1. Bull Durham (1988): This comedy is the ultimate baseball film, depicting the minor leagues and players on the way up and on the way down. The very smart screenplay celebrates all of the little customs, superstitions, traditions, idioms, etc., that make up the culture of baseball. Plus there is the all-time funniest conference on the mound.
2. Eight Men Out (1988): Director John Sayles tells the true story of the Black Sox Scandal – the Chicago White Sox players who fixed the 1919 World Series. Sayles used actors, not baseball players, but the baseball scenes are totally authentic. The characters of star players Eddie Cicotte, Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson and owner Charles Comiskey vividly come alive.
3. A League of Their Own (1992): This film is set during the man shortage of WW II, when there was a professional baseball league of women players; grizzled manager Tom Hanks is not enthusiastic about managing the girls, but finds that they really do play baseball – real baseball. “There’s no crying in baseball.”
4. Baseball (1994): This is Ken Burns’ history of baseball, told in nine “innings”. The first inning probes the hazy origins of the game, and the ninth inning explores modern corporate baseball. In between, we see the one-base-at-a-time game of the 1910s, the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth and the new power game, the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the move of MLB into California, expansion, and so much more. Burns uses a delightful array of talking heads (players and observers), the most compelling of whom are Buck O’Neil, Stephen Jay Gould and Bob Costas.
In 2010, Burn added another chapter with The Tenth Inning.
5. The Natural (1984): This is the beautifully shot fable of an promising player whose career is aborted by violence, but who, with a magic bat, reappears in middle age under a different identity as a once-in-a-lifetime slugging star.
6. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): Michael Moriarty plays the hotshot pitcher and Robert DeNiro plays the simple-minded catcher on a minor league team. Roommates, they share the secret of the catcher’s alarmingly progressive disease. This is the best sports tear jerker.
7. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976): This film is the story of the Negro Leaguers who barnstormed the countryside. It’s also a rowdy and earthy vehicle for Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. But the baseball scenes are really, really good by themselves.
8. Field of Dreams (1989): This is the lyrical fable of a dreamer who builds a baseball field in his cornfield to connect with players of yesteryear, including his own father. “Build it, and he will come”.
9. The Pride of the Yankees (1942): This classic tells the true story of the taciturn superstar Lou Gehrig (the taciturn Gary Cooper) who is stricken by a debilitating illness. Co-stars Babe Ruth as himself.
10. (tie) Major League (1989), Angels in the Outfield (1994) and Damn Yankees! (1958): Major League is the crass joke-a-minute baseball comedy – the Airplane! of baseball. Angels in the Outfield is the sweet fable about a boy who sees angels, and enlists them to help his favorite ball club. Damn Yankees! is the musical on our list, and asks what baseball fan wouldn’t sell his soul to have his cellar-dwelling heroes win the Series? Gwen Verdon has a show stopping rendition of “What Lola Wants”.
And a baseball time capsule
The Busher (1919): This silent film may not be a great movie, but it is an excellent document of baseball 90 years ago. In 1919, John McGraw was managing the Giants, Ty Cobb was in his heyday, Babe Ruth pitched 17 games for the BoSox and the White Sox were fixing the World Series. If you want to see how baseball looked back then (how the fans and umpires dressed, how the catcher squatted, etc.), watch this movie. It is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.
The Busher is reviewed here by silent film expert Chris Edwards.