“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.” Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, Moneyball.
I had the great pleasure of seeing Moneyball this past weekend. On the surface, it tells the story of Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics, and how he introduced a new way of evaluating players’ skills. In a sport where payrolls are hopelessly unequal between clubs, Billy Beane’s adoption of some of Bill James’ methods is met with a response of confusion, defiance and open hostility. The movie also addresses wider issues such as what we value in society, second chances, and making decisions based on factors other than money. There’s a lovely dynamic between Brad Pitt’s Beane and Beane’s assistant played by Jonah Hill. I loved it, and thought that it surely would fit nicely somewhere in my top 5 baseball movies. Only problem was, I didn’t really have a top five list of baseball movies. Who does, really? I’ve had fun today thinking about which five movies would make the cut.
So what follows is my personal list of my top five favourite baseball movies, or scenes about baseball in non-baseball movies. Does this make sense?
5. The Pride of the Yankees (1942) Baseball seems to lend itself to incredible stories of heroism and romance, more so than any other sport. TPOTY is the story of Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse. He never missed a game. I mean never. He played in 2130 consecutive games. This record would not be broken until the mid 1990’s by Cal Ripken Jr, and will never be broken again. Back in the day, your number was the order you hit. Babe Ruth hit third, so he wore 3. Gehrig hit fourth, so he wore 4. Simpler times. Then, one day, he wasn’t feeling so great and took himself out of the line up. This was in 1939. Gehrig was only 35 at the time. Turns out he had ALS, a degenerative motor-neuron disease, which subsequently became known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”. I used to like the joke that it was terrible luck that Lou Gehrig would actually get Lou Gehrig’s disease, but then last year, Pat, a dear friend of my wife, got ALS and I saw her slow decline first hand and realized there was nothing at all funny about it. In addition to his consecutive game streak and his illness, he’ll be remembered for his farewell speech given at Yankee Stadium. I linked to the actual speech, not the movie version, because nothing beats the real thing.
4. Damn Yankees (1958) Whew, that first one got a little heavier than I thought. Let’s lighten things up with a musical! A hapless fan of the Washington Senators makes a deal with the devil to become a great long ball hitter and finally beat the “Damn Yankees”. Plus, there’s singing and dancing! What’s not to love? Gwen Verdon owns the role of Lola, but is it too much to hope for a Broadway revival featuring Sutton Foster?
3. A League of their Own (1992) This little gem of a movie tells the story of the first women’s professional baseball league, created out of necessity during WWII. Many of the big professional male baseball stars were sent overseas to fight, leaving baseball in a precarious position. Penny Marshall’s movie is full of wonderful moments, including the now famous “there’s no crying in baseball” scene.
2. Fever Pitch (2005) I love this movie because of the way serendipity worked during the filming process. This movie is a remake of a 1997 film of the same name. That movie, in turn, was based on a semi-autobiographical book by Nick Hornby. Hornby’s original story is about a teacher who is an obsessed Arsenal FC fan and who must ultimately choose between football and his girlfriend. The original movie has Colin Firth, and for those of us who suffer from Firth Fever, that’s all one needs to know. I understand the original movie is far superior to the remake on my list, but we’re not here to talk about Colin Firth, are we? (Or are we?) Let’s just gaze upon his countenance for just a moment…
Right. Where were we? Oh yes. Fever Pitch. The non-Firthified version. Well, the Farrelly brothers, who up to this point made a number of forgettable comedies, got the rights to this story and decided to change the game from soccer to baseball, and the club from Arsenal to the Boston Red Sox. Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon were cast in the leads, and the movie began filming in the spring of 2004. What the film-makers didn’t know at the time was that the Red Sox would go on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years that season. This was the hugest deal for the people of Boston. The Farrelly brothers had to do rewrites to the script as the drama on the field spilled over into the screenplay, going so far as to have Fallon and Barrymore travel to St. Louis for the final game and celebration, and actually filming scenes for the movie as the celebration took place in real-time. It was inspired, fun and unique and the best thing that the Farrelly brothers have ever done. As I like to say, “Anything can happen in baseball”.
1. Field of Dreams (1989). Well it has to be number one, doesn’t it? Can you be a baseball fan and NOT have this movie at the top? It was on TV just the other night, we caught it about 20 minutes in, just at the point when Shoeless Joe appears for the first time. I own the movie on DVD, seen it dozens of times, and yet I couldn’t turn it off. I watched the whole damn thing, and the final scene ALWAYS makes me cry. No exception. Each time I think to myself “I won’t cry this time”, and its hopeless. I’m genetically pre-disposed to cry when I hear, “I could have sworn this was heaven”. I hesitate to link to a clip, because if you watch this scene without having seen the whole movie, I’m afraid it may come across as corny and forced, but I don’t care. This is my “It’s a wonderful life” and I’m okay with crying every time.
I just wanted to mention a couple of baseball scenes in non-baseball movies that I love.
Brewster’s Millions (1985) Richard Pryor and John Candy are a pitcher and catcher, respectively, for the minor league Hackensack Bulls. Their ball field is so low rent that there are railway tracks in the outfield and periodically the umpires have to call time to let a train through. The movie opens during a game and time is called for a train. John Candy runs out to the mound and says (and I’m paraphrasing here). “What’s wrong? You seem distracted.” Richard Pryor’s response? “You’re damn right I’m distracted, there’s a goddamn freight train in the outfield!” That line always cracks me up.