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Sun, Apr

The Greatest Baseball Films of All Time

VOICES

AMERICA’S PASTIME - "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," wrote Columbia University scholar Jacques Barzun in 1954. That observation remains true today. Our national pastime has inspired great poems, paintings, novels, music, and plays, but for most Americans, baseball is best represented by the hundreds of films about the game.

Of course, many baseball flicks were duds. Since the silent movie era, for example, there have been at least a dozen films just about Babe Ruth, including two of the worst films of all time—“The Babe Ruth Story” (1948) starring William Bendix and “The Babe” (1992) featuring John Goodman.

As we approach opening day on March 28, fans may want to watch (or re-watch) some of the most outstanding movies about baseball. (There are many great baseball documentaries, but they’re not included here).

Most baseball films are pure entertainment. But baseball is often the setting for notable films that tell a bigger story about America’s social conditions. For example, the 1976 film "Bad News Bears"—about a girl trying to make it on an otherwise all-male Little League team—was not a great movie on its own, but it appeared during the early days of the feminist movement, and a few years after Congress passed Title IX. It inspired many girls to participate in sports.

The films described below address racism, corrupt business practices, sexism, immigration, mental illness, homophobia, and workers rights.

“Bull Durham” (1988). Writer/director Ron Shelton based the film on his experiences as a minor league player for five years. The film depicts the players and fans of the Durham (N.C.) Bulls, a single-A minor league team. It stars Kevin Costner as Crash Davis, a veteran catcher who had a brief (21 day) sojourn in the major leagues. The Bulls recruit him to teach promising rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) about both the physical and mental aspects of the game. Each season, groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) selects one Bulls player as her companion and lover. She is attracted to both the naïve LaLoosh (described as having a “million dollar arm but a five cent head”) and the seasoned and sophisticated Davis. Baseball fans will identify with Annie’s words: "The only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.” Shelton recounted the film’s behind-the-scenes stories in his 2022 memoir, The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham.

“Moneyball” (2011). Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film explores Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) effort to assemble a competitive team for the 2002 season with a limited $41 million payroll budget. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics major with no baseball-playing experience, Beane looks for undervalued talent using sophisticated statistical data. The team’s old-school scouts and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as well as many fans, scoff at this approach to evaluating players. The film chronicles Beane’s success—including an American League record of 19 consecutive wins and the American League West championship. The A’s lost to the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series, but two years later, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series using those ideas. Beane’s approach—called sabermetrics—is now widely accepted throughout baseball. Many players appreciate the information they get to improve their skills, but they also worry that it is being used as a tool by owners to undermine their bargaining power during contract negotiations

“42” (2013). Among the many fictional portrayals of Jackie Robinson’s heroic crusade to integrate major league baseball, this is the best. Even if you're not a baseball fan, the film will tug at your heart and have you rooting for Robinson to overcome the racist obstacles put in his way. It is an uplifting tale of courage and determination that is hard to resist, even though you know the outcome before the movie begins. But the film strikes out as history, because it ignores the true story of how baseball's apartheid system was dismantled. The film portrays baseball's integration as the tale of two trailblazers—Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the combative athlete, and Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Dodgers owner and shrewd strategist—battling baseball's, and society's, bigotry. But the truth is that it was a political victory brought about by a social protest movement led by civil rights groups, labor unions, the Black press, radical politicians, and the Communist Party. For example, Andrew Holland plays Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith, but he's depicted as Robinson's traveling companion and ghost-writer, ignoring Smith's key role as an agitator and leader of the long crusade to integrate baseball more than a decade before Robinson became a household name. As an activist himself, Robinson would likely have been disappointed by a film that ignored the centrality of the broader struggle that open the door for him—and many Black players who followed in his footsteps—to pursue his dream.

"A League of Their Own" (1992) is responsible for one of filmdom’s most famous one-liners: “There’s no crying in baseball,” spoken by Tom Hanks as the manager of the Rockford Peaches of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. The highest-grossing baseball film ever ($132 million), it is based on the real-life AAGPBL, which lasted from 1943 to 1954 and employed over 600 athletes, playing a sport they loved while dealing with the sexist stereotypes of the era, like the requirement that they all use make-up and wear skirts as part of their uniforms. The remarkable cast, including Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Lori Petty, portrays the daily travails of players trying to win ballgames while worrying about their boyfriends, husbands, and brothers in the World War 2 military. One scene makes it clear that the AAGPBL was, like major and minor league baseball at the time, all-white. Left unsaid in the film is that many players were lesbians, but the league owners insisted that they stay in the closet and look like the girl next door. The film helped inspire a resurgence of women’s baseball and softball leagues as well as a growing number of women playing on all-male high school and college baseball teams.

“Sugar” (2008). Of today’s roughly 1,500 major league players, one-quarter were born in Latin American countries, with by far the largest number (11% of all players) from the Dominican Republic. The film follows Dominican pitcher Miguel Santos (nicknamed Sugar, and played by Algenis Perez Soto) struggling to make it to the major leagues and lift himself and his family out of poverty. Playing for a low-level minor league team in a small Iowa town, he faces numerous challenges. He speaks little English, confronts persistent racism, and feels lonely and isolated. He’s pitching well until an injury during a routine play sidelines him to the disabled list. The team eventually releases him. His dream shattered, he moves to New York City where–like many new immigrants–he struggles to make ends meet with dead-end jobs, far from home and from even the small celebrity he enjoyed as a ballplayer.

"Eight Men Out" (1988), based on Eliot Asinof’s nonfiction book, depicts the infamous Black Sox Scandal in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series in exchange for money. The team was one of the greatest ever assembled, but in those pre-union days, owner Charles Cominsky refused to pay his players a decent wage, fueling their resentment and their willingness to take a bribe. One of the players, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, was an unwitting participant. In fact, he performed almost flawlessly during the series (batting .375 with 12 hits, a World Series record), but he was nevertheless, like his teammates, banned from baseball for the rest of his life.

“Field of Dreams” (1989). A year later, Jackson showed up again in this film based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe. Kevin Costner stars as an Iowa farmer who, while walking through his cornfield one evening, hears a voice whispering, "If you build it, he will come"—one of the most famous lines in movie history. At great financial risk, he plows under the cornfield to build a baseball diamond that attracts the ghosts of baseball legends, including Jackson, as well as thousands of visitors eager to watch the legends at play. In his final film role, Burt Lancaster plays Moonlight Graham, one of the long-dead players who show up at Costner’s field. The character is based on Archibald Graham, who played one inning in a major league game in 1905 as a right fielder but never got to bat. He gave up the sport to become a small-town doctor in Minnesota.

"Bingo Long and the Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings" (1976) tells the fictional story of former Negro League players who travel across the Midwest playing local teams during the Great Depression, when major league baseball was still segregated. With an outstanding cast that includes Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, the film depicts the harsh realities, as well as the fun and pride, of Black baseball in that era. The film is loosely based on some real-life Negro League players (including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson) and on the Indianapolis Clowns and other barnstorming Negro League teams. The Black players bristle at the low pay, miserable working conditions and racism that bars them from the major leagues. The James Earl Jones character, Leon Carter, compares playing for the team’s owners to slavery and urges his teammates to organize a player-owned team, a radical idea that was gaining popularity during the upheavals of the Depression. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter says that “nothing’s going to change until the workers seize the means of production.”

"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973) stars a young Robert DeNiro as dim-witted major league catcher Bruce Pearson. His teammates ridicule him for his limited intellect and ineptness on the field. His only friend on the team is the brainy star pitcher Henry Wiggen (played by Michael Moriarity), who takes him to the Mayo Clinic, where he’s told he is terminally ill with Hodgkin’s disease. During spring training, the team’s manager decides to release Pearson, but Wiggen intervenes, agreeing to end his demand for more money on the condition that they keep the dying catcher. After Wiggen informs his teammates about Pearson’s illness, their attitude changes from scorn to solicitude, and Pearson’s performance dramatically improves. Like the Mark Harris novel from which it is adapted, the film ends with a great last line: "From here on in, I rag nobody."

“Long Gone” (1987), the least-known film on this list, chronicles the 1957 season of the fictional Tampico Stogies, a Class D minor league team in Florida, led by star player and manager Stud Cantrell, a once-promising player whose World War Two injury kept him from making the majors. Owned by two corrupt and stingy local father-and-son businessmen, the team struggles to lift itself out of last place in the Gulf Coast League. The Stogies’ fortunes change when they sign a slugging catcher named Joe Brown. Because this is the Jim Crow South, and to keep the KKK off his back, Cantrell introduces the African American Brown as a Venezuelan named Jose Luis Brown who doesn’t speak English. In a game-fixing scenario reminiscent of the Black Sox scandal, Cantrell and Brown are both offered lucrative bribes not to show up to a pennant-deciding game as the team competes for the championship. The outcome of that game depends on a conversation about their ethical dilemmas that Cantrell and Brown have at a local bar.

“The Natural” (1984), director Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name, views baseball as a metaphor for the promises and pitfalls of the American dream. Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) is a super-talented ballplayer destined for big league greatness, but various temptations – corrupt gamblers, bribe offers from a team owner, and sexual enticement – as well as his own ego, get in his way. In 1923, the 19-year old pitching prodigy’s career is thwarted when a woman lures him to her hotel room and shoots him in the stomach, causing severe injuries. Hobbs quickly disappears into obscurity. He reappears 16 years later as a rookie hitter for the New York Knights, seeking redemption despite the skepticism of his manager, teammates, and sportswriters. His slugging inspires a comeback by the lowly Knights. By the last day of the season, they are competing for the pennant. The Knights’ owner, betting against his own team, tries to bribe Hobbs to throw the game. Here, the film dramatically diverges from the novel. In the hands of Malamud, Hobbs strikes out, ending the Knights’ season. In the film, he hits a towering home run, clinching the pennant for his team and rescuing him from his troubled past—an all-American happy ending. The characters in both the novel and the film draw on real baseball figures but don’t refer to them by name, including Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Branch Rickey, and, again, Shoeless Joe Jackson. The near-fatal shooting of Hobbs by a mysterious woman is based on a true story. Most analysts believe that Malamud was drawing on an incident in 1949, when Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a 19-year old stenographer who had an obsession with Phillies’ 29-year old All-Star first baseman Eddie Waitkus, lured and shot him in a Chicago hotel room when the Phillies were in the city to play the Cubs. The incident received a great deal of media attention just three years before Malamud’s novel was published. But Malamud may also have been aware of a similar incident in 1932, when showgirl Violet Popovich shot Chicago Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges in another hotel a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

“Fences" (2016) brings August Wilson’s play, about a former Negro League player frustrated by his life, to the screen. It is 1957, and the film's protagonist, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), owns a small, run-down house with a tiny backyard in the Hill District, the heart of Pittsburgh's black community, where he lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis). Maxson is 53 and earns $74 a week ($32,000 a year in today's dollars) as a garbage collector, which he dutifully hands over to Rose every Friday. Though he lives paycheck to paycheck—and can't even afford $200 to buy a television or $234 to fix the roof—Troy has attained a modest level of success as a member of the black working class. He feels great pride in being able to care for his family, but is consumed with rage over racism, which he believes has held him back and trapped him in a life of quiet desperation. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was a star slugger for one of Pittsburgh’s Negro League teams. His biggest regret is that he never got to play in the majors. By the time Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he was 43. He believes it was his race, not his age, that locked him out of the money and fame that could have been his. The film is devoid of any baseball action, but the sport is present throughout the film. Maxson keeps a bat and ball in the backyard, and often ruminates about his could-have-been baseball career. His marriage is filled with lust, love, tenderness, banter, and humor, but he takes out his frustrations on long-suffering Rose and his two sons with alcohol-fueled outbursts about his plight in life.

“Fear Strikes Out" (1957) belongs in a category of its own. It is not a great film, but it had a significant and positive impact on American culture. It is the story of Boston Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall’s battle with mental illness, based on his courageous book by the same name, published in 1955. In 1952, the 22-year old Piersall had a nervous breakdown. At the time, mental illness was even less understood than it is today, and carried a huge stigma, especially for public figures like athletes and entertainers. During his first full season with the Red Sox, Piersall's erratic behavior–taking bows after catching a fly ball, getting into disputes with fans and umpires and occasional fights with opposing players—eventually led to him spending six weeks at Westborough State Hospital, where he was diagnosed with manic depression, as bipolar disorder was known at the time, and treated him with electric shock therapy and prescribed the drug lithium. In his book, Piersall provides a frank and fascinating account of his breakdown and how–with the help of doctors, his wife, and his teammates–he was able to recover and resume his pro career. The book describes his rise from the sandlots of Waterbury, Connecticut to the big leagues, but it understandably focuses on his psychological condition and his growing self-awareness. Piersall went on to have an outstanding and colorful 17-year playing career, including twice making the All-Star team. Unfortunately, the film–starring Anthony Perkins as Piersall and Karl Malden as his domineering father who pushes his son beyond all reasonable limits–is awful, although it has some tender moments. Perkins was unsuited for the role. His acting was tortured and he obviously had no athletic ability. But because more people have seen the film than read the book, it had a significant impact in de-stigmatizing mental illness, and thus belongs on this list.

One baseball subject that Hollywood ought to translate into a major film is the struggle for baseball workers’ rights. It could center on All-Star outfielder Curt Flood’s courageous effort, in the 1970s, to challenge the reserve clause (baseball’s version of indentured servitude) by suing Major League Baseball all the way to the Supreme Court. It cost him his career. The film could also remind viewers of battles among professional players to organize and unionize against greedy owners as far back as the late 1800s and fast forward to the recent successful union campaign by severely-underpaid minor league players against the current crop of billionaire team owners.

The story of big league pitcher Sam Nahem’s crusade to integrate military baseball during World War 2 is also ripe for the big screen. Nahem was a right-handed pitcher with left-wing politics. He may have been the only major leaguer during his day who was a member of the Communist Party. He grew up in a Syrian Jewish family, was a baseball and football star at Brooklyn College, and earned a law degree during the off-season when he was in the minor leagues. He played for the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Phillies between 1938 and 1948. Nahem was a key player in a little-known episode in the battle to desegregate baseball. Like many other radicals in the 1930s and 1940s, Nahem fervently believed that baseball should be racially integrated. 

The OISE All-Stars, 1945. Sam Nahem is third from right on the top row. Willard Brown is second from right, front row. Leon Day is far right, front row.

During the war, the U.S.. military ran a robust baseball program at home and overseas. After Germany surrendered in May 1945, the military expanded its baseball program while American troops remained in Europe. That year, over 200,000 American soldiers—including some major leaguers—were playing baseball on military teams in France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Britain. All the teams were racially segregated. While serving in the Army in France, Nahem organized a team to represent his division and defied the the military’s segregation policy by recruiting two Negro League stars–Leon Day and Willard Brown–to join his OISE All-Stars. His team won the U.S. military championship series in Europe in September 1945, playing the final game in Nuremberg, Germany, in the same stadium where Hitler had addressed Nazi Party rallies. Allied bombing had destroyed the city but somehow spared the stadium. The U.S. Army laid out a baseball diamond and renamed the stadium Soldiers Field. 

After his playing days were over, Nahem returned to New York, but his political activities caught the attention of the FBI, which put him under surveillance. The Cold War blacklist made it difficult for him to find or keep a job. He moved to the Bay Area, where worked for 25 years in a Chevron chemical plant and became a union leader, even leading a strike in 1969.

(Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He joined the Occidental faculty in January 1993 after serving for nine years as Director of Housing at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and senior policy advisor to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. He is the author of "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (2012) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style" and co-author of "Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America" (2022). This article was first featured in CommonDreams.org.)