Leadership can take many forms, sometimes even at a cinema. Last month, my daughter — shortstop for the White Station Middle School Spartans — invited her team for a matinee showing of 42, the wonderful film that (finally) chronicles the life of Jackie Robinson and his breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947. It’s surely a film the girls will remember experiencing together, and for reasons that go beyond the baseball (or softball) diamond.
The movie had me considering my favorite baseball films over the years. Here’s a countdown of the top five.
5) The Bad News Bears (1976) — Especially for the father of two girls, the tale of a bumbling baseball team led to glory by a pitcher named Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) has its rewards. But for me, this first truly great baseball movie is about the scene in which Ahmad strips down to his underwear and climbs a tree, ashamed to wear the uniform for how poorly he’s playing, unable to honor the uniform number (44) of his hero, Hank Aaron. Anyone who has ever suited up — from T-ball to the big leagues — has been where Ahmad found himself in that tree. Baseball is a game that will take you down before it lifts you up. Want immediate “success” on the field? Play soccer. Want a taste of true glory? Try and beat the Yankees.
4) 42 (2013) — The less a viewer knows about Jackie Robinson’s remarkable story — it has taken on the stature of fairy tales — the more he or she will be impacted by the movie. Baseball historians are familiar with the details, so there are moments of drama that come across as predictable: “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!” But the film is brilliantly cast. (Take it from Branch Rickey’s namesake and grandson. The current president of the Pacific Coast League told me — the week of the film’s opening — that Harrison Ford is masterful.) Chadwick Boseman plays an intelligent, dynamic Robinson without the melodrama that could easily have crept into the role. The film’s only error is portraying Robinson as more of a power hitter than he really was. Hollywood loves the home run.
3) A League of Their Own (1992) — I like to tell myself I knew Tom Hanks before the rest of the world discovered him in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. His embodiment (in the form of Jimmy Dugan) of a washed up, whiskey-swilling ballplayer is as close to perfect as any sports figure ever depicted on screen. And the melting of his heart by a team of women — led by catcher Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) — is the kind of story that would seem forced in a football or basketball setting. But the bus trips and near-empty stadiums of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League allow characters to flourish (Madonna has yet to match her turn as outfielder “All the Way” Mae). The movie features the funniest bathroom scene (yes, urination) ... ever.
2) Field of Dreams (1989) — The story is designed for a child. A corn field mowed down to accommodate a baseball diamond, one where the ghosts of parted baseball heroes can play to their souls’ delight ... for the entertainment only of those who truly believe. Kevin Costner puts forth the finest acting of his career as Ray Kinsella, the hippie-turned-farmer who is as skeptical as any sane person would be the first time he hears that whisper, “If you build it, he will come.” The miracle of Hall of Fame ghosts appearing under the field lights is mere prelude to the “miracle” of Kinsella convincing hermit writer Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) that the field is worth a trip, but only after a Red Sox game at Fenway. If you don’t choke up when Ray asks the ghost of his father to play catch before the end credits, well, you’re out of tears.
1) Bull Durham (1988) — I learned more about the fairer sex in this movie than I did about baseball (the small of a woman’s back?). But, as Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) would tell us, it’s the “Church of Baseball” that carries the day for veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner in his second-best performance). The film is a reminder that baseball is played by those of us who love the game but accept how dreadfully hard it is to play well. While the Crashes of the world scratch and claw for one day in the sunshine of The Show, it’s the likes of Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) who actually make it, blessed with talent (from above) and the sense of a foul pole. The power of baseball? It can be as simple-yet-complicated as love and pheromones, says Annie: “You get three ants together, they can’t do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.”
Consider the films that didn’t make this countdown: The Pride of the Yankees, The Natural, Major League, The Sandlot. Baseball is best under sunshine, of course. But it’s not half bad in the dark confines of a movie theater. Now please, Hollywood, start the casting call for a movie about the Gashouse Gang. Dizzy, Ducky, and the Great Depression. What more do you need?