Popped Back to the Screen (05/08/01)

Billy Crystal's new movie 61* debuted to much acclaim recently on HBO.  Several reviewers have called it one of the greatest baseball movies of all time.  After seeing it, I have to wonder what their criteria is for a "great" baseball movie.

For me, a great baseball movie has three things going for it:

1) Realism - how realistically it depicts all aspects of the game, from the way players live and talk to the actual swings by the actors.

2) Quotability - how good the writing is and how many memorable lines there are in the movie

3) Quality - this is sort of a catch-all that encompasses how well the movie was shot, whether it was just a baseball movie or there was more to it, how well a person who's not a big sports fan would enjoy it, star power, etc.

Crystal's effort does well with the realism of the game, although portraying commissioner Ford Frick as some sort of geriatric Doctor Evil is off the mark.  Yes, Frick was a good friend of the Babe's, once ghostwriting a byline for him.  But he wasn't alone in believing that there should be two records.  Many of the best players, including many of Maris' teammates like Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, stated there should be a separate record if it wasn't broken in 154 games.

On the plus side, the actors took believable swings and bore an uncanny resemblance to the M & M boys.  It was pretty neat seeing Yankee Stadium re-created the way it was before the renovation.  I still find it amazing that the monuments were in the field of play.

But the movie falls short in the other two aspects.  It read a lot like a basic history - he did this, then he did this and then he did that - without any really memorable scenes or lines.  And although the Mantle character kept saying it, the movie never showed Maris really wanting to break the record.  In fact, about the only thing it ever showed him wanting to do was get back to his family.

So, by this standard, it was not a great movie.  But that got me to thinking - which movies are great baseball movies and how long has it been since we've seen one?  Well it's been a while:

The Best

A League of Their Own (1992) - The most recent great baseball movie.  Yeah, they were girls.  But they could play.  I don't know that I buy Geena Davis as a catcher - her skinny body wouldn't hold up under the pounding - but she had a pretty good softball swing.  Tom Hanks was his usual brilliant self as an amalgam of Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson.  Foxx actually managed in the women's league for a while.  And no one can deny that this movie is home to one of the great lines in baseball movie history: "Are you crying?!?!  There's no crying. There's no crying in baseball..."  Of course, if anyone has ever seen the faces of the players on the team that loses the World Series, they'd know that sometimes, there is crying in baseball.

Field of Dreams (1989) - the movie has baseball in it and it's good baseball, but it's only partially a baseball movie.  OK, so Ray Liotta doesn't really look like Shoeless Joe Jackson and he swings righty as opposed to Jackson, who was a lefty.  But he's a decent athlete and if you can overlook the notion that the spiritual center of the baseball universe is in Iowa, then you should be able to overlook the fact that the guy is batting from the wrong side.  However, the movie is much larger in scope, using the game's universal and generational appeal to great effect.  Baseball is a sport of generations, between fathers and sons now spanning 3 centuries.  That generational aspect, the consistent and unchanging nature of the game, allows us to go back into the past and to bring it forward so that we may reconcile our losses, our missed opportunities and our transgressions.  No other sports medium, and in fact, no other American medium, as Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) points out, is as ever-present and timeless as baseball.

Bull Durham (1988) - The best baseball movie ever.  Period.  The baseball scenes are very believable, as is the minor league life it portrays.  It has numerous great quotes: Crash Davis' list of beliefs, the lollygagger speech and 'learn your clichés' to name a few.  It's brilliantly cast and the story extends beyond baseball as a metaphysical treatise on the inherent joy of life, despite it's cruel unfairness.  It also featured career best performances by Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner.  More so than any other movie, this film demonstrates the passion that baseball stokes, both in the players and in the fans.

The Natural (1984) - This adaptation of Bernard Malamud's book creates a new mythology of baseball.  Just as Zeus slew Cronus with a thunderbolt, Roy Hobbs slays the legend of the Whammer with a thunderbolt (an overpowering fastball) and lays claim to the throne as the game's greatest player.  The book was based on numerous events that actually occurred in the early years of baseball, which gives the new mythology an aire of authenticity.  The movie takes the original story one step further, providing an improbable and corny happy ending.  However, with Randy Newman's sublime score and Caleb Deschanel's incredible cinematography, it comes off as stirring and magical.  I still get goose bumps every time I see Robert Redford smash that fastball into the lights.

Bad News Bears (1976) - What's this?  Little kids cussing?  Drunk and/or abusive Little League coaches?  Yep.  A truer picture of little league has never been painted.  Of course, Bad News Bears shows it's positive side as well: an equal opportunity for everyone regardless of background or ability, and the power of teamwork.  Matthau is great as an ex-minor leaguer turned pool cleaner.  I can't think of a another movie where the team that loses the final game comes out looking like winners.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) - starring the actual Jackie Robinson.  Even though almost everything in this movie feels contrived and wooden, Robinson is compelling as he relives those stormy first years in white professional baseball.  The movie's best quotes, which come   from his real life, still resonate with power and dignity.

Naughty Nineties (1945) - Like most Abbott and Costello movies, this was a vehicle for their routines.  But the shtick they showcase in this movie is one of the funniest skits in American entertainment history.  "Who's on first" is universally appealing and one of the few bits that is funny time after time.  The movie has other moments, but this is what makes it great.

Pride of the Yankees (1942) - it's a shame that a movie that has the actual Babe Ruth playing himself, and focusing on a character as compelling as Lou Gehrig would be undermined by a guy who couldn't hit water from a boat.  But what saves the movie, and what ultimately makes it great, is Lou Gehrig himself.  Had a screenwriter concocted a story like this, he would have been laughed out of Hollywood.  But the fact that it actually happened (although not exactly as it did in the movie) still stirs the soul.  A generation of American men were shaped by his heroic determination and grace.  On the strength of the real life Iron Horse, the only way this movie could have failed is if William Bendix, whose portrayal of Babe Ruth in "The Babe Ruth Story" could only charitably be called campy, had been cast to play Gehrig.

Three special mentions

Seinfeld (1990-1988) - OK, it's not a movie but the ongoing commentary in this show on baseball is worthy of high praise.  First, there were the encounters with Keith Hernandez and the second spitter theory.  Then they followed that up in 1996 with never-do-well George Costanza getting a job in the front office of the Yankees.  Among the Yankee plot-line gems: using pizza ovens to warm the uniforms, an office birthday card that gets sold as memorabilia, and Elaine's resolute allegiance to the O's when she has guest seats in the owner's box.  The kicker was that the real life Yankees won their first World Series in more than a decade the year they "hired" Costanza.

Naked Gun (1988) - No, this isn't a baseball movie per se.  But it had some great baseball moments: a poke at the ever-growing number of analysts in big media sports (a booth with Curt Gowdy, Jim Palmer, Mel Allen, Dick Enberg, Dick Vitale and Dr. Joyce Brothers calling the game), Lt Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) posing as an  umpire and Reggie Jackson being used as an assassin to kill the Queen of England.  This flick is still hilarious.

Rabbit and the King (1984) - This short film, directed by Christopher Guest originally appeared on Saturday Night Live.  It starred Guest and Billy Crystal as 2 former Negro-League players, based heavily on Satchel Page (Guest) and Cool Papa Bell (Crystal).  As they are interviewed, they recount brilliantly funny stories about their former competitors and the life in black ball.  One of the funniest recollections is the King telling about his favorite promotion - Smelt Night.  Whenever they had Smelt Night, he'd want to get the game over with fast so he threw nothing but fastballs.  A true masterpiece of short film.

The Rest

There are plenty of other very good baseball movies like Major League, Eight Men Out, Soul of the Game, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Angels in the Outfield (the first one), and the Sandlot.  However, like 61* they lack something - either the ring of truth, or brilliant writing or an expression of something greater than baseball - that prevents me from thinking of them as great.  Even so, I'd still gladly pay to see them.

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