Ranking the Top 25 Baseball Movies of All Time

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2013

Ranking the Top 25 Baseball Movies of All Time

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    With the recent theatrical release of 42, which tells the story of the iconic Jackie Robinson and is a must-see for baseball and non-baseball fans alike, there's no better time to take a look at the greatest baseball movies ever put to film.

    From comedies to dramas, from big-budget films with superstar casts to low-budget documentaries starring nobody of note; baseball has run the gamut of the motion picture industry for decades, producing some truly memorable on-screen moments and characters that have stood the test of time.

    For some, the names Morris Buttermaker, Roy Hobbs and Rick Vaughn are as synonymous with America's pastime as Joe Torre, Derek Jeter and Justin Verlander are.

    For others, you're scratching your head wondering what in the world I'm talking about.

    Which brings me to a point that really should go without saying—every single film included on this list, from those in the Top 25 to those that just missed the cut, is worthy of your attention and films that should be seen by even the most casual of baseball fans.

    But I've said enough—let's get to the task at hand, ranking the 25 best baseball movies of all-time.

Honorable Mentions

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    With so many quality movies to choose from, narrowing the list down to only 25 was a painstaking process—one that left plenty of films, including one of my personal favorites, 1985's Brewster's Millions, on the outside looking in.

    Other than the Richard Pryor/John Candy classic, here are the other baseball-centric films that just missed the cut.

    Angels In the Outfield (1951)

    Chasing 3000 (2010)

    Mr. 3000 (2004)

    The Babe (1992)

    Mr. Baseball (1992)

No. 25: Fever Pitch (2005)

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    A Farrelly brothers movie without gross-out gags and crude humor? 

    That's what you get with 2005's Fever Pitch, a remake of a 1997 British film and loosely based on Nick Hornby's memoir "Fever Pitch: A Fan's Tale." While the book and movie were set in England and revolved around a soccer team, this version is set in Boston and revolves around baseball.

    Ben (Jimmy Fallon) is falling in love with Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) over the winter, but once spring rolls around, he finds himself torn between his new love and his one true love, the Boston Red Sox.

    Set in 2004, the film's original ending depicted the "Curse of the Bambino" dashing the hopes of Red Sox nation for an 85th consecutive season. Once Boston broke the curse, winning the 2004 World Series, the film's ending needed to be rewritten.

    If you've ever struggled to explain the levels of your fandom to your significant other, this is a must-watch.

No. 24: The Stratton Story (1949)

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    Starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, The Stratton Story tells the tale of Monty Stratton, a right-handed pitcher for the Chicago White Sox in the 1930s.

    Stratton spent parts of five seasons with the White Sox, going 36-23 with a 3.71 ERA. The bulk of his success came in 1937 and 1938, when he'd go 30-14 with a 3.26 ERA, being named an All-Star in 1937 and finishing 15th in MVP voting in 1938.

    Following the 1938 season, Stratton shot himself in the leg on a hunting trip, an injury that ultimately required the amputation of his right leg. Eight years later, at the age of 34 and with a wooden leg, Stratton would return to the game he loved, spending parts of five seasons with a number of minor league clubs.

No. 23: The Pride of St. Louis (1952)

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    From 1932 through 1937, Jerome "Dizzy" Dean won 133 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, appearing in four All-Star games and winning the National League MVP award in 1934.

    The Pride of St. Louis tells his story.

    In the 1937 All Star Game, Dizzy (Dan Dailey) was hit on the foot by a line drive off the bat of Cleveland's Earl Averill, breaking a big toe. Stubborn to a fault, Dizzy returns to the mound against the advice of doctors, putting added strain on his arm and essentially ruining his career as a pitcher.

    Despite being relatively uneducated, Dizzy enjoyed a second career as a broadcaster, one that, depending on who you ask, was perhaps even more successful than his time on the mound in a Cardinals uniform.

    Dizzy's brother, Paul, who was given the nickname of "Daffy" by reporters, is played by Richard Crenna in one of the earliest roles of his career.

No. 22: Damn Yankees! (1958)

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    If you're one of those baseball fans who loves to root against the New York Yankees, then this is the film for you.

    Adapted from George Abbott's Broadway musical of the same name, Damn Yankees! tells the tale of Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), a disgruntled Washington Senators fan who makes a deal with the devil, known in the film as Mr. Applegate and played by Ray Walston (who may be best known from My Favorite Martian).

    The deal is simple: in exchange for his soul, Applegate turns Boyd into the greatest baseball player on the planet, Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), so that he can lead his Senators past those damn Yankees and to baseball's promised land.

    Of course, things aren't as clear cut as they appear to be, especially once the devil enlists the services of Lola (Gwen Verdon), a temptress whose specialty is seduction.

    Musicals and sports make for odd bedfellows, but Damn Yankees! makes the marriage work.

No. 21: Cobb (1994)

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    Arguably the greatest hitter who ever played the game, Ty Cobb was an unbelievable bastard both on and off of the field.

    By the time Cobb is over, you'll not only dislike the ballplayer, but you'll dislike Tommy Lee Jones who does such a great job portraying the Hall of Fame center fielder that it becomes difficult to separate the two.

    The film focuses on a dying Cobb and sportswriter Al Stump (Robert Wuhl), who is assigned to write Cobb's story. Upon arriving at Cobb's home,  Stump finds a bitter, drunken racist who treats his biographer with the same disdain as he did nearly everyone else that he ever encountered.

    Stump is forced to choose: does he sugarcoat Cobb's life or write an accurate story, portraying Cobb as the vile human being that he really was?

No. 20: Off the Black (2006)

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    One of the more underrated films of the past decade, Off the Black is very much like Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, only that this move came out years before Eastwood's more ballyhooed take on a similar story.

    A coming-of-age tale, Off the Black revolves around the relationship between Ray Cook (Nick Nolte), a hard-drinking, lonely high school umpire who makes a questionable call against the hometown team, costing them a crucial game. 

    The pitcher who believes his team was screwed by Cook, Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), along with some teammates, decide to get payback by vandalizing Cook's house. Cook catches Tibbel in the act, leading to a bizarre proposal and an even more unlikely friendship.

No. 19: Fear Strikes Out (1957)

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    Nearly 60 years after Fear Strikes Out was released, we still see the theme of the story unfold before our very eyes in real life on a daily basis: a father trying to live vicariously through his son.

    It's the true story of Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins), who spent parts of 17 years in the big leagues with five different teams—most notably as a member of the Boston Red Sox, his favorite team growing up.

    The film follows Jimmy's rise from the fields of Waterbury, Conn. to Fenway Park, with his overbearing father John (Karl Malden) seemingly never satisfied with his son's accomplishments. Piersall cracks under the pressure, suffering a nervous breakdown and ultimately being committed to a mental institution.

    After extensive therapy, Jimmy comes to grips with the fact that he never played for the love of the game, but in an attempt to earn his father's love—and he begins his trek back to the big leagues.

No. 18: Sugar (2008)

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    A hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Sugar tells the story of Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a 19-year-old pitcher from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic who is trying to make the big leagues.

    Nominated for best sports move at the 2009 ESPY awards, Sugar is an unflinching look at the life of a player trying to make it in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the language, customs and way of life—things that become far more pronounced once he's shipped from spring training to a Single-A team in Iowa.

    Battling feelings of isolation and an arm that betrays him, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) eventually begins to question both the world he lives in and whether his lifelong ambition of pitching in the major leagues is really the right path for him to travel.

No 17: The Rookie (2002)

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    Baseball is a game with a storied history full of improbable, if not seemingly impossible success stories.

    2002's The Rookie tells one of those tales. Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), who saw his lifelong dream of pitching in the major leagues derailed by a severe shoulder injury while in the minor leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers.

    Now in in his mid-30s, Morris finds himself teaching chemistry and coaching baseball at a high school in Texas. Able to throw his fastball harder than he ever has before, a wager is made between he and his team of underachieving student-athletes following a lackluster effort in a game the team should have won:

    If the team makes the playoffs, Morris will try out for the Tampa Bay Rays.

    Impressive enough to earn a contract from the Rays, Morris eventually sees his dream become reality, making his major league debut in September of 1999 against the Texas Rangers and striking out the first batter he'd face, Royce Clayton, on four pitches.

    Morris would make 21 relief appearances for the Rays between 1999 and 2000, pitching to a 4.80 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 15 innings of work.

No. 16: Up for Grabs (2004)

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    When Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run of the 2001 season off of Los Angeles' Dennis Springer, a melee erupted in the stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco as fans battled for possession of the historic baseball.

    Up For Grabs documents the lengths—sometimes tragic, other times humorous—that two fans who believed they each were the rightful owner of the ball would go to decide who had a legal right to collect what, at one point, was expected to be a million-dollar price at auction.

    Ultimately, the ball would sell for $450,000 at auction—far below the $3.2 million that Mark McGwire's then record-setting 70th home run fetched a few years earlier.

No. 15: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

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    If you are looking for the film that really launched the legendary career of Robert De Niro, look no further than 1973's Bang the Drum Slowly.

    It's the story of the friendship between a star pitcher, Henry "Author" Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) and a dim-witted catcher, Bruce Pearson (De Niro), who learns that he is terminally ill just as his playing career is teetering on the edge.

    When Wiggen learns of his friend's situation, he does his best to make life as enjoyable as possible for Pearson, and the film tells the tale as they cope with the catcher's illness through the season.

    For those who have only seen De Niro play the rough, overbearing tough guy—a role he's been cast in more often than not—this is truly one of the more remarkable performances of his career and a must see for anyone who fancies themselves a fan of his work.

No. 14: 61* (2001)

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    While this was never a theatrical release, shown only on HBO, lifelong Yankees fan Billy Crystal directs a phenomenal take on the story of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and their chase of Babe Ruth's then-record 60 home runs in a single season in the summer of 1961.

    Maris (Barry Pepper) is seen as the "bad guy" by fans and sportswriters alike, while Mantle, America's "Golden Boy," is the one everyone cheers for.

    Ford Frick, commissioner of baseball at the time, declares that unless Ruth's record is broken within 154 games of the new 162-game schedule, the new record will have an asterisk next to it in the record books.

    The film follows the pair on and off the field, how the chase to break Ruth's record impacted their relationship and the unreal amount of stress that it put on Maris, a quiet man who simply wanted to play well, win and be able to go home and be left alone.

No. 13: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

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    Some films stand the test of time, transcending generational gaps with the story they tell.

    1942's Pride of the Yankees is one of those films, as it follows the life of New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, played wonderfully by Gary Cooper.

    We all know Gehrig's story: the "Iron Horse" played in 2,130 consecutive games before removing himself from the lineup when the symptoms of a deadly nerve disease—ALS or, as it's commonly known, "Lou Gehrig's Disease"—become too much for him to handle.

    Gehrig's longtime teammate, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, plays himself in this classic that is as much a telling of Gehrig's tale as a tribute to his remarkable life that was cut far too short.

No. 12: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)

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    Most baseball fans have heard of Hank Greenberg before, knowing only that he was a superstar slugger for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s.

    Through archival footage and interviews with his family, friends and fans—including actor Walter Matthau, who is featured on our list a little later on, famed attorney Alan Dershowitz and senator Carl Levin—we learn that Greenberg was much more than the first Jewish superstar in baseball.

    As noted in the trailer, you don't need to be Jewish to appreciate the life of the "Hebrew Hammer," the first major league player to enlist for military service in World War II.

No. 11: Eight Men Out (1988)

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    Considered the overwhelming favorites to win the 1919 World Series, eight members of the Chicago White Sox are believed to have tarnished America's pastime by losing on purpose, ultimately participating in one of the biggest scandals in the history of professional sports.

    Eight Men Out tells their tale with the help of a phenomenal cast, one that includes John Cusack (George "Buck" Weaver), Christopher Lloyd ("Sleepy" Bill Burns), Charlie Sheen (Oscar "Hap" Felsch) and D.B. Sweeney ("Shoeless" Joe Jackson).

    To be fair, some things were tweaked to work in the movie, including how quickly judgement was passed on the players believed to have thrown the World Series.

    But when it comes to reliving one of the darkest periods in baseball history, Eight Men Out stands tall above the rest.

No. 10: 42 (2013)

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    I know I'm repeating myself, but if you've not seen 42 yet, do yourself a favor and head out to your local theater to do so.

    You won't be disappointed.

    Harrison Ford gives his best on-screen performance in years as Branch Rickey, while relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman is tremendous as Jackie Robinson, with both actors deserving of serious accolades when award season rolls around.

    Christopher Meloni (Leo Durocher) and John C. McGinley (Red Barber) deliver strong performances as well, with the entire cast capturing the raw emotion and unbridled hatred that divided—and to a degree, still divides—the United States along racial lines.

    Nobody, regardless of their profession, should have to endure what Jackie Robinson went through. That he was able to not only persevere, but to remain a figure of class and dignity throughout his career, is truly a testament to how incredible an individual he truly was.

    Back in college, I was fortunate to gain entry into a class that was about Jackie Robinson and his legacy not only on the game, but on the country as a whole. We met and listened to people like his widow, Rachel Robinson and the late Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League.

    This movie bought me right back into that classroom at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. 

No. 9: The Sandlot (1993)

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    A generation of baseball fans grew up with 1993's The Sandlot, but make no mistake about it—baseball fans of all ages can appreciate and enjoy what is far too often tossed aside as a "children's movie."

    It follows the story of Scotty Smalls, the new kid on the block and how he becomes "one of the guys" through baseball, overcoming a stepfather who has no time for him and his own doubts about his self worth.

    Iconic lines such as "You're killing me, Smalls!", plenty of nostalgia and James Earl Jones make this one of the truly underrated baseball movies of all-time.

No. 8: A League of Their Own (1992)

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    A League of Their Own is a fictionalized tale of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which aimed to fill the void left with the majority of major league players overseas, fighting for their country in World War II.

    An All-Star cast led by Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan, a foul-mouthed, often-drunk former major leaguer who 

    Tom Hanks (Jimmy Dugan) plays a foul-mouthed, often-drunk former major leaguer who serves as manager of the Rockford Peaches, though he doesn't take the job—or his players—seriously.

    Geena Davis (Dottie Hinson), Lori Petty (Kit Keller), Rosie O'Donnell (Doris Murphy) and Madonna (Mae Mordabito) comprise part of the Peaches' roster, leading to both hilarity and some truly heartwarming—and heart-wrenching moments—both on and off the field.

No. 7: Ballplayer: Pelotero (2011)

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    It's easy to overlook documentaries when choosing a film to watch, but baseball fans would be wise to sit down and watch Ballplayer: Pelotero, the best documentary on the sport that has ever been put on film.

    This isn't a feel-good story about the boys of summer, but rather a gritty, dark tale about two prospects in the Dominican Republic—Miguel Sano and Jean Batista—that are about to celebrate their 16th birthdays, making them eligible to sign with a MLB team and the shady, underhanded dealings and corrupt individuals with which they must deal to make their dreams a reality.

    Narrated by John Leguizamo and with Bobby Valentine as an executive producer, Pelotero doesn't hold back or attempt to sugarcoat anything that transpires. The path that these two players must traverse isn't pretty, and this sordid underbelly of baseball is something that goes on far more often than anyone would like to believe.

    If the two prospects, Sano and Batista sound familiar, well, they should. Sano is Minnesota's top-rated prospect, while Batista, a career .295 hitter who falls outside Houston's Top 20 prospects, continues to work his way through the team's minor league system.

No. 6: Major League (1989)

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    When it comes to classic sports comedies, 1989's Major League holds its own against some of the all-time greats.

    The Cleveland Indians are saddled with a new owner who has her sights set on moving the team to Florida, but she needs the team to be one of baseball's biggest losers in order to do so.

    Despite her best efforts to undermine the team, Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) and Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) lead the team on an improbable run.

    Bob Uecker is at his best playing the part of Indians play-by-play man Harry Doyle, delivering one zinger after another, and the entire cast makes this one of the best baseball movies ever put to film.

No. 5: The Natural (1984)

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    Released in 1984, The Natural is based on the 1952 novel written by Bernard Malamud and tells the enduring tale of a 35-year-old man, Roy Hobbs, played brilliantly by Robert Redford.

    Redford is joined by acting royalty like Robert Duvall and Glen Close who, along with Kim Basinger, keep audiences glued to the screen—and their seats—throughout the nearly two hours that the movie runs.

    While the filmmakers took some serious artistic license with Malamud's novel, changing both the outcome and what many believe to be the intending meaning of the final chapters in the book, The Natural stands on its own as a testament to America's pastime.


No. 4: Moneyball (2011)

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    Based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball is one of the most successful baseball movies of all time.  

    Brad Pitt takes on the role of Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics who is trying to keep his team competitive in 2002, despite having serious constraints put on his payroll by ownership, leaving him unable to compete with big-market clubs for the best talent available.

    For baseball fans looking for the first real front-office shift from traditional statistics and scouting methods to the new-school that includes sabermetrics, this is the movie for you.

    For people who don't follow the A's (or baseball in general), Moneyball is still an entertaining film full of excellent acting performances. Both Pitt and Jonah Hill, who plays assistant GM Peter Brand, received Oscar nominations for their roles, while the film itself was nominated for Best Picture.

No. 3: Field of Dreams (1989)

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    If you wanted to tell me that Field Of Dreams belongs in the top spot on this list, I wouldn't put up much of a fight.

    That's how close it is between the 1989 epic and the two movies I have ranked ahead of it.

    A compelling drama with an all-star cast, the film tells the story of a farmer in Iowa, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who is compelled by an unseen voice to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield by the mantra "If you build it, they will come."

    Sure enough, they do come—including "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and the 1919 Chicago White Sox. James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and Amy Madigan round out a solid cast for a film that received three Oscar nominations in 1990, including one for Best Picture.

No. 2: The Bad News Bears (1976)

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    For a generation of baseball fans (myself included), The Bad News Bears was—and still remains—the Holy Grail of baseball movies.

    Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, once a minor-league ball player, now coach of a group of misfits with middling talent on the baseball field.

    There is something in this movie that would offend everyone were it to be released today—though the politically correct nature of things these days would likely ensure that the film never saw the light of day. Just take a look at the trailer—can you imagine that being played on network television today?

    Not a chance.

    The Bad News Bears broke the rules of what a movie centered around children should abide by—and that's only a testament to how tremendous of a film it truly was.

No. 1: Bull Durham (1988)

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    Pound-for-pound, 1988's Bull Durham has stood the test of time as the best baseball movie—drama or comedy—ever produced.

    Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is a long-time minor league catcher assigned to the hapless Durham Bulls, a minor league team with a lengthy history of mediocrity. Tasked with tutoring a dim-witted pitching prodigy named Ebby Calvin "Nuke" Laloosh (Tim Robbins), hilarity ensues as the duo teach each other about baseball, life and love.

    While known primarily as a comedy, there are some dramatic moments mixed in, and a cast that includes Susan Sarandon and Robert Wuhl does a masterful job of bringing it all together.