Hope springs eternal, even for fans of the worst baseball franchises. As a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who set the North American mark for most consecutive losing seasons by a major professional sports team (1993-2013), I know what I’m talking about.
Whether you’re excitement is at a fever pitch or you have no thrilling playoff run to look forward to, you can always revisit some of the finest offerings in Hollywood history about the game we love. So here’s a list, admittedly subjective, of the 24 best baseball movies of all-time.
Why 24? It just felt right, and you can’t go wrong with the number worn by Willie Mays, perhaps the greatest all-around player in the sport’s history. It’s also 42 backwards, and true fans know that’s a number to look for on any list of baseball films worth its salt. And fine, I’ll admit that as a lifelong Pirates fan, it was also worn by Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds, during his time in Pittsburgh. Bonds is probably the best player I ever saw live, and yes, I think he should be in the Hall of Fame.
Fighting words? Fair enough! Tell me I’m wrong about Barry or this list because one of the great parts of being a fan is debating this great sport, its players, and even the films about the game. Play ball.
Though it’s not on the official list, I need to at least give a shout out to The Naughty Nineties (1945) starring Lou Abbot and Bud Costello. Naughty Nineties contains a cherished recorded version of “Who’s on First,” one of the most famous comedy routines of all time. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York has been playing the clip for years.
I should also mention that I’ve never seen Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) starring Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro, so if you’ve seen it, let me know if it’s any good.
Enough with these minor league formalities though, let’s get to the starting roster and see who’s on first, what’s on second, and which films are in the baseball movie hall of fame.
24. The Benchwarmers (2006)
You’ll either think this is one funny baseball movie or that it’s the stupidest thing ever. Regardless, we can’t ignore the fact that The Benchwarmers is the 6th highest grossing baseball movie of all time. Such success might be a sign that the apocalypse is upon us, as Sports Illustrated might say, but sometimes you need ridiculous laughs.
The plot? Well, just imagine Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) was guest hosting on Saturday Night Live, only instead of doing a bunch of different skits they just did one long skit about adult nerds playing baseball. If juvenile, silly comedy isn’t your thing then pass on this one, but I will say there is something sweet and liberating as the story goes along about kids who can celebrate and have fun playing the great game of baseball. Sometimes we need to remember that winning isn’t everything.
Whether you call it zany, hilarious, of dumb, here lies The Benchwarmers in our leadoff spot.
23. The Babe (1992)
John Goodman is amazing. This movie is not. All those mammoth home runs hit by the Sultan of Swat in this film go far deeper than this screenplay ever did.
Still, it’s a snapshot of a time when baseball truly was America’s national pastime. After the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which Chicago White Sox players accepted money to deliberately lose the World Series, many people wondered if baseball was too damaged to recover. The game was popular, but Babe Ruth stepped in to ignite a new level excitement for the sport.
But Babe’s appetites were all huge, for good and bad. He was an orphan who made good, but he steamrolled a lot of people along the way. This film struggles to teach us anything more than how The Babe sure could excite people and hit baseballs far.
22. For Love of the Game (1999)
Look at greedy Kevin Costner, starring in three films on one list, but we’ll get to those others later. Costner is fine, but this one certainly doesn’t feature his best work. Then again, it’s not the most well-written story.
Billy Chapel is a 40 year old legend whose time in the sport is just about up. We get filled in on his career through flashbacks, and he takes the mound as his girl heads out of the country. The core of the story centers around one game, and you can check it out for yourself to see how he does.
Still, there are plenty of actors who have become much more famous over the years, like J.K. Simmons and John C. Reilly, so you can at least play the “look at them back then” game.
21. Angels in the Outfield (1994)
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this remake of a 1951 film is how many future stars appear. Matthew McConaughey, Adrien Brody, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appear in this Disney production. Danny Glover stars as George Knox, manager of the hapless California Angels, which is what they were called before becoming the Anaheim Angels.
Turns out some real angels want to give the bad team a lift, so a cadre of divine messengers led by Al (Christopher Lloyd who also appears in the 8th film on this list) propel the Angels through a ridiculous playoff run.
Gordon-Levitt’s character Roger can see the angels and just wants everyone to believe. Moviegoers bought in plenty, and Angels in the Outfield raked in north of $50 million. But good Lord, that ridiculous trailer!
20. Fever Pitch (2005)
Rounding out the top 20 is a film about fandom and love. Admittedly, this is the least baseball movie on the list, but the fate of Ben (Jimmy Fallon) and Lindsay (Drew Barrymore) is tied to baseball. In fact, Ben’s fanatical obsession with his beloved Boston Red Sox that convinces Lindsay this guy might know how to really commit.
Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) wrote the book, and the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) directed. It’s a sweet film, really, and different fans will place it all over a list like this. One cool development in the making of Fever Pitch is that the Boston Red Sox actually won their first World Series title in 86 years, so Fallon and Barrymore raced to Fenway Park to add on a quick reshoot featuring them amid the historic celebration.
19. Mr. Baseball (1992)
Baseball has been in Japan since the middle of the 20th Century. Mr. Baseball plays on the collision of two cultures when aging slugger Jack Elliot (Tom Selleck) is traded to the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.
Selleck is solid. Of course he’s unhappy about the turn his legacy has taken and will have to learn some humbling lessons about sportsmanship and life as the fish out of water. But a beautiful woman named Hiroko (Aya Takanashi) will lead him towards the light, as does his buddy Max (Dennis Haysbert who also appears in the #3 movie on this list).
Some folks would put this flick higher, some would drop it off, but Mr. Baseball is a fine comedy that features some great live action and some of the best filming of fans in stadiums you’ll see compared to so many other sports movies.
18. Trouble with the Curve (2012)
The best baseball movies leave us feeling good. This one doesn’t disappoint, even if the story is predictable and the antagonist offers about as much villainous depth as Matthew Lillard is capable of.
Clint Eastwood stars as an aging scout named Gus Lobel. His eyesight is failing, and without baseball he’ll lose the one thing he lost everything else for. His daughter (Amy Adams), is still in the picture, but resents her dad after years of distance. Justin Timberlake adds a romantic interest.
Like most films outside the top 15, Trouble with the Curve received mixed reviews. The story has its moments, good and not so good. If you like Eastwood, you’ll certainly like it. Regardless, you should give it a shot if you enjoy the kinds of movies on this list.
17. Cobb (1994)
What are we to do with Ty Cobb? In life, he was one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game and also one of the most terrible humans to ever be celebrated as a hero in American culture. The only baseball contemporary of Cobb possibly better than “The Georgia Peach” was Honus Wagner (The Flying Dutchman, man did they have great nicknames back then), but Wagner was a decent guy, and decent guys don’t make for dramatic storytelling like human dumpster fires do.
In this biopic of his life, Cobb is expertly portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. We meet Cobb late in life, as biographer Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) enters the vulgar and volatile star’s orbit. Cobb is wealthy from some great investments but miserable as ever. We follow Stump as Cobb’s life flashes before our eyes. But in the end, our narrator doesn’t have the courage to tell the truth. He wants Cobb to be a hero even as he learns the ugly truth. Critics either loved or despised this film. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
16. Brewster’s Millions (1985)
After rewatching this Richard Pryor classic for the first time in years, I’ve decided it’s most definitely a baseball film. From the opening scenes through Brewster’s ultimate motivation is all about baseball.
Brewster’s Millions is a fun high concept of a film, the story of a minor league ballplayer named Monty Brewster who inherits $30 million, with a few caveats. The original story was first written way back in 1902 and has been adapted for screen several times.
Some critics felt this flick wasn’t funny enough when it came out. John Candy joins Pryor as Monty’s best friend Spike Nolan and is funny as always. I think the passage of time, and death of the two leads, has sweetened this one for me over time, so here it lies.
15. Mr. 3000 (2004)
Bernie Mac stars as fictional star Stan Ross of the Milwaukee Brewers in this pleasant film about an arrogant baseball legend who retires and leaves his team hanging after getting his 3,000th career hit. In retirement, Ross starts businesses and trades on being “Mr. 3000.”
Here’s the catch: Due to a clerical error, the world learns that Ross actually came up three hits shy of the epic milestone, and Ross has to come out of retirement at the age of 47 to try to get those final three hits for real.
A good character arc by Mac, who is brilliant as usual, and a not so predictable climax provides a positive message about something bigger than a game.
14. American Pastime (2007)
During World War II, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that the Constitution no longer applied to Americans of Japanese descent. Thousands of innocent U.S. citizens were rounded up and sent to live in camps. It’s one of the saddest chapters in American history.
American Pastime tells the story of the Nomura family, who were sent to one of the camps where baseball served as one of the main diversions.
Writer/Director Desmond Nakano (White Man’s Burden) put more than just passion into this film. His own parents and relatives were put into such camps, which reveal the dangers of bigotry and fear. By highlighting the game of baseball in such a dark place as an American concentration camp, Nakano shows the reality of Japanese-Americans during the 1940s—that they served America with honor when given the chance and were as American as their captors.
13. Bad News Bears (1976)
I might catch flak from some for ranking this one too low. Yes, it’s realistic and an unflinching look at competition in America, as Roger Ebert said. It’s a good film, but I simply don’t place it as high as some folks.
Walter Matthau is great as the washed up, beer guzzling, coach Morris Buttermaker. The kids are good actors too, led by Tatum O’Neal. It’s a funny screenplay, written by Bill Lancaster, whose father Burt famously portrayed “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams. If I were older, maybe I’d rank Bad News Bears higher, but thirteen is as good as it gets for me.
12. Soul of the Game (1996)
This HBO production is about the legendary Negro Leagues on the eve of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the Majors, specifically through the 1945 season. Kind of like a prequel to 42.
The story focuses on the relationship between Robinson (Blair Underwood), Satchel Paige (Delroy Lindo), and Josh Gibson (Mykelti Williamson)—who likely would have outpaced even Babe Ruth for sheer power numbers had he been allowed to compete in the racially restrictive MLB. Edward Herrmann plays Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, who invited Robinson to cross the color barrier, a thinly veiled collusive effort by the white lords of the game until that time.
This film isn’t afraid to hold up the tragic side of the coin to Jackie’s integration into Major League Baseball. I don’t mean the tribulations suffered by the Robinson family, but struggles of the players who could’ve been the best players in America’s most dominant game but for their skin color.
11. The Rookie (2002)
Disney has made plenty of sports movies, including multiple flicks about baseball. The Rookie—which tells the true story of Jim Morris—is the best one they’ve made.
Dennis Quaid portrays Morris, whose story is unique in that he achieved his dream of playing pro ball long after he should have, becoming a 35 year old rookie. The Rookie follows the Disney formula at its best, by anchoring the bright lights to family and community.
10. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gotta have some love for the first baseball movie to do it at the highest level. Pride is the story of Lou Gehrig, whose career, and life, ended abruptly as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), today known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gehrig died just one year prior to the release of this film, which garnered eleven Oscar nominations, winning one.
The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Pride of the Yankees #3 on its top 10 list of sports movies and 22nd on its list of most inspiring films in American cinema. Here’s the real footage in case you’ve never seen it.
Gary Cooper played Gehrig, the Iron Man of baseball. Other real life Yankees played themselves, most notably Babe Ruth in his last onscreen performance.
9. 42 (2013)
Talk about transcending baseball. Jackie Robinson was a major pioneer of civil rights in America. By becoming the first African-American player in the Major Leagues, Robinson symbolically crossed the racist lines drawn by white America.
No baseball movie has ever played on more screens in America, and deservedly so. Chadwick Boseman is terrific in the lead role. I wish 42, as a whole, was better. It’s a good film for sure, just not great. Still, 42 is important, and everyone should know this story.
8. Eight Men Out (1988)
In 1963, Eliot Asinof wrote the book on the biggest scandal in baseball history–Eight Men Out. In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were locks to win the World Series over Cincinnati. When they lost badly, corruption was suspected. In the end, eight players, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson were banned from the game for life.
Wirter/Director John Sayles finally got the novel adapted for screen by 1988. The acting is superb and includes a sprawling cast of big names, many of whom were early in their careers. David Straitham and John Cusack are particularly effective. Charlie Sheen makes his 2nd appearance on the top 8 movies here. Just a very solid period piece production.
7. The Natural (1984)
The first movie I ever saw in a theater was The Natural. Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford) had all the talent in the world, but he wasted it like the stupid ballplayer he was. But all that mattered to me as a kid watching this film were the home runs he hit with his magical bat named Wonder Boy.
The Natural did very well at the box office and nabbed a few Oscar nominations, but once I finally read Bernard Malamud’s original novel in college, I wondered along with plenty of other critics what might have been if they had stayed true to Malamud’s version in which Hobbes is more goat than hero in the end.
6. Bull Durham (1988)
Some folks will call it sacrilege to have Bull Durham outside the top 5 of baseball movies. I understand where they’re coming from and, honestly, in many ways, no baseball film rings truer of baseball culture than this classic, written and directed by one-time minor league ballplayer Ron Shelton. Kevin Costner is back in the top 6 here as Crash Davis. Tim Robbins plays Nuke LaLooc, a rising star pitcher with a right arm from God and a head full of rocks.
Yet, this movie suffers a bit from a lack of diversity and the team story which usually gives us something more to root for. We can’t even celebrate Crash Davis becoming the all-time minor league home run leader because he won’t let us. At least Crash gets the girl, but even the steamy love scenes tacked on between Crash and Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) at the end have always seemed misplaced.
So while Bull Durham portrays baseball players about as accurately as ever and brings plenty of laughs, it’s never made me feel quite as much as many other movies in the top 10 here. But it’s still good enough to be ranked fifth on AFI’s list of top 10 sports films ever, and Sports Illustrated ranked it as the #1 sports movie of all time in 2003.
5. The Sandlot (1993)
“You’re killing me Smalls!” The Sandlot is childhood delight at its essence, the greatest summer you ever had as a kid packaged into a fun feature that’s not about whether you win or lose, or even how you play the game.
Some players from the New York Yankees recreated one of the famous scenes from the movie last year, and you can bet many other pro players of today wore out VHS copies of The Sandlot during their formative years.
The Sandlot is about growing up, and not just during the 1960s in which this film is set. I suspect this film edging out Bull Durham is one place where a generational gap among moviegoers may crop up, but watching both films again all these years later, I simply enjoy The Sandlot more.
4. Moneyball (2011)
Moneyball is the best baseball film of the past quarter century. Based on the book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side, The Big Short), Moneyball was adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Steve Jobs) and Steven Zaillian, who got creative with the nonfiction.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane laid down the template for creating a competitive team despite Oakland’s small market budget in a league known for economic disparity. More than any other flick on this list, Moneyball heavily portrays the business side of the game.
Hard to imagine this film without Pitt and Jonah Hill, the Yale wunderkind who uses analytics over old school theories to create a winning team despite having the lowest salaries in the league. Moneyball is a smart film that leaders from business and other professional walks of life can reference for years to come.
3. Major League (1989)
For my money, Major League is the best pure baseball comedy ever. Written and directed by David S. Ward (The Sting, Sleepless in Seattle), Major League is the story of a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians. When her husband dies, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) inherits the team and works to sabotage their efforts by stockpiling the roster with misfits and has-beens. If they suck badly enough, she hopes to relocate the team to Miami.
Unlike the paper roster of the hapless team in the film, this cast is loaded with talent. You’ve got Tom Berenger as Jake Taylor, Charlie Sheen as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Corbin Bernsen as Roger Dorn, Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano and many more.
Highly rewatchable and quotable, Major League entertains throughout and delivers an ending that’s all at once unpredictable, satisfying, and memorable.
2. A League of Their Own (1992)
It’s been more than two decades since this instant classic hit theaters, and A League of Their Own is still the highest grossing baseball film ever, without even having to adjust for inflation. League has comedy, drama, history, and plenty of #girlpower.
When America went to war against the Axis powers in 1941, life on the Homefront changed dramatically. Even guys like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, two of the greatest players in MLB history, forewent three full seasons of their prime career years to serve in the U.S. Military. Candy magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) in the states recognized an opportunity, and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) was formed.
Penny Marshall directed, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks starred (that hand sign scene :), and the supporting cast hit a home run. I love absolutely everything about this movie.
1. Field of Dreams (1989)
“If you build it, he will come.” With those mysterious words, farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is launched on a journey to plow under his cornfield and build a baseball diamond in the middle of Iowa. Somehow, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is supposed to find redemption in an agri-heaven of childhood delight. Along the way we meet Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) and Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, both young (Frank Whaley) and old (Burt Lancaster). In the end, we learn how the stakes were far more important, and moving, than even Ray could have believed.
Originally released to less than two dozen theaters in April of 1989, Field of Dreams was so well received that it stuck around through summer blockbuster season and lasted in cinemas all the way until Christmas. The film was based on the 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella.
Field of Dreams isn’t just the best baseball movie ever made. The AFI has also ranked it the 6th greatest fantasy film ever. Field never gets old and will continue to go the distance for years to come.
There’s enough film minutes here to keep you thinking about the boys of summer all throughout the offseason. But if you still want more, consider a couple nonfiction options. There are a number of great baseball documentaries out there, but here are two.
First, the gold glove standard of baseball documentaries—Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. It’s eighteen and a half glorious hours on the history of the game, and I’ve watched it twice. If you love baseball and/or history or just great documentary work, don’t miss this classic (available for free with your Amazon Prime subscription at the time of this posting).
But if you’re looking for something shorter and a whole lot rowdier, don’t miss No-No: A Dockumentary.
This gem tells the story of Dock Ellis, a pitcher who famously threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid in the 1970s. But this film is about so much more, including the social history of baseball, race, war, drugs, and much more from the Sixties through today. And Dock’s life tale is anything but predictable.
How many have you seen?
Disagree? What all did I get wrong?
What flicks are in your top 5-10?