Monday, April 04, 2005

Buy me a DVD and some Cracker Jack

Baseball is the most cinematic of sports. Its detailed culture and history combine with the natural beauty of the ballpark to make for great motion pictures.

Any hack can dish up a list of superlative baseball movies that includes such classics as The Natural, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Major League, Eight Men Out, and Bang the Drum Slowly, among a dozen or so others. It takes a true aficionado to compile a list of the great but obscure films based on our National Pastime.

Fortunately for you, you have me.

The following are the nine (numerical pun intended) best movies about baseball you probably haven't seen, but should. Presented in alphabetical order:

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. A terrific comedy about the days when, in many baseball venues, only the ball was white. Featuring stellar performances by Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor, and directed by the underrated John Badham, whose next film was the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever.

Bay City Blues. Not a movie, actually, but an all-too-brief early '80s TV series about a minor league ball club. Created and produced by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue), who apparently loves the color blue as much as Green Lantern hated yellow. With great before-they-were-better-known appearances by series regulars Dennis Franz (in pre-Sipowicz mode as a crusty coach), Sharon Stone (yes, that Sharon Stone), Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump), Michele Greene (L.A. Law), and Peter Jurasik (Babylon 5), and costarring the legendary Bernie Casey, a fine athlete in his own right as well as a solid actor.

Cobb. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the goods as baseball's most vile and vicious Hall of Famer. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the former ballplayer who was also the auteur behind Bull Durham, but a darker and less accessible story about a thoroughly despicable — and fascinating — human being.

For Love of the Game. The least known (and, to be honest, least effective) of Kevin Costner's trilogy of baseball flicks, it's still worth seeing if only to admire the deft and haunting work of director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and Spider-Man films), here taking a giant step outside his comfort zone in a non-genre picture. Based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Shaara.

The Jackie Robinson Story. Major league baseball's first African American superstar plays himself in this 1950 biopic. Jackie was no actor, but the film is worthy of attention for its relatively faithful account of his barrier-breaking accomplishments. The great Ruby Dee, in one of her first film roles, plays Jackie's wife Rae.

Long Gone. Similar in feel to Bull Durham but with a darker undertone, this made-for-HBO film tells the tale of a minor league club in Florida upon the arrival of its first black — no, wait...he's Cuban! — player. Dynamite lead performances by a pre-CSI William Petersen, the underestimated Virginia Madsen, the ever-delightful Henry Gibson, and the talented Larry Riley, whose career was cut short too soon by AIDS. Maybe the only place you'll ever see Teller, of Penn and Teller, in a feature-length speaking role (he plays team owner Gibson's son).

Mr. 3000. Better than the dreadful ad campaign would have led you to believe. Bernie Mac stars as a way-over-the-hill star returning to the game in his late 40s to collect the three hits he needs for a career 3000. Silly, but fun.

The Pride of the Yankees. It's a legendary film, but given that it was made in 1942 and is in black and white, I'm betting most baseball fans of the modern era haven't seen it. That's a shame, because it's one of the best movies ever made about the game, focusing on the tragic life of the great Bronx Bomber first baseman, "Iron Man" Lou Gehrig. You'll come to know him as more than just a guy who had a terrible disease named after him. Gary Cooper is his usual stalwart self as Gehrig, and Teresa Wright is luminous as the slugger's wife. A number of Yankee stars, including Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig, play themselves.

A Soldier's Story. Not generally thought of as a sports movie, but this murder mystery set within an all-black Army unit during World War II surrounds the players on the camp's baseball team. With another fine performance by the aforementioned Larry Riley as the team's star player, and outstanding efforts by Howard Rollins, Adolph Caesar, David Alan Grier, and a pre-stardom Denzel Washington. Powerful in its own right, and especially poignant in light of the fact that the first three actors mentioned above are no longer with us.

So now you know what to pick up at your local video purveyor for the first rainout of the new season. Play ball!

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

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