Baseball is strange. Unlike football, baseball doesn’t come across nearly as well on television. Yet for reasons explained, baseball is better as the subject of movies.
Baseball season begins this week.
I’m not much of a baseball fan, that is, except when I gamble on the games. Then, I become a fanatic. I don’t have a favorite team. I cheer for whichever team I bet on.
Baseball is strange. Unlike football, baseball doesn’t come across particularly well on television. Yet for reasons I can’t explain, baseball is far superior when it comes to being the subject of movies. At least a dozen outstanding baseball movies and documentaries come to mind, which you’ll read about shortly. Meanwhile, I struggle to come up with even a single great movie about football. Or, basketball. Or, most other sports (except hockey, which we'll cover in another article). Go figure.
What follows are my all-time favorite movies about baseball.
First, let’s begin with my four “Honorable Mentions.” This means movies well worth seeing, but didn’t quite round all the bases and crack my top ten list:
Mickey Mantle carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders. He was the most popular athlete in America on the most storied franchise in sports history during an era when the country was at the height of its world power when nothing seemed impossible. Mantle’s towering home runs and infectious “aw-shucks” attitude masked deeply hidden insecurities. He played hard on the field and then partied much harder off of it. Was Mantle, as some insist, a tragic hero? That’s for us to decide in this mesmerizing film directed by George Roy, who produced several other terrific sports documentaries. Mantle steadfastly refuses to lionize the ex-New York Yankee great. Instead, this gripping hour-long biography from HBO Films provides an honest and revealing portrait of a shy country boy from rural Oklahoma who made it big in New York City and then slowly threw it all away one drink at a time. His story passionately told through surviving family members and several notable celebrities who grew up worshipping “the Mick.” The final scenes of a once-great Mantle reduced to a broken man overwhelmed with grief and consumed by regret is heartbreaking. “You talk about a role model….,” Mantle tearfully says during his dying final hours. “….yeah, I’m a role model — don’t be like me.” This documentary can be watched in its entirety HERE.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall directed this fun caper about an all-ladies baseball team based on a real pro baseball league for women which existed during the 1940s. Buoyed by a terrific script, an outstanding musical soundtrack, and excellent performances throughout from an all-star cast, A League of Their Own has become one of the most successful baseball movies of all time — both at the box office and by critical acclaim. Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Jon Lovitz, Rosie O’Donnell, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, and Bill Pullman are each perfectly cast in a movie that will leave you laughing and cheering in equal measure. See the movie trailer — HERE.
For every multi-million dollar earning superstar who makes it big in the majors, unnamed thousands do not. Failing to make it as a pro is a tough reality for anyone to face. But it’s even more devastating to ballplayers born in the Caribbean, for which baseball has become one of the only exits out of a life of poverty. Over many decades, a vast number of “immigrant athletes” arrived in America dreaming of success. Each young man carried the longshot hopes of their families back at home. Most struggled in the minor leagues for a few years before eventually being cut by management. They return to the barren sandlots where the seeds of ambition first took to bloom and fade into oblivion. Sugar is a little-known movie (mostly in Spanish with English subtitles) about a once-gifted pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He’s determined to use his left arm and a wicked curveball to lift himself and his family out of the slums of Santo Domingo. He dreams of buying a Cadillac with his first paycheck. Then, upon arrival in the Midwest, reality sets in. Trapped in a foreign land, riding buses between ball fields, and lacking the language skills that might offer other alternatives, Sugar increasingly feels isolated and lonely. The stress of making it to the majors and signing the big contract that can alter the lives of loved ones back at home is slowly corroded by the ticking time clock on every young ballplayer, leading to the depressing self-realization that for most people, dreams don’t come true. If this movie sounds sad, well it is sad — in parts. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting. I’ll leave it at that and let the suspense linger. Watch the movie trailer HERE.
No team meant more to the people of a place than the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Ghosts of Flatbush is the true story not just of a baseball team, but of neighborhoods otherwise segregated by race, class, ethnicity, and religion — which all unite as one community to cheer on the beloved team at Ebbets Field. This documentary does a terrific job explaining why the so-called Brooklyn “bums” were such an integral part of so many people’s lives. Oddly, the Dodgers weren’t popular because they were winners. To the contrary, the club struggled for a half-century — in glaring juxtaposition to their two snobby rivals across the East River — the glorious dynasty known as the Yankees up in the Bronx and the deep-rooted Giants who played in uptown Manhattan. Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue may have been just a subway ride away from Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, but the working-class team and its loyal fans might as well have been from a different city on the other side of the planet. We learn why the great Jackie Robinson was such a transformative historical figure, not just in sports as the first Black man to break baseball’s longstanding color barrier, but as an icon for American culture. After spending decades near the bottom of the standings, by 1947 (Robinson’s first year) the Dodgers were every bit as talented as the hated Yankees. Then, just when Brooklyn finally beats the Yankees in the World Series for the first time which sends Flatbush into a frenzy, it all vanishes. The Dodgers break millions of hearts by packing up and moving to Los Angeles. The move wasn’t just a devastating blow to fans. The club’s abandonment came to symbolize an economic shift and cultural sunset on Brooklyn that plagued the borough for the next half-century. The full two-hour movie can be seen HERE.
Coming next in Part 2, will be my top ten countdown.
This list first appeared HERE.