If you put ten people in a room to discuss their top 10 baseball movies all-time, you can bet there will be ten different opinions. I'll also bet that my own top 10 will surprise some of you, and some of the movies I've left out will make many of you scratch your head. I'll have a thought on those omissions later.
What I look for in a baseball movie is, to put it simply, baseball! If the central theme is romance or relationships or some other plot, and the director tossed in some baseball simply to catch a few guys' attention, it won't make the cut.
You will notice a few of my picks that seem to contradict that previous statement, but trust me - in my mind, these picks are still essentially about the game of baseball.
In short, I'm looking for the spirit and heart of baseball in these movies, even if there are some subplots. So without further ado, let's countdown my top 10 baseball movies to help you beat the offseason (or no season, thanks to COVID-19) blues.
10. The Sandlot (1993)
I'll catch some grief for not having The Sandlot higher on this list, but baseball is not the overarching theme of this movie. It's more a coming-of-age theme that uses baseball as a tool to construct a story - a delightful story.
If you think Major League or Bull Durham is the baseball movie king of one-liners, you haven't seen The Sandlot. When you have one-liners like "The kid is an L7 Weenie", "You bob for apples in the toilet... and you like it!","You play ball like a girl!" and "You're killing me, Smalls", it's hard to top.
You also have James Earl Jones, his giant mastiff Hercules (also known as "The Beast" by the kids), a Babe Ruth signed baseball, and Wendy Peffercorn (who got fooled into kissing Michael "Squints" Palledorous). Toss in characters like Hamilton "Ham" Porter, Alan "Yeah-Yeah" McClennan, and Tommy "Repeat" Timmons, and you have an interesting cast of characters.
The Sandlot is not just a kids' movie, my friends. I still laugh out loud when I watch it and remember the youthful joy of baseball I felt as a kid.
9. A League of Their Own (1992)
There might be some crying among fans this year while we wait for any season to start, but as the 1992 movie, A League of Their Own reminds us - there's no crying in baseball! Even if you didn't like this movie, you can't forget that epic line.
A League of Their Own had a number of positives that make it a part of my favorite baseball movie list. The movie was funny, taught some good life lessons, taught many people a history of baseball they didn't know, and had a lot of baseball play tossed in for good measure.
Of course, when you have stars like Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, also throw in a diva such as Madonna, you have the makings of an entertaining and well-acted movie. The scene in the clip above will go down in the history of baseball movies, to me, as among the funniest.
8. Pride of the Yankees (1942)
No, the 1942 film, Pride of the Yankees, starring the great Gary Cooper, didn't boast that much baseball action in it, but the spirit of baseball is front and center. I inevitably include it in any top 10 list because of the focus on the great Lou Gehrig.
As most of you know, Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest baseball players ever, and his career ended prematurely when he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) at the youthful age of 37. ALS is frequently called."Lou Gehrig's disease."
The movie came out one year after Gehrig passed away, so he was never able to see the film. Several of Gehrig's teammates from the Yankees made appearances in the film, including Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig, and Bill Dickey. American Sports Hall of Fame inductee (1984) Bill Stern was also in the film.
The clip above is not from the movie but is the infamous and poignant speech Gehrig gave to fans and teammates in 1939. His famous words, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth" will forever be stamped on the hearts of baseball fans and baseball historians. We are lucky ourselves to have had the amazing Lou Gehrig be a part of our national pastime.
7. Talent for the Game (1991)
The early 90s gave us several baseball movies, including the aforementioned A League of Their Own in '92 and The Sandlot in '93.
One movie that is consistently on my personal list of best baseball movies and one that I rarely see on any list, is the 1991 film starring Edward James Olmos and Lorraine Bracco - Talent for the Game.
What I enjoyed about this movie was that it opened focusing on baseball and remained focused on baseball throughout. Olmos portrays a scout (Virgil Sweet) for the California Angels. His job is in danger due to a new owner who doesn't care much for how the farm system is being managed.
Sweet hasn't found an outstanding pitcher in years, but he happens upon a pitcher named Sammy Bodeen who possesses a ton of talent. Through a series of ups-and-downs, including the team over-hyping an already nervous Bodeen, he ultimately manages to turn things around with the help of Virgil Sweet.
The movie breathes baseball, and I enjoyed it through every scene. The trailer above is a little "campy", but the movie is great. If you haven't had a chance to watch Talent for the Game, check it out!
6. For Love of the Game (1999)
When you think of baseball movies that starred Kevin Costner, you typically think of Field of Dreams or Bull Durham, but Costner also starred in another great baseball movie - For Love of the Game.
You might think of this as more of a romantic movie than a baseball movie. After all, most of the scenes and the drama seem to revolve around the up-and-down romance between Costner's character (Billy Chapel) and Jane Aubrey (played by Kelly Preston). However, a solid backdrop for every scene is Chapel's focus on baseball, the end of his long and accomplished career, and the terrible season the Detroit Tigers are having.
Through a series of flashbacks on an extensive career, his relationship with his dad, and more, Billy and Jane somehow work through a turbulent relationship. At the same time, Billy struggles with juggling his love for Jane and his love of the game.
When Chapel is on the mound, he shuts down the crowd noise, filters out any distractions by uttering the simple phrase, "Clear the mechanism." In his final game with the Tigers, Billy is so distracted by his relationship with Jane and his decision about retirement, he doesn't realize he's pitching a perfect game.
I don't mind a romantic movie, and this one delivers on that in spades. Moreover, it has a strong spirit of baseball in it, and I imagine that many real players today can relate to juggling baseball with their personal lives.
5. A Winner Never Quits (1986 TV Film)
There have been numerous one-armed baseball players in the history of baseball, and Jim Abbot is a name that usually comes to mind. Abbot was a one-handed pitcher who, while playing for the Yankees, pitched a no-hitter in 1993 against the Cleveland Indians.
Before Abbot and others, Pete Gray was a one-armed baseball player who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1945. A Winner Never Quits is a portrayal of Gray and his struggle to make it to the majors. With only one arm, Gray played as a somewhat "freak attraction" for the Memphis Chicks to help boost morale during the war.
Gray practiced hard to learn to catch a fly ball in the outfield, fling the ball in the air, quickly wedge his glove under his armpit, catch the ball again with his one arm, and throw to the infield. As you can imagine, that would require an immense amount of practice and patience to get down pat.
While Gray only played one season, I appreciate this movie because I always root for the underdog, and the movie portrays the life of Gray (played by Keith Carradine), his struggles, the awkward way people view those with handicaps in those days, and the skepticism he had to endure.
Baseball is not merely about those who have the most accolades, but the history of baseball is replete with examples of players who overcame tough odds. Pete Gray is a prime example of how a winner never quits.
Note: Because A Winner Never Quits was a made-for-television movie, it can be a little tough to find, but it's well worth the search.
4. Sugar (2008)
I debated whether to place the 2008 film, Sugar, as number three or number four on my list. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but in the end, I felt like the focus on baseball took a backseat to another topic.
Sugar follows Miguel Santos, aka "Sugar," a pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He has an immense amount of raw talent and is celebrated accordingly in his home town of San Pedro de Macorís. His dream, like so many other young Dominican players, is to make it to the majors.
Sugar is talented already when he adds a scary-good pitch to his arsenal - the knuckle curve. He does so well adding this pitch to his bag of tricks that he gets an invite to spring training with the Kansas City Knights. Sugar is eventually assigned to their Single-A affiliate.
Along the way, the real story is Miguel's struggle to feel a part of any community in the United States. He deals with loneliness, isolation, and even bigotry. Those struggles he faces as an immigrant are the particular focus of this film. As a focus, baseball takes a bit of a backseat, but the spirit is there. The movie reminds us there are many young players who face similar struggles when trying to make it to the majors.
Ultimately, Sugar isn't able to overcome the hurdles that gradually get in his path throughout the movie. He gives up on his dream of a big-league career and ends up playing baseball with other players who tried but never achieved their dreams. Sugar is moving, well-acted and even sad, but the message is significant.
3. The Rookie (2002)
You have to appreciate true stories, and I love to see dreams realized. The Rookie is a feel-good story about Jim Morris, a high school baseball coach who overcame personal demons to fulfill his dream of being a big-league pitcher.
Morris (played by Dennis Quaid) coaches a group of high school players in Big Lake, Texas, where football is king, and baseball is an afterthought. Morris has enjoyed baseball since he was a kid and always had dreams of making it to the majors. Morris also lived in a contentious relationship with a father who didn't support his baseball dreams.
Morris challenges his skilled but unmotivated baseball team to start playing better, and they challenge him in return. The team knows that Jim can pitch lights out, and they tell Morris that if they can win District, he has to try out for the majors. He accepts the challenge, and the team is motivated and goes on to win. When Morris tries out, he actually gets a callback! Morris doesn't know he possesses speed in excess of 90 mph and only just learns this at the tryout.
Morris only played in the majors two years for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but his success in achieving his dream of pitching in the big leagues is the story here. How many of us have nurtured similar dreams, and perhaps even had the talent, but gave up too early? Morris' story is inspiring and unquestionably makes my top 5.
2. Field of Dreams (1989)
I almost flipped a coin to decide whether Field of Dreams would be number two or number one on my list. While many think the movie is too much fantasy and too little baseball, it's hard to argue that throughout the film, that childlike wonder and love of baseball remain the central theme. Field of Dreams opened the floodgate for a stream of baseball movies in the 90s.
Since watching this film for the first time, almost every new MLB season I can hear James Earl Jones saying that famous 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. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
Those words sent a tingle down my spine when I initially heard them. Those words encompass, for me, the feeling and history of baseball. For those of us who love the game, those words are about as close as we get to expressing what the game means.
Sure, the film may seem a bit overly sentimental to some, but I'm reminded of the words Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner's character) heard while walking through the cornfield - "If you build it, they will come." If you examine field of dreams with an understanding that the movie is all about embracing the history and love of the game, you'll see why I rank the movie so highly.
1. Moneyball (2011)
I've not seen a more influential movie about the game of baseball. Sure, Field of Dreams does a better job of embracing the whole of the game's history and romanticism, but Moneyball, based on a true story, is pure baseball from start to finish.
Even if you are one of those who believe the sabermetric approach to baseball these days is overdone (are there any left?), you should still appreciate Moneyball.
Moneyball is based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis where Lewis tells the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane's efforts to build a solid team out of a bunch of leftovers that other teams don't want. He has to do that while staying inside a modest budget for a small market team.
Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is assisted by the sabermetric prowess of general manager Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), and their interactions in the film are not only film gold, but baseball-centric gold.
Moneyball is a film you have to watch to appreciate, and Pitt and Hill are superb in this movie. It helps if you possess a good understanding of how statistics and analytics are coupled together with baseball in today's game, and you understand more than just slash lines. Even if you scoff at sabermetrics or merely won't allow the time to dig into the math, you'll still appreciate Moneyball.
Some of you will be angry for me for not including movies like Major League or Bull Durham. Major League was very funny, and certainly used baseball as a tool for the plot, but I think any comedy can be too concerned with laughs over substance. That's perfectly fine, but it can't make my list.
I have similar concerns with Bull Durham. Bull Durham is regularly number one on many lists I have read, and that baffles me. Again, baseball is the tool in Bull Durham, but not the focus. The Sandlot almost didn't make my list for the same reason. What movies are in your top 10 and why? Whatever you enjoy most, it's great to have some entertainment that is baseball-related in the offseason.