Editor’s Note: With Opening Day 2021 upon us, Matt Melis, Justin Gerber, Michael Roffman, and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer get together to shell sunflower seeds, practice their seventh-inning stretches, and try to avoid a rhubarb as they select the top 10 baseball films of all time. We’re happy to report that they’re practically in mid-season form already. This list originally ran in April of 2015.
One of my favorite baseball moments captured in a film won’t be found on this list. That’s partly due to the fact that the movie it appears in, City Slickers, isn’t a baseball film, even if Billy Crystal opts for a Mets cap over a standard ten-gallon. In the scene, the lone woman on a tourist cattle drive comments on how silly it is that men obsess over a game like baseball rather than discuss more important things like “real life” and relationships. Daniel Stern’s character, the endearingly damaged Phil, responds: “You’re right, I suppose. I guess it is childish, but when I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball. Now, that was real.”
For all the talk of pinstripes, pennants, and, unfortunately, pharmaceuticals, baseball, more than anything, remains the glue that maintains and repairs the relationships between fathers and sons. It’s the language men use to say what would otherwise go unsaid. There truly are few experiences as magical as a summer “in the hunt,” but when October ends, the stands empty, and we settle in for the long, cold days ahead, it’s not the scores, statistics, or standings that comfort us during winter’s quiet solitude. Fathers and sons think back upon those late-night calls second-guessing a pitching change or that one or two times a season they still manage to get out to the ballpark together even though they now live half a country apart. Seasons come and go, blur or altogether vanish in their memories as time passes, but those moments spent “talking ball,” so simple and natural, mark those lifetimes and relationships.
Another favorite moment of mine does appear on this list. One grown man asks another, “You wanna have a catch?” No matter how old I get, the answer remains the same.
10. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
Manager (Director): John Badham
Starting Lineup: Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor
Around the Horn: On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Some perspective: It wasn’t until 1948 that Truman abolished racial discrimination in the military and not until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled that a segregated pubic school system is unconstitutional. In other words, when it came to breaking societal color lines, baseball, the American pastime, stepped to the plate first. Numerous accounts of Robinson’s story, and depictions of the Negro leagues, have been featured in films, such as The Jackie Robinson Story, Soul of the Game, and, most recently, 42, but we opted here for a film that offers a perspective on the Negro league experience rarely seen.
The largely forgotten Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, starring Billy Dee Williams as ace pitcher Bingo Long (a Satchel Paige type) and James Earl Jones as slugger Leon Carter (based loosely on Josh Gibson), tells the story of two Negro league stars who break the slave-like contracts with their black-owned teams (“the masters”) and form their own barnstorming outfit. In many ways, the film is a farcical, cross-country romp — especially with outlandish characters like Charlie Snow aka Carlos Nevada (Richard Pryor) who schemes to break into the white leagues as a Cuban — but the indelible struggle for freedom present in this film shouldn’t be overlooked either. Beyond the gags and ridiculous predicaments that ensue, Bingo and Leon are ultimately two friends fighting for the right to determine their own destinies in a black-and-white world that simply won’t tolerate that type of radical thinking.
Co-MVPs: Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones.
Grand Slam Scene: In the final scene, after Bingo and Leon have won the big game to earn their own spot as a team in the Negro leagues, they find out that a much younger player on the team, Esquire Joe, has just been signed to play Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In that moment, we see Bingo and Leon’s dream fall into the hands of another generation, and no matter how coolly the smooth-talking Bingo may play it off, you can sense the initial hurt as he realizes that he and Leon had to come first so that younger black men like Joe could live out their dreams. (A clip of this scene is unavailable online, but see the film’s trailer below.) –Matt Melis
09. The Bad News Bears (1976)
Manager: Michael Ritchie
Starting Lineup: Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal, Jackie Earle Haley, and Vic Morrow
Around the Horn: In the immortal words of pint-size, white-supremacist shortstop Tanner Boyle, “Jews, spics, n——, and now a girl?” Ah, travel back with us to the un-PC 1970s, a time of foul balls and fouler language, bean balls and buzzed little league coaches. But beneath all The Bad News Bears’ delightful (and innocuous) offenses resides a classic underdog story that never gets tiresome. A down-on-his-luck, alcoholic pool cleaner-turned-little league coach, Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), pools every resource at his disposal — his ex’s tomboy daughter, Amanda (Tatum O’Neal); the local hoodlum, Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley); and even an unorthodox team sponsor, Chico’s Bail Bonds — to give his hopeless team of castoffs a shot at the pennant. In the end, the team may fall just short, but Buttermaker wins the respect of his players and learns the lesson every little league coach out there (especially the Roy Turners) needs to think about before this season starts: It’s just a game.
MVP: Walter Matthau
Grand Slam Scene: After Rudy Stein disobeys his manager by swinging away instead of “leaning into” a pitch, we see this sobering moment in the dugout between Buttermaker and the kids. Buttermaker finally gets it. –Matt Melis
08. 61* (2001)
Manager: Billy Crystal
Starting Lineup: Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane, and Jennifer Crystal Foley
Around the Horn: The made-for-HBO 61* could fairly be called Billy Crystal’s love letter to his boyhood Yankees teams. As Director and Executive Producer, Crystal drew from his encyclopedic baseball knowledge to recreate old Yankee Stadium and that 1961 team in painstaking detail, right down to the hue of the stadium’s paint and the batting stances of the players. However, Crystal’s most stunning achievement is the relationship he portrays between Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) as the two chased after Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record during the 1961 season. It’s a friendship constantly strained by the adoration that New York feels for Mantle while Maris, a soft-spoken, small-town type, gets vilified by fans and media alike with each knock that brings him closer to the Babe’s record. While we often associate sports records solely with glory, Crystal doesn’t shy away from showing us the ugliness that Maris endured to achieve his record: media cheap shots, hate mail, death threats (to both him and his family), and around-the-clock stress that caused his hair to begin falling out. But maybe most painful of all is watching Maris secretly long to be embraced by a city that adamantly refuses to accept him.
MVP: Barry Pepper
Grand Slam Scene: There’s a short montage of Maris waiting in his hotel room prior to the game in Baltimore that would be his last chance to break Ruth’s record in 154 games (the length of the season in which Ruth set the record). We find Maris sitting in bed, smoking and rocking back and forth atop a pile of hurtful headlines. There’s no dialogue, only Lyle Lovett’s “Nobody Knows Me” softly playing, as he moves around the room and ends up crying at a window sill. If Gehrig was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Pepper makes us believe Maris, at that moment, was the loneliest. (A clip of this scene is unavailable online, but see the film’s trailer below.) –Matt Melis
07. A League of Their Own (1992)
Manager: Penny Marshall
Starting Lineup: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O’Donnell
Around the Horn: A League of Their Own harkens back to a simpler time in the game of baseball, when World War II was happening and baseball was one of the few things that could unite a great many scared people. The film is based on the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. It was a stopgap when so many athletes went off to serve, a way of keeping baseball in the public consciousness that many suspected was a gimmick and little more. It was, in a way, but ended up being substantially more important. In the film’s fictionalized America, there was Dottie (Davis), a dairy farmer and industrial-league catcher, who joins the team when her sister, Kit (Lori Petty), decides to try out as well. They eventually end up on the Rockford Peaches, along with “All the Way” Mae (Madonna) and the gruff Doris (O’Donnell).
Cynically coached by Hanks’ Jimmy Dugan, the Peaches end up an unexpected success due in part to Dottie getting it through to Life magazine that an all-female league can and does play just as hard as its male counterpart. If anything, they played harder, knowing that time was finite and that one day baseball would be an all-boys club yet again. But for that triumphant year, the Peaches disproved any and all skeptics, and even when they lost their numbers to trades and infighting, they still sold out stadiums as their own draw.
MVP: Geena Davis’ Dottie is so deliberately unassuming to a point that it makes her evolution into the face of a revolutionary age in sports all the more heartening. Plus, that pop-up into a catch while down in the splits is a killer. Let’s see one current MLB catcher give that a whirl and see how it goes.
Grand Slam Scene: There’s only one video that can go here, really. In case you didn’t know, there is not, in fact, any crying in baseball. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
06. The Sandlot (1993)
Manager: David M. Evans
Starting Lineup: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Patrick Renna, Karen Allen, Denis Leary, Chauncey Leopardi, and James Earl Jones
Around the Horn: Scotty Smalls (Guiry) is, by the proclamation of his friends, something of an “L-7 weenie” at the start of The Sandlot. He just moved to suburban L.A. in 1962, and while his mom (Allen) wants him to make friends and get into trouble and acclimate to his surroundings, he doesn’t really know how. He’d rather play with Erector sets in his room, which puts him at a disconnect with his father (Leary, really an incredibly handsome man in the early ‘90s) and with the neighborhood kids, who pass their days playing pickup baseball in a local sandlot.
Slowly but surely, the group accepts Smalls, only to be put in the biggest pickle any of them had ever seen when Scotty accidentally homers his dad’s autographed Babe Ruth baseball over the sandlot’s wall, into a yard that famously serves as a prison for “The Beast,” an animal from whom no baseball has ever been reclaimed. The Sandlot is pure nostalgia, and it lovingly chronicles the pangs of oncoming adolescence: the infinity of summer, the early rumblings of desire for the opposite sex, the terror of realizing that there’s a much larger, scarier world out there than the one you know. But it’s also genuinely insightful about what it is to be an uncertain, tentative, awkward kid in a place you don’t yet know how to grasp.
MVP: James Earl Jones, the owner of The Beast, who gives Scotty and his to-be lifelong best friend Benny (Vitar) some lessons in manhood and not stealing your dad’s stuff, while debunking much of the mystique surrounding The Beast. He’s not in much of the film, but anybody who grew up with this film remembers his soliloquy well.
Grand Slam Scene: The film has quite a few of them (Benny’s climactic baseball-reclaiming gambit is a great one), but it’s when Babe Ruth visits Benny in a dream that The Sandlot finds its purpose and teaches generations of young athletes and hardcore bands alike a lesson in heroes and legends. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
05. Moneyball (2011)
Manager: Bennett Miller
Starting Lineup: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright, and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Around the Horn: The pitch (pun most definitely intended) for Moneyball must have been a hard sell. The book upon which it’s based focuses on the Oakland A’s Billy Bean (Brad Pitt), a former prospect-turned-washout-turned-GM who discovers a new strategy in putting together a solid, inexpensive baseball team. Are you bored to tears yet? Well, wake up! With a script that pops, thanks to a dust-off by Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball takes the “Inside Baseball” approach and makes it inclusive. Scenes of Billy on the phone with other agents and GMs inside of his kitchen or office are just as enthralling as the movie’s walk-off home run.
At the end of the day, Moneyball works because of Pitt. He never “becomes” the real Billy Bean, but he convinces you that he’s the general manager of a baseball team. Pitt’s strong chemistry with fellow Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill (as assistant Peter) is equal parts unexpected and unique; his combative relationship with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as then-A’s manager Art Howe) is intriguing; and his relationship with his daughter endears without falling prey to pandering. Moneyball is about the ins and outs of running a baseball team, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be captivating.
MVP: Brad Pitt
Grand Slam Scene: The best scene in Moneyball takes place in Billy Bean’s office. We see Billy wheeling and dealing via a conference call, phone transfers, and people being put on hold. It all transpires while Peter sits on the other end of the table in stunned silence, occasionally chiming in with advice. Hilarious.
However, this scene isn’t online, so here’s the second best moment of the film and the best moment of the A’s 2002 season. –Justin Gerber
04. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Manager: Sam Wood
Starting Lineup: Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, and Walter Brennan
Around the Horn: Gary Cooper was an everyman on screen. Whether he was doing battle in Sergeant York or awaiting a showdown in High Noon, Cooper always seemed, well, normal is the best way to describe him. He took on plainspoken characters and thrived off of them. Cooper featured in several classic roles, and one of them is unquestionably his take on Yankees great Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. I wrote about this very film in a biopic feature from late last year. Let’s see what I said then:
“The movie follows Gehrig’s life as a college student, his consecutive-games-played streak, falling in love, and ultimately the disease that would one day bear his name and took him too soon. It features a subtle performance from Cooper, with an ending that stops where most tragic dramas wouldn’t (well before the funeral), and also capped off a run of three consecutive Oscar nominations for Teresa Wright, who played the role of Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor. Though she wouldn’t be nominated again for the rest of her life, it isn’t as though her career tanked. Wright would go on to star in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, as well as one of the greatest post-war films of all time in The Best Years of Our Lives. And those three nominations were for her first three films. Take that, J-Law!”
Yes! “Take that, J-Law,” indeed! Such wit from yours truly!
MVP: Gary Cooper. Wright is runner-up in the balloting.
Grand Slam Scene: It’s not only one of the most famous speeches in American history, but one of the greatest mike drops to ever end a movie. Perfect. –Justin Gerber
03. Bull Durham (1988)
Manager: Ron Shelton
Starting Lineup: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Robert Wuhl, and Trey Wilson
Around the Horn: By virtually any metric of measurement, any list of the best baseball films (or even the best sports films at large) is required to include Bull Durham. It’s been imitated endlessly since its release in 1988, but you can’t touch the original story of Crash Davis (Costner), a grizzled veteran catcher and minor-league journeyman assigned to Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Robbins), a hyper-promising young pitcher. And then there’s Annie (Sarandon), the year-by-year groupie who catches both Nuke and Crash’s eyes and teaches them both a few things about baseball that not all the playing time in the world could.
Like the best sports movies, Bull Durham captures the intrinsic appeal of baseball, but doesn’t fetishize its less savory (or less interesting) facets. As Crash exhaustedly puts it to Nuke at one point while coaching him through the paces of what he’ll have to say in player interviews to make nice with the right people, “You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’” As the film considers it, most of life is a series of these performances, punctuated by vulnerable moments of humanity, like the one on which the film ultimately ends.
MVP: Sarandon, on this one. Costner and Robbins are both great, to be sure, but it’s Sarandon’s sagely, sexual muse who ends up leaving the biggest impression on Nuke and Crash and anybody watching.
Grand Slam Scene: Annie’s opening “Church of Baseball” soliloquy. It captures all the nobilities of the sport, in all its splendor, in two minutes flat. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
02. Major League (1989)
Manager: David Ward
Starting Lineup: Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen, Rene Russo, and Wesley Snipes
Around the Horn: Bob Uecker says it best: “To hell with it.” The unnatural majesty of Major League is in the shrug off. Every beleaguered has-been is so had they’re willing to just take the bruise and roll with the quip. That is, until they start to try — or “win the whole, fucking, thing.” That application extends outside the baseball diamond, too, which is why there’s so much heart to each character. Tom Berenger’s fortysomething Jake Taylor wants that unlikely fourth chance, and it’s in his attempt that he motivates his troubled teammates, from bad boy Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) to the speedy Willy Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes). How it all comes together in those final moments… Well, it’s a rousing argument for why baseball is (sometimes) the greatest game ever played. What a soundtrack, too.
MVP: Wesley Snipes. First instinct is to choose Bad Knees Berenger, but the lack of Snipes in the shoddy sequel only proved how magical he was in the original. Plus, he gets all the best one-liners: “Should’ve got a live chicken.”
Grand Slam Scene: Christ, that’s an impossible choice, but hey, bring that shit to me, man. While the spring training and winning streak montages immediately come to mind, there’s just no beating the film’s grand finale. Once Taylor bunts — eliciting a sly “Shit” from the Yankees’ lanky shortstop — each second thereafter is just torturous, even if you’ve seen it a thousand times. Ward delicately frames all the right shots, wrenching the most essential emotions out of his actors, especially Berenger, who looks as if he’s going to have a fucking heart attack before he steps on first base. He does, though, immediately hurling the action to Snipes as he races and slides toward home, slinging his leg inside just in the nick of time. Oh, I can hear Uecker screaming as I type. –Michael Roffman
01. Field of Dreams (1989)
Manager: Phil Alden Robinson
Starting Lineup: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Burt Lancaster, Lil’ Gaby Hoffman, and Timothy Busfield
Around the Horn: Where do we begin? Field of Dreams is a movie about fathers and sons, hippies who grew up, redemption, farming, ghosts athletes, censorship, Timothy Busfield’s beard, and, of course, America’s Pastime. Costner’s second film to make this list (sorry For Love of the Game), Field of Dreams recalls awe-shucks filmmaking that had been declared dead circa the Truman presidency. Kevin Costner’s Ray is a family man and farmer with a plot of land in Iowa. He’s settled into a life he never guessed he’d have until the day he hears those seven fateful words: “If you build it, he will come.”
He builds a baseball field in his backyard, and a team of banned players from the infamous Black Sox scandal return to play, led by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Liotta). The movie doesn’t end here. More words follow that bring out a reclusive civil rights author (Jones) and an older man who never got to bat in an MLB game (Lancaster, in his last role). This all manages to tie together in a movie that will melt the heart of the greatest cynic (at least it melted mine) and have you hoping to get the chance to have that last “game of catch” with a loved one.
MVP: James Earl Jones, now a three-time winner on this list.
Grand Slam Scene: Why Jones and not Costner? Field of Dreams is a great movie, but seeing Jones grow seamlessly from a tired old curmudgeon into a man who can’t stop smiling is a beautiful thing to behold. The “People Will Come, Ray” speech isn’t just a grand slam — it’s a game winner. –Justin Gerber