From Gehrig to The Natural
Baseball’s proud claim to be the National Pastime has taken jarring hits from pro football and basketball in recent years. But neither of those sports can compete when it comes to providing the subject matter for some of America’s finest and most memorable movies.
Pride of the Yankees
There seems to be no sure-fire formula for a successful baseball movie, either artistically or financially. Hollywood tried two film biographies of Babe Ruth, the larger-than-life supreme diamond hero. Neither the 1948 movie starring William Bendix nor the 1992 version with John Goodman satisfied baseball or movie fans. Ironically, “Pride of the Yankees,” made a year after the untimely death of a far quieter hero, Lou Gehrig, was both popular and critically acclaimed, and makes many all-time favorites lists.
Field of Dreams
On the fictional side, 1989’s “Field of Dreams,” a semi-fantasy starring Kevin Costner, and featuring posthumous returns to the game by Shoeless Joe Jackson and others, had very wide appeal.
The banned Jackson and his real “Black Sox” teammates were also the subjects of the well-regarded “Eight Men Out,” released the previous year. But there was far from a consensus on the 1984 film version of Bernard Malamud’s, “The Natural,” which featured Robert Redford in the title role. Some hailed it as a powerful fable; others saw it as inaccurate and misleading, while admirers of the novel took issue with changes made for the screen version.
A League of Their Own
Back on the “true events” side, “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 portrayal of the World War II-era women’s professional baseball league was generally approved. It resonated at a time when women were breaking down other occupational barriers and was enjoyed as good entertainment as well. Another successful depiction of a piece of baseball history was Billy Crystal’s 2001 chronicle of the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run race 40 years before. Casting relative unknowns who adequately resembled his two Yankee heroes, Crystal captured the excitement of the contest along with the personal struggles and interactions of the central characters.
Costner, besides starring in the abovementioned “Field of Dreams,” also created an enduring fictional character in “Bull Durham,” a realistic as well as a comic look at the minor league scene. In this 1988 film, he had great support from Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. The 1973 production of “Bang the Drum Slowly,” vies with Costner’s movies for all-time favorite status among many fans. Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of a dying catcher helped launch him toward superstar status.
Baseball has given us some of the best stories and acting performances to hit the screen. Putting together the right combination remains a challenge.