Baseball is so ingrained in the fabric of American society that it has been a popular topic of Hollywood films for many years. Ranging from comedy to drama and genres in between, the game has more than enough intricacies to make for compelling fodder.
Ranked lists of movies are rife on the internet but are often tied to factors like quality of cinematography and costuming. There will be none of those pretensions here. While I can appreciate the finer qualities of films, when it comes to those about baseball, I am looking for something that either gives me greater insight about the game and/or the warm and fuzzies because of how well the topic is celebrated.
Although I haven’t seen all the baseball movies ever made, here are the three that have earned spots on my own top-ranked list.
3. Sugar: The 2008 drama directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck tells the story of Miguel “Sugar” Santos, an impoverished but talented Dominican pitcher who is signed out of a baseball academy and starts a professional career in the minor leagues in the United States.
“Sugar,” who has nothing to fall back on but a baseball career, discovers the path to his dream is dotted with obstacles. Simply trying to navigate in the foreign world that is Midwest America is as big of a challenge as he has ever experienced in his life. When he cannot find the same level of success as a professional as he did as a starry-eyed up-and-comer back home, he is forced to re-evaluate his goals, ambition and connection to baseball.
A melancholy film, the notion that professional athletes have it easy, is dispelled early on. In particular, the bigotry “Sugar” experiences, and the need for him to adapt to a whole new society and game when he is not even out of his teen years is an excellent reminder of the silent majority in baseball. These are the real-life non-American players who have come before and since this movie, and have toiled under similar constraints before fading away to unknown fates without ever fulfilling major league aspirations.
Of special note is former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, who appears in a small role as a baseball consultant. Ironically, he was forced to take a leave of absence several years later in his former real-life job as a special assistant for the Washington Nationals, after a scandal broke regarding a Dominican player he had helped discover.
2. Eight Men Out: Directed by John Sayles, this 1988 film is an adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book by the same name. It covers the infamous Black Sox scandal, where eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for life for their alleged roles in throwing the 1919 World Series in exchange for bribes from gamblers.
The film takes some Hollywood liberties by including unsubstantiated scenes for dramatic effect (‘Say it ain’t so, Joe’ never happened) but overall it is an incredibly strong representation of the doomed team.
The cast is full of heavy hitters, both literally and metaphorically, and highlighted by a young John Cusack as third baseman Buck Weaver, a surprisingly athletic Charlie Sheen as centerfielder Hap Felsch, and John Mahoney (the dad from Frasier) as manager Kid Gleason.
However, the film is carried by a vastly underrated performance by D.B. Sweeney in the role of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Not only does he look good on the field (an important part of any effective acting in a baseball movie), but he also captures Jackson nicely by portraying him as a country bumpkin who isn’t necessarily as stupid as many think.
Eight Men Out shows the grimy underbelly of baseball during a time when it was spreading around the country like wildfire as the game of heroes. It’s tight, has acceptable on-field action and tells the story from all points of view. It may not be the perfect movie but when it comes to those about baseball, it’s about as good as it gets.
1. Field of Dreams: Let’s get this out of the way first. Ray Liotta is a fine actor. A great actor even when considering his work in films like Good Fellas. Unfortunately, his turn as Shoeless Joe Jackson in this 1989 Phil Alden Robinson fantasy-drama is not among his best work.
It’s not that Liotta stammered his lines or hammed it up. He simply wasn’t Jackson. The real-life player was an uneducated left-handed hitter, while Liotta plays him as a righty with the propensity to wax poetic. As it turns out, while the portrayal is a bit of a distraction, it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Based on W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe, Field of Dreams is the story of Iowa corn farmer Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, who is struggling with approaching mid-life, his failed relationship with his dead father, and the fact he is hearing strange voices in his fields.
Much to the chagrin of his family and his militantly conservative neighbors and in-laws, Ray builds a baseball field in the middle of his crops in compliance with the sweet nothings murmured from the depths of his corn. To his surprise, Jackson and the rest of the Black Sox appear from the silky stalks and start playing on the diamond.
James Earl Jones nails his part as Terence Mann, a cynical iconic writer who used to love baseball and may once again.
The real delight is screen legend Burt Lancaster, who makes a cameo as former player turned kindly doctor Moonlight Graham. Anyone who can watch his scenes without a major lump in their throat are stronger than I.
Slowly, Ray starts to realize why he was directed to build the field and how the power of baseball can make ties that bind.
I have probably seen the movie 45-50 times in my life, and the final scene where Ray comes to have an emotional game of catch with an unexpected partner in the shadows of a beautiful setting sun has never failed to make me lose it. Not once.
The beauty of Field of Dreams is how it is able to seemingly flip a switch with viewers, creating emotion and connection from the way it wonderfully intertwines baseball, family and the concept of never giving up on dreams. Accordingly, this remains the Mona Lisa of the silver screen, and the standard that all other baseball movies should be measured against.