Kevin Costner is definitely Hollywood’s cleanup hitter when it comes to great baseball movies. “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams” came out as the two clear favorites in Hardball Cooperative’s survey of the best baseball films. It’s not just baseball fans who felt that way. Marshall Fine, longtime journalist and movie critic, who now reviews movies on his site Hollywood and Fine, ranked the pair as Nos. 1 and 2 on his list.
Of course, even the best hitters strike out once in a while, as Costner did with “For Love of the Game,” released in 1999. Not quite “Waterworld,” but still bad enough to challenge “Summer Catch” and “The Babe” for worst movie in our polling. Costner should have left his baseball movies in the 80s, which was the golden era for the genre. In September 1988, three months after “Bull Durham” was released, “Eight Men Out” debuted. The following spring, within a two week span, both “Major League” and “Field of Dreams” were released. The decade’s other big hit was Robert Redford’s “The Natural,” which came out in 1984.
In addition to Fine, panel participants included Hardball Cooperative regulars James Bailey, Bill Ballew, Bill Begley, Pete Sabatini, and Jeremy Tiermini, as well as Thomas Nelshoppen of The Baseball Zealot.
Panelists were asked to name their top five baseball movies, as well as one stinker. Their write-ups of their top choice, as well as their worst movie, are below. Fifteen movies received at least one vote on the best list. Five points were awarded for a first place vote, four for second, etc.
Due to length considerations, the worst movies have been split off as a separate entry. We also have Marshall Fine’s full lineup of his top five movies (and his clunker) here.
Here’s how our top movies ranked (first-place votes in parentheses):
|Bull Durham (1988) (4)||26|
|Field of Dreams (1989) (1)||24|
|Eight Men Out (1988)||11|
|The Natural (1984)||8|
|Major League (1989) (1)||6|
|The Pride of the Yankees (1942)||6|
|Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns (1994) (1)||5|
|A League of Their Own (1992)||5|
|The Sandlot (1993)||4|
|Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)||3|
|The Rookie (2002)||2|
|The Bad News Bears (1976)||1|
Marshall Fine: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins made movie magic with this affectionate, profanely funny film about life in the minor leagues for those on the way up – and the way down. It was the product of writer-director Ron Shelton, himself a former minor leaguer, who captured both the humor and excitement of the game, and the weirdly funny off-field life of these players. It may also be the sexiest baseball movie ever made.
Bill Begley: With due respect to all those computer-generated whizzes using their ever-whirling minds and the reality-blurring machines to create splashy new worlds, what makes a movie truly great is great dialogue. Well, that and a credible delivery by a believable cast. That’s no different when talking about baseball movies. Hollywood types tend to either over-simplify the game (think “Mr. Baseball”) and the people who play it (think “Major League II”), or burden it with overly dramatic speeches laden with ridiculous clichés. Seriously, how many coaches or managers stopped to have a pre-game pep talk? No doubt, the fact that writer/director Ron Shelton spent five years in the minor leagues helped strip the script of the over-the-top over-writing that burdens most sports films. He understood that making a baseball movie is a simple thing: You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. And, you don’t spend a great deal of time embellishing that. In fact, it’s not necessary to show a lot of it because, as most players will tell you, the game remains the same; it’s the characters, the people, the quirks and the legends – most of that off the field – that makes it such a great vehicle to tell a story. The “Bull Durham” action scenes are limited (and a good thing, considering Tim Robbins’ painful pitching motion) but it still feels authentic because the dialogue feels real, the settings seem real, and the cast (Susan Sarandon practically steams up the screen the entire movie) doesn’t go over the top trying to convince you they are really, really baseball players. All of it melds together so well, it’s easy to forget that “Bull Durham” really is a “chick flick” set at a ball park. And there were special effects … if you count the smoking bull.
James Bailey: Having lived in Durham and worked for the Bulls for three seasons in the early 90s, I’ve always been a fan of Bull Durham. In fact, I owe the film a small debt for getting me my job with the Bulls in the first place. Back in 1990 there weren’t a lot of minor league teams with two stores and a mail-order souvenir operation. This movie helped build the following for both the Bulls and minor league baseball. While everything in the movie might not be completely realistic, the settings are authentic and the characters are both fun and believable. It’s also nearly as quotable as Seinfeld. Of course, many of the quotes aren’t suitable to repeat around small children. Like, well, pretty much the entire dialogue from my favorite scene, when Crash gets ejected for arguing with the umpire. It’s dead on accurate, though. That’s one magic word that would definitely get a player tossed.
Jeremy Tiermini: I love this movie because it depicts the minor leagues and I learned baseball by watching the AAA Rochester Red Wings. When Nuke gets called up I always remember how I talked to Cal Ripken Jr. in the Wings bullpen the day before he got called up to Baltimore for good. Ever since I have followed baseball I have been intrigued by the pitcher-catcher relationship; this is shown clearly between Crash and Nuke when Crash gives away the pitch after Nuke shake him off (“When you speak of me, speak well!”) and even when Crash utters the famous “The rose goes in the front, big guy” line. This is perhaps the most quotable baseball movie of all time, from Susan Sarandon’s introduction to Kevin Costner’s soliloquy. I learned the following from this movie: candlesticks make a nice gift, that if you think classy you will be classy, pitchers should never throw punches with their pitching hands, and thinking can only hurt the ball club. And Nuke sums up baseball best: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Think about that for a while.
Field of Dreams
Bill Ballew: I’ve never been one to cry, even back in the days as a toddler, but this movie caused the tear ducts to start flowing the first time I saw it in the theater. It still gets to me at the end on certain occasions, even though I’ve seen at least parts of it dozens of times. As most people know, “Field of Dreams” was derived from the novel “Shoeless Joe,” and unlike most book-turned-movie efforts, the story was not bastardized. James Earl Jones as Terence Mann does an incredible job as a reluctant believer in Ray Kinsella’s (Kevin Costner) wild vision, and the encounter with Archie “Moonlight” Graham helps complete the circle of a solid tale with few of the predictable clichés. Of course, the theme of the movie comes across as “fathers playing catch with sons,” and while some cynics might consider it to be typical and redundant, the impressive detail, particularly those involving the 1919 Chicago White Sox, sets this movie apart from all the rest. To me, “Field of Dreams” epitomizes what baseball means to our psyche and serves as an outstanding example of the overall fabric the game weaves through this great nation.
Pete Sabatini: I know, I know, all the purists are up in arms that “Field of Dreams” doesn’t get the number one for sentimentality. Or maybe you’re an insider comedy lover and “Bull Durham” is the right blend of fun and drama. Perhaps you’re more aligned with the “Eight Men Out” best movie without Kevin Costner vote. I don’t fault you. I get choked up when Costner’s playing catch with his dad, laugh through most of the insider jokes in “Bull Durham” and really enjoy rooting for Shoeless Joe just like any other baseball fan. But on a spring Sunday afternoon right before the start of the season there’s something special about hearing Randy Newman sing about the burning Cuyahoga that none of those other movies have. It’s not high comedy and there are no awards for it to win (except for maybe this one if you could call these awards…but they’re probably more like honors…but I digress). But it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. Easy but clever comedy with characters you can root for and a story line just sentimental enough that my wife will sit through it with me – simple and perfect. The jokes have become so ingrained in our baseball lexicon that most people can’t even think of them coming from Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, Charlie Sheen, Bob Uecker or Tom Berenger. It’s a testament to classic humor when a good Jobu joke never gets old. I’ve never cared much about the Cleveland Indians one way or another, but this movie is an under-respected hero of baseball culture.
Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns
Thomas Nelshoppen: When “Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns” was to make its debut in 1994 on PBS, I was excited. So excited that I convinced my wife to finally get cable so that our PBS channel would get a better signal. So excited that I rushed out to buy a couple of multi-packs of VHS tapes so I could record every hour of this documentary. And I wasn’t disappointed. I have a thing for baseball history especially if it involves video footage. ESPECIALLY old footage. Any medium that preserves the memory of the game of baseball in the way that Ken Burns’ Baseball did is a good thing. Burns’ method of conducting the interviews while considered overly-intellectual by some, was different and creative. Instead of just clips of former and current baseball people, he also interspersed interviews with other professionals, top in their field. These writers, journalists, politicians, historians and actors (yeah yeah, Billy Crystal, too), re-enforced Burns’ idea that baseball was not just a game for the players but one that affected the nation. Burns did manage to find a nice lineup of former and current players and other people in the baseball field (yeah yeah, Bob Costas, too) to contribute their input to the movie. Among the oldsters who took part were Jimmie Reese (who played with Babe Ruth) and Billy Herman. My favorite interviewee? Bill “Spaceman” Lee who in his day was never afraid of a little controversy. His interview spots in Baseball were good for a few laughs. Burns divided his documentary up in nine “innings,” episodes that were each devoted to a decade of baseball history. This gave some equal treatment to each era of the game and if you’re a fan of the old game, it’s a feast for the eyes. Though they’re grainy and they skip once in a while, I still have those VHS tapes I recorded fifteen years ago.