San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Films to cheer for with baseball in full swing
One of the most disturbing images of the last year was Ezra Shaw’s photograph taken at Oracle Park. With the sky colored orange from wildfires, it also depicted seats filled with cutouts of fans as the Giants played on. Nothing summed up the end of the world so well. And yet, here we are, and things are almost kind of normal again. Opening day for the Boys of Summer came, the skies are clear, and people are allowed back into the stadium as long as they have a negative COVID19 test or proof of vaccination.
Maybe the time for fun and games has come again. In that spirit, let’s watch some baseball movies.
“The Fan” (1996): Panned by critics when it came out, “The Fan” has resurfaced as one of late director Tony Scott’s best films. It’s also one of the few movies to directly involve the Giants. Robert De Niro stars as Gil, a knife salesman whose shattered life is only held together by his love of the game. He becomes obsessed with a new hitter, Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), and subsequently goes on a murderous rampage to ensure that the player performs to the best of his ability. I used to describe this movie as “a Batman/Joker story for sports fans,” and that is still the best way to sum it up. De Niro and Snipes turn in incredibly nuanced performances, and Scott’s gift for visuals and a great soundtrack make every scene feel like a comic panel. At one point, Rayburn is desperately trying to hit a home run in Candlestick Park during an intermittent thunderstorm as a condition to get Gil to release his son, and it’s ridiculously tense and amazing. It may not be a feelgood movie for the moment we’re in, but it’s still worth your time.
Watch it: Available to rent of various services, including Amazon Prime.
“Major League” (1989): I was going to skip this film because it seems cliché, but I sat down to watch it again and it may be the perfect baseball movie. A wealthy former showgirl (Margaret Whitton) inherits the Cleveland Indians from her dead husband and wants to move the team to Miami. The only way to do that is to make attendance drop low enough to activate an escape clause. She fills the roster with aging bums, criminals and misfits in order to finish dead last, but the team rallies to thwart her. Tom Berenger holds the film together as washedup catcher Jake, while Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes and Dennis Haysbert round out the comedy side with what can only be described as high jinks. Haysbert as the powerhitting voodoo practitioner is particularly memorable.
Watch it: Available to stream on Hulu.
“Sugar” (2008): Despite the fact that 27% of American baseball players are foreignborn, few baseball films deal with the immigrant experience (and the ones that do … well, see “Major League” above). “Sugar” changed that as the story of a Dominicanborn knuckleballer who finds himself questioning what part of the American dream he really wants after an injury stalls his meteoric rise. Algenis Perez Soto turns in a poignant, lonely performance as a man who tastes success for the first time in his life, only to wonder if it is worth the isolation it requires. Coupled with his brushes with bigotry and the fickle nature of fame, his journey is both sad and heroically human.
Watch it: Available to stream on Hulu.
“61*” (2001): The secondbest historical baseball film of all time is “61*.” Directed by Billy
Crystal, it follows the legendary 1961 season of the New York Yankees when Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) competed to see who would break Babe Ruth’s singleseason home run record. The film chronicles not only the amazing athleticism of the two titans, but also the personal bond between the two rivals. Jane is mesmerizing as the selfdestructive but popular hero while Pepper portrays Maris as a caring friend who starts to break under the stress of the contest. The hunger for audiences to see a statistic fall eats them both alive even as they strive to live up to the legendary Ruth. Maris does eventually break the record, though his accomplishment is forever marred because he failed to do so in 154 games as Ruth did, leaving the whole endeavor with a permanent, haunted asterisk.
Watch it: Available to stream on HBO Max and Hulu.
“A League of Their Own” (1992): But the best historical baseball movie is still “A League of Their Own,” and after 30 years holding that title, it looks as if it always will be. Set during World War II, it follows a moderately fictionalized version of the first season of the AllAmerican Girls Professional Baseball League. Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell come together as players to prove that women can compete on the diamond the same as men, and the emotional scene at the end, when they are inducted as a permanent exhibit in the Baseball Hall of Fame, still makes me cry to this day. Penny Marshall’s direction is flawless, effortlessly moving from the high drama of sexism and the war to the hilarious antics of life on the road. The actors famously trained hard to perform real moves in the movie, including Davis’ iconic splitlegged catch (though she admits she could not actually get up on her own power afterward). Everything about it is perfect, and it never stops being fun.
Watch it: Available to stream on HBO Max.
“The Bingo Long Traveling AllStars & Motor Kings” (1976): Produced by Motown’s Berry Gordy and starring Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, it’s the hilarious adventure of several exNegro League players who staged outlandish exhibition games in order to break into the majors. Led by Williams as Bingo Long, the group uses a combination of skill, showmanship and public parades to build interest in their cause. There’s a lot going on, everything from Pryor trying to infiltrate the Majors as a Cuban to one of the players having to break out of a coffin in the middle of the funeral. Believe it or not, this film is historically accurate, and loosely follows the reallife experiences of the Indianapolis Clowns, as well as the signing of Jackie Robinson. Steven Spielberg at one point was attempting to produce the film but got sidetracked by some shark movie. More than anything, it captures the true spirit of the game, really putting the “play” in “play ball.”
Watch it: Available to stream for free on Tubi.