by Larry Ham
It’s the opening weekend for the new movie 42, based on the life of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball in the modern era. I haven’t seen it yet, and when I do, you’ll see a review here at KRL, but I thought you might enjoy my list of the five best baseball movies ever made.
I limited my list to movies based on actual events and real players, so movies like Field Of Dreams and Major League aren’t on the list. All five of my picks were made in what I consider the golden age of movie making–the late forties and fifties.
And now, here’s my list in reverse order beginning with number five.
FIVE: The Stratton Story. This film was made in 1949 and stars Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. It’s the story of Monty Stratton, a pitcher who lost his leg in a hunting accident in 1938, right at the height of a successful career pitching for the Chicago White Sox. The movie chronicles his struggles to make it back to the mound with a prosthetic leg. You really can’t go wrong with any movie starring Jimmy Stewart, and this is a great film for Stewart fans and baseball fans alike. It never goes overboard with the syrupy side of things, and is a very enjoyable and inspiring piece of film making. And it stays true to baseball reality, which is a requirement for making my list. I have this thing about realism and accuracy.
FOUR: The Jackie Robinson Story. Yes, there was a movie made about Jackie Robinson long before “42”, and it was made in 1950. The really cool thing about this movie is the fact that the star of the film is Jackie Robinson himself. Jackie was in the middle of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time of the filming. In fact, he had just won the National League MVP award in 1949. It’s clear that acting is not Jackie Robinson’s strong suit, but he does a good enough job to make this a really fun movie. None of his Dodger teammates appear in the film, which I found odd, but the archive footage used fits in well. And another reason to see The Jackie Robinson Story is the performance of Ruby Dee as Rachel Robinson. She’s really great and really beautiful. This is a classic baseball movie made in a classic era of film making.
THREE: Fear Strikes Out. This is as much a film about personal and family relationships as it is about baseball. Made in 1957, Fear Strikes Out is the story of Jimmy Piersall, a talented baseball player with a maniac for a father. Anthony Perkins stars as Piersall, who suffered emotional trauma as he sought to please the Boston Red Sox and his father’s dreams of baseball glory at the same time. Perkins is sensational in his starring role, and Karl Malden is fantastic as his father. Ultimately Piersall had a successful career in baseball, but the psychological toll it took on him has been well documented. This would be a good movie to require all parents to watch before allowing them to put their kids in little league.
TWO: The Pride of St. Louis. If my (fading) memory serves me, this is the first baseball movie I ever saw when I was a kid, and it was love at first sight. Made in 1952. The Pride of St. Louis is the story of Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, a talented and flamboyant pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. Dean won thirty games in 1934, but was as much known for his craziness and butchering of the English language as anything else. This is a great movie, and stars Dan Daily as Dizzy Dean, and Joanne Dru as his wife Patricia. Lots of baseball footage in this movie, and several actual players make cameo appearances. And the final scene is unforgettable and has stuck with me all of these years. I won’t give it away, but when you see it, you’ll love it.
ONE: Pride of the Yankees. This is without question, the best baseball movie ever made. The story of Lou Gehrig is well known–a hall of fame player struck down in the prime of his life by ALS–more commonly known now as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This film was released in 1942–just one year after Gehrig’s death. It stars Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and Teresa Wright as Elenor Gehrig. Walter Brennan also has a great part in this movie, and the clincher for me is Babe Ruth appearing as himself. There’s not much more to say about this classic film–it’s a tear-jerker at times, but that’s understandable considering people were still mourning Gehrig’s death. Gary Cooper is terrific as the humble star, Teresa Wright is wonderful as well, and both stars were nominated for Academy Awards. The famous speech Gehrig made at Yankee stadium shortly before his death is wonderfully shot, and remains a classic piece of film history. If you’re a baseball fan and a movie fan, this is a must see.
That’s my list, and I know there are many other baseball movies that deserve recognition. Baseball and Hollywood have always had a great relationship. More recent movies you might want to check out include Eight Men Out, 61 and The Natural.