Monday, July 22, 2024

Beneath the Screen: 5 Baseball Movies That Don’t Get the Love They Deserve

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There’s no crying in baseball, except there is. Just ask any Royals or Mets fans, or any other team for that matter, and they will tell you all about how many tears they have shed. Point is, it’s very hard not to get emotionally invested in baseball movies.

Except, because of the nature of the internet, it always seems as if people are discussing the same baseball movies. So, we decided to make a list of 5 baseball movies that aren’t discussed that much, that we know of, but deserve to be.

Soul of the Game

1. Soul of the Game (1996) Dir. Kevin Rodney Sullivan – A made-for-cable television movie, HBO, Soul of the Game is a look at the friendships of three Negro League friendships Satchel Piage (Delroy Lindo), Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson), and Jackie Robinson (Blair Underwood). Sullivan and the script by David Himmelstein and Gary Hoffman look at the three men as they navigate success, racism, and the eventual breaking of the color line.

Soul of the Game is packed with great performances, even if the overall pacing may be off from time to time. But Williamson is the stand-out as baseball superstar Gibson, trapped in stasis by the color of his skin. Sullivan doesn’t shy away from showing how the stress and pressures of racism, both institutional and societal, can weigh on a person’s psyche. Lindo shines in a scene as Paige but almost steals the show in a moment when he confronts Branch Rickey (Edward Herrmann) about why it’s Jackie and not him who gets to play in the white leagues.

Mr. Baseball

2. Mr. Baseball (1992) Dir. Fred Schepisi – Tom Selleck plays an aging baseball player, Jack Elliot, who finds himself traded during spring training to the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons, a Japanese baseball club. Much of the comedy comes from the culture clash between Selleck’s Jack and his new teammates. But he’s not the only American on the team, Max “Hammer” Dubois (Dennis Haysbert) is there to show him the ropes.

What sticks out about Mr. Baseball is how well it intuitively understands baseball. It’s one of the few movies in which the crowd scenes at the stadium feel as electric and as heart-thumping as being at an actual game. Ian Baker’s camera work and Peter Honess’s editing work together to make some of the best at the game feeling of almost any baseball film. Combined with a script, with an impressive 5 credited writers, that understands baseball is a mixture of fun and heartache; Mr. Baseball has an infectious charm despite its flaws.

Damn Yankees!

3. Damn Yankees! (1958) Dir. George Abbott and Stanley Donen – Damn Yankees at its core has an almost Nicholas Hornby understanding of what it’s like to be a baseball fan. Talk to any baseball fan about their beloved ball club and you’ll understand it’s hardly a stretch to compare their experience with the legend of “Faust.”

A superfan, Joe Boyd (Geroge Shaffer) can’t bear for his beloved Senators to lose to those damn Yankees. An understandable feeling for most of the country if we’re being honest. So he does what anyone would do and makes a deal with the devil Applegate (Ray Walston) to become Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter) and help his team beat the Yankees.

All goes well until Joe realizes that Applegate plans on breaking his word, admittedly predictable when dealing with Beelzebub, and causing fans all over the country to commit mass suicide and cause strokes when the Yankees win again. To anyone who thinks this stretches the real of believability, I invite you to read Dan Shaughnessy’s books “The Curse of the Bambino” and “Reversing the Curse: Inside the 2004 Boston Red Sox.”

The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings

4. The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) Dir. John Badham – Adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Willam Brashler, Badham’s debut is a fictionalized story of a player-owned Black baseball team in the early 30s. Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams,) a cocky, swaggering, charismatic riff on legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, fed up with his exploitative manager Salle (Ted Ross), quits.

With the help of Leon (James Earl Jones), the well-read, mischievous, barrel-chested catcher meant to be Josh Gibson, the duo set out to make their own fortune. Much of the strength of The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings comes from the brief moments in which Williams and Jones are allowed to play 3-dimensional characters. These rare reprieves from the film’s over-reliance on “wacky shenanigans” are a sobering reminder of how little this story is told on the big screen. (Stay tuned, next month’s podcast goes more in-depth as we discuss The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings along with A League of Their Own).


5. 42 (2013) Dir. Brian Helgeland – A Jackie Robinson biopic, it is a rare film about racism by white people that acknowledges and understands it is a film about racism by white people. Helgeland wrote and directed this ode to Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his history-defining career as he breaks the “color barrier.” Boseman is, as per usual, magnetic as the stoic Robinson but Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey almost steals the show as he seems to be having more fun than we’ve seen him have in ages.

Nicole Beharie as Rachel, Jackie’s wife, takes what is on paper barely a caricature, and fleshes her out into a multi-dimensional person. Rachel and Jackie’s relationship underlines 42, giving it a solid foundation to stand on. The Branch Rickey story and the Rachel story feed off each other, showing us the different facets of Robinson and helping to give the story an intimacy it might have otherwise have lacked if it had gone just one way or the other.

Images by Warner Bros., Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures, and HBO

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