“Field of Dreams” or “Bull Durham?” “Bull Durham or “Field of Dreams?”
And what about “The Natural?”
Baseball scored a marketing home run last night in Dyersville, Iowa, with the brilliant move to stage a regular season game at the site of the popular baseball film, “Field of Dreams.” It became a national event, ratings soared, and the game featured a spectacular finish with a walk-off home run into the cornfield by Chicago’s Tim Anderson.
Hollywood couldn’t have produced a better script. Although they have tried, hundreds of times.
Hollywood has had a love affair with baseball for nearly its entire history, going back to its nickelodeon beginnings. And once the cameras started rolling, it’s been an extra-inning game that never ends.
The Yankees-White Sox visit to the cornfield inspired hundreds of fathers eager to stage their own game of catch with their sons, or daughters, on the field which made “if you build it, they will come,” an iconic line in the lexicon of cinematic history. Even Kevin Costner, the star of the featured film, brought his son to the event so he could have that moment, that catch on the field surrounded by cornstalks.
That’s what a great movie can do, it creates a moment, frozen forever on celluloid, echoing through the cosmos for eternity.
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has already announced they intend to repeat the event next year, and hopefully for years to come. It was an event that actually surpassed its expectations, and perhaps this could lead to some “classic” vintage matchups.
Let’s see the Cincinnati Reds, baseball’s first professional franchise, against another old-school organization, say, the Detroit Tigers. Perhaps the Red Sox could line up against their old Boston mates, the Braves, in the cornfield. The Phillies could face the club that used to share their city, the Athletics, and wouldn’t Connie Mack be rolling in his grave at the thought. And the Cardinals could share the corn with an organization that used to be neighbors, the Orioles, formerly the St. Louis Browns. Wouldn’t it be fun to see those old unis again?
The Field of Dreams game initiated the inevitable comparisons and curiosities as to everyone’s favorite baseball movie. Yankees manager Aaron Boone was asked to name his fave, and he almost embarrassingly veered from the field he was standing on to declare “My favorite baseball movie is ‘Bull Durham.’ I don’t want to…you know…(downplay ‘Field of Dreams’) but I love that one.”
Everyone has their favorite. It’s a subjective choice. But ask several hundred baseball fans, or even today’s baseball players and office personnel, or even the media, and inevitably, a majority will zero in on “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham,” “The Natural,” “Major League,” and would you believe, “The Sandlot.”
Many of today’s players, who came of age or who were enjoying their own Little League years when “The Sandlot” was making the rounds in 1993, love that film about a bunch of kids playing pickup games and are “challenged” by what they perceive to be a monstrous-sized dog on the other side of a wooden fence. The dog ends up slobbering all over their valuable autographed ball. And you thought homework was the worst thing a dog could damage.
The dog is owned by, who else, a character played by James Earl Jones, who becomes the heart and voice of Field of Dreams when he intones, “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, is a part of our past. It reminds us all of what was once good and could be again. Ohhh, people will come, Ray, people will most certainly come.”
The man with that commanding voice, James Earl Jones – it just feels right to say his whole name any time he’s referenced, doesn’t it – first entered the world of cinematic baseball when he played a Negro Leagues player in the fictional account, “Bingo Long and the Traveling Motor Kings” in 1976.
Considered a classic and an entertaining blend of humor and drama, longtime fans of the actual Negro Leagues, as well as former Negro Leagues players, many of whom were still around when the film made its debut, hated the comical treatment, even though a segment of their own history featured outlandish stunts and promotions.
The film’s best legacy might be arguably bringing at least a level of recognition of the Negro Leagues to a new generation.
“Bull Durham” appeals to many baseball fans, and certainly just about any baseball player who spent time in the minors. And isn’t that all of them.
The behavior and misbehavings of minor league players is classic cinema brought to the screen by director Ron Shelton, himself a former minor leaguer.
Costner is again the star, as a former big league catcher hanging on to a career in Triple A. A love triangle forms between his character, Crash Davis, and his knuckleheaded pitcher, “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, and their girlfriend, Annie Savoy, played beautifully by Susan Sarandon.
Ironically, the movie ends with Crash driving off with Annie, but in real life, Robbins began a decades-long relationship with Sarandon subsequent to the filming.
Which leads us to a show about…soccer. Those who enjoyed the first season of the Apple TV hit series, “Ted Lasso,” – and if you haven’t yet, you should check it out – will appreciate the correlation that the series starts out like “Major League” and ends up like “Bull Durham.”
Ahh, “Major League,” a great 1989 baseball comedy which spawned two kinda so-so sequels and gave us Charlie Sheen as “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn and James Gammon as the classic baseball manager Lou Brown who put everything in simple terms. “That would be a winning streak.”
And then there is the 1984 classic, “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford.
Interesting that all of these great baseball movies are pure fiction, some even based on situations that are just not realistic, and yet for the sake of the film, we believe in the events that unfold before our eyes.
From a personal standpoint, “The Natural” is this fan’s all-time favorite baseball movie, with “Field of Dreams” a close second and “Bull Durham” batting third.
Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, and brilliantly directed by Barry Levinson, “The Natural” just feels so right, so perfect, so historic, and such a time-machine journey to an era (1939) when baseball was more innocent and dominated the American sporting landscape.
Another work of fiction that feels almost historical and ends up on just about everybody’s Top Ten of favorite baseball films is Penny Marshall’s funny and poignant tribute to the AAGPBL in 1992, “A League of Their Own.” The ladies take over when the men went off to war and it’s just one of those films that when you catch it for a minute whenever it airs, you just have to stick with it and enjoy the ride.
And yes, Tom Hanks, as skipper Jimmy Dugan, we know, “there’s no crying in baseball.”
After all this fiction, there are great baseball movies that portray actual events, starting with “Eight Men Out,” the 1988 account by Director John Sayles that chronicles a fairly accurate depiction of the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
“Pride of the Yankees,” the 1942 classic starring Gary Cooper, brings the tragedy of Lou Gehrig’s debilitating fight with ALS to the screen.
The “Luckiest Man” speech will get you every time, but every time its shown, you can’t help noticing the one guy who learns that Gehrig is fighting a losing battle with the disease is a sportswriter, and he doesn’t tell anyone, not even his newspaper. Talk about times’ a-changing.
And then there is the more recent tribute to Jackie Robinson in “42,” a 2013 film with the late Chadwick Boseman in the title role and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey who changes baseball forever by signing Jackie. Must-see viewing for any baseball fan. Beautifully done.
Of course, if you haven’t seen it, Robinson himself already portrayed his story in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a 1950 release. Not exactly an Oscar-worthy production, but it is fascinating to see the Hall of Famer recall his own legacy.
Other fact-based screen gems include: “The Rookie” in 2002, with Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris, a school teacher who re-discovers his fastball and ends up in the majors with the Tampa Bay Devils Rays; “61,” Billy Crystal’s tribute to the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run race in 1961 (you gotta see it); and “Cobb,” with Tommy Lee Jones as the controversial Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in his later years. An absolutely underrated performance by the Oscar winner.
“Soul of the Game,” starring DelRoy Lindo and Mykelti Williamson in 1996, gives just a taste of the prejudices experienced by the great Negro Leagues stars Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
The great Jimmy Stewart portrays former major leaguer Monty Stratton in the 1949 film, The Stratton Story,” The pitcher overcomes a hunting accident that costs him a leg, but makes a miraculous return to the majors.
And you’ll occasionally find on Turner Classic Movies, “Pride of St. Louis,” the 1952 film about Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, as embodied by Dan Dailey. A fun portrayal.
But one historical depiction that often gets panned is “Fear Strikes Out, the intended real-life story of Jimmy Pearsall, who battled an overbearing father and emotional demons in his ascent to the majors. The 1957 film offers Karl Malden as the father and Anthony Perkins as Pearsall, but really should be re-made someday, as Perkins does such a horrible job of playing a ballplayer that it hurts to watch. He was more believable in “Psycho” than he is as a Boston Red Sox outfielder.
Another baseball film that has its fans but it so full of visual errors it becomes unwatchable is “Bang the Drum Slowly.” You would think with an All-Star cast including Michael Moriarty and Vincent Gardenia, plus a true acting Hall of Famer – Robert DeNiro – a better film would have emerged, but it’s all over the map and very unrealistic from a baseball point of view.
When the film was being made in 1972/73, Yankee Stadium was being renovated, so the production crew bounced between the Bronx and Shea Stadium in Queens for various shots and the editing process made the make believe stadium of the New York Mammoths look like a mish-mosh of old and new ballparks.
And then there are the four scenes showing DeNiro’s character slowly weakening from a disease over the course of a season (kind of a rip-off of Gehrig’s real-life story), only they filmed all four sequences at the same time in Shea. And the cinematographer forgot to blur the backgrounds, so all four scenes show the exact same fans wearing the same exact same clothes over what’s supposed to be a full season. Yeesh!
Apologies for not being able to checklist every baseball movie, as there are likely more films referencing or featuring baseball than films involving all other sports combined – at least it sometimes feels that way – but there is a room at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown that is dedicated to every baseball movie, and even there it feels the list is not absolutely all-inclusive. The room features memorabilia from movie sets, and includes uniforms, bats, and other paraphernalia, and a loop of clips from various films plays continuously. Worth checking out.
Oh, wait. Just one more. Have to mention one more. Another personal favorite, especially amongst vintage baseball films, is the Ray Milland starring role in 1949 with, “It happens Every Spring.” Milland plays a college professor who invents a mysterious liquid that repels wood. So naturally, when he rubs up the baseball with this stuff – talk about your sticky spider tack – the ball literally “jumps” over bats, and the professor ends up leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series under an alias.
If you’ve never seen it, check it out. Funny, and a nice endorsement for the sport. And watch for Gilligan’s skipper, Alan Hale, Jr., in a small supporting role.