In honor of Opening Day, a look at films like Eight Men Out, The Pride of the Yankees, and more


Orion Pictures

The first crack of the bat has sounded: Major League Baseball kicked off its 2011 season yesterday, and today brings a fuller slate of games. During the offseason, there were tantalizing glimpses of the national pastime at the multiplex. Baseball players figured as ultimately unviable romantic alternatives in How Do You Know and Hall Pass. But, with the season now finally under way, what better time to consider the films that feature the sport more prominently?

The most widely beloved baseball movies include The Natural and variably raucous comedies such as Major League, The Bad News Bears, and A League of Their Own. And at the very heart of the subgenre's order is Kevin Costner. Costner starred in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, and a decade later in a well-meaning but off-base reprise (For the Love of the Game) that also features backstop John C. Reilly struggling to get under a foul-ball pop-up. (All baseball movies must be forgiven their actual baseball.) Coming off the bench for the sentimental-favorite squad: Bang the Drum Slowly, The Jackie Robinson Story, and a quartet of films—The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, Little Big League, and the Angels in the Outfield remake—often remembered fondly by those who came of age during the '90s.

But beyond these standbys lies the best of the lot. Eight Men Out (1988), from journeyman writer-director John Sayles, tells the all-too-true story of the Black Sox, infamous for having thrown the 1919 World Series. Corrupt Chicago elements insinuate themselves into the clubhouse of the heavy-favorite team, and many of the players, promised a playoff bonus by owner Charlie Comiskey but given only flat champagne, are unable to resist the promise of a big payout. The rigged series eventually goes to eight games (of nine), racking the nerves of players and gamblers alike. Eight Men Out moves along quickly and smoothly, and Sayles manages a huge number of characters with remarkable ease. John Cusack plays good-guy ballplayer Buck Weaver, who in this version of the story gets the rawest deal in the court of public opinion; David Strathairn acts the part of elder-statesman starter Eddie Cicotte, resignedly grooving the Cincinnati Redlegs breaking pitches that don't break; and D.B. Sweeney appears as the heartbreakingly clueless Joe Jackson. Sayles plays his own movie's moral compass, legendary writer Ring Lardner, flanked by none other than Studs Terkel, himself embodying the power of the press as columnist Hugh Fullerton.

Also among Eight Men Out's impressive cast are two actors better-known for their roles in other baseball movies: Christopher Lloyd, of Angels in the Outfield, and Charlie Sheen, who portrays pitcher Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn in Major League and its immediate sequel. Sheen might lately have become a stranger to the concept of (deliberately) losing, but in Eight Men Out he plays center fielder Oscar "Hap" Felsch, depicted here as rather more unapologetic than his teammates about being in on the fix.

It's harder to make a case that The Pride of the Yankees is undervalued—it was nominated for 11 Oscars, and its last scene is justifiably quite famous—but it's too often left out of best-baseball-movie discussions, which often tend to be '80s-centric. The Lou Gehrig biopic, directed by Sam Wood (who also made 1949's The Stratton Story), hit theaters a year after Gehrig's 1941 death from ALS.

The opening titles pay tribute to "a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life," and the film awkwardly vacillates between honoring the virtues of baseball's aw-shucks iron man, played by Gary Cooper, and building dramatic tension, mostly between the love of Gehrig's life (Teresa Wright) and his beloved but overbearing immigrant mother (Elsa Janssen). What's more, Cooper is only really believable as Gehrig at the tail end of his foreshortened career. But many of Pride of the Yankee's final-act moments—including a long, sad tracking shot down the bench as Gehrig removes himself from a game, as well as the famous parting speech—are devastating. And lest someone (perhaps someone wearing a newly minted Carl Crawford jersey) think this is pure Yankees propaganda, I should also mention that in this movie Babe Ruth plays a not exclusively flattering version of himself.

The two best baseball movies of recent years have taken place on the fringes of the big leagues. The appealingly low-key Disney film The Rookie (2002) tells the inspiring true story of Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid), a high-school coach who at 35 decided to try out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; the indie Sugar (2008) follows a pitcher struggling to distinguish himself first at a Dominican baseball academy and then in the cutthroat minor leagues, exploring the ways in which he's exploited. Morris gets his September-call-up Rudy moment, while Miguel "Sugar" Santos, pre-empting his release, quits pro ball and attempts to start a life for himself in New York City. There has yet to be a flawless baseball movie, but hope remains: The Rookie and Sugar prove that the baseball diamond can still accommodate a wide variety of involving human dramas.

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