This week marks the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's historic 1947 major league debut that opened the gates of professional baseball for minorities. And Brian Helgeland's “42,” a drama bringing that story to life, is now playing at local theaters.
What better time to review some of the best movies ever made on the subject of America's national pastime?
Some titles didn't make this list because they don't deserve to, such as the sexist comedy “Major League” and the anemic remake of “Angels in the Outfield.”
Others, such as the nostalgically sentimental “The Sandlot,” immigrant-themed “Sugar” and the documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” are still worth viewing. But they can't all fit in a top 10 list.
Speaking of which, here come 10 pitches for the best baseball motion pictures:
10. “Fear Strikes Out” (1957) — Long before he went psycho for Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins brought his twitchy, neurotic acting style to the role of Jimmy Piersall, the Boston Red Sox player who suffered an emotional breakdown because of the constant pressure exerted by his control-freak father (played by Karl Malden) to succeed in sports.
Robert Mulligan's movie contains the memorable, telling scene of Piersall's breakdown when he maniacally climbs the backstop after smashing in a home run.
9. “The Rookie” (2002) — John Lee Hancock's drama centers around high school science teacher Jim Morris (perfectly cast Dennis Quaid) who discovers he has a 98-mph pitching arm at the age of 35. He goes for the dream of being a professional ballplayer, even though his father (Brian Cox) never supported him playing baseball as a youth.
Here, we've got a wonderfully wrought father/son story advocating the courage to pursue your dreams. Plus, it's all true. (I interviewed the real Morris and he said so.)
8. “Pride of the Yankees” (1942) — Gary Cooper plays legendary Lou Gehrig in Sam Wood's well-written, sharply photographed biographical drama of the New York Yankees player who inspired a nation before succumbing to the disease that now bears his name. Cooper was a righty. Gehrig was a lefty. So Cooper wore a uniform with the numbers reversed and ran to third base instead of first, so that when the footage was reversed, he would appear to be swinging from the left side of home plate, By the way, Babe Ruth appears as himself along with Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea.
7. “Eight Men Out” (1988) — Chicago's great Studs Terkel plays sports journalist Hugh Fullerton in John Sayles' savvy look at the scandal that swept the 1919 Chicago White Sox into sports infamy. Gamblers target financially needy players to throw games, Many take the deal, but not Buck Weaver (Evanston native John Cusack), who still becomes tainted by the scandal. Christopher Lloyd, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney co-star in this straightforward indictment of team owner Charles Comiskey's tightfisted refusal to share the wealth with his players.
6. “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973) — A well-done, weepy story that merges baseball and friendship with a high-end “disease of the week” movie. Plus, it provides a look at one of Robert De Niro's earliest roles. He plays ballplayer Bruce Pearson, who's diagnosed with fatal Hodgkin lymphoma. His best friend Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), also a ballplayer, keeps the secret of the disease from their fellow teammates. Sensitively directed by John D. Hancock, this stirring drama goes way out of sentimental bounds and, yet, hits one homer of a compassionate portrait of buddies.
5. “A League of Their Own” (1992) — Sisterhood is the real subject of Penny Marshall's delightfully funny and dead-serious look at the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League, founded in 1943 after young American men were shipped off to fight in World War II. Two competitive sisters (Geena Davis and Lori Petty) are tapped to join the league, coached by an alcoholic curmudgeon (Tom Hanks). Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell and Garry Marshall co-star in this well-executed valentine to the game.
4. “Field of Dreams” (1989) — This poetic fantasy builds around the magical connection baseball has between fathers and sons who spend their quality time playing catch in the backyard. When a mysterious voice whispers to an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner), “If you build it, he will come,” he constructs an impressive baseball diamond in the middle of cornfields under the belief that the late Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) might emerge from the dugout.
A potent blend of nostalgia and fantasy fulfillment superbly directed by Phil Alden Robinson based on W.P. Kinsella's novel “Shoeless Joe.”
3. “Bull Durham” (1988) — This witty, trashy, romantic sports comedy clearly comes from the heart of a filmmaker (Ron Shelton) who knows and loves the game, plus the endearingly odd characters it attracts. (Shelton spent five years in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, so, yeah, he really knows this landscape.)
Hollywood's baseball pinup Kevin Costner plays Crash Davis, a skilled minor league catcher hired to bring out the best in potential killer pitcher Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins). Sizzling siren Susan Sarandon plays Annie, the team's No. 1 fan who chooses one player a season to lavish her affections upon. The kitchen scene between Crash and Annie is a classic encounter.
2. “Moneyball”(2011) — A sports underdog movie that thinks way outside of the batter's box as it traces the efforts of the Oakland A's general manager (Brad Pitt) to reinvent his 2002 team up against the crushing budget of the New York Yankees. The characters engage and the dialogue slams like a bat crack. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, naturally.
1. “The Natural” (1984) — No movie mythologizes baseball better than Barry Levinson's well-crafted fairy tale about destiny-annointed, highly moral ballplayer Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) whose story combines a superhero tale with Arthurian legend and, yes, even Homer's “The Odyssey,” all set to Randy Newman's appropriately heroic score.
Hobbs' bat is a wooden Excalibur. Kim Basinger's temptress is the siren. Darren McGavin's one-eyed executive is the Cyclops. Glenn Close is the guardian angel. What? Don't believe this is a “knights of the round table” movie? The team's name is the Knights, for Pete's sake.
In the final scene (significantly altered from Bernard Malamud's much darker book), “The Natural” recognizes the simple game of catch as a father-son bonding experience. This movie really does — pardon the pun — cover all the bases.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.