It’s been almost a week since Opening Day, and this year’s Major League Baseball season is shaping up to be another good one, and a refreshing return to normalcy after the pandemic reduced last year’s regular season to just 60 games. But, for those occasions in which your favorite team is traveling or has the day off, there’s no reason you can’t kick back and relax with the great game’s cinematic equivalent. Baseball and movies are not that different: they’re entertaining, run the gamut of emotions and have existed as indelible pieces of the American experience and lexicon for as long as anyone alive today can remember. It sure stands to reason why baseball movies are so often memorable in an instant. So, whether it’s your first or your hundredth watch, here are 10 essential baseball movies that are sure to be out-of-the-park grand slams.
An athlete as significant to the annals of sports history as Jackie Robinson requires a biopic that honors the incredible impact of their legacy in every way, which is precisely what we get with “42.” While the argument can certainly be made that the film downplays the severity of the circumstances surrounding Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball, it shines when portraying him as a pinnacle of perseverance and class, thanks in no small part to a commanding breakout performance by the late Chadwick Boseman. That Boseman’s strength in the role would allow him to eventually portray other historic black figures like James Brown and Thurgood Marshall just goes to show the extent to which he embodied the same qualities that made Robinson such a respected athlete in the eyes of his teammates and, eventually, his plethora of fans. Just as we remember the great Robinson by the number he wore on his back, this film gives us every reason to remember the extraordinary and original legacy Boseman has left behind.
‘The Pride of the Yankees’ (1942)
Another of baseball’s all-time greatest legends, Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig had a career many can only dream of, but his life was tragically cut short after a debilitating battle with ALS, more commonly known today as “Lou Gehrig's disease." Classic Hollywood good guy Gary Cooper plays Gehrig in a portrait of his achievements that made the actor a household name. The commitment to recapturing life in Gehrig's shoes is such that the film also features his fellow Yankees Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, and Mark Koenig as themselves. Less about the at-bats than it is about the man holding the bat, “The Pride of the Yankees” is an entertaining reminder of Gehrig’s prowess on the field — and the baseball sequences are very impressive for the time — but one that goes to great lengths to remind the audience of the humanity underneath the statistics. The deft blend of sports-based action and tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that the film was released just over a year after Gehrig’s passing.
‘Major League’ (1989)
About as ubiquitous as the game of baseball itself, “Major League” is a touchstone of sports comedies that we continue to find shades of today. When the Cleveland Indians’ new owner learns that a losing season is the only thing standing in her way of moving the team to sunny Miami, she hires the worst players imaginable, including a former convict pitcher who can barely see the plate, a Voodoo-practicing power hitter who can’t hit curveballs to save his life and a prima donna third baseman. No one expects anything out of the club, but when they discover the scheme, they mount a hilarious but huge run for the pennant, all the while winning back the hearts of their fans with their big personalities and clever antics on the field. Making household names out of Charlie Sheen and Wesley Snipes, “Major League” is also notable for its casting of famed MLB broadcaster Bob Uecker as the Indians’ colorful and witty play-by-play commentator. Plus, if you’ve ever wondered why the city of Cleveland loves the song “Wild Thing,” look no further.
'The Sandlot' (1993)
Yep, it’s the movie that launched a thousand t-shirts. Though it is undeniable that an entire generation has grown up with “The Sandlot” and its nostalgic celebration of brotherhood through baseball, it is also fair to say that it’s a film that appeals to all ages, sports fans and non-sports fans alike. The cast of complete unknowns guide us through the summer of 1962, complete with romantic passes made at the local lifeguard, insults traded with rival baseball teams and tobacco-induced carnival rides that don’t end so well. The neverending memories to be made as baseball becomes life from sunrise to sunset drive the narrative forward to its climactic “pickle” as the central group of boys go toe-to-toe with a neighborhood entity known only as “The Beast.” But “The Sandlot” is at its absolute best when detailing all the ways in which the game of baseball brings people together, how it fosters community and familial bonds and how it sets future generations up to create the same kinds of memories for themselves.
'The Bad News Bears' (1976)
Long before “The Sandlot” became the shining example of the joyous outlet baseball offers impressionable pre-teens, “The Bad News Bears” broke every rule and bucked every tradition in its depiction of Little Leaguers. It’s the kind of film that should be viewed with a knowing lens, as its politically incorrect humor flies in the face of how far American culture has matured since the 1970s. Serving as the forebear of the “down on his luck alcoholic coaches a team of untalented misfits” narrative and the “winning isn’t everything” message, the fact that some of the film’s most mature jokes are delivered not by Walter Matthau’s Coach Buttermaker, but the child actors of the film, is actually a testament to how progressive it was in the way it approached the youth market. There’s a surprising amount of depth to the film as the Bears become underdogs and as Buttermaker learns how to properly appeal to the attitudes of each of his players. And though it doesn’t make it a point of emphasis, “The Bad News Bears” deserves more attention for its fair-minded approach to gender, as part of Buttermaker’s winning strategy is to allow a girl to pitch for his team, a decision that is not questioned by anyone in the league.
'The Natural' (1984)
Easily the American pastime at its most mythological and romantic, “The Natural,” in its portrayal of reawakened dreams and unparalleled glory, is the mold that many young baseball hopefuls use to turn their dreams into a plan. Following Roy Hobbs — a role that Robert Redford doesn’t enough credit for — as he mounts a return to the Major League a whole 16 years after a freak incident put his career in jeopardy, the film takes some pretty significant liberties in adapting the novel its based on, most notably its complete altering of the story’s conclusion. But in doing so, it affirms its idolatry of baseball and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a heart-warming, crowd-pleasing romp that rockets Hobbs and his bat, Wonderboy, into the hall of fame of fictional athletes. Sure, its attitude about the game has indeed split many viewers down the middle, but the sheer impact of its most memorable moments, along with Randy Newman’s iconic theme music, is never in doubt.
'A League of Their Own' (1992)
Like all American sports, the story of baseball is written by its many heroes, which makes it all the more sobering that very few people actually remembered the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League when this film was released. The AAGPBL all but rescued the American pastime when most of its players were shipped overseas during World War II, and for the briefest of moments, the talented women chosen to play the game managed to defy the roles that a male-dominated society had cast for them. “A League of Their Own,” though highly fictionalized, is still a fitting tribute to these women, one that has since boosted their reputation and their place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Placing the Rockford Peaches at the center of the pack, the film is also notable for its all-star cast, including the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, Geena Davis as the team’s fan-favorite catcher, and the always reliable Tom Hanks as their alcoholic, curmudgeonly manager, who manages to drop one of the most prolific and time-honored one-liners in all of sports cinema: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
“If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.” That’s just one of the many lines of wisdom espoused by General Manager Billy Beane in this biographical retelling of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season. When Beane, working with the tightest budget imaginable, receives a wakeup call from young analyst Peter Brand that baseball scouts are asking themselves all the wrong questions, the two set out to form a winning team by using computer-generated analyses to judge players’ athletic values. In the process, they manage to outsmart their competition by recruiting affordable players who conventionally-minded clubs have misread as useless. Of all the films on this list, “Moneyball” is perhaps the most suitable for viewers who don’t care much for baseball, as it hones in greatly on a side of the game most of us never get to see. At its core, it is a well-written and superbly acted film, with Brad Pitt and a surprisingly subdued Jonah Hill carrying the whole thing. This only makes its appeal to baseball fans even stronger, as the A’s eventual success led to phrases like “sabermetrics” and “wild-cards” becoming colloquialisms of the sport today.
'Field of Dreams' (1989)
Ask anyone what the best baseball movie of all time is, and “Field of Dreams” is sure to be the first one to come to mind. Whereas “The Natural” is baseball at its most mystical, “Field of Dreams” is the game at its most mystical, for there is no other explanation for Ray Kinsella’s decision to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield other than a mysterious voice that tells, “If you build it, he will come.” Soon enough, the spirits of the eight Chicago White Sox players ousted from the Majors during the 1919 Black Sox scandal arrive to take the field one more time, led by the folkloric “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. With big names like Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta, and James Earl Jones leading the pack, the film is very simple, but beautifully complex in that very simplicity. The success and popularity of “Field of Dreams” is undeniable, so much so that the field built for the film is now a popular tourist destination in Dubuque County, Iowa. This is largely thanks to its heart-wrenching finale, in which Kinsella finally makes peace with the personal ghosts he has been avoiding for years. Grab the tissues, cause this movie is living proof that grown men are allowed to cry.
'Bull Durham' (1988)
Confirming that few things go better together than Kevin Costner and baseball, “Bull Durham” stands tall as one of the finest and most authentic sports films of all time largely because it makes the greatness of America’s pastime an afterthought. Written and directed by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, the film centers around a love triangle between “Crash” Davis, a veteran minor league catcher with only a slight taste of life in “The Show”; “Nuke” LaLoosh, the dim-witted and cocky pitcher he is assigned to mentor; and Annie Savoy, the baseball groupie who catches both of their eyes. “Bull Durham” is the kind of film that understands the everlasting appeal of baseball, as Annie treats it as a religious entity, which endears her to Crash, who is slowly growing disillusioned by the game he has played for years. Don’t misunderstand: this movie is endlessly quotable and absolutely hilarious, but when sparks fly — and fly, they do — it’s smart enough to underscore the inherent drawbacks and harsh ironies that many sports films choose to omit. “Bull Durham” paints baseball as the American Dream: a fever dream full of dead ends, broken dreams, and empty promises. But the aura of the game and the euphoria it gives those who pick up a bat and glove is always there.