“Jimmy Dugan: Sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that. / Dottie Hinson: It just got too hard. / Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”– Tom Hanks (Dugan) & Geena Davis (Hinson) in A League of Their Own
April 1, tomorrow, marks the beginning of the MLB season in America. As an individual ready for a slight return to normalcy, baseball is the great American pastime. I am deeply nostalgic about baseball, more so than any other sport. It’s as if, once spring is sprung, the smell in the air and feel of the environment demand that players take the field to participate in the American pastime. Days like today, the eve of the start of a new MLB season, remind me of my love of baseball and my enjoyment of movies with baseball as an underlining theme. I grew up watching baseball films, and they are plausibly the first type of sports-themed films I fell in love with, thus molding my cinematic experience for the rest of my life. There are films with powerful, uplifting moments that allow them to transcend their above-average status and become legendary. So, let’s talk baseball, both on the field and the cinematic screen.
Speaking of legendary, this always makes me think of The Sandlot when, in a dream, Babe Ruth tells Benny about heroes and legends, but “heroes get remembered,” and “legends never die.” When combining movies, baseball, and meaningful moments with my dad, I recalled one of the most legendary baseball comedy skits ever, “Who’s on First.” Performed in 1953 by Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, the premise of the sketch is for Abbot to identify players on a fake baseball team “for Costello, but their names and nicknames can” be understood to be “non-responsive answers to Costello’s questions.” What takes place is entertaining, and while outdated, it is a classic comedic radio/television performance and one my dad and I watched together.
My dad, who I wrote about in my first baseball-related post, Adventures in Baseball w/ My Dad, can tell a great story. Some of my favorite stories are those related to baseball. On one occasion, he was nearly ejected from a playoff game at Yankee Stadium for having purchased, from a scalper, stolen tickets. Sometimes if it’s too good to be true, it is precisely that. Another time he hung out with Don Larsen, the old-time Yankee pitcher who is still, to this day, the only person to throw a perfect game in a World Series in 1956. My dad often helped organize local “card shows” when I was a kid, and a celebrity player always stopped by to sign autographs. One year it was Larsen, and my dad picked him up from the airport, and well, Larsen, my dad, and a couple of other individuals went out for drinks. Suffice to say, Don Larsen was a fun guy who provided my dad a night full of unpublished tales from the 1950s Yankees locker-room. I love baseball!
While living in Hawaii, away from my family in the Northeast, I felt the need to reconnect. One might assume this meant a phone call or Skype, but those avenues had been exhausted. So, needing an emotional release and the MLB season in full swing by this point in late 2010, I watched Ken Burns’ Baseball, a 1994 documentary on Netflix. I am a huge fan of Ken Burns and his documentary style. Burns’ The Civil War, which premiered in 1988, is the most transformative and emotionally gripping documentary I have watched even after all of these years. When allowed to watch this series, devoted to the history of baseball, I was all in! It was fabulous, and John Chancellor’s beautifully delivered narration still gives me goosebumps.
Throughout the tremendous twenty-something hour viewing of Ken Burns’ Baseball, I thought about the countless baseball moments with my dad. We traveled to see baseball-related events, watched tons of Yankee games, live and on television, sports specials, documentaries, and made for tv movies based on some of our baseball heroes. When the series explored Joe DiMaggio or his hero Mickey Mantle’s Yankee era and a few other “pinstripe” legends, I was reminded of when my dad sat me in front of the television observing Yankees’ entertainment. We watched, together, a 1987 VHS called, The New York Yankees, which was a mammoth history narrated and hosted by Mel Allen, the voice of the Yankees from 1940 to 1964. Truthfully, this might have been the first documentary I ever watched.
What does this have to do with the opening day for MLB? Well, I want to accomplish two things. One, explore a couple of baseball films I most identify with and offer me a robust emotional response. Secondly, I want to use my often-used muse, “nostalgia,” and briefly explore my baseball past, thus getting into the spirit of the season. In doing this, I hope to remind myself of what made baseball fun, meaningful and why today, watching a documentary or fictional film on the topic continues to make me happy yet nostalgic for the past. As many of my posts have done, it’s about using cinema and lived experiences to bring out a more profound appreciation.
For those who have been regularly reading my posts, movies are part of an essential diet in my house, and this time of year, baseball-themed films make an appearance. As I wrote in a previous post, when I was younger April to October, our family watched nothing but baseball on the television. Today offers a fantastic opportunity to watch a classic baseball film to prepare for the upcoming MLB season. Still, not all baseball films are equal, and while some are funny, others reflective and dramatic, even more are purely average, and several are too over the top. Therefore, which films will I watch over the following days to prepare for New York Yankee baseball?
The answer to that question is both easy to list but difficult to explain. There are tons of baseball-themed movies. Some are good, some are bad, and many are average, but I see a select few as extraordinary. While films like Major League, Mr. Baseball, Rookie of the Year, The Bad News Bears, and Angels in the Outfield are phenomenal, I enjoyed the subtle drama but tuned in for the apparent comedy. None of them are good enough to establish themselves in my top tier. One might assume The Natural, a true Robert Redford classic, or the story of the 1919 White Sox scandal in Eight Men Out would break into the top tier, but they do not, and a couple of them are far off. Although, Major League (4), Rookie of the Year (7), and The Natural (5) are the only ones positioned within my top ten.
What about a couple of high-profile “true story” films like Moneyball starring Brad Pitt, Cobb lead by Tommy Lee Jones, or The Babe with John Goodman? While each has its moment and the stories depicted are essential, the films’ ability to remain relevant years or decades later has diminished. Even great films like 61*, which focused on Roger Maris’, played by Barry Pepper, historic season breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, or 42 starring the amazing Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie, which examines Jackie Robinson breaking through a segregated MLB, are barely in my top ten. *61 comes in at (10) and 42 at (9). They are significant, and I implore people to watch, but when I watch a film with baseball as the central theme, I want it to be about things other than baseball. When films like those I mentioned above and movies like For Love of the Game (8) and Bull Durham (6), Kevin Costner classics, cannot break into the top three, which movies do?
The Sandlot (1993)
All three films in my top tier are within four years of each other and mix baseball, a little history, nostalgia, family, and of course, comedic elements in an otherwise dramatic narrative. When I asked several family members to choose their most reflective film, at least three selected The Sandlot, my number (3), without including the baseball theme component. Directed and written by David Mickey Evans, The Sandlot is heartwarming and timeless. Here is the Rotten Tomatoes description, “When Scottie Smalls (Thomas Guiry) moves to a new neighborhood, he manages to make friends with a group of kids who play baseball at the sandlot. Together they go on a series of funny and touching adventures. The boys run into trouble when Smalls borrows a ball from his stepdad that gets hit over a fence.” The Sandlot perfectly captures the era and, with an incredible group of kids, explores friendship themes and, in the end, is a lovely coming of age tale centered around the beauty of baseball.
What makes The Sandlot, and my subsequent films, great is its ability to strike all the right cords, and an indispensable one is nostalgia. The film doesn’t need to be great, it needs to be what it is, and it does that perfectly. With funny and quotable lines, well-used narration, and believable baseball moments, The Sandlot is the kind of movie that I love. There is no real bad guy, no real threat, no real monster, just childish fears, and by overcoming those and keeping baseball at the center, the main characters build relationships that won’t break. Even though the story is narrated and told through Scotty Smalls’ perspective, it’s about each kid. It is inherently about a group of youngsters, many of whom have difficulty fitting in outside the team, a few who are not sure about who they are or what they want, and of course, about connecting with those closest to you.
In the end, the movie taught me a lot when I was younger, not the least of which was the power of s’mores, never play with a Babe Ruth signed baseball, and James Earl Jones is terrific in everything. When it comes to scenes, I enjoyed the classic pool scene with narration, the 4th of July baseball game with beautiful fireworks, and, finally, the sleepover in the treehouse where they discuss the “beast.” In the end, my favorite moment is probably when the group explains the legend of Babe Ruth to Smalls. A classic scene, one that has always struck a mighty cord, for its humor, honest confusion on Smalls’ face, and the group’s pure inability to believe that Babe Ruth is a mystery to someone with a pulse. So, next time you need a classic movie to watch that mixes in nostalgia with baseball, narration with stellar acting, and is about making friends and is, in its core, a feel-good film, put on The Sandlot.
A League of Their Own (1992)
What do you get what you combine comedy, baseball, the Second World War, and The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, you get A League of Their Own. Directed by Penny Marshall and wonderfully written by Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele, with a score by Hans Zimmer, the film does everything right. Starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks with Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna as well as appearances by David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, Jon Lovitz, Bitty Schram, Ann Cusack, and Anne Ramsey, to name a few, A League of Their Own is, in my mind, a perfect movie. I have not watched any other film as often or as many times as this epic movie.
Marshall created something special, in the same way I have always observed Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Both have a unique ability to be timeless and a product of the time. To be both funny, dramatic, and offer up a lesson, a truth, and inspire the viewer in ways words cannot express. A League of Their Own showed that when criticized and faced with misogynistic sexism, these female athletes played ball and gave audiences/fans something to cheer on during WWII. It’s a film led by women, showcasing female empowerment and, at the same time, depicts some of the best baseball scenes I have seen in a major motion picture. The baseball games, and action sequences, are unique and outpace, or outdo, other films seeking to include similar simulated baseball moments. The relationships the film builds are realistic, not stereotypical. I appreciate that Geena Davis provides a praise-worthy performance as Dottie Hinson without stereotypical associations, especially with Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan. It’s a partnership that begins strained as Dugan is unswayed by the managerial position he is assigned. Yet, he eventually grows respectful of his players’ baseball abilities and seeing each, especially Hinson, as equal. He does this without a “romantic” trope that I am sure someone considered, but not Marshall.
The movie has incredible wit, charm, comedy, and, at times, raw emotional drama. When Tracy Reiner, as Betty “Spaghetti” Horn, is informed by Western Union of her husband’s death fighting in the war, it is one of the more emotional moments of the film. The fear of the “telegram” was an undercurrent of the film, and viewers assumed Hinson would learn of her husband’s, played by Bill Pullman, death. Instead, we observe as the telegram arrives, but a clerical error forces the messenger to refrain from delivering it, keeping the recipient unknown. Therefore, Dugan’s protective instincts over his players are woken, and he pushes the Western Union employee to give him the telegram and then expels him from the locker room. As Dugan walks down the aisle, and one by one, the tension rises. He eventually hands Horn the letter creating an intense acting moment.
Another scene where an African-American woman throws the ball to Freddie Simpson’s character, Ellen Sue Gotlander, is historically relevant. The woman, who picks up the ball near the sideline fence, is, at first, asked by Hinson to throw it to her since she is close, but she throws it to Gotlander with incredible strength and accuracy. She is an athlete, capable of playing but barred because of her skin color. Marshall’s commentary at this moment illustrates the American reality of segregation and racism. It’s a brief moment in the film, but Marshall’s inclusion makes the movie far more layered, more structured, and more dramatic than it appears to be.
I could write about this movie for days. Other than The Princess Bride, I have not watched a movie more. The comedy at the beginning of the film with Jon Lovitz is outstanding. Bitty Scram as Evelyn Gardner, who Tom Hanks curses at and who, in turn, cries, leading to one of the most iconic movie quotes, “There’s no crying in baseball,” is fantastic. When paired with her little son, Stilwell, who Hanks (Dugan) eventually hits with a glove letting loose a visceral and hauntingly hilarious laugh, which is brilliant and perfectly timed comedically. The dialogue is well-delivered, making sure to allow the profoundly emotional moments to fulfill their purpose. The comedic minutes do not overshadow the overall effect of the story’s dramatic tone. Whether Hinson is doing a split to catch a ball to get more attention for the league or her battle with Dugan calling out signals to the batter, Marla Hooch, played by Megan Cavanagh, Davis is the center of this film and is excellent. Hanks, as always, does everything asked of him as Dugan, the hard-drinking, long peeing, crotch scratching, angry yelling coach, but whose character arc is well-developed, fleshed out, and a joy to watch.
Beginning to end, A League of Their Own showcases a critical moment in American history. As a young boy playing baseball, watching this movie inspired me to be like Davis’ character, Hinson. I, too, was a catcher, as was my wife, Corinne. A League of Their Own has moments that will make you laugh, make you cry, inspire you, and in the end, see baseball as a thread that connects us as a society culturally and historically. Rightfully, there is a beautiful exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, to honor those leagues that, for too long or at one point, were not respected or offered the attention they deserved. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League has an exhibit. Thus, little girls and boys gain inspiration from the women who played big-league baseball and showed that dreams are possible. A League of Their Own is about baseball, but as Penny Marshall successfully showed, it’s about so much more.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote the screenplay based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, the film Field of Dreams is about relationships dipped in magic waters. Starring Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Amy Madigan, with a note-worthy and emotional appearance by Burt Lancaster – all incredible in Field of Dreams. As Rotten Tomatoes writes, “When Iowa farmer Ray (Kevin Costner) hears a mysterious voice one night in his cornfield saying “If you build it, he will come,” he feels the need to act. Despite taunts of lunacy, Ray builds a baseball diamond on his land, supported by his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan). Afterward, the ghosts of great players start emerging from the crops to play ball, led by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. But, as Ray learns, this field of dreams is about much more than bringing former baseball greats out to play.”
There are two things I think of when I recall Field of Dream, James Horner’s Academy Award-nominated score and the monologues, including James Earl Jones’s speech. Nominated for three Oscars at the 1990 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Field of Dreams is a true American movie classic. It’s about finding closure, it’s about family, and it’s about baseball. Although, as I said before, baseball is purely the link, the connective tissue that brings the story together. It is one of a few films that can produce goosebumps by thinking of it. This movie’s cultural influence is incredible and ever-lasting. In 2020, the MLB had scheduled a pair of games at the Iowa farm where they filmed the movie. Of course, with COVID, that plan was scuttled.
Field of Dreams includes beautiful music, great dialogue, stellar acting by the main cast, and an iconic role for Liotta as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Liotta, along with Jones, had several of the more quotable moments in the film, and this is true of Lancaster, who eloquently uttered his fabulous lines. Many emotions come to me as I sit here writing, looking at the television with Field of Dreams playing. I feel nostalgic, as I can recall the countless times watching this film when I was younger, dreaming of my life to be. I am impressed by how one film can honestly do so much in less than two hours—building a movie around a farmer who hears voices and builds a baseball stadium, destroying valuable acreage for a legendary baseball player, seemingly wronged by time and place. To do this, he seeks to make sense of this occurrence. He goes further, blindly, thinking he understands the central message. In the end, only to discover that his journey is all about him, no one else.
Field of Dreams is a film with tons of beautiful moments. To name one would be a mistake, but to say the entire movie would be a copout. Of course, after waiting months to learn what the voice foretold of, Ray’s meeting with Shoeless Joe is brilliant. Including Ray hitting some fly balls, and with a beautiful Liotta monologue, this scene shows the audience the beauty and simplicity of baseball. In so doing, it sets a fantastic tempo for the film. Another impressive scene was the conversation between Costner and Lancaster, who played Moonlight Graham. It’s a touching meeting, and Lancaster’s line, “We don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening,” is one of the more memorable in a movie with several.
Of course, my favorite scene is when James Earl Jones, as Terence Man, gives his beautiful end of film monologue. As he says, “People will come,” and I am not sure that any movie about baseball, or any sports, has had a more powerful, emotional, and brilliantly delivered set of lines, all in step with Horner’s original score. It’s a speech about the beauty of baseball, the timelessness of the game, and the uncompromising truth that baseball is precisely what we need when we need it. This moment leads to the reveal at the end of the film where Ray, after a few setbacks with Jackson, including well-delivered comedic dialogue from Liotta, Jones, and Costner, is unsure of his quest any longer. When Ray is content to let the mystery be, he sees his father, young, and it is an emotional moment as they play catch. He ultimately realizes that his strained relationship with his long-deceased father is what this was all about. In one of, if not the most beautiful moment of the film, Ray learns who he built the stadium for, his father. It became an opportunity to let go, make amends, and move on. Time will pass, sometimes too fast, but this scene is magical, not because of baseball, but rather how baseball is the conduit to achieving something far more significant.
A Little Baseball Nostalgia for Opening Day
I love Field of Dreams mainly because I, too, see baseball through the prism of my relationship with my dad. While not reflecting our relationship, the film undercuts baseball as a link between father and son. I see this in the games I watch, the baseball films I gravitate to, and the places where baseball is immortalized. I have been to the MLB Hall of Fame on two separate occasions. The first time was when I was young, accompanied by my dad on a family trip. I remember walking around the museum, and my dad explained everything to me like he was a docent. It was incredible to observe all the great players, the historical moments, the difficult defeats, and the ignored players. It was educational, it was emotional, and sure, I was excited to see everything related to the NY Yankees as a kid. Today, as an adult, I think more about the father and son moment.
Baseball is the sport my dad and I bonded over the most. But playing, for me, was a slow work in progress. I was never comfortable batting, never really confident in catching a fly ball in the outfield, and sure as hell could not run very fast, so almost immediately, I was placed at catcher. Still, in those early years, I learned to play, enjoyed the instructional support, and had fun. One time, I remember my dad, who always coached, putting the ball on the tee because you don’t start with little kids throwing baseballs at each other and swinging away. Of course, I didn’t hit the ball. I smacked the tee holding the ball so hard the tee went further than the ball. I have no clue how old I was, but I remember my dad picking up the tee, putting the ball back on it, giving me some words of comfort, and telling me to have another go. So I did, and I crushed the tee again!
Over the years, improving my baseball skills required work, sometimes work I had no interest in doing. Instead of baseball camps at local colleges or trips to the batting cages, I would have chosen to play video games, watch cartoons, or build LEGO sets. I stuck with it and enjoyed it as my dad helped me learn the game. My dad was a great coach. Supportive, but critical in a constructive way. When I first started playing, I would get into the batter’s box and not take my bat off my shoulder. Sure, I dreamed of hitting the pitch, running those bases, but I was petrified. Strick one. No swing. Strike two. No swing. Then my dad would call out to me, “swing no matter what.” The third pitch was strike three and no swing. I looked like a damn statue in the batter’s box. My dad cheered me on anyhow, but it still surprises me that a pigeon never rested on the top of the bat. I didn’t move an inch. My wife, who is a fantastic baseball/softball player, and dedicated Yankees/Bernie Williams fan, always says, “you can’t hit if you don’t swing.” I eventually took that advice in baseball and life.
As I got older and played on the same team as my older brother Jeff and our dad coached, I started to learn the mechanics, where I fit in, and how I could improve. When the weather was nice, this included trips to the tennis courts near the beach and our home to practice my bat speed. If for no other reason, those years of baseball offered me valuable memories. The other day, I went through a box of old things and came across a baseball with “Home Run Ball” written on it, and I laughed. It is true; I hit a home run during one game. But that’s not what made me laugh when I found the old baseball. What made me laugh was that it wasn’t even really the ball I hit over the fence decades ago. My dad told me some years after that, yes, he did go looking for it, but after the ball went over the wall, it went into the brush and was lost, so he took another ball and gave that to me. You see, it’s not about the ball; it’s about the moment and the memory. My dad knew that, and I know that now.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is not a baseball movie, but when I watch one scene, I think of baseball. When Ron, having been fired for his on-air expletive, walks down the street drinking milk on a hot day, is a scene that conjures up a hilarious baseball memory. My brother Jeff and I had some pretty epic wiffle ball home derby contests at his home years ago. I mean, they were legendary. We threw crazy, insane, and weirdly unhittable pitches and played for hours. While one game might end with a 2-1 score, another could be 15-13. As siblings, neither of us ever wanted to lose. One day we played; it was a brutal 100°F.
When I arrived at Jeff’s house, the sun was at its most tremendous power, and I came prepared with a Dunkin’ iced coffee, with extra milk, no water in sight. With the score 3-1, Jeff holding the lead, and me coming to bat, with one out in the bottom of the ninth, I was feeling the heat and, while this feeling was building for a couple of innings, I stupidly refused to stop the game. Finally, with two outs to claw back and tie Jeff, I conceded. I next remember crying on the bathroom floor, savagely overheated, and then eating random food on Jeff’s couch as Anchorman played on the television. I survived, clearly, but “it’s so damn hot… milk was a bad choice” is a moment Jeff will never let me forget, rightfully so.
As I look back today, as an adult, and seek meaning in my past, the time with family is what mattered most. So, when I watch the New York Yankees tomorrow, and I put on Field of Dreams later today, and watch A League of Their Own later this week, I will think of my baseball past. I will think of my dad, first and foremost, and all those times we played catch. I will smile, as the musical score by James Horner does with cords and notes, which I attempted to achieve with words in this post. I sought to illustrate an emotional connection to the American pastime. It’s about baseball, but it’s not. It’s about more, but not less.