If you enjoy films like Moneyball and Bull Durham, you should investigate the sports genre characteristics that make these baseball films classics. (Ken Burns’ voice.) Baseball, the national pastime. On a hot summer day, nothing is nicer than the sound of a yarn ball striking a wooden bat. In exhibition, it’s man versus man to see who will hit a home run and who would strike out. (End Ken Burns’ voice.) Baseball films may be the most in-depth and renowned subgenre of all sports films. From The Natural to Major League to The Sandlot, baseball movies may range from period dramas to slapstick comedies to uplifting coming-of-age stories. Yet, similar to all other genre films (particularly sports genre films), the baseball film can be formulaic and predictable in its use of many of the same icons and tropes as other genres. Hence, for budding sports filmmakers, let’s examine some of the greatest baseball films of all time and determine what filmmaking lessons may be gleaned from each.
So, before we get into the meat of our list, we have to call attention to a few baseball sports films of cinematic significance. This is a thriving genre, and you could easily compile a list of twenty or more films that are worth viewing, investigating, and appreciating. Documentaries such as No No: A Dockumentary, which skillfully portrays the story of the infamous baseball pitcher who threw a no-hitter while high on LSD, do not quite make the cut for this article. Also excluded is Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary Baseball. Still, it should be considered mandatory viewing. But, for those who grew up with them, Angels in the Outfield and Rookie of the Year have a tremendous lot of nostalgia and fond memories.
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7. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
So, moving on to the top baseball genre films of all time, we begin with a pick that may surprise some, as many may not recognize it as a “baseball picture” in the traditional sense. Yet, upon closer inspection, Richard Linklater’s teen comedy picture is, among other things, about the eternal adolescence of America’s pastime. It also demonstrates, probably better than any other film, how baseball culture is intricately connected with the process of “growing up.” Linklater, well known for Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, is a master of addressing these specific issues in a free approach that prioritizes building authentic characters and relationships above strictly adhering to a cinematic story structure. There is no “grand game” at the conclusion of this movie, but if you want to learn how to write characters and establish a cinematic ethos, you should see it.
6. Moneyball (2011)
Moneyball is one of the best-written baseball films (or baseball-themed films, depending on your perspective) ever made. Moneyball, which was directed by Bennett Miller and written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, contains several of Sorkin’s writing techniques and peculiarities. Similar to The Social Network and other films written by Sorkin, it has a rapid pace with a concentration on clever banter and intense tension. Unlike other, more forgettable baseball films, this one does not dumb down the material for the audience. Based on its subject matter (the narrative of the first general manager to introduce analytics to front offices), it is highly cerebral and insightful in its ability to present a universal story that feels very baseball-specific.
5. Field of Dreams (1989)
Today we are entering the golden age of baseball filmmaking with the release of the first (of what may be many) films exploring baseball’s significance in American society. Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, is another example of how an outstanding baseball film need not be solely about baseball. Baseball (and in this case, a mystical baseball field) serves as more of a backdrop to a story about family and faith. About Americana and Ken Burns’ Baseball, Field of Dreams should be mandatory watching for everyone interested in the American baseball zeitgeist. Along with Costner’s character’s passion of baseball (due to his bond with his father, a recurring motif in baseball movies), the film also features James Earl Jones as the reclusive author Terence Mann (a nod to J.D. Salinger). Jones’s role provides authors and filmmakers with poetic insights into why baseball is actually so romantic.
4. The Sandlot (1993)
Depending on your birth year, if you grew up watching The Sandlot at summer camps and sleepovers, it may be your choice for the best baseball film of all time. It is also a prime illustration of how well the genre lends itself to kid-friendly entertainment while also being entertaining for adults and non-sports fans. The Sandlot, which shares many characteristics with films like Stand By Me and television shows like The Wonder Years, examines the sport’s nostalgia through the eyes of a child, but with the narrative of an adult looking back on his boyhood. The Sandlot is a film about growing up and friendship, and it does an excellent job of examining how baseball can serve as a catalyst for both. If you did not grow up with this film but would like to create a baseball project with children in mind, you must begin here.
3. A League of Their Own (1992)
Penny Marshall’s historical comedy-drama about a ragtag gang of women in the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) is arguably Tom Hanks’ best performance (or at least contains his most famous phrase). Similar to The Bad News Bears or any number of misfit ensembles cast as a team, A League of Their Own follows this unique sports genre pattern to the letter. Unlike many of these cash-grab comedies, however, Marshall’s picture has something to say, and its subjects and the sport itself are treated with great care. A League of Their Own is a significant film for anyone interested in baseball history or women’s empowerment, despite the film’s amusing ragtag comic elements. It is also a welcome break from the male-dominated nature of much of the baseball film genre (and the sports film genre as a whole), as it has strong characters, terrific performances, and a great deal of heart.
2. Bull Durham (1988)
Bull Durham, another film starring Kevin Costner, is regarded by many as the best baseball picture of all time, if not the best sports film of all time. Yet, unlike many of the other films on the list, Bull Durham might also be argued to be more of a romance or even a romantic comedy. This is because, at its core, it is a drama about a complicated yet humorous love triangle between Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis, Susan Sarandon’s character Annie Savoy, and Tim Robbins’ character Nuke Laloosh. Again, baseball is central to the plot, as it focuses on the real-life minor league baseball team known as the Durham Bulls. Nevertheless Ken Burns and Field of Dream’s fictional author Terrence Mann would be proud of the film’s folklore, especially Susan Sarandon’s character’s pursuit of sport and poetry. Alongside our top pick, let Bull Durham serve as a reminder that every baseball film need a second, more deep narrative at its center. And the better it is, the better your overall film will be.
1. The Natural (1984)
It is hard to say for sure which of these movies is the best baseball movie of all time. Nonetheless, regardless of individual choice, it is difficult to dispute The Natural’s enduring impact. The Natural, starring Robert Redford as the renowned, troubled slugger Roy Hobbs, is as influential and influential to American cinema as The Godfather and Star Wars. The tragic hero played by Redford owes a great deal to previous Shakespearean-protagonist films such as On the Waterfront and Raging Bull. But, the film’s positive message and appreciation for the sport at its center offer the protagonist (and the spectator) hope in something more meaningful. The Natural is all a baseball picture should ever want to be, whether viewed as a fascinating period piece of pre-World War II America, a sly love revenge-and-love narrative, or simply for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s everlasting bursting light home run trot sequence.