What's the best baseball movie?

And why are great films about the national pastime so rare? As "Moneyball" hits theaters, baseball writers weigh in

Published September 23, 2011 8:59PM (EDT)

Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham."
Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham."

If two of America's biggest pastimes (and industries) are baseball and the movies, why are there so few truly great baseball films?

That's the question we posed to several experts -- novelists, sports journalists, even a former baseball commissioner -- as  "Moneyball" hits theaters. We also asked each to name a favorite baseball movie ("Bull Durham" turns out to be, as one writer put it, "the gold standard"), and discuss whether baseball is better suited to prose -- fiction or journalism -- than it is to the big screen. Below are the responses we received.

John Thorn

[My favorite baseball movie is] "Bull Durham," because it is gritty, real, and smart about the subculture that only baseball professionals know. Not to mention that it is funny, as is "Major League," which stands up to repeated watching. Not funny but also with much to recommend them are "The Natural" (better than Malamud's dreary novel) and "Field of Dreams," a three-hankie weeperoo for guys.

Baseball movies are hard to get right, as are baseball novels, as are novels or films about the worlds of film or theater. The writer or filmmaker tackling baseball always starts off at one remove from reality, and is always playing catch-up. Baseball is not about baseball, at least not entirely, even if you’re playing it. It is about past glories, power transference, surrogated combat and unconscious contests of generation and gender. Some of this is acknowledged in "Bull Durham," along with the humor and the realism, which makes it, for me, the gold standard.

John Thorn is the official historian for Major League Baseball. His most recent book is "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game."

Nicholas Dawidoff

The best baseball movie I have seen is "Bull Durham" -- so funny! so sexy! -- but my favorite is "Field of Dreams." I know, I know! So uncool! But while it's undeniably sentimental to the point of mawkishness, much of the joy of pretty good movies has to do with what the viewer brings to them. I grew up without a dad in the house and because that was just the way it was, this was also just something we didn't talk about in our family. As a younger person I only thought about the situation obliquely, through mediums like movies and baseball players. I think the film gets exactly right that primary feeling of longing for an absent father, and the mysterious way baseball can express so much about how people romanticize the things they don't have but very much want. I remember sitting in that dark theater in my very early 20s, getting choked up and trying to be stoic in public, when suddenly all around me I heard the sound of grown men weeping in the dark. That was a huge moment in my life -- there were others! -- and I haven't since been able to separate the film and the moment. I also liked the cornfield and James Earl Jones.

One of the problems with baseball movies is that baseball itself is so exciting and so dramatic and also real. Most baseball films feature play that seems lame and contrived. That is also true, by the way, of baseball novels. They try to match the reality and can't compete. One reason that Chad Harbach's new novel, "The Art of Fielding," is so successful is that it really understands the game. The book takes the time to address the nuances in persuasive and insightful ways that would be very challenging to express on film, and it uses baseball as a backdrop for big subjects like college life, coming of age, the search for beauty, etc. I think that the life in full of a small college baseball team might make an excellent film, especially if the baseball was kept to a minimum. Baseball films that are just about baseball don't work. The reason the television program "Friday Night Lights" is the best fiction ever filmed about football is that there isn't much football -- it's the story, among other things, of a distinctive community in small-town Texas and the most convincing marriage I've ever seen portrayed on-screen. "Field of Dreams" may be sentimental, but it's also a very smart commentary on sentimentality. And by making no attempt at all to seem real, it feels real and true to something original and meaningful.

Nicholas Dawidoff's books include "The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg" and "The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball."

Jane Leavy

[My favorite baseball movie is] "Bull Durham" -- because it gets the language of baseball right, the studied obfuscations and the native dugout patois. Because I want to be Susan Sarandon in a bathtub with Kevin Costner. Because Ron Shelton, the one-time minor leaguer turned filmmaker, allowed a woman to be the apostle of that old time baseball religion without getting all religious about it. Remember the gospel of Annie Savoy: "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us."

I don’t know why there aren’t more baseball movies. My funny friend Norman Steinberg, who wrote "My Favorite Year" as well as the unproduced screenplay of my baseball novel, "Squeeze Play," says: "There’s a common belief among studios and distributors that baseball movies don't put asses in the seats the way Mickey Mantle did. Then, every once in a while, one comes along to explode the popular negative belief as 'Bull Durham' did and 'Squeeze Play' woulda'. Damn."

Maybe it’s locker room verisimilitude they can’t handle. The studio exec who passed on our film told Norman, "Take the penis off the cake" -- a marzipan likeness I had situated on a post-game buffet table. It was her only note.

I do think I know why baseball writes so well. The pace of the game, so infuriating to the gigabyte generation, is writerly. The pauses between innings and pitches, and all those goddamn pitching changes, allow for imagination and the play of words. In fact, writing is a whole lot like the rhythm of baseball: long periods of hair-pulling inaction waiting for the right word to explode into consciousness like a 95-mile-an-hour heater. And when it does, you feel, for just an instant, like the man on the mound with electrifying stuff.

Jane Leavy's books include the bestseller "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy." Her acclaimed biography of Mickey Mantle, "The Last Boy," is out in paperback Oct. 4.

Roger Kahn

I'm not a critic, nor was I meant to be, but I do have favorites. From a non-critical perch my favorite baseball movie is "Bang the Drum Slowly," based on Mark Harris' moving novel. A double-edged success: the film is faithful to the book and the actors look as though they actually had played some ball. (In truth they had, under a coach the producer hired.)

Worst baseball movie? For reasons too numerous to list, a tie between "The Babe Ruth Story" and "Pride of the Yankees."

More than five different producers have bought options to make a movie of my book, "The Boys of Summer." None has succeeded, although we had scripts by such talented writers as Mark Harris and my late friend Ring Lardner Jr. Why not? Funding never materialized and if I understood that I would understand capitalism, which I don't.

Roger Kahn's many books include "The Boys of Summer," which James Michener called "the finest American book on sports."

Joe Posnanski

[Choosing a favorite baseball movie is tough] for me. I'd say it's either "Bull Durham" or "The Natural," depending on my mood at the moment. "Bull Durham" is the funniest baseball movie ever made, I think, and so I'd probably go with that one three out of four days.

I do think a baseball movie is hard to get right … but only in the same way that everything is hard to get right. I was just talking about this with a friend. I suspect lawyers would tell you that most law movies get it really wrong. I suspect doctors would tell you that most medical movies get it really wrong. And so on. I don't think movies, in general, are meant to get it right … I have yet to see a movie that gets sportswriters right.

The trouble is that baseball -- unlike the law, or medicine or sportswriting -- is enjoyed by millions and millions of fans. And so getting it wrong in baseball can crush a movie. John Goodman is a very funny and likable actor, but there's no way he could swing a bat like Babe Ruth. Ray Liotta is a wonderful actor, but most baseball fans know that Shoeless Joe Jackson swung left-handed and threw right-handed, not the other way around. It isn't that movies get baseball wrong more than they get other things wrong … it is that it matters in baseball.

Joe Posnanski is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and was sports columnist at the Kansas City Star from 1996 to 2009. He blogs here.

Fay Vincent

It is difficult to make a good movie and it is difficult indeed to make a wonderful movie. No one should ever underestimate the challenges of filmmaking. For every memorable film there are dozens of failures. Indeed the definition of a "good film" is tricky. Is it a film that makes lots of money or a film that meets with great critical acclaim but only appeals to a thin slice of the general audience?

My favorite baseball films are "Bang the Drum Slowly" -- also the choice of Bart Giamatti -- and "Eight Men Out." A close competitor is "Bull Durham." These films were about basic human failures and issues but set in a baseball context. The drama and themes of these films are much broader than baseball. The effort to show the game as part of the film, as in "The Natural," often defeats the film maker. Nothing is so false as fake baseball footage.

It is not that baseball defeats the filmmaker. Filmmaking is just a difficult art form in an even more difficult industry.The miracle is not that there are so few great baseball films. It is, rather, that there are so few great films on any topic. Or as someone once said, there are only four story lines in all of film making and every film is predicated on one of those stories. Baseball is the background. It can not overcome the realities of the business.

Fay Vincent was MLB Commissioner from 1989 to 1992. He was president and CEO of Columbia Pictures when TriStar made "The Natural." His books include "The Last Commissioner: A Baseball Valentine."

Allen Barra

There is no question that the greatest baseball movie ever is "Bull Durham." It's the best written. There are phrases in there that just went into the American lexicon. ... [Director] Ron [Shelton] was a former minor league ball player and he knew all the stuff from the ground up.

[So] clearly, "Bull Durham" is the best. But the other night, there was a radio show and Bob Costas called in, and I was curious to see what Bob was going to say as to the second-best film. In the past, [when] we have talked about this, he's either picked "The Natural," which I loathe (it completely falsifies the end of Bernard Malamud's novel), or "Field of Dreams," which also sentimentalizes and falsifies the Kinsella novel, "Shoeless Joe," that it was made from. [Costas] had the guts to say "Major League" -- [a] much maligned [film] -- which is terrific fun: it's vulgar, it's crass, and it's very, very true in a lot of ways. ... It's got good baseball in it; Charlie Sheen has a terrific cut fastball. I mean, if he'd devoted himself to it from his college career, he could have been Mariano Rivera. He's got a nice windup too. You see balls and strikes -- in what other baseball movie do you see a guy picked off first base? When do they ever bother with that? Also, every other movie ends with a big home run; how do they end it with this? A bunt. I have to say, very seldom do you see a sports movie where you're surprised at the end [as you are with "Major League"]. I'll take "Major League" for my second best. ...

[One] reason they don't make more [baseball movies] is that there aren't more natural ideas out there. Ron Shelton said to me once, "They always end these sports movies with a 'big game.'" He said, "In real life, there is no big game. There's always a game coming up after." And that's really the problem. I mean, he made one of the best baseball movies ever, and hardly anyone went to see it -- "Cobb," the biography of Ty Cobb -- with Tommy Lee Jones, a fabulous performance. And it wasn't a commercial success. It's hard to find new variations upon an old theme.

George Plimpton once said, "The smaller the ball, the better the book" -- which is why no one's ever written a good book about beach ball. And I think baseball, if it's done right, is a better cinematic subject than anything else. ... Frankly, baseball doesn't lend itself to television. Have you ever been to a game with somebody who's there for the first time? "Oh my God, I didn't realize the ball was hit so hard! Oh, it's hit so fast!" The routine things in baseball are absolutely amazing. ... If done right, [baseball] works better than anything else on the movie screen.

Salon contributor Allen Barra is author of "Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee." He writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

Joe Lemire

"Bull Durham" is my favorite baseball movie. It gives a taste of minor-league baseball life and a sampling of the eccentric characters that have always populated the game. Nuke LaLoosh is a classic archetype of the all-talent, no-brain ballplayer. So much of baseball -- thanks to its long season and short bursts of action following periods of anticipation -- is a mental game. And his conversations with the veteran Crash Davis (long on maturity, but with just enough talent to get by) are compelling.

I do think the baseball movie is hard to get right, though I think that's true of all sports movies. Replicating sports action is difficult. And depending on what you'd call legendary, I think there have been several very good baseball films (all in their own way): "Bull Durham," "The Natural," "Field of Dreams" and "Major League," most notably. At least in my opinion, it's not like there's a disproportionate number of great basketball or football or golf movies that have been made. I think all sports are hard to capture on the big screen.

Joe Lemire writes about baseball for Sports Illustrated.

Richard J. Tofel

I can't say that I buy the premise of your question. Four of my favorite films are baseball movies -- "A League of Their Own," "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams" and my personal choice, "The Natural."

What is noteworthy, and what perhaps your question is getting at, is this: Baseball is a subject serious writers love to take seriously, from George Will to Bart Giamatti, from David Halberstam to Michael Lewis, even from Jacques Barzun to John Updike. Yet, our more serious filmmakers have not been similarly moved by the game, and our best baseball films are not as serious -- "Bang the Drum Slowly" aside -- as our best baseball writing. Even wonderful baseball films such as "Field of Dreams" feel compelled to take the edge off the writing from which they emerge -- in that case, W. P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe."

"The Natural" is perhaps the most extreme example of this phenomenon, transforming Bernard Malamud's dark ending into a fantasy of exploding stadium lights. That may not be great literature, but it is the most fun I've ever had at the movies.

Richard Tofel is the author of "A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939" and four other books, none of them about baseball. He very favorably reviewed "Moneyball" for The Wall Street Journal when it was published in 2003. 

By Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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