Baseball and Hollywood: A retrospective

Baseball is America’s pastime, and as such, has had its role in the world of film for over a century. Technically the first film about baseball was a short called “The Ball Game” that came out in 1898 and featured a baseball game between the Newark Bears and the Reading Phillies. We aren’t starting quite that far back on our list, but we have for you a timeline of the history of baseball in film. Some are comedies; some are dramas. Some are for kids and some are for adults. This isn’t a full baseball filmography, but it covers almost every movie about baseball throughout the years.

 
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“Casey at the Bat” (1927)

“Casey at the Bat” (1927)

We figured we’d start here given that the poem “Casey at the Bat” is a famous baseball story. We all know about Mighty Casey and what happened in his famed at-bat. Naturally, it was decided to turn it into a movie in the early days of film.

 
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“Up the River” (1930)

“Up the River” (1930)

The movie “The Longest Yard” is a well-known football story about convicts playing on the gridiron. That movie first came out in the ‘70s. Many years before that, though, there was the baseball movie “Up the River,” which also involved prisoners. And it had quite the cast, led by Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

 
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“The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)

“The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)

There’s a big jump in time to this film, but this is also one you’ve almost definitely heard of. It’s the story of Lou Gehrig, played by Gary Cooper. It also features Babe Ruth as himself. He’s not quite the actor Cooper is.

 
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“Ladies' Day” (1943)

“Ladies' Day” (1943)

Eddie Albert is probably best known for starring in “Green Acres,” but he was actually an esteemed actor. He was nominated for two Oscars! Many years before his days on “Green Acres,” Albert starred in this film as a pitcher named Wacky Waters who becomes infatuated with a Hollywood movie star played by Lupe Velez.

 
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“The Babe Ruth Story” (1948)

“The Babe Ruth Story” (1948)

Ruth was one of the biggest celebrities in the world in his time, sports or otherwise. Naturally, there have been a few movies about him over the years. William Bendix starred as the Sultan of Swat. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t live up to the Babe himself. This film is considered both one of the worst sports movies and one of the worst biopics ever.

 
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“It Happens Every Spring” (1949)

“It Happens Every Spring” (1949)

It’s time for a wacky sports comedy! It’s a treasured genre. Ray Milland stars as a scientist who accidentally discovers a serum that repels wood. Naturally, he figures he can cover baseballs in it and become a Major League Baseball pitcher. Hilarity ensues.

 
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“The Stratton Story” (1949)

“The Stratton Story” (1949)

It must be nice to get Jimmy Stewart to play you in a biopic. He was a beloved actor of his generation, but sometimes that meant he was starring in retrospectively unfortunate odes to the likes of Charles Lindbergh. Here, he plays the real-life pitcher Monty Stratton, whose career was derailed when he accidentally shot himself in the leg.

 
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“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949)

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949)

Busby Berkeley directed a musical about baseball! And it starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams! Of course, one of the songs included is “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which is not exactly a toe tapper the way it is normally sung.

 
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“The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950)

“The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950)

Jackie Robinson’s story is incredible, so making a movie about him made sense. In a somewhat odd decision, creators allowed Robinson to play himself while hiring the actress Ruby Dee to play his wife. Robinson is an athlete trying to act, but there is some credit deserved for making a movie about him way back in 1950 when racial tensions were still extremely high.

 
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“Rhubarb” (1951)

“Rhubarb” (1951)

Ray Milland is back for another wacky baseball comedy. This time, it’s about a cat named Rhubarb who inherits a baseball team. It’s completely ridiculous but in a charming way.

 
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“The Winning Team” (1953)

“The Winning Team” (1953)

Grover Cleveland Alexander was a great pitcher from the early days of baseball. By early days, we mean he started pitching in 1911. The reason we had to include the film on this list is because of the actor who played Alexander. It was this guy named Ronald Reagan, who went on to a bigger career in another realm.

 
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“Big Leaguer” (1953)

“Big Leaguer” (1953)

Edward G. Robinson played a lot of gangsters, but in “Big Leaguer” he played a man running a training camp for the New York Giants. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, in his first time in that capacity. He would go on to direct some more notable films, such as “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

 
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“Fear Strikes Out” (1957)

“Fear Strikes Out” (1957)

Jimmy Piersall was a talented baseball player, a two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover. He also had bipolar disorder and spent time in a mental institution. His story is a complicated one worthy of a biopic. Piersall was played by Anthony Perkins, best known as Norman Bates in “Psycho.”

 
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“Damn Yankees” (1958)

“Damn Yankees” (1958)

This is kind of a crazy concept for a movie, as it’s about a fan of the Washington Senators who sells his soul to the devil to help out the team. Also, it’s a musical. If “Damn Yankees” is remembered at all, it’s for the song-and-dance number “Whatever Lola Wants.” In the movie, Lola is played by Gwen Verdon, who was just portrayed by Michelle Williams in “Fosse/Verdon.”

 
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“Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973)

“Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973)

There’s a bit of a jump here, as the ‘60s were light on baseball movies. “Bang the Drum Slowly” is a sad drama, but it features one of the earliest prominent performances by Robert De Niro. It was based on a popular novel in a series, but because of the movie, “Bang the Drum Slowly” is the one people remember.

 
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“The Bad News Bears” (1976)

“The Bad News Bears” (1976)

Hoo boy. On the one hand, “The Bad News Bears” is a childhood staple of many. It’s one of the best-remembered baseball movies. On the other hand, when we talk about movies not standing the test of time and becoming a little iffy to modern palates, this is a shining example.

 
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“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” (1976)

“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” (1976)

Here’s another baseball comedy from 1976. This movie is about a barnstorming team of ex-Negro League players going around the country and playing ball. It has quite the cast, as some of the members of the team include Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor.

 
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“The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” (1977)

“The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” (1977)

“The Bad News Bears” was popular enough to yield a sequel. However, while Jackie Earle Haley returned as Kelly Leak, Tatum O’Neal wasn’t back and neither was Walter Matthau, the foul-mouthed alcoholic who managed the team in the first film. He’s replaced by William Devane, who isn’t quite on the same level.

 
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“The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” (1978)

“The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” (1978)

Yes, they milked three movies out of a ragtag group of vulgar kids learning to be better at baseball. You can guess what happens in the plot of this one. Tony Curtis is actually in this movie., and Haley returned again as Kelly Leak. He kind of got stuck in that role for a while.

 
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“The Comeback Kid” (1980)

“The Comeback Kid” (1980)

One of the primary plots in sports films is the former player coaching underprivileged kids and getting a second lease on life. Here, that former player is John Ritter, who is primarily known for his sitcom success on shows like “Three’s Company.”

 
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“The Natural” (1984)

“The Natural” (1984)

This is one of the big staples of baseball films. Robert Redford, maybe the biggest star in Hollywood, plays Roy Hobbs, a promising slugger whose career is derailed when he’s shot. You either have seen the climax of this movie, or you've seen it parodied. Just in case, we won’t spoil it.

 
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“Brewster's Millions” (1985)

“Brewster's Millions” (1985)

For a sports comedy, there is a convoluted plot to “Brewster’s Millions.” The titular Brewster, a minor leaguer played by Richard Pryor, finds out that his great uncle has left him his entire $300 million fortune...with a lot of caveats. The primary one is that he has to spend $30 million in 30 days. That’s the driving force of this film.

 
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“The Slugger's Wife” (1985)

“The Slugger's Wife” (1985)

Well, it’s better than being a time traveler’s wife. Critics excoriated this movie about a baseball player trying to break Roger Maris’ then-record of 61 homers while working out his relationship with a singer. It has a goose egg on Rotten Tomatoes, even though it was written by, of all people, Neil Simon.

 
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“Bull Durham” (1988)

“Bull Durham” (1988)

OK, here’s a baseball movie that combines the sport and romance a lot better than “The Slugger’s Wife.” Maybe the cast helped. After all, we’ve got Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Sure, Robbins didn’t have the most believable form for a hotshot pitcher, but the storytelling is still good.

 
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“Eight Men Out” (1988)

“Eight Men Out” (1988)

We’re dealing with the fallout of a major baseball scandal this offseason, the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing fiasco, but that’s far from the first, or biggest, scandal baseball has had. “Eight Men Out” tells the story of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, when several members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series.

 
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“Stealing Home” (1988)

“Stealing Home” (1988)

Mark Harmon is best known these days for starring in “NCIS,” and Jodie Foster is best known for, well, being in films a lot better than “Stealing Home.” That being said, they combined forces for this story about a washed-up baseball player rekindling an old romance. A lot of the film actually involves flashbacks featuring our star-crossed lovers, with other actors playing some of the characters.

 
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“Field of Dreams” (1989)

“Field of Dreams” (1989)

Look, you know “Field of Dreams.” Either you like it and think it’s a touching, moving film about baseball and second chances, or you think it is maudlin, overwrought nonsense. It’s a polarizing movie, more so than the other handful of baseball movies Kevin Costner has starred in. This one has a baseball diamond carved out of a corn field though.

 
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“Major League” (1989)

“Major League” (1989)

If “Field of Dreams” is too mawkish for you, maybe “Major League” is more your speed. There’s some sentimentality here, sure, but a lot less of it. It’s more about a ragtag group of baseball players, including Charlie Sheen’s Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, coming together to keep the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland against the wishes of the new owner.

 
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“Mr. Destiny” (1990)

“Mr. Destiny” (1990)

In 1990, Jim Belushi starred in two separate films that involved baseball in the plot. No, really. In “Taking Care of Business” he plays a guy who breaks out of prison to go to a baseball game. In “Mr. Destiny,” he plays a 35-year-old man who believes his life hasn’t worked out because he struck out in a baseball game when he was 15. As such, an angel drops Larry into an alternative reality where he got the hit and won. Basically it’s a baseball version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 
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“The Babe” (1992)

“The Babe” (1992)

Many years after William Bendix’s Babe Ruth biopic, another one was made. This time, it's John Goodman who stars as the slugger. As least “The Babe” isn’t considered one of the worst sports movies ever, but Goodman has said on multiple occasions he wasn’t happy with his performance.

 
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“A League of Their Own” (1992)

“A League of Their Own” (1992)

All right. Here’s a pretty universally acclaimed baseball movie. This comedy-drama is a fictionalized tale of a real women’s baseball league from around World War II. The movie has a stellar cast, but it’s led by the dynamic duo of Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. You certainly at least remember the iconic movie line, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

 
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“Mr. Baseball” (1992)

“Mr. Baseball” (1992)

Tom Selleck didn’t get to be Indiana Jones because he was starring in “Magnum P.I.” and couldn’t get out of his contract. In the ‘90s, though, he and his mustache got to play Mr. Baseball. Selleck plays an aging baseball player who has to head to Japan to continue his career. It’s not a terrible premise, though the movie was a commercial flop.

 
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“Rookie of the Year” (1993)

“Rookie of the Year” (1993)

It’s a tale as old as time. A preteen boy suffers an arm injury and, of course, he can suddenly throw a baseball incredibly fast. Then this small child becomes a Major League pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Well, at least Daniel Stern got a check for being in “Rookie of the Year,” which is a totally adequate family sports comedy.

 
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“The Sandlot” (1993)

“The Sandlot” (1993)

Kids of the ‘90s seem to love “The Sandlot,” but we aren’t as high on it. It’s kind of weird, because “The Sandlot” is weirdly nostalgic for the ‘60s, something no ‘90s kid could appreciate. Maybe it’s the whole “childhood summer” thing. We don’t know. We also don’t know why people like it so much.

 
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“Angels in the Outfield” (1994)

“Angels in the Outfield” (1994)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has become a movie star, but he got started young when he co-starred in “Angels in the Outfield," a remake of the 1951 movie. JGL plays a boy who gets help from an angel, and that angel helps the California Angels win baseball games in hopes that Jordon-Levitt and his estranged father will be reunited. It’s a little melodramatic, but the cast is good.

 
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“Cobb” (1994)

“Cobb” (1994)

Ty Cobb was a great baseball player but not a good person. Fortunately, “Cobb” isn’t an attempt to rewrite history or make Cobb look like a good guy. Tommy Lee Jones plays Cobb as a cantankerous, and dying, old man. He’s quite good in the film, and you don’t have to worry about the movie trying to make you like Cobb.

 
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“Little Big League” (1994)

“Little Big League” (1994)

Some kids become major league pitchers. Others become baseball owners. In “Little Big League,” a child inherits the Minnesota Twins. Fortunately, he at least learned a lot about baseball from his grandfather, who owned the team and willed it to his 12-year-old grandson. A lot of baseball players cameo as themselves, as does ESPN's Chris Berman.

 
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“Major League II” (1994)

“Major League II” (1994)

In “Major League,” the Cleveland Indians come out of nowhere to win the division over the Yankees. So for the sequel, they pick things up from there, with a team that now has to deal with expectations. That’s a pretty interesting premise. What this movie also does, though, is move from the R rating of the first film to a PG offering here.

 
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“The Scout” (1994)

“The Scout” (1994)

Every scout wants to find that diamond in the rough. Albert Brooks is able to do that in this movie, when he finds a talented pitcher played by Brendan Fraser. However, Fraser’s character has mental issues, which threaten to thwart his potential.

 
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“Ed” (1996)

“Ed” (1996)

Matt LeBlanc plays baseball with a chimpanzee. That’s it. That’s all we have to say. We know you want to see it just based on that, if only to glimpse a few moments of "Joey Tribbiani" and an ape hanging out.

 
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“The Fan” (1996)

“The Fan” (1996)

Both Wesley Snipes and Robert De Niro appear in earlier films on this list, and they combine forces here for a boilerplate thriller. Snipes is a star for the Giants; De Niro plays a violent obsessed fan. Neither is at his best.

 
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“For Love of the Game” (1999)

“For Love of the Game” (1999)

Costner is back! This time, he’s not some Iowa farm boy, but like “Bull Durham” he is a player on his last legs. However, now Costner is a pitcher for the Tigers, and in what might be his final start he is gunning for a perfect game.

 
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“61*” (2001)

“61*” (2001)

This is an HBO movie, but we wanted to include it because it got a ton of press at the time and is one of the first baseball movies a lot of people think of. Billy Crystal directed this film, which focuses on Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in their quest to hit 61 home runs in a season, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.

 
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“Hardball” (2001)

“Hardball” (2001)

Keanu Reeves took a break from his action films to star in something a little less violent and more feel-good. He plays a guy who takes over an inner-city youth baseball team. People are uplifted. Tears are shed, both happy and sad. The usual sports movie stuff.

 
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“Summer Catch” (2001)

“Summer Catch” (2001)

Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard both starred in those “Scooby-Doo” movies, but that wasn’t their only work together. They also co-star with Jessica Biel in “Summer Catch.” Prinze plays a baseball player who finds love one summer. It’s more about romance than baseball, but there is plenty of baseball as well.

 
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“Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch” (2002)

“Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch” (2002)

What sport can’t Air Bud play? Probably hockey, but we digress. In the fourth film in his series, the dog that got his start playing basketball has now moved on to baseball. We have to assume he’s a substitute fielder and base runner, although, he’d have a tough strike zone to work with.

 
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“The Rookie” (2002)

“The Rookie” (2002)

Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, a former baseball prospect who is now a married man in his 30s coaching high school baseball. Then he gets an MLB tryout, works his way up through the minors as a pitcher and then, at 35, makes his debut with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That sounds like your run-of-the-mill sports movie plot, and it is. This time, though, it’s actually based on a true story.

 
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“Mr. 3000” (2004)

“Mr. 3000” (2004)

Bernie Mac plays a baseball player who gets his 3,000th career hit and then immediately retires during the season to start marketing himself as “Mr. 3000.” The hitch, though, is that many years later three of his hits are removed from his career total, leaving him short of the mark. As such, he decides, at the age of 47, to return to the majors to try and get those elusive three hits.

 
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“Fever Pitch” (2005)

“Fever Pitch” (2005)

The original book is about soccer, but the movie is about baseball, and specifically the Boston Red Sox. “Fever Pitch” is a romantic comedy about Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, with Fallon playing a man who loves the Red Sox, even though they break his heart every season. Of course, as fate would have it, while they were filming this movie the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918, which completely changed the plan for the film.

 
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“Bad News Bears” (2005)

“Bad News Bears” (2005)

Richard Linklater makes a lot of personal projects, so it’s a little weird he decided to direct a remake of “The Bad News Bears.” Although, he probably enjoyed that movie as a kid, as he is a baseball fan. Billy Bob Thornton steps into the Walter Matthau role, and the language is changed a bit to be less potentially problematic.

 
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“The Benchwarmers” (2006)

“The Benchwarmers” (2006)

Look, this is one of those movies where Adam Sandler gives his buddies work but doesn’t actually star in the film. It’s guys like Rob Schneider and David Spade running around in a groaning comedy. Nick Swardson and Allen Covert, two of Sandler’s pals, wrote it. His longtime collaborator, Dennis Dugan, directed it. All that’s missing is the Sandman.

 
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“Sugar” (2008)

“Sugar” (2008)

Baseball is big in the Caribbean and Latin America. For many poor kids, it’s a way out of poverty. That’s a story that has been told time and time again in real life. Eventually, that story had to be brought to the world of film. That’s what “Sugar” does, and it got good reviews along the way.

 
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“How Do You Know” (2010)

“How Do You Know” (2010)

There’s quite a cast to this story of a baseball player and a softball player who fall in love. We’re talking Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd, among others. What makes “How Do You Know” unusually remarkable is that it is, as of now, the final film for two luminaries. It’s the last movie James L. Brooks ever directed and the last movie Jack Nicholson, yes that Jack Nicholson, acted in before retiring.

 
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“Moneyball” (2011)

“Moneyball” (2011)

“Moneyball,” the book by Michael Lewis, is about using numbers to find advantages in a market. How do you turn that into a movie? Well, focusing on the personalities and the baseball help. “Moneyball” is about Billy Beane trying to lead the Oakland Athletics to success despite a limited payroll. The movie was a hit and a critical darling. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill got a lot of love for their acting, with both of them getting Oscar nominations.

 
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“Trouble with the Curve” (2012)

“Trouble with the Curve” (2012)

This is sort of the anti-“Moneyball.” It’s about an aging scout, played by Clint Eastwood, who knows more than your fancy numbers. He’s got experience on his side! Anybody with even a passing knowledge of sabermetrics rolled their eyes at this “Old man yells at cloud” of a movie.

 
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“42” (2013)

“42” (2013)

We return to the story of Jackie Robinson. There is a little more polish on the film than in the biopic where Robinson played himself. This time, it’s Chadwick Boseman, before he became Black Panther, as the trailblazing baseball player. Harrison Ford also appears, as Branch Rickey.

 
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“Million Dollar Arm” (2014)

“Million Dollar Arm” (2014)

There are over a billion people in India, and they play cricket there, so there might be an untapped market on the subcontinent. It’s based on a true story of two men from India who won a reality show competition and ended up with a chance in MLB. Neither of the real guys made it — one is a pro wrestler now — but the whole event still got the biopic treatment, complete with a Jon Hamm appearance.

 
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“Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016)

“Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016)

Now this is the kind of baseball movie you would expect Richard Linklater to make. It’s about a bunch of college dudes on a baseball team in Texas, partying, drinking, pranking each other and chasing women. Just a bunch of people hanging out. It’s what Linklater does well. Think of “Everybody Wants Some!!” as a spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused.”

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.


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