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16 Essential Movies That Tell the History of Baseball

Eight Men Out. Photo: Orion Pictures

By now, the baseball season should be in full swing. With the ceremonies of opening day behind us and the cobwebs of the off-season fully dusted away, the competition should be heating up as the long pennant race begins in earnest. Instead, the parks sit empty, the baseball season postponed indefinitely as the battle against the coronavirus continues. In times of other national crises, sports has provided a welcome distraction. 9/11 pushed the 2001 World Series into November, for instance, but it still happened. This is a different, lonelier sort of crisis.

Baseball will return as part of the inevitable push to return to the life we knew before, but that push could be months from now. In the meantime, those missing the game can take the time to watch some baseball movies — and to consider baseball’s past and outsize role in American culture. Sure, there have been great movies made about virtually every sport (though someone really should get around to the definitive curling movie when all of this is over). But baseball movies have a history of reflecting on the game’s history and meaning like no other sort of sports films.

In fact, you could program a history of baseball — from its early days (if not quite its earliest days) through the present — by way of biopics, fictional stories, and documentaries. This list attempts just that. Though many of these selections are great, this isn’t an attempt to compile best baseball movies. (Bull Durham, a masterpiece, is nowhere to be found, for instance.) But together these films form a picture of baseball’s evolution, how our ways of looking at it have changed, and how hard it can be to sort truth from legend.

Early Innings

Eight Men Out (1988)

Baseball’s success grew by degrees as a game played in city parks in the 19th century caught on elsewhere, becoming big business in the process. Baseball had already started to become a national pastime in the 1910s, and with popularity came the possibility of corruption. What became known as the Black Sox Scandal ended with eight White Sox players banned from professional baseball for life for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds at the behest of gamblers. John Sayles’s retelling of the incident digs into its complexities. Without letting the players off the hook, his film depicts the unfair conditions under which they worked. Some players might have been motivated by pure greed. For others, it represented the only chance for a decent payday before baseball had finished with them. (Though White Sox owner Charles Comiskey might have been worse than most owners, the reserve clause binding players to a single team would continue as a major labor issue until its elimination in 1975.) Working with a cast that includes John Cusack, David Straithairn, and John Mahoney, Sayles directs with a reverence for what the game should be and a clear-eyed sense of how an exploitative system had twisted it.

Headin’ Home (1920)
The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
The Babe (1992)

It would take the emergence of a new class of superstars, and some changes to the game, to paint over the tarnish of the Black Sox scandal. The introduction of new rules around the treatment of the baseball itself — spitballs and scuffing were out, and balls would be replaced as soon as they started to show wear — made the game friendlier to hitters and to home runs. And no one hit home runs like Babe Ruth. If Ruth had retired in 1917, he still would have made the history books as one of the game’s greats thanks to an extraordinary record as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. But for Ruth, that wasn’t enough. Frustrated with only playing in every fourth or fifth game, and aware of his hitting capabilities, he started playing primarily as an outfielder and emerged as the consummate slugger by the end by the ’10s. In 1920, the Red Sox sold his contract to the New York Yankees, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But history has a way of changing over time. Ruth hit hard but also lived hard, consuming booze and food at a rate that would have undone a less hardy man while tending to a messy personal life. And though some of his excesses became public knowledge in his lifetime, they tended to be overshadowed by Ruth’s image as a larger-than-life hero beloved by fans of all ages, children most of all. That’s very much the Ruth of 1920’s Headin’ Home, in which Ruth stars as himself and rewrites his own history. Instead of the son of a Baltimore saloonkeeper who sent him to live at a reform school at the age of 7, he’s a small-town hero who carves his own bat while surrounded by a lot of easygoing comedy. It’s the past America wanted for him and one he might have wanted for himself.

Much of Ruth’s career still lay ahead of him when he made Headin’ Home. The passing of time didn’t really quell the need to turn him into somebody he wasn’t, however. Made at the end of Ruth’s life, The Babe Ruth Story is at least less fictionalized than Headin’ Home. But it also features a scene in which the mere sight of the Babe prompts a handicapped boy to begin walking and another in which Ruth walks away from a Yankees game to aid a dog he’s accidentally hit with a ball. The actor William Bendix, who had better luck a few years later as the star of the fun baseball comedy Kill the Umpire, essentially plays Ruth as an overgrown kid, and the film makes only the faintest references to his off-field troubles. By contrast, Arthur Hiller’s 1992 biopic The Babe tries to have it both ways. Played by a well-cast John Goodman, its Ruth is a restless, often thoughtless man of insatiable appetites but also a big, lovable lug. That might be closer to the real Ruth than previous depictions, but Hiller still can’t resist romanticizing the big guy, and the gloss obscures Ruth’s depths. It’s not a whitewashing, but it’s hard to take this version of Ruth at face value. Sometimes you end up printing the legend even when you try to tell the truth.

Cobb (1994)

By contrast, Ron Shelton’s Cobb has no interest in sentimentalizing its subject or in finding anything nice to say about him at all. Ruth’s contemporary and rival, Ty Cobb was a divisive figure in his lifetime and was transformed into a monster in the public imagination after his death, thanks in large part to the work of sportswriter Al Stump. The ghostwriter of Cobb’s autobiography, Stump started telling less-flattering stories after Cobb’s death, depicting him as a drunken, racist misanthrope. How close was it to the truth? Others have raised serious questions about Stump’s reliability and quashed some of the more extreme suggestions, like a story of Cobb attacking a would-be robber and leaving him to die on the street. Charles Leerhsen’s 2015 biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, goes even further, pushing back against stories of Cobb’s racism as ill-founded.

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but as The Athletic’s Joe Posnanski has observed, “Ty Cobb works best as an extreme.” Baseball lore needs the Ty Cobb who attacked a handicapped heckler (true) and sharpened his spikes to tear into the flesh of his opponents (questionable) to counterbalance Ruth’s hard-hitting teddy bear. But what’s true of baseball legend doesn’t always make for good drama. In Shelton’s film, Tommy Lee Jones — in a rare bum performance — never edges away from extremes, playing Cobb as a demon in human flesh. Making saints of sports heroes rarely works out well, but sometimes demythologizing can be just as wearisome.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Directed by Sam Wood and co-written by Jo Swerling and Herman Mankiewicz, The Pride of the Yankees takes the form of a respectful Hollywood biopic, simplifying the life story of beloved Yankees first-baseman Lou Gehrig by zeroing in on a few key relationships and conflicts. It might seem too simple if it didn’t let the performance of a perfectly cast Gary Cooper set the tone. Cooper plays Gehrig as the embodiment of quiet dignity and understated virtue, and though the film smooths over details like a years-long estrangement from Ruth, its depiction of Gehrig as an inherently decent man motivated by hard work and loyalty to his family rings true. Made shortly after Gehrig’s death from ALS (now sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), it works by focusing on Gehrig’s humanity rather than his athletic achievements.

Middle Innings

A League of Their Own (1992)

World War II threatened to shut down professional baseball until Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself weighed in to express his desire to keep it going. But the war depleted the players’ ranks, and even stars like Ted Williams lost prime playing years to military service. Yet just as the war opened up new opportunities for women in the workplace, it did the same in baseball via the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Directed by Penny Marshall, A League of Their Own uses a then largely overlooked chapter of baseball history as a chance to explore the ways the war years challenged and redefined what was expected of women, finding in baseball a microcosm of the larger world and capturing how the game’s appeal could extend beyond those who’d long dominated it.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)

Professional baseball’s unofficial, but strictly enforced, policy of racial segregation remains the game’s greatest shame. Some of the best players of pro ball’s early decades never played an inning in the major leagues or, like Satchel Paige, arrived only in their twilight years. Instead, they found a home in the Negro Leagues, which existed alongside Major League Baseball and sometimes paralleled it. Based on a novel by William Brashler, John Badham’s raucous comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings depicts a handful of players attempting to break away from exploitative team owners by forming a barnstorming unit of their own. The cast includes Billy Dee Williams (as the eponymous team leader), James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor, all having a lot of fun as the episodic plot rambles from town to town. But the film doesn’t shy from depicting the real threat racism poses to the team and becomes unexpectedly bittersweet in its final scenes as the possibility of integration suggests the thrilling, if ramshackle, world necessity has forced them to cobble together might soon come to an end.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
42 (2013)

It was, of course, Jackie Robinson who ended up breaking that color barrier in 1947, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers through the efforts of team president Branch Rickey. Robinson’s breakthrough was still recent news when he played himself in the modest but effective 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story. Robinson might not have been a naturally gifted actor, but he’s a gentle, sensitive presence, and it’s moving to see him replay highlights of his life. It’s a past defined by encountering and only sometimes overcoming racism, whether watching his brother take a job as a street cleaner even after graduating from UCLA or forcing himself to tamp down his anger when dealing with unwelcoming teammates and racist fans. It’s a less polished but ultimately better movie than Brian Helgeland’s 42, which benefits from a strong Chadwick Boseman performance as Robinson but ultimately focuses less on Robinson himself than what he meant for others. Robinson gets reduced to a symbol within his own story (a mistake it’s hard to imagine Spike Lee’s scripted-but never-shot Robinson movie making).

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

We like our sports heroes to seem superhuman, to be larger-than-life figures not prone to the frailties of everyday people. Sometimes those frailties can’t be hidden. After some embarrassing confrontations and public incidents led to a demotion to the minor leagues, Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall checked in to a mental-health facility in 1952 before returning to the major leagues, with considerable success, the following year. Rather than cover it up, Piersall co-wrote the 1955 book Fear Strikes Out, which details his struggles, and Robert Mulligan adapted it as a film a couple of years later. Anthony Perkins plays Piersall as a man always on the verge of letting pressure — mostly from his perfectionist father (Karl Malden) — overwhelm his tremendous talent. Piersall later disowned the film, and the script does tend to oversimplify Piersall’s struggles. (It’s very much the product of an era that treated psychology as an exact science.) But Perkins and Malden play the relationship beautifully, with Malden depicting the older Piersall as a man who can express love only by demanding too much and Perkins playing Piersall as someone for whom no achievement would ever be enough. Sometimes the things that drive us to greatness can destroy us.

61* (2001)

Devoted Yankees fan Billy Crystal directed this HBO film revisiting the 1961 race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris as both attempted to beat Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record. Crystal throws in some sentimental touches, but the film works nicely as a study in contrasts of the terse, straight-arrow Maris (Barry Pepper) and the flashier, sometimes self-destructive Mantle (Thomas Jane). 61* also captures baseball at a moment of transition, when old records were giving way to new ones and celebrity made privacy virtually impossible. In the film’s best stretch, Maris seemingly can’t do anything to avoid attracting bad press as he nears the record thanks to some unfortunate (and possibly willfully misconstrued) interview responses and other gaffes. Not all the pressure to perform comes on the field, and a star’s story never fits neatly into nine innings.

Late Innings

No No: A Dockumentary (2014)

Some athletes will forever be tied to one amazing (or infamous) feat no matter what they do the rest of their lives. Don Larsen is forever the man who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Bill Buckner had a long, impressive career, but his obits inevitably led with the 1986 game in which he misplayed a ground ball at the worst possible moment. Anyone who knows only one fact about Dock Ellis can tell you his signature feat: pitching a no-hitter for the Pirates while high on LSD in 1970. Jeff Radice’s No No: A Documentary opens by recounting that unlikely achievement, then expands to present a fuller picture of Ellis’s life and career. Called baseball’s Muhammad Ali by some ’70s sportswriters, Ellis emerges as a key member of the first post–Jackie Robinson generation of black baseball players, a group who stood on guard against any disrespect or backsliding. His funky style also made him an exemplar of a new era of athletes who didn’t think the sport should get in the way of self-expression. But Ellis was also a troubled man who later admitted to pitching every game high on some substance or another. Then the film keeps going, past moments of bottoming out and into a second act that found Ellis working as a drug counselor in the final decades of his life, a life No No rightly insists can’t be reduced to a single story — even one as irresistibly strange as that afternoon in 1970.

Moneyball (2011)

61* is framed by the 1998 chase to beat Maris’ home-run record, an honor claimed that year by Mark McGwire (after considerable competition from Sammy Sosa) and again in 2001 by Barry Bonds. All three would be tied up, in one way or another, in the doping scandal that enveloped baseball in the aughts, casting a shadow on the achievements of a whole era of sluggers. There has yet to be a great movie made about that unfortunate chapter in baseball history, but Bennett Miller did make a compelling movie about another story line that played out roughly in tandem: the rise of sabermetrics. Alternate methods of analyzing player performance that looked beyond traditional measurements like batting average and ERA (and superstition and instinct) had been around for years. It took their careful application by Billy Beane, general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland A’s, to bring them into wider use, much to the annoyance of baseball traditionalists. Based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 account of the A’s remarkable 2002 season, Miller’s film finds a remarkable amount of human drama in Beane’s cerebral approach. As played by Brad Pitt, he’s forceful but prone to introspection. And if he’s ever troubled by an unromantic approach that reduces players to numbers on a page, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Sugar (2008)

Where Moneyball looks at baseball from on high, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar considers it at ground level, following a promising 19-year-old pitcher nicknamed Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) from the Dominican Republic to a stint in the minor leagues. There he encounters relentless pressure, never forgetting that a slump or an injury could end his career and send him back to a family counting on him to succeed. Driven by Soto’s thoughtful, quiet performance, Sugar captures the sometimes brutal realities of pro ball and the experiences of players it chews through before deeming them unworthy of the Show. Playing in Iowa, Sugar encounters little in the way of outright cruelty, but he struggles with loneliness, a language barrier, and a sense that even his kindly host family values him only for his athletic skill. It’s a portrait of 21st-century baseball that shows the many ways the game has changed since the era of Eight Men Out. But it also reveals that baseball’s tendency to treat players as commodities first and human beings second (if at all) remains troublingly the same.

The Box Score

Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994 / 2010)

It looks like we’ll likely be inside, and without baseball, for a long time. So if you haven’t watched Ken Burns’s monumental 1994 documentary Baseball, now’s a good time. At 18-plus hours (plus two long supplementary episodes released in 2010), it’s a long sit and prone to some common Burns habits, like a tendency to focus on a few key figures at the occasional expense of the bigger picture. But Baseball not only offers a rich history of the game filled with historical detail and archival images; it movingly emphasizes the many ways the game and American history have become stitched together. Baseball’s failings — corruption, racism, exploitation, class divisions — mirror the nation at its worst. But its triumphs capture the best of America: a willingness to evolve and improve and an unshakable belief that tomorrow’s victory can erase today’s defeat.

16 Essential Movies That Tell the History of Baseball