I would say this lineup of best baseball movies looks a bit more like “The Bad News Bears” (neither Michael Ritchie’s 1976 original nor Richard Linklater’s 2005 remake made the cut) than the 1927 Murderers Row Yankees. But each choice demonstrates some of the character and chemistry that makes for great teams and great movies, and also says something about the meaning of baseball in culture and society.
If we had to go deeper into the bench there’d be “Bull Durham,” “Fever Pitch,” and “Major League” ready to pinch hit. But this would be my starting nine. Or rather five.
The Natural (1984)
Barry Levinson’s adaptation of the Bernard Malamud novel pitches baseball as myth, with Robert Redford as a superstar who is also a tragic hero. As Jack Regan points out, Redford’s character wore the number 9 in honor of Ted Williams, a mythical figure in his own right. “How does a guy go two for two in wars [World War II and Korea as a fighter pilot] and end up with” a lifetime .344 batting average? Jack writes. Good question. Another question: Why is there no Ted Williams movie?
We go from the stuff of legend in “The Natural” to the bottom line in Bennett Miller’s fascinating, rousing look at the numbers-crunching known as sabermetrics, and how it helped fabled general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) transform a mediocre team, the Oakland A’s, into a (near) champion. The film performs the trick play of making a hero out of someone who triumphs by showing that heroes are irrelevant.
Eight Men Out (1988)
Baseball has always been a business, an industry in which capitalists exploit workers to make profits, or so the reliably left wing John Sayles argues in this grimily realistic rendition of the infamous Black Sox scandal, in which members of the Chicago team took bribes to throw the 1919 World Series. Turns out they were just poor proles trying to get a share of the products of their labor. Some, like “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, would finally find justice in the tall corn in “Field of Dreams.”
The Rookie (2002)
Here’s the movie for the former Little Leaguer with boundless talent who was not transformed to godlike pro. It’s the true story of Jim Morris, a seemingly over-the-hill high school coach who discovers he has a 98-mile-an-hour heater. He tries out for the Texas Rangers and makes the big leagues. So after the messianic message of “The Natural,” the triumphant capitalism of “Moneyball,” and the Marxist dialectics of “Eight Men Out,” this is baseball as a metaphor for the American Dream.
The Benchwarmers (2006)
Here’s the movie for the former Little Leaguer devoid of athletic ability who finally gets to play (in right field) only to misjudge a fly ball and cause the team to lose. Rob Schneider is an ex-jock who along with his maladroit pals (David Spade and Jon Heder) decides to get payback for being bullied as a kid by beating the latest generation of bullies on the ball field. “It’s a great depiction of bad baseball,” David Caplin notes. It’s also a reminder that the game is meant to be fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as might be the case in the previous four entries.
COMING UP: Bruce Willis plays a retired CIA assassin in the sequel “Red 2” (opens July19), a reminder that he’s been making movies for a long time. Which are his best? We’ll find out on July 21. And, looking ahead to July 28, according to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” the dog days of summer started July 3, but it seems like every day is dog day in the movies. Which are the top dogs of the big screen: the best canine performances? Put your choices in the comments section or send them to me at petervkeough@