Filmmakers swing for the fences with these hits

Baseball doesn’t always translate to the bigscreen, but were any efforts better than these? Let the debate begin…

THE BAD NEWS BEARS

Probably the most authentic baseball movie ever made is also one of the most shamelessly entertaining. It is the baseball version of “Slap Shot” — profane locker room slapstick at its finest. Does it get much better than Walter Matthau drinking beer after beer while pitching batting practice to a group of scrubby kids before eventually passing out on the mound? This movie features some of the most realistically filmed baseball sequences to date and captures what many American boys have experienced in Little League — the feeling of complete ineptitude.

BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY

The baseball version of “Brian’s Song” has reduced more than a few tough guys to tears. Based on the second book in Mark Harris’ Henry Wiggins trilogy, it is most famous for Robert De Niro’s touching performance as a half-witted catcher trying to conceal a fatal illness. Like Gary Cooper before him, De Niro did not look like a ballplayer. “He learned only as much baseball as he needed for his role,” Harris later wrote. “I doubt that he ever cared to touch a baseball again.”

BULL DURHAM

Ron Shelton’s popular comedy is often considered to be the best of all baseball movies. It lacks the raw vulgarity of “The Bad News Bears,” but the on-the-field action, particularly the interplay between Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins, is terrific. Still, as enjoyable as the baseball scenes are, the movie is even more successful as a sex comedy, and this movie finds Costner, Robbins and Susan Sarandon at their best.

 

EIGHT MEN OUT

John Sayles’ adaptation of the late Eliot Asinof’s classic book about the 1919 Black Sox scandal is an absorbing period piece that features a fine cast, including David Strathairn, John Mahoney, Richard Edson and Christopher Lloyd. The baseball scenes are especially good — D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen and athletic ringer Bill Irwin are all great. And Sayles does a nifty turn as Ring Lardner, alongside Studs Turkel, whose very presence would improve the quality of any film.

FIELD OF DREAMS

Die-hard fans of this earnest male fantasy may try to convince you that this is not really a baseball movie at all. But for all of its left-leaning politics, this movie represents a longing for the past that has long defined baseball fans. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball,” James Earl Jones’ irascible counterculture icon tells Costner near the end. “This field, this game: It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Penny Marshall’s winning comedy about the women who played organized ball during WWII holds up surprisingly well. The earnest tribute to the real women at the end of the film is laden with sentimentality, but the rest of the comedy is sharp. Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Jon Lovitz, in supporting roles, have never been better, and Geena Davis is ideally suited to the part as the best player in the league. Tom Hanks has a ball in his role as the washed-up manager. His “There’s no crying in baseball” scene has become part of the baseball lexicon.

LONG GONE

Based on Paul Hemphill’s lively novel, this unsung made-for-HBO film was released the year before “Bull Durham” but is just as successful in depicting life in the minor leagues. Featuring genuine and affecting turns by newcomers Virginia Madsen and Dermot Mulroney, the movie is carried by William Petersen’s crackling, self-assured performance as Stud Cantrell. The movie also features a delectable bit of casting, as Henry Gibson and Teller play the parsimonious father-and-son owners of the minor-league club.

 

MAJOR LEAGUE

The movie equivalent of those blooper reels that play between innings in ballparks across the country, this is broad, dumb, junky comfort food for the masses. The hapless Cleveland Indians portrayed herein come fully equipped with stock jock stereotypes — the spoiled but fading star, the rugged veteran and the flaky pitcher. The motley crew unites to spoil the plans of their evil-witch owner. Sheen threw a ton of pitches during filming and actually looks like a pitcher.

THE NATURAL

Barry Levinson’s film was the first of a series of baseball movies that appeared during the Reagan ’80s. If it had been made a decade earlier, it likely would have remained faithful to Bernard Malamud’s book, which ends on a downer, with the hero perceived to have sold out, a loser. Instead, Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs is a hero, and he is filmed in perpetual slow-motion and golden hues, hitting a ball so far that it smashes the lights above the stands in right field in what has become the ultimate baseball money shot.

PRIDE OF THE YANKEES

The original three-hanky male weepy, released just one year after Lou Gehrig’s premature death. Never mind that the baseball scenes are far from convincing: Cooper’s portrayal of Gehrig has done nothing but boost the Iron Horse’s legend. The movie’s best scene re-creates Gehrig’s famous farewell address at Yankee Stadium. The film features cameos from real-life ballplayers including Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey.

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