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BASN’s BASEBALL ON FILM
Baseball – On Film
By Tony McClean, Editor – in – Chief Emeritus
NEW HAVEN, CT (BASN) – When Richard Pryor passed away a few years ago, I did a write up for BASN on how many of the late comedian’s movies had a prominent sports theme to them. From the rodeo in “Stir Crazy” to portraying a minor leaguer in “Brewster’s Millions”, Rich showed his love of sports in several of his flicks.
As we’re just coming off Oscar week, I decided to put together a list of some of my favorite sports movies. We’re breaking it down into five movie groups: baseball, football, basketball, boxing, and others. Now others will include track and field, hockey, golf, and so on. And we’re not restricting to just the big screen. We’ll include television (cable and or network) and documentaries as well.
So let’s get it started.
Today, we begin with baseball. Now over the years, we’ve seen the gamut of baseball flicks. From the hokey stuff like “The Babe Ruth Story” or “Angels In The Outfield” to modern flicks like “The Bad News Bears” or “The Natural”.
Some are very memorable, others are just damn unwatchable. Here are some of my favorites in no particular order.
Soul of the Game (1996)
An HBO movie that I feel truly captured the true spirit and “soul” of what the Negro Leagues experience was all about. It focused on the uneasy relationship between Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo), Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson), and Jackie Robinson (Blair Underwood) in regards to the pending integration of Major League Baseball. Williamson’s performance of the troubled, but super-talented slugger is both gripping and poignant.
Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994)
Taking full advantage of the sport’s work stoppage at the time, this nearly 20-hour PBS documentary still serves as one of the definitive films on the history of baseball. Using the same formula from his “Civil War” documentary, the Emmy Award winning Burns used facts and myths to talk about the different stories of the game and how it related to society, pop culture, and other aspects. While some of the segments are a bit over the top, overall “Baseball” is still a great watch.
Don’t Look Back: The Satchel Paige Story (1981)
Oscar winner Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this ABC-TV movie on the great hurler. While there are several baseball scenes, this movie shows more of Paige’s struggles off the field. Even though Paige was recognized as one of the most talented players to come out of the Negro Leagues, Gossett’s portrayal showed the many obstacles he and his other fellow ballplayers were subjected to.
Field of Dreams (1989)
For many baseball fans, this is the ultimate baseball/fantasy flick. The iconic line of ”If you build it, he will come” has become synonymous with the movie as well as the actual field in Dyersville, Iowa. Because of the final scene of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) “having a catch” with his late father speaks to the vast appeal of this movie. For many others, it’s why “Fields” is more than just a “baseball flick”. For me, James Earl Jones’ reading of Terrence Mann’s speech about the game of baseball is truly one of the best scenes in cinema history.
Major League (1989)
If there are any longtime Cleveland fans that don’t like this flick, you’d have to show them to me. I’ve always thought this film was the adult version of when the “Bad News Bears” all grew up to be major leaguers. Of course, they had to add a little romance to it for the ladies. However after all these years, “Wild Thing” and Joe Vu” still resonates to any baseball fan. But most importantly, any film that has the Yankees losing in the postseason will always be on my list.
The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990)
With all due apologies to “42″ and the original “Jackie Robinson Story”, this TV-movie (originally aired on TNT) may be give the best depiction of one of the greatest Brooklyn Dodgers. It tells of the little known story of Robinson’s life in the military and a bus incident that led to the Hall of Famer being court-martialed. Andre Braugher’s performance of the iconic baseball star is outstanding as we get to see a side of Robinson that’s rarely spoken about. Trivia alert: Ruby Dee, who portrays Jackie’s mother in this movie, had previously portrayed Robinson’s wife in “The Jackie Robinson Story” back in 1950.
Eight Men Out (1988)
Based on the 1963 book written by Eliot Asinof, this is one of the few times where I feel the movie is almost better than the book. An ensemble cast that includes John Cusack (Buck Weaver), D.B. Sweeney (Shoeless Joe Jackson), and others give a hauntingly accurate depiction of the “Black Sox” scandal surrounding the 1919 World Series. In fact, some of the lines uttered by management and players sounded eerily similar to the sport’s labor battles of the early 1990′s. The attention to detail (in regards to the era) makes this one of the better baseball movies ever made.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
One of the first movies to use the Negro Leagues as its main storyline; while the film — produced by Motown — had modest success, when I interviewed several Negro Leaguers about “Bingo” years ago, some were taken aback by the some of the storylines in the movies.
One player in particular was disappointed that the film was played more for laughs than really examining what the players went through. I do agree that several aspects of the Negro League experience were trivialized in the movie. However, constant battles between management and the players as well as the barnstorming aspect of the league was something that I feel was fairly depicted by the movie. Overall, I still think this is a very meaningful and important film in regards to understanding the history of the Negro Leagues.
One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story (1978)
This TV-movie (aired on CBS) starred LeVar Burton as the Detroit Tiger start who broke into the majors after spending time in prison. The movie was based on LeFlore’s autobiography, Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues. It examined LeFlore’s drug addiction which led to his time at Michigan’s Jackson State Penitentiary.Despite his troubled past, LeFlore worked hard to keep his younger brother (portrayed by Larry Scott) from repeating his misdeeds. Fresh off his role in “Roots”, Burton gives a very good depiction of LeFlore on and off the field.
Next: My favorite football flicks.