the Yankees (1942): Gary Cooper wasn’t a very believable baseball player, much less a believable Lou Gehrig when it came to the baseball any more than Ronald Regan was in “Knute Rockne, All-American” when it came to George Gipp, the football or being president. But for decades, Pride was the baseball movie of all baseball movies, and a very nice 1940s love story starring Teresa Wright as Eleanor Gehrig.

The movie also contains the only believable portrayal in motion picture history of Babe Ruth (which, in itself, is disturbing), as the actor who played Babe Ruth was … Babe Ruth.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT