Batter Up: Memorable Baseball Moments from Non-Baseball Movies

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game; It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

Naughty NinetiesThe above quote comes, of course, from the 1989 diamond fantasy Field of Dreams (and let’s not even get into why James Earl Jones’ character would wax nostalgic for an era when he would have been denied the opportunity to play pro ball because of his skin color). By the time motion pictures began, baseball was already firmly entrenched as the national pastime, and the years that followed have offered many classic movies about the sport, from dramas (Bang The Drum Slowly, The Natural) to comedies (The Bad News Bears, Major League) to musicals (Damn Yankees, Take Me Out to the Ball Game).
Some of the best-known baseball scenes, however, have come from films that otherwise have nothing to do the game. This week marks the start of the new major league season, so let’s step up to the plate and look at some of them:

Speedy – When one talks about baseball, one of the first names that springs to mind is, naturally, the immortal Babe Ruth. Along with his prodigious home runs and equally startling off-the-field exploits, the Sultan of Swat was also no stranger to the movie business, appearing in the silent features Headin’ Home and Babe Comes Home, starring in a series of early ’30s shorts for Universal, and capably playing himself alongside Gary Cooper’s Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. In 1928, the Bambino also got to play himself in this silent Harold Lloyd comedy, as his cab ride to Yankee Stadium turns into a perilous race against time thanks to Lloyd’s less-than-stellar driving skills.

A Night at the Opera – If the national game had a national anthem it would certainly be “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” And one of the most rousing renditions of it came courtesy of the Marx Brothers in their 1935 operatic romp. Trying to delay the start of the evening’s performance of Il Trovatore, the boys slip the sheet music for the song into the orchestra’s scores, and once they strike up the familiar chorus, Harpo and Chico whip out the old horsehide for an impromptu catch in the orchestra pit, while Groucho turns peanut vendor in the audience.

Manhattan Merry-Go-Round – Keeping alive Ruth’s tradition of Bronx Bomber sluggers stepping in front of the cameras, the  Yankee Clipper, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, played himself in this 1937 Republic musical about crooks who take over a record company and convince such talents as Gene Autry, Cab Calloway and Louis Prima to perform for them. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense then or now, and hearing DiMaggio attempt to croon a ballad entitled “Have You Ever Been to Heaven?” doesn’t really help matters.

Rawhide – Yet another Yankee turned movie star in this 1938 B-Western, which gave New York’s famed Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, his first and only acting role. Stepping down from baseball to retire to his sister’s ranch in Montana, Lou finds that some blackhats are making life miserable for the locals and teams with singing cowboy Smith Ballew to set things right. Gehrig gets to show off his arm when he tosses billiard balls at the bad guys in a saloon and later uses some kids’ bat and ball to hit a line drive through the varmints’ window. Sadly, ALS would force Lou to retire for real the following year.

Larceny, Inc. – By 1941 Warner Bros. was able to self-satirize the gangster films that had been a studio staple for the past decade, and Edward G. Robinson was more than happy to lighten up his tough screen image. Thus this underrated crime comedy in which ex-con Robinson and pals Edward Brophy and Broderick Crawford buy a failing luggage shop so they can tunnel into the bank next door, only to have the business become a success.  The film opens on a baseball game being played behind bars at Sing Sing, with lifelong diamond fan Robinson as the home team’s pitcher catcher.

Woman Of the YearWoman of the Year – One of Hollywood’s greatest acting duos, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, made this 1942 battle of the sexes” romantic comedy the first of their nine films together. New York sports reporter Tracy is irked with comments made by Hepburn, a noted writer for his newspaper, on a radio program where she calls baseball “a frightful waste of time” during wartime and suggests halting it for the duration. After a series of dueling columns, Tracy tries to bury the hatchet by inviting Hepburn to a game between the then-Philadelphia Athletics and the Yankees. (Kate, noting the afternoon crowd: “Are all these people unemployed? ” Spencer: “No, they’re all attending their grandfather’s funeral.”).  A patient Tracy tries to explain the basics of the sport to a rather clueless Hepburn, and within a few innings she’s cheering as loudly as the other fans in the stands…and a timeless on-screen (and off-screen) romance is born.

The Naughty Nineties – Okay, trivia fans: What’s the only Abbott and Costello movie that featured the duo performing their beloved “Who’s on First” routine?  Well, as you probably already guessed, it was this 1945 Universal comedy that featured Bud and Lou as performers on an 1890’s Mississippi River showboat who must help the captain win it back from some double-dealing cardsharps.  While the boys finally got the chance to capture their most famous skit on film, they did have to make allowances for film audience’s sensibilities–and the censors–and change the name of the team’s shortstop from I Don’t Give a Damn to I Don’t Care.

Experiment in Terror – Blake Edwards, director of the Pink Panther films, is better known to moviegoers for comedy as opposed to drama, but he did a fine job with this 1962 suspenser, starring Lee Remick as a San Francisco bank teller who is forced by steal $100,000 from her workplace by a psychotic criminal who is holding her younger sister (Stefanie Powers) hostage. Under the watchful eye of FBI agent Glenn Ford, Remick brings the loot per the crook’s instructions to old Candlestick Park, where a Dodgers-Giants night contest is in progress (Yes, that’s Don Drysdale pitching for L.A.), leading to a thrilling post-game chase through the crowd and a bullet-riddled conclusion out on the field.

That Touch Of MinkThat Touch of Mink – A single gal in Manhattan gets splashed by a passing vehicle and winds up meeting and falling for a handsome and successful businessman. No, it’s not Sex and the City. It’s this lively 1962 romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Cary Grant. After his limo soaks the unemployed Day, an apologetic (and smitten) Grant takes her on a business trip to Baltimore on his private jet, to Philadelphia for fettuccine, and back to the Big Apple for his speech to the United Nations. The evening’s entertainment? A visit to (of all places) Yankee Stadium…all the way into the home dugout, where Doris’ constant heckling of the umpire’s pitch calling gets Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra ejected from the game (Day: “Where’s the manager?” Grant: “I think he’s hiding.”).

The Great Escape – When you come right down to it, the game of baseball is pretty much about three things: a bat, a ball and a glove. Well, he doesn’t have the first item, but a baseball and a glove are what help keep U.S. Army Air Forces captain Virgil Hilts, (Steve McQueen), better known as “the Cooler King,” from going stir crazy in the many solitary stints he earns as a POW of the Germans in this 1963 WWII action classic. You probably have to wonder why the top-level officers running a strict and supposedly escape-proof prison from the most intractable of inmates would allow such luxuries as sporting goods, but Steve’s one-person games of catch became an iconic image of both McQueen and the movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Way back in baseball’s bygone days–or at least in the year 1963, the setting of 1975’s Academy Award-winner for Best Picture–all World Series games were played in the daytime. That presents a problem for Jack Nicholson and the other inmates of  the Oregon mental hospital they’re confined to, because control freak nurse Louise Fletcher refuses to alter the daily work schedule so they can watch the games on TV. When his attempt to put the matter to a vote (“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to watch the World Series?”)  fails thanks to Fletcher’s manipulations, a determined Nicholson starts delivering his own imaginary play-by-play (“Koufax kicks, he delivers. it’s up the middle, it’s a base hit!”) to his delighted fellow patients.

Warriors1The Warriors – I have a feeling the Baseball Furies gang probably thought they were paying homage to their hometown nine when they adopted Yankee pinstripes for their uniforms. The black-and-white clown makeup, however, didn’t help matters much in the menace department, and in their showdown in the park with the Warriors their bad batwork cost them the game. As Ajax (James Remar) succinctly put it, “I’m tired of runnin’ from these wimps.” Of  course, he also said something about where he was going to shove a Fury’s bat and Popsicles, but kids may be reading this.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Say you’re teenager Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), you’ve decided to skip school one fine Spring morning, and you and your friends Cameron (Alan Ruck) and Sloane (Mia Sara) want to spend that day seeing all the sights that the Windy City has to offer. Well, after visiting such popular teen hangouts as the Sears (now Willis) Tower, the Chicago Stock Exchange and the Art Institute of Chicago and dining at the ritzy–and fictitious–Chez Quis, what’s next? How about an afternoon of Cubs baseball at historic Wrigley Field? Why they didn’t sit in the bleachers like true Cubbies fans I’ll never understand, and they didn’t even stay for the whole game, but at least viewers get to see what the ballpark looked like before they put up the lights.

The Untouchables – “What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork…looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team. Bats himself the livelong day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one.’  This moving motivational speech by 1930s Chicago “furniture dealer” Al Capone (Robert De Niro), from Brian De Palmas’s Oscar-winning 1987 feds-vs.-mobsters actioner, certainly makes an impression on his men. But when Al takes a bat and proceeds to play fungo on a subordinate’s noggin, that really gets their–and the audience’s–attention.

The Naked Gun -In order to stop villain Ricardo Montalban’s scheme to have Queen Elizabeth II assassinated during a Seattle Mariners-California Angels ballgame in Anaheim, bumbling Police Squad lieutenant Leslie Nielsen does everything he can to disrupt the contest. He first impersonates opera singer “Enrico Pallazzzo” and mangles “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then takes the place of the home plate umpire and starts frisking all the players for weapons. Nielsen’s hilarious and increasingly intrusive antics lead to an all-out brawl and the discovery of Montalban’s brainwashed would-be killer (I won’t give his identity away here, but he’s a Hall of Famer and had his own candy bar).

City Slickers – Few actors can wax as eloquently on the transcendental qualities of baseball as Billy Crystal. And in the 1991’s hit comedy City Slickers Crystal’s character gets the chance  to talk about how as a teenager he was unable to communicate with his father on any subject save one: “We could still talk about baseball.” Crystal and pals Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern also have an opportunity to show off their trivia skills when fellow vacationer Helen Slater says, “I like baseball. I just never understood how you guys can spend so much time discussing it…I’ve been to games, but I don’t memorize who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960,” and it takes the trio a split-second to answer “Don Hoak.”

Men In Black – Poor Bernard Gilkey. The talented slugger’s career never did quite seem the same after that summer evening in 1997. You remember, he was playing in the Shea Stadium outfield for the New York Mets, he was distracted by a disguised flying saucer taking off from nearby Flushing Meadows Park, and an easy fly ball conked him in the head.  Gilkey even talked about his “close encounter” in the tabloids and…what’s that? That was just a scene from the sci-fi/comedy hit Men in Black with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones? Never mind.

The Break-Up – The last film on my list is the 2006 anti-rom com about a relationship that goes toxic and turns one-time lovers Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn into rival roommates because neither wants to give up the swell Chicago condo they co-own. And just where do Jen and Vince’s characters first meet? At a Cubs game at the aforementioned Wrigley Field. Far be it from me to pick on Cubs fans,  but the home field of a team that hasn’t won a World Series in over a century seems like a rather ominous place to strike up a romance.