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Best Baseball Movies of All Time: 'Sandlot' to 'League of Their Own'

The Best Baseball Movies of All Time
The Best Baseball Movies of All Time

Opening weekend is upon us, which means baseball is back! While Major League Baseball gears up for the 2024 season, Variety reflects on America’s pastime, which began in the mid-1800s and that showbiz was quick to monetize.

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In “Plie Ball! Baseball Meets Dance on Stage and Screen,” Jeffrey M. Katz links the growing popularity of baseball with the pop culture art of the time: songs. He cites one of the earliest baseball ditties, 1858’s “The Baseball Polka.”

Many followed, but it was 1908’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer that has endured, although Von Tilzer tried again to capitalize on the wildly popular sport with 1910’s “Back to the Bleachers With Mine” (July 16, 1910, Variety ad).

While songs kept fans upbeat on the game, baseball stars were sent out on the theater circuit by savvy promoters and producers in the late 19th century, and vaudeville welcomed the athletes well into the first few decades of the 20th century, with Variety’s pages touting news and reviews on Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt, White Sox star Cap Anson, New York Giants manager John J. McGraw and N.Y. Giants pitcher Rube Marquard among the stars who picked up extra cash by regaling rapt audiences in the off-season with stories about the sport and its colorful characters.

. - Credit: Variety
. - Credit: Variety

Variety

Variety covered baseball as part of the entertainment business that it is, and the moviemakers have always courted the top players for films. There are several mentions of a Rube Waddell biopic in the 1940s and 1950s — a player ripe for comedy and tragedy. Waddell built up eye-popping numbers during his career, including back to back years in which he struck out more than 300 batters (1903, 1904), a stat that stood until Sandy Koufax in 1965-66.

The press described him as eccentric, while his drinking earned him the nickname the Souspaw. He also toured on the vaudeville circuit. There’s a lot there for an enterprising producer looking for a limited series subject.

The late 20th century brought a wave of great baseball movies, some of which blended fantasy and magic with America’s pastime. 1989’s “Field of Dreams” gave us the famous line, “If you build it, he will come,” and “Rookie of the Year” taught us that anything is possible. Meanwhile, documentaries like “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” and Ken Burns’ “Baseball” told the incredible true tales of the storied sport.

The movies, of course, have always loved baseball. But what are the best baseball movies? Fans have been debating this for decades, so Variety decided to weigh in.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)


The biopic of famed Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig earned 11 Oscar nominations and gave us one of the most famous scenes in the movies: Gary Cooper as Gehrig standing on the diamond in Yankee Stadium reciting Gehrig’s tearfully heartfelt speech as he retired from the team. Gehrig had died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) the year before the film was released. Just try not to cry at that scene.

Bull Durham (1988)

Bull Durham (1988)
Bull Durham (1988)


A romcom that happens to be set in the world of baseball, “Bull Durham” became an instant classic when it was released. A rare sports movie that incorporates the point of view of a woman (Susan Sarandon’s sexually confident, smart and mature Annie), it was a love poem that features actual poetry, to the minor leagues from writerdirector Ron Shelton. Heck, the opening monologue equates baseball to religion.

Baseball (1994)

Baseball (1994)
Baseball (1994)


Although it’s not a movie, Ken Burns’ epic documentary “Baseball” — streaming for free on the PBS website — is must-watch for not only fans of the sport, but also of American history, so tightly is the country’s social and political development with the game.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Fear Strikes Out (1957)
Fear Strikes Out (1957)


Baseball star Jimmy Piersall battled mental illness, which he talked about in his 1955 book “Fear Strikes Out,” and two years later this film lays it all out — both book and film were unusually progressively for the 1950s. Anthony Perkins portrayed the Red Sox player, and co-starred with Karl Malden in the story of a top-flight athlete fighting bipolar disorder. Its glimpse into mental illness is what makes it memorable.

The Bad News Bears (1976)

The Bad News Bears (1976)
The Bad News Bears (1976)


Michael Ritchie’s PG comedy is the ur-kids sports movie, starring Walter Matthau as a down-onhisluck ex-ballplayer coaching a team of losers and misfits was a huge hit. Could it be a feminist text as well? Tatum O’Neal is terrific as a 12-yearold pitcher who saves the Bears’ season. But there’s a reason this film is beloved, and it’s because of the honest emotions onscreen, the chemistry of the cast and Jackie Earle Haley’s star turn as the rebel without a cause who can hit .400.

The Natural (1984)

The Natural (1984)
The Natural (1984)


Based on Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, “The Natural” was crafted with love by director Barry Levinson. Starring Robert Redford as the titular player — a middle-age rookie whose earlier career was cut short by tragedy — the nostalgia-soaked film was a hit. Its themes of redemption, the triumph of good over evil and human decency as a bedrock of life is much needed now, despite its flirtations with hokiness. Streaming on Netflix.

Major League (1989)

Major League (1989)
Major League (1989)


With “Major League,” writer-director David Ward shows that he loves baseball but not all the precious waxing poetic about the game. It’s Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” distilled through the lens of raunchy ’80s comedies. Charlie Sheen, in the wake of “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” showed off comic chops as pitcher Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.

A League of Their Own (1992)

A League of Their Own (1992)
A League of Their Own (1992)


The film that gave us “there’s no crying in baseball!” also gave us a candid look at the struggles of women athletes over the previous decades. And it’s enormously entertaining, with Tom Hanks as the down on his luck curmudgeon manager (see Walter Matthau in “Bad News Bears”) and Geena Davis as the team’s star. Watch it with your kids.

The Sandlot (1993)

The Sandlot (1993)
The Sandlot (1993)


A beloved movie that fits nicely with other kid-driven fare such as “The Goonies” and especially “Stand by Me,” “The Sandlot” turned 25 a couple years ago and generated a lot of fond stories from fans. It’s a film about friendship and being a kid and having fun with your friends over a hot summer.

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball (2011)
Moneyball (2011)


If you hate analytics, this won’t change your mind. But if you recognize that analytics changed the game, this movie is like a documentary. Brad Pitt (who earned an Oscar nom here) plays Billy Beane, the g.m. of the Oakland A’s, who uses the computer-based system developed by Peter Brand (an Oscar-nominated turn from Jonah Hill). Fast-paced script by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian (also Oscar-nommed) takes audiences inside baseball, in a good way.

42 (2013)

42 (2013)
42 (2013)


Before Chadwick Boseman was Black Panther, he was another superhero, Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball in modern times. Dodgers exec Branch Rickey — an innovator in his own right — was determined to break the color barrier in baseball and found in No. 42 not only an exceptional athlete, but also an exceptional human being. Younger fans will be shocked at the racism on display. But the message for improving race relations is still needed in 2020.

Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams (1989)


“If you build it, he will come,” says the mysterious voice from Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella’s cornfield, inspiring him to build a baseball field on his farm. One of the most iconic movies of the 1980s, “Field of Dreams” beautifully weaves together the importance of family, dreams and, of course, baseball. Kevin Costner stars alongside Amy Madigan, with Phil Alden Robinson directing and writing the script based on the W.P. Kinsella book.

Ballplayer: Pelotero (2011)

Ballplayer: Pelotero (2011)
Ballplayer: Pelotero (2011)


From Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jon Paley, “Ballplayer: Pelotero” is a documentary that follows two top baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic in their journey to the major league. The film portrays the commodification of players and profit-driven motives of baseball executives, as Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano face competition and corruption to achieve their dreams.

Rookie of the Year (1993)

Rookie of the Year (1993)
Rookie of the Year (1993)


In this feel-good baseball fantasy from director Daniel Stern and writer Sam Harper, 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner experiences a freak accident that gives him magic pitching powers. Soon, Rowengartner is playing for the Chicago Cubs. Despite its predictability, “Rookie of the Year” is a fun, nostalgic comedy with a cast featuring Thomas Ian Nicholas, Gary Busey, Albert Hall and Amy Morton.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)


From Chapman and Maclain Way is the incredible true story of Bing Russell and the Portland Mavericks, affectionately known as the Battered Bastards of Baseball. In 1973, Russell, a Hollywood actor, started the only independent baseball team at the time in an unlikely city, and attracted baseball misfits and hopefuls from all over the country. This documentary not only tells the fascinating story of Russell and the Mavericks, but also shows the power of chasing dreams and proving skeptics wrong. 

Angels in the Outfield (1994)

Angels in the Outfield (1994)
Angels in the Outfield (1994)


Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an orphan who teams up with a literal angel played by Christopher Lloyd, who helps the Anaheim Angels win the pennant so his deadbeat dad will come back. Danny Glover portrays the coach, and Matthew McConaughey, Adrien Brody and Tony Danza make up the team.

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