On screen: fun, hits and errors

Hollywood's had few gems among diamond movies.

October 24, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

When it comes to the national pastime, Hollywood hasn't always kept its eye on the ball.

Sure, baseball has been a major player in any number of films. But how many of them have really been about the game, really looked at it as opposed to simply using it as a plot point? Or, to put it another way, how many baseball films are truly major-league efforts?

Fortunately, among several stinkers, there are some good ones to keep fans occupied over the next few days, as they wile away the hours between World Series games.

Herewith, a dozen examples that range over the entire spectrum. And yes, I know plenty of movies aren't even on the list, including "The Winning Team" (with Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander), "Bang the Drum Slowly" and "The Fan." But the Series lasts seven games, max. How many movies can you possibly watch before the fat lady sings?

"The Natural" (1984): A film not so much about baseball as about baseball as myth. Gets extra points for casting Robert Redford, who actually played the game in college (although that final slo-mo swing looks a tad awkward), and for a fireworks show to end all fireworks shows. Rating: Solid double to left that would have been a triple if the batter had any speed.

"Field of Dreams" (1989): A sweet fable for all us kids who were never happier than when we were sitting next to our dads at the ballpark. You don't learn much about playing the game, but you sure learn about loving it. Docked a base for having Shoeless Joe Jackson hit from the wrong side of the plate. Two-base hit that hugged the right-field foul line.

"The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950): Robinson, in the prime of his playing career, stars as himself. A little more about the enormous pressures he faced breaking baseball's color barrier than about how wonderfully he played the game, but still a film to be treasured. Game-winning, bases-loaded single.

"Bull Durham" (1988): The "Casablanca" of baseball films, as two men vie for the soul of the woman they love. Actually, they fight just as hard for the soul of the game they love. Neither baseball nor Susan Sarandon ever seemed sexier, while Kevin Costner looks and acts like a ballplayer. Here's betting you actually learn something about baseball watching this film. Home run to dead center.

"Pride of the Yankees" (1945): A great film, as Gary Cooper plays that most tragic of baseball heroes, Lou Gehrig, although the game is ancillary to the man. Still, they tried hard -- Cooper, a natural right-hander, learned to bunt and throw left-handed, and would run to third base when he hit the ball (the filmmakers reversed the film, so it looked like he was batting left-handed). And Babe Ruth got to play himself! Bases-loaded triple.

"Fear Strikes Out" (1957): Anthony Perkins, as troubled Red Sox outfielder/shortstop Jimmy Piersall, looks as much like a ballplayer as my Aunt Flo. Sure, there are some nice scenes, including Perkins scaling the backstop after hitting a home run, but you don't for a second believe these guys would last a minute inside the real Fenway Park. Swinging strike three.

"The Babe Ruth Story" (1948): Blecch! William Bendix plays Babe Ruth as comic-book hero. The scene re-creating his "called shot" in the 1932 World Series vs. the Cubs may be the most ludicrous moment in all of film. And don't get me started on the dying kid who's promised a home run; just the memory of that makes my blood sugar go up. Ground out, runner trips over first base.

"It Happens Every Spring" (1949): Lots of laughs, as Ray Milland plays a chemist who discovers a wood repellent that makes his pitches unhittable and carries his team to the World Series. Great fun -- especially the relationship between Milland and Paul Douglas as his catcher -- and (except for that darting screwball) the games look real. A long fly that becomes a ground-rule double when a dog grabs it and runs off the field. The crowd roars.

"For Love of the Game" (1999): Great job of depicting the mind games between pitcher and batter, and of showing what a lonely place the pitching mound can be. If only that overwrought romance didn't get in the way. Double, out trying to stretch it into a triple.

"The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings" (1974): Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor are barnstorming 1930s Negro Leaguers. Few baseball films have had more fun depicting the game than this one, and isn't that what the game's all about? Game- winning single by a career journeyman.

"Damn Yankees" (1958): Love the title. And the music. And the dancing. A love letter to every fan who ever hated a team because it was so good. Game-winning homer -- and guess which New York team just lost.

"A League of Their Own" (1992): A real mixed bag. Geena Davis could doubtless hold her own on the baseball diamond, and the "There's no crying in baseball!" scene is a classic. Still, that ending, with the suggestion that Davis may have dropped the ball to let her sister's team win, sticks in my craw. Let's call it a home run, but only because the umpire didn't notice the fan interference.

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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