Summer is here. As temperatures rise into the 80s and beyond, Americans are returning to some semblance of normalcy with family barbeques, creating the perfect s’mores by the fire, and other summer rituals. Still, one important tradition remains missing: Major League Baseball.
This year, due to coronavirus, no MLB games were played on Father’s Day or the first day of summer for the first time since the 1981 MLB strike. Yet baseball is an intrinsic part of summertime. Whether at the ballpark or listening to the game by the pool, summer just isn’t the same without stolen bases, strikeouts, and home runs.
One way to fill that baseball-shaped hole is to turn to the silver screen. If you’re fine with adults-only fare, “Bull Durham” and “Major League” are two entertaining, funny, and memorable options. But if you’re looking for baseball films suitable for a wider age group, here are five of the best movies to watch.
‘Field of Dreams’
1989 | PG | 1h 47m
Kevin Costner has many baseball movies of varying quality in his resume, but “Field of Dreams” is by far his best. Based on W. P. Kinsella’s magic realist novel Shoeless Joe, “Field of Dreams” tells the story of a man who hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield. To the shock of his fellow Iowans, Costner’s Ray Kinsella follows through on the other-worldly request and gets more than he bargained for in the process.
The film and its iconic imagery are such a part of the modern American consciousness that in 2017, the Library of Congress selected “Field of Dreams” to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry for its cultural and historic significance. Indeed, until the coronavirus pandemic jeopardized the 2020 MLB season, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees were scheduled to play a special “Field of Dreams” game on August 13 at a ballpark built to replicate Kinsella’s project near the movie site in Dyersville, Iowa. While that magical re-creation remains on hold, you can watch the film in all its glory at any time.
Featuring excellent supporting turns from James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, and Ray Liotta, the script takes several detours that make the film about far more than just baseball. “Field of Dreams” tackles a number of important issues, including censorship, fatherhood, and reconciling with past mistakes. It’s also notable for being one of the few films to make grown men cry. If you feel the undeniable urge to call your dad when the credits roll, know this: you’re not alone.
2011 | PG-13 | 2h 13m
Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill complement each other nicely in the retelling of Billy Beane’s quest to use a laughably small budget to turn the 2002 Oakland A’s into a championship team. In the wrong hands, a film based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name could have been lost in the weeds of budgeting, salary structures, and financial wonkery. Yet director Bennet Miller deftly handles a whip-smart script by Oscar winners Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin to explain both Beane’s saga and the concept of sabermetrics without suppressing the film’s comedic or emotional beats.
You don’t have to be an MLB general manager to feel for Brad’s “Beane.” His story is the lot of every man at the head of a vanguard. It’s tough on the first person to shatter a decades-old paradigm, but that’s precisely what Beane attempts to do in Oakland. Beane’s struggle follows a familiar “David versus Goliath” archetype but is embued with a humanity that it feels eminently relatable even if you’ve never stepped into a baseball dugout or a draft room.
“Moneyball” is not just a great baseball film — it may well be the finest of the genre — it’s an exceptional film in its own right. The clean guitar and synth score, which also employs breathtaking tracks from the alternative instrumental band This Will Destroy You, marries perfectly with beautiful green-tinted cinematography courtesy of Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar the previous year for “Inception.”
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman and a baby-faced, pre-superstar Chris Pratt round out a strong cast. To its credit, the film resists the temptation to change real-world events. Yet while it remains grounded in reality, it still provides enough cinematic flair to raise a key question: How can you not be romantic about baseball?
‘A League of Their Own’
1992 | PG | 2h 8m
Set in the middle of America’s involvement in World War II, Tom Hanks leads a well-rounded cast in the story of the earliest days of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that spanned 1943 to 1954. The film is undoubtedly sappy at times, but the sentimentality is balanced by a healthy dose of humor.
Hanks’s oft-drunk, down-on-his-luck manager Jimmy Dugan provides the bulk of the comedy and is ably assisted by the large female ensemble featuring Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Megan Cavanagh as the terrific Marla Hooch. There’s no question, however, that the ladies are anchored by Geena Davis, who plays the plucky and amiable catcher and assistant manager Dorothy “Dottie” Hinson in one of her best performances.
“A League of Their Own” is a light, warm, easy watch with more than enough good scenes to make it worth other sequences that either don’t quite land or overplay the moment. It’s also worth noting that despite the massive number of films in his career, “A League of Their Own” features one of the most famous non-“Forrest Gump” quotes Hanks ever delivers: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
1984 | PG | 2h 18m
The longest film on this list and by far the most nostalgic, “The Natural” stars Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, a man whose promising baseball career is cut short by tragedy. Mounting an unlikely comeback and reinventing himself as a slugger rather than a pitcher, Hobbs begins a quest to become what he always sought to be: The greatest player who ever lived.
“The Natural” borrows heavily from mankind’s greatest myths — from Arthurian legends to Homer’s The Odyssey — and features a radical departure from the ending of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel from which it’s based. Fans of Malamud’s source material may balk at the film’s ending, which swaps tragedy for an explosive and cathartic payoff. Yet, after all of the trials Hobbs endures, it’s refreshing to see that, yes, sometimes nice guys finish first.
Glenn Close and Robert Duvall deliver fine performances, but this really is the Redford show, and his muted and poignant portrayal of Roy Hobbs hits all the right notes. If it feels like they don’t make movies like this anymore, it’s because, well, they don’t. “The Natural” wears its emotions on its rolled-up eggshell-white uniform sleeves. If you allow yourself to buy into the premise and to be immersed by the best score Randy Newman ever composed, the final moments of the film will take your breath away.
1993 | PG | 1h 41m
Another famous baseball film to feature a great supporting performance by James Earl Jones, “The Sandlot” is a coming-of-age comedy that takes place over the course of one summer in 1962. Instead of following professional adult baseball players, “The Sandlot” follows a rag-tag group of youngsters as they play sandlot baseball in the San Fernando Valley, of California. Between the hijinks involving “the Beast” to Michael “Squints” Palledorous’s antics with lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn, the film is heartwarmingly earnest and authentic, even if we never personally had the misfortune of spinning around on theme park rides after partaking in far too much chewing tobacco.
It isn’t complicated, “heady,” or filled with weighty messages on controversial topics. “The Sandlot” seeks to remind viewers of two simple things: why Americans love baseball, and that we typically take for granted the carefree summer days of our youth. It harkens back to when “keeping score” meant so much that games could go on from sunrise to sunset, but so little that we’d never let it get in the way of lifelong friendships or allow disputes over close calls to carry into the next day. Goodness knows we could use a little bit of that now.