Five Film Favorites: The Greatest Baseball Scenes

Buster scores a baseball game...

All right, I’ll say it: there has never been a great baseball movie.

Yes, baseball fans, you can shout and scream and cajole, but I stand firm: any of the titles you can throw my way may be good, but hardly great. The Bad News Bears? Yes, it’s a delight, and a personal favorite. Maybe I’m too much of a cinephile, but if you’re going to ask me about the best movies of the 1970s, I’m not putting Bad News Bears on the same list as Chinatown, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, Two-Lane BlacktopWanda, and others (many, many others.) When I talk about “great”, I’m talking about more than just a film that touches our sense of nostalgia for the 70s, for baseball in our youth, and for Walter Matthau. I’m talking great. The Bad News Bears ain’t great.

Bull Durham? Can you watch this movie without giving it any credit for merely getting the baseball right? For isn’t that’s like saying Bird is a masterpiece because Forrest Whitaker played a saxophone decently? Durham is funny, but man, it’s also damn talky, and those jokes, well, they’re getting a bit creaky.

Again: not great.

Ask yourself this question, baseball fans: can you show any of your favorites–The Natural, Durham, Pride of the Yankees, Burns’ Baseball, Field of Dreams–to a person who doesn’t share your love of the sport? The answer is a resounding “NO!”, for they’d be bored to tears.

I’m not entirely certain why this is, except perhaps that baseball films tend to fixate too much on the sport, and less on genuine character development, plot, etc. Maybe baseball just doesn’t inspire great filmmakers–Bears certainly has a good plot and characters, but its direction, cinematography, etc. are fairly pedantic. It’s not meant to be great. But The Natural or Bang the Drum Slowly, for even those fall far short of the pantheon.

Not so with boxing, whose movies have captured our imagination even as we cringe at the horrors of the sweet science. Boxing films fixate on character and plot, on the struggles of life, without fixating so much on the sport itself, as baseball movies tend to do. They don’t pause in Raging Bull to have someone wax rhapsodic about how boxing brings together fathers and sons. There’s too much naval gazing in baseball pictures. And that’s bad in any movie.

However, this baseball fan does find some enjoyment out of seeing the nation’s pastime tiptoe into a conventional movie and make a cameo appearance. But even here there’s trouble: as I compiled this list, I was surprised to find that the very best baseball scenes in the movies–better, often, than in films dedicated to baseball–unfortunately came from mediocre pictures, or movies that I’d once thought great but now found deeply flawed.

Maybe baseball brings bad luck to the movies.

No matter: as the season’s winding down and the pennant races are in full swing, perhaps this list will help unite the baseball and non-baseball fan.

5. Good Will Hunting (1997): “Sorry, guys, I gotta see about a girl…” Wow, has this movie dated poorly. Even in this scene, you have to roll your eyes at Robin Williams. I actually think he put in a decent performance, except for his fucking Boston brogue. Jesus Christ, dude, just act, stop the mimicry. But all these years later (and I haven’t watched this one lately, and probably never will), this scene remains strong, and seeing it again on YouTube only reinforces its lovely message. That this baseball moment, Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, was set aside for this lovely woman Williams’ character eventually married. “Sorry, guys, I have to see about a girl.” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote this screenplay, and I find this moment unbearably romantic… and the severity immediately following is the perfect close. “I sure as hell don’t regret missing a damn game.” Thanks, guys, for putting it into perspective. Sometimes baseball fans (and sports fans in general) need that reminder.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): “Someone get me a fuckin’ wiener before I die!” Mediocre? Cuckoo’s Nest? Afraid so. This was one of my Dad’s favorite movies, and I remember it well myself, loving Nicholson’s performance, hell, everyone’s performance: DeVito, Lloyd, Dourif, Sampson, even Louise Fletcher in a totally thankless role. Watching it again last fall, I was stunned: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a nasty film. (Follow that link to read further arguments.)

I cannot, however, deny the awesome power of Randle Patrick McMurphy calling the World Series, playing an inmate’s version of shadow ball. I loved it in my memory, and even as I recoiled at Cuckoo’s Nest upon my most recent viewing, I love the energy of this scene. The joy of the World Series comes through brilliantly: this is Oregon, remember, so why would McMurphy give a rip about the Yankees/Dodgers ’63 World Series? Because everyone in America did back then, for the most part. He just wants some joy in his life, and when that’s denied, he uses his memory to conjure up a ballgame anyway.

YouTube kindly keeps this one from appearing on other websites, so look for the link here.

3. The Cameraman (1928): “Aren’t the Yankees playing today?” Buster Keaton loved baseball. Rumor has it that he insisted that his players and his personnel behind the scenes knew how to swing a bat and field a ball. According to numerous biographers, Keaton had the best amateur ballclub in Hollywood. So it’s no surprise that he’d have a few baseball scenes in his movies. Unfortunately (to me) he never made a movie about baseball, because if he had, I think it might have been the greatest baseball movie ever made.

The Cameraman marks the beginning of the end for Keaton. The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. proved too expensive, and didn’t make much money (or in the case of the former, lost tons of money.) Keaton ended up at MGM, who had no respect for him whatsoever, made sure he lost most of his crack team of writers and filmmakers, and paid him a pittance to write gags and star in pictures of declining quality.

However, The Cameraman still has a ton of great moments, and I’d say it was his last very good film–not great, by his own lofty standards, but good for quite a few laughs. Here, Buster (that’s his character’s name), tries to win the girl by becoming a cameraman for the newspaper where she works–of course, he’s awful, fumbling with the device, somehow becoming owner of a monkey, filming a war between Chinese gangs (don’t ask), and then saving the girl from drowning (again, don’t ask.)

Keaton’s films have surprisingly complex gags and intricate plots: The Cameraman has neither. It’s clunky, but it does have a graceful Keaton, who would soon find himself an outcast and a drunk. Still, here you can see his amazing prowess on the diamond. And check out old Yankee Stadium!

The baseball begins at the 4:50 mark.

2. The Naughty Nineties (1945): “Who’s on First?” I’ll be brief: I admit that this may be the best baseball scene ever filmed. So amazing. Abbott and Costello’s movies are great fun, but they’re no great shakes cinematically, and we all know that. There’s no General, no Modern Times, no Duck Soup for Abbott and Costello, only creaky movies that show off how much fun they are, interchangeable for the most part, but darned fun. Without further adieu, here’s their classic baseball moment, perhaps the great Shakespearian moment in baseball literature.

1. Woman of the Year (1942): “Are all these people unemployed?” This is, I believe, just about the greatest baseball scene ever. Hepburn and Tracy at their sharpest, Ring Lardner’s script cracking like a DiMaggio liner, and George Stevens in complete control, light as feather, and the editing perfect, capturing the timing beautifully.

What makes this scene work so well is its love of baseball, and its respect for people who don’t get this silly game of ours. Hepburn’s Tess is a brilliant political reporter; Sam works for the same paper as a sports journalist. He begrudgingly takes her to a Yankees game (check out Yankee Stadium again!) Well, Tess doesn’t know baseball, but her observations aren’t the bleats of a dumb sheep, but actually stinging criticisms… that, uh, actually make a whole lot of sense. Like, for instance, when she notes that her newspaper has two men covering a damn ballgame but only “one man in Vichy.” I have similar thoughts every time I open a Star-Tribune.

Woman of the Year should be the one great movie on this list. The first three-quarters, hell, the first seven-eighths are brilliant, and should be the movie Tracy & Hepburn are known for (as opposed to, say, Adam’s Rib, which is also great.) Thing is, Hepburn’s Tess undergoes this dopey radical change at the end, where the “Woman of the Year” is finally subjugated, and cooks her husband a meal and realizes her place in the pecking order. Fucking hell. All I know is: Barbara Stanwyck would never have settled for that (Bette Davis, either.) The ending totally–totally!–poisons the movie, betraying Tess, and insulting its audience.

Still, I love this moment. And I pity the guy sitting behind Tess’s hat, who also has one of the great baseball heckles of all time (directed toward the ump): “What’re you doin’ in the wintertime, burnin’ down hospitals?”

And in a sense, we come back full circle. For Sam’s patience with Tess, and his leaving the ballgame at a crucial moment, is due to his love for this woman. Like Robin Williams’ character, he has his priorities straight: it’s just a game. But Katherine Hepburn, well, she’s something else…

Again, YouTube sucks, so please, please go here and watch Tess learn about the Yanks and the A’s.

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2 Responses to Five Film Favorites: The Greatest Baseball Scenes

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Although I haven’t seen it in a long time, as I remember it, “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973) was a pretty good movie. That said, your overall point that it’s been hard to make a good baseball movie is right across the middle of the plate.

  2. Peter Schilling says:

    Terry, I think you’re right, but that’s why I distinguished between “good” and “great”. All the “great” baseball movies are “great” in context with other baseball movies, whereas great boxing movies are among the best films ever made.

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