As the last snows in the northeastern part of the country melt away, it’s clear that Spring is (finally) here. Need more proof? This week marks the start of the 2014 baseball season (yes, there were two Dodgers-Diamondbacks games played in Australia last month, but few on this side of the Pacific stayed up late enough to watch them).That being said, we thought we’d pass the time by throwing out a selection of great and near-great baseball flicks available on DVD, some of which you may be familiar with, some of which you may have missed.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Still the gold standard for cinematic baseball bios after all these years, as it wedded the role of a legendary player to a performer of equal stature. Gary Cooper provided his signature integrity as Murderer’s Row mainstay Lou Gehrig, from his college days to the sad circumstances that brought his career and life to untimely ends. Teresa Wright offers capable support as Eleanor Gehrig, and the one and only Babe Ruth appears as himelf.
It Happens Every Spring (1949)
Classic baseball farce starring Ray Milland as a college chemistry professor in search of enough money to enable him to propose to sweetheart Jean Peters. He invents a solution that repels wood and uses it to become a pitching phenomenon, striking out scores of batters with his unhittable “screwball.” Paul Douglas, Ed Begley, Alan Hale, Jr. co-star.
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
While last year’s Robinson bio 42 (see below) earning popular and critical acclaim, this low-budget quickie from back in the day (in which Jackie played himself) remains strikingly blunt and surprisingly effective in conveying the burdens that Robinson had to shoulder during his groundbreaking debut in the majors. Look for a young Ruby Dee as Mrs. Rachel Robinson.
Angels in the Outfield (1951)
No less a baseball fan than president Dwight Eisenhower once called this his favorite film. Heavenly baseball comedy stars Paul Douglas as a brash, sailor-mouthed manager who mends his ways after some divine intervention lifts his Pittsburgh Pirates team out of the cellar. When a little girl claims to see the angels on the diamond, reporter Janet Leigh turns the story into a national sensation.
The Winning Team (1952)
Ronald Reagan is Phillies and Cardinals pitching great Grover Cleveland Alexander in this powerful biography which traces his Hall of Fame career and his problems with alcoholism and epilepsy. Doris Day plays Alexander’s long-suffering wife; Frank Lovejoy, Eve Miller, and Russ Tamblyn co-star.
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
If you’re willing to overlook his shortcomings regarding the more physical aspects of the role, Anthony Perkins is more than capable in this adaptation of outfielder Jimmy Piersall’s memoir concerning his mental collapse and road to recovery. Karl Malden also excels as Piersall’s overbearing father.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
This story of the final season for a slow-witted farmboy catcher (Robert De Niro) who has solely shared the truth about his terminal illness with the cocky staff ace (Michael Moriarty) remains movingly told. The film boasts estimable early performances by the two leads, as well as by Vincent Gardenia as the team’s profane skipper.
The Natural (1984)
Barry Levinson might have cast aside the more cynical elements of Bernard Malamud’s first novel, but there’s no denying the appeal in this fable of a young prospect (Robert Redford) whose career gets tragically sidetracked, and finds himself in his middle years as a season-saving pickup for a struggling team. Superb supporting performances from Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth, and that Randy Newman score that lives on in every fourth “coming soon” trailer out of Hollywood.
Eight Men Out (1988)
Director John Sayles delivered an engrossing adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s chronicle concerning one of the most devastating scandals in the sport’s history, when members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to throw the World Series. Strong stuff even for those who’ve lived through Pete Rose, the 1994 strike, and the steroid era; the great ensemble cast includes John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, David Strathairn, Michael Rooker and John Mahoney.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall worked up an entertaining rumination on a long-ignored aspect of baseball history, the short-lived women’s professional league that emerged while most of the majors’ leading lights were off fighting the Second World War. Engaging work from Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Tom Hanks as washed-up star turned manager Jimmy Dugan (who may or may not have been based on Hall-of-Famer Jimmie Foxx).
Too often relegated behind Bull Durham and the other sports-oriented film fare served up by Baltimore Orioles farmhand-turned-screenwriter/director Ron Shelton (who also gave us Bull Durham), this underrated effort is lifted by a compelling title performance by Tommy Lee Jones as the man who was arguably both the greatest player and worst human being the sport ever knew.
Billy Crystal’s heartfelt, made-for-HBO homage to the summer of 1961, when Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) made their storied run at Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Noteworthy for its more contemporary candor about the then-idealized athletes, and the striking work from Jane and from Pepper, whose physical resemblance to the real Maris is borderline spooky.
The Rookie (2002)
Effectively told feel-good tale with Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris, the Texas high school coach and washed-out major league pitching prospect who promised his charges a comeback attempt in exchange for their success and ultimately received a call-up (at age 35) from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Rachel Griffiths, Brian Cox co-star.
The true story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s attempt to field a successful baseball team after a 2001 playoff loss to the Yankees is chronicled in this sports drama, based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” With a limited budget, Beane (Brad Pitt) enlists the aid of an economics whiz (Jonah Hill) with a mathematical approach to scouting players, encountering opposition from the A’s’ more traditional manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Chadwick Boseman stars as diamond pioneer Jackie Robinson, and Harrison Ford is Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, in this moving drama which focuses on Jackie’s 1947 rookie season with the Dodgers. Offered a spot on the squad after playing in Montreal the year before, Robinson was forced to endure racial prejudice and animosity from fans, managers, and fellow players. Co-stars Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni.
Do you have a favorite diamond film not on our list? Add your comment below and let us know.