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Baseball and The Movies

Baseball and the Movies
by Jack Garner

this feature originally appeared in the Red Wings Yearbook, April 2010

Sports and the movies have long gone hand in hand. It’s been true in football, boxing, and golf; heck, even pool and bowling. And, mostly, it’s been true about baseball.

Why, you ask, have sports and the movies gotten along so well? Well, sports give the story – any story – an established and familiar playing field. Quite literally. The drama (or comedy) of a boxing movie takes place, largely, in the ring. The drama (or comedy) in a golf movie takes place, largely, on the links, and, of hockey on the ice. And a film about pool – like the immortal “The Hustler” – has the smoky, colorful, slightly seedy pool hall as its stage.

But nothing is more clearly defined and better-suited for drama or comedy than the chalk-marked lines, dirt base paths and green grass of a baseball diamond.

Also, sports movies carry with them familiar rules for most filmgoers. The guidelines are established, providing a framework for the story being told.

Sports also provide emotional baggage for the tale, and none more than baseball. In most cases, that baggage is nostalgic and sentimental. Baseball is often spoken of in sentences that also include Mom, America, and Apple Pie.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges in a sports movie is trying to shy away from too much sentiment in baseball tales. But when a fatally ill Lou Gehrig tells America “ I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” in Pride of the Yankees, it’s impossible to avoid the sentiment. Nor would you want to. Same goes for the disillusioned youngster who says, “Say it ain’t so,” when his hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, is accused of cheating in Eight Men Out.

One of the great things about sports movies is that you don’t necessarily have to even like the sport to enjoy the movie. For example, there are some people who think baseball is a little slow. (I know, it’s hard to believe, but I’ve been told it’s true.) For those folks, a good baseball movie solves the problem by eliminating innings when not much happens and skipping to the moments that help move along the narrative. In other words, it’s like a highlight reel on ESPN: You get just the good stuff.

So, now, as a four-decade veteran of film criticism, which baseball movies would I call “the good stuff?” In other words, on those days when the Red Wings are on the road, and you need a good baseball “fix,” what movies should you rent or buy?

1. Bull Durham. This fabulous, sexy, 1988 film is must viewing for adults. (It’s about two great American pastimes – baseball and sex – so I stress the reality of its R rating.) This comedy stars Kevin Costner as a veteran minor league baseball catcher, helping mentor a wacky but talented young pitcher (Tim Robbins). Meanwhile, super-sexy fan Susan Sarandon forms the third side of a romantic triangle.

Red Wing fans have two reasons to see Bull Durham. First, it’s one of the very few films about minor league baseball, as opposed to the majors. Second, its writer-director, Ron Shelton, is a former utility infielder for, yes, the Rochester Red Wings. He played here in 1971 at age 25.

2. Eight Men Out. John Sayles’ richly textured drama, also from 1988. Based on fact, it details the so-called Black Sox, and their attempt to “throw” the 1919 World Series under pressure from big-time gamblers. The sad tale of the great “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is a key part of the story.

Sayles uses this true story as a metaphor for America’s loss of innocence. The ball playing scenes, by the way, are among the best in cinema.

3. The Pride of the Yankees. One of the most sentimental, yet deeply affecting of baseball dramas, telling the sad but inspiring story of Lou Gehrig, and the disease that cut short one of the greatest of all baseball careers. Gary Cooper is fabulous in the 1942 film, though they had to film his at-bat scenes in reverse, because Cooper was a right-hander, and Gehrig batted left-handed. Cooper would wear a uniform printed in reverse; he’d hit the ball at the plate, and then run to third, and then they’d reverse the film so it looked like he was running to first.

4. Bang the Drum Slowly. Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty co-star in this bittersweet drama that’s kind of the “Brian’s Song” of baseball. In others words, a film at which men are allowed to cry. De Niro is a dim-witted country boy who catches. Moriarty is a sophisticated New Yorker who pitches. Yet, they develop an affectionate friendship that’s challenged when one develops a fatal illness.

5. Field of Dreams. This 1989 film, developed from W.P. Kinsella’s popular novel about a mystical baseball diamond, built in an Iowa cornfield, which brings back the spirits of long-time baseball greats. However, in truth, Field of Dreams is ultimately a potent film about fathers and sons, more than a story about baseball. (I’ll admit, I tear up every time I see Kevin Costner look down the baseball path and see his father. “How about a catch?”)

Jack Garner was staff film critic at the Democrat and Chronicle for 30 years before he retired in June, 2007. He continues to write for the paper as a freelancer. He began reviewing films in 1977 -- starting with the original “Star Wars”. In 1987, Garner was appointed chief film critic of Gannett News Service. He holds a B.A. degree in journalism from St. Bonaventure and an M.S. from Syracuse University. Jack is also a life-long sports fan, whose favorite teams include Bonas and S.U. basketball, the Bills, the Clemente-Stargell Pittsburgh Pirates of the '60s, and the Rochester Red Wings over the past few decades.


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