14 of the Greatest Baseball Movies for People Who Don’t Care About Baseball

14 of the Greatest Baseball Movies for People Who Don’t Care About Baseball
Screenshot: A League of Their Own/Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Everybody loves baseball,” an aunt once told me. I don’t know about that. Lots of people really like baseball, but I think she was delusional about the sport’s power to win over every audience. What can be said with certainty is that baseball is inextricably linked with American history, particularly in the 20th century. If its hold on us has loosened somewhat, we can still look at the sport’s history and see reflections of everything that was happening in the broader culture across those decades.

The same holds true for baseball movies, to an extent. There have been many hundreds of them over the last century — the genre is very nearly as old as film itself — but a lot of them are forgettable, niche films that play best to audiences already enamoured of the sport. That’s fine (lots of people do love baseball), but there’s also something to be said for movies that don’t preach to the already converted. The very best baseball movies appeal to somewhat broader audiences, appealing to those of us with…limited interest in watching an actual baseball game, but who will absolutely watch a movie if it’s about a bunch of scrappy underdogs trying to prove once and for all that they’re not losers. Or if it stars Madonna. Or has ghosts.

In honour of opening day, here are 14 movies that reach beyond the baseball diamond to appeal to viewers who can’t tell an earned run from an outfield assist. A few of them might even make you think about watching an actual game.

42 (2013)

Structurally, 42 is fairly by-the-numbers as biopics go, but it’s packed with exceptional performances, including the late Chadwick Boseman in his breakout role. Boseman plays Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to join the Major Leagues, with a restrained intensity; he’s someone clearly fighting to keep his cool in the face of the visceral racism he encounters simply for playing the game he’s best at. Alongside Harrison Ford and several great character actors, Boseman more than carries this story about the inextricable links between baseball, racism, and the Civil Rights movement, for better and worse.

It also highlights an important, oft overlooked bit of baseball history — we see Robinson as a symbol of racism overcome, without acknowledging the scars. And lest it all seem like ancient history, it’s worth remembering that Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel (a professor and businessperson in her own right), served a consultant on the film.

A League of Their Own (1992)

Back before it was enshrined as a minor classic, this movie’s success might have seemed wildly unlikely, despite the stacked cast (Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks, Madonna) and direction from Penny Marshall. The true-ish story of the relatively short-lived All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (founded during WWII to keep baseball alive while the men were off at war) sounds poised for overt sentimentality — and it is — but Marshall’s cynical sensibilities lend it a strong sense of humour and help it avoid descending into mawkishness. The movie was (and remains) broadly popular, but has a special place in the hearts of many a sports-averse queer kid who showed up to see Madonna and left with an appreciation for baseball. At least a little bit of one, anyway.

Damn Yankees (1958)

A delightfully old-school Hollywood musical (based on the Broadway show, and a novel before that), Damn Yankees also takes its inspiration from Faust; blending sports, musical comedy, and demonic bargains in the story of an ageing baseball fan who literally sells his soul in order to secure his beloved Washington Senators a win over those damn Yankees. If it doesn’t have the most memorable line-up of songs in American musical history, it does give us Gwen Verdon, equally hilarious and sultry, tempting gay icon Tab Hunter with the seductive ditty “Whatever Lola Wants.”

Field of Dreams (1989)

Whatever your feelings about the sport in general, it’s tough to walk away from Field of Dreams without feeling like James Earl Jones is on to something when he talks about baseball as the rare constant in modern American history. On one level, it’s a story about a farmer struggling to pay his bills and about to lose his land. On another, it’s a slightly bonkers fantasy about the ghosts of dead baseball players speaking to Kevin Costner in the same way that, in a different movie, angels might whisper advice in someone’s ear. It’s all quite silly, but so skillfully made that it’s hard not to be drawn in — especially if you have daddy issues; that climactic game of catch between Costner and his ghostly patriarch is basically your permission to sob openly every time you watch it.

Bull Durham (1988)

Bull Durham works not by side-stepping the details of the game, but by digging into the details with a nearly forensic eye (the movie was written directed by Ron Shelton, who spent several years as a minor league player). There’s a love triangle in the mix too — between a super-groupie played by Susan Sarandon, a rookie played by Tim Robbins, and the never-was veteran catcher brought in to coach him (Kevin Costner) — and the fine performances sell it, but the movie is more concerned with selling is baseball itself. It’s a compelling portrait of the behind-the-scenes drama that plays out on the field.

Eight Men Out (1988)

One of film’s best, and most incisive, explorations of the dark side of baseball focuses on what’s still one of the sport’s darkest moments: the so-called Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which eight White Sox players conspired with a cadre of gamblers to rig the World Series. Finding, in the vein of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, that losing could be more lucrative than winning, bookies make shady deals with the players in such a fashion that one of the best teams ever assembled became the most notorious. The movie assumes a bit of knowledge of the game going in, but offers fascinating look at how the promise of riches tempted some truly talented players into throwing away their careers.

Moneyball (2011)

I’m still not sure how a movie about the intersection of baseball and statistics manages to be so broadly compelling, even for those of us with limited affinity for either — but here we are. Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the screenplay, and it has displays the strengths of his better works without many of his annoying ticks; it’s a talky movie that builds its dramatic moments not around events on the field, but around people talking about them. Brad Pitt played Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s who, against a century of tradition, decides to put his money on statistical analysis (embodied by his numbers guy, played by Jonah Hill) in order to build a winning team.

The Sandlot (1993)

An shamelessly nostalgic coming-of-age movie that has itself become an object of nostalgia, this ‘60s-set summertime classic follows Scott Smalls (Tom Guiry), the friendless new kid in town who doesn’t know a single thing about baseball, but takes an opening on the local sandlot team, hoping to fake it until he makes it. It’s filled with quirky characters and hits all the expected story beats, yet though it received a mixed reception back in 1993, it’s shown impressive staying power with the kids who watched it growing up. For those of us with limited interest in the sport, Smalls is right there with us.

Major League (1989)

I suspect many baseball fans would put Major League near the top of their own list of sports movie favourites, but its goofy humour and underdog narrative have made it a broadly popular, and well-remembered bit of ‘80s nostalgia beyond that group. A former Las Vegas showgirl (played by Margaret Whitton) inherits the Cleveland Indians from her dead husband. Wanting nothing more than to move to Miami, the widow decides to take the team with her, which she can contractually only do if attendance falls below a certain threshold. No problem: she just makes sure to assemble the worst team possible. Before too long, though, the team (which includes Tom Beringer and Charlie Sheen) gets wind of her plan, and what follows is an unchallenging but appealing blend of lowbrow comedy and legitimately appealing underdog story.

Off the Black (2006)

I’m particularly impressed whenever a movie manages to sidestep easy sentiment. Here, Trevor Morgan plays Dave Tibbel, a baseball player who is caught vandalizing the home of an umpire named Ray (Nick Nolte) after a bad call blew the game for his team. Ray makes Dave an unusual offer: the dying, friendless alcoholic wants the younger man to pretend to be his son during an upcoming high school reunion. Naturally, both of them find value in the relationship, but Nolte’s performance is so raw that every small moment of connection feels incredibly hard-won. The movie is definitely more baseball-adjacent than it is strictly a sports movie, but the game is the thread that ties it all together.

Sugar (2008)

Sugar never takes its eyes off the struggles of its protagonist, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), which is very much to its credit, but it inevitably approaches larger ideas about the mythic pull of the American dream in its story of a baseball pitcher from the Dominican Republic who joins the U.S. minor leagues without much English, and little idea of the culture shock he’s in for. It’s a baseball film second and a character study of Sugar first. Incongruously, this low-budget film’s writers/directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, later made the superhero blockbuster Captain Marvel.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Surprisingly lost amid the general turmoil of 2016, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused (and his follow-up to critical and audience favourite Boyhood) is good, actually. Blake Jenner plays college freshman Jake, who moves into an off-campus house with other members of his school’s baseball team, all of them experiencing independence and adulthood for the first time. Like Dazed and Confused, it’s a funny and amiably meandering movie with a great soundtrack, and it doesn’t lose anything for being more of a hangout film than a sports movie.

Mr. 3000 (2004)

Shifting between slapstick and real heart, Mr. 3000 is buoyed by the performances of Angela Bassett, who’s never not great, and the late Bernie Mac as a 47-year-old retired ball player who returns to the game a decade later. Though famous for having recorded 3,000 hits, he learns that a clerical error means that he hit slightly under the number he’d been touting for a decade. Determined to preserve his branding, he convinces executives to let him come back to his team for a few extra hits. Naturally, it’s tougher than he expects.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Before Pride of the Yankees was released in 1942, baseball movies were just, well, baseball movies. There were plenty of films about the game, but none of them were likely to appeal to non-baseball fans (granted, that accounted for a much smaller portion of the population at the time). Pride, starring Gary Cooper, tracks the life of New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, who’d died of ALS only a year before the movie came out. Baseball isn’t incidental to this story by any means, but the movie considers the entire scope of his life and tragically young death, with a climactic on-the-field speech that remains incredibly powerful.

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