Editor’s Note: Matt Melis, Justin Gerber, Michael Roffman, and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer got together to shell sunflower seeds, practice their seventh-inning stretches, and try to avoid a rhubarb as they select the top 10 baseball films of all time. We’re happy to report that they’re practically in mid-season form already. This list originally ran in April 2015, and has been republished to celebrate Opening Day 2023 of Major League Baseball.
One of my favorite baseball moments captured in a film won’t be found on this list. That’s partly due to the fact that the movie it appears in, City Slickers, isn’t a baseball film, even if Billy Crystal opts for a Mets cap over a standard ten-gallon. In the scene, the lone woman on a tourist cattle drive comments on how silly it is that men obsess over a game like baseball rather than discuss more important things like “real life” and relationships. Daniel Stern’s character, the endearingly damaged Phil, responds: “You’re right, I suppose. I guess it is childish, but when I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball. Now, that was real.”
For all the talk of pinstripes, pennants, and, unfortunately, pharmaceuticals, baseball, more than anything, remains the glue that maintains and repairs the relationships between fathers and sons. It’s the language men use to say what would otherwise go unsaid. There truly are few experiences as magical as a summer “in the hunt,” but when October ends, the stands empty, and we settle in for the long, cold days ahead, it’s not the scores, statistics, or standings that comfort us during winter’s quiet solitude. Fathers and sons think back upon those late-night calls second-guessing a pitching change or that one or two times a season they still manage to get out to the ballpark together even though they now live half a country apart. Seasons come and go, blur or altogether vanish in their memories as time passes, but those moments spent “talking ball,” so simple and natural, mark those lifetimes and relationships.
Another favorite moment of mine does appear on this list. One grown man asks another, “You wanna have a catch?” No matter how old I get, the answer remains the same.
— Matt Melis
10. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
Manager (Director): John Badham
Starting Lineup: Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor
Around the Horn: On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Some perspective: It wasn’t until 1948 that Truman abolished racial discrimination in the military and not until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled that a segregated pubic school system is unconstitutional. In other words, when it came to breaking societal color lines, baseball, the American pastime, stepped to the plate first. Numerous accounts of Robinson’s story, and depictions of the Negro leagues, have been featured in films, such as The Jackie Robinson Story, Soul of the Game, and, most recently, 42, but we opted here for a film that offers a perspective on the Negro league experience rarely seen.
The largely forgotten Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, starring Billy Dee Williams as ace pitcher Bingo Long (a Satchel Paige type) and James Earl Jones as slugger Leon Carter (based loosely on Josh Gibson), tells the story of two Negro league stars who break the slave-like contracts with their black-owned teams (“the masters”) and form their own barnstorming outfit.
In many ways, the film is a farcical, cross-country romp — especially with outlandish characters like Charlie Snow aka Carlos Nevada (Richard Pryor) who schemes to break into the white leagues as a Cuban — but the indelible struggle for freedom present in this film shouldn’t be overlooked either. Beyond the gags and ridiculous predicaments that ensue, Bingo and Leon are ultimately two friends fighting for the right to determine their own destinies in a black-and-white world that simply won’t tolerate that type of radical thinking.
Co-MVPs: Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones.
Grand Slam Scene: In the final scene, after Bingo and Leon have won the big game to earn their own spot as a team in the Negro leagues, they find out that a much younger player on the team, Esquire Joe, has just been signed to play Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In that moment, we see Bingo and Leon’s dream fall into the hands of another generation, and no matter how coolly the smooth-talking Bingo may play it off, you can sense the initial hurt as he realizes that he and Leon had to come first so that younger black men like Joe could live out their dreams. (A clip of this scene is unavailable online, but see the film’s trailer below.) — M.M.
09. The Bad News Bears (1976)
Manager: Michael Ritchie
Starting Lineup: Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal, Jackie Earle Haley, and Vic Morrow
Around the Horn: In the immortal words of pint-size, white-supremacist shortstop Tanner Boyle, “Jews, spics, n——, and now a girl?” Ah, travel back with us to the un-PC 1970s, a time of foul balls and fouler language, bean balls and buzzed little league coaches. But beneath all The Bad News Bears’ delightful (and innocuous) offenses resides a classic underdog story that never gets tiresome.
A down-on-his-luck, alcoholic pool cleaner-turned-little league coach, Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), pools every resource at his disposal — his ex’s tomboy daughter, Amanda (Tatum O’Neal); the local hoodlum, Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley); and even an unorthodox team sponsor, Chico’s Bail Bonds — to give his hopeless team of castoffs a shot at the pennant. In the end, the team may fall just short, but Buttermaker wins the respect of his players and learns the lesson every little league coach out there (especially the Roy Turners) needs to think about before this season starts: It’s just a game.
MVP: Walter Matthau
Grand Slam Scene: After Rudy Stein disobeys his manager by swinging away instead of “leaning into” a pitch, we see this sobering moment in the dugout between Buttermaker and the kids. Buttermaker finally gets it. — M.M.