The Best Baseball Movies

Just a bit outside, it’s Opening Day

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day is our annual reminder of long, leisurely days ahead of sunny napping while games play in the background. It’s also baseball movie season—drunk, sweary coaches, nefarious owners, seedy bookies, naïve farm boys, and freckled young fans.

There’s also a copious amount of mysticism as in the game itself, along with a misplaced nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed in which Freudian father-son catches are the heaven from which all fall to earth—but this too is the game at both at its best and worst. Generally speaking, the genre’s salvation is in its ribald comedies that will have none of these tropes. They’re more concerned with the dugout and locker room antics of motely crews who come together in a whole that’s greater than its parts, where individual greatness leads to team victories.

Also mirroring its real-life counterpart, baseball movies are, by their nature, expensive to produce. You need an ensemble cast just for the team itself, not to mention their love interests, the fan-filled stadiums, the announcers, the press, the other teams. Add to that period uniforms and clothing and the result is generally a watchable spectacle regardless of quality which can vary from tired schticks to transcendent cinema—sometimes all in one scene.

Before the list, however, a special citation needs to go to Ken Burns’s all-encompassing documentary Baseball, which very well could have nabbed to the top spot had it not aired as an episodic mini-series over nine “innings” on PBS in 1994.  Like the greatest baseball movies, it knows that you can go along way with just grass, dirt, leather, wood, cotton, and peanuts.

Major League

The beauty of 1989’s Major League is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously in a sport and a movie genre that often does. And the best baseball movie is also one of the funniest sports movies of all time, along with Caddyshack and Slap Shot. The ensemble of Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen (a high school pitcher who also appears in another movie on this list, Eight Men Out), Wesley Snipes, Corbin Bernsen, Dennis Haysbert, and Chelcie Ross as a Gaylord Perry-esque Eddie Harris, is still as quotable as ever and its presciently biting social commentary on race, religion, and class.

Standout roles also include by Rene Russo in her film debut, James Gammon as horse-throated, ass-baring manager Lou Brown who memorably pisses on Bernsen’s contact, and real-life baseballer Bob Uecker as announcer Harry Doyle, who serves as the drunken Greek chorus of the proceedings, along with Randy Newman’s soundtrack, his second baseball score after The Natural. Major League also gets the top spot for pulling off the difficult task of making the viewer root for Cleveland in a climactic game set to The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” that’s the most compelling in the genre and almost as good as the real thing. The movie is such a part of the sport’s firmament that Topps released a set of cards for its characters on its 25th anniversary as parts of its 2014 Archives set.


42 is the most important movie on this list. With the blessing of Rachel Robinson, still going strong at 100 years old, the Obama-era allegory is perhaps the best biopic of all time. Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey is just fine but its Chadwick Boseman delivers the goods as an uncanny Jackie Robinson. The only downside to watching is remembering how much talent we lost too soon.

The Natural

Adapted from Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, a King Arthur allegory with the same name but a different ending, The Natural is the original mystical baseball movie. Released five years before Field of Dreams in the nostalgia laden 80’s and with wheat fields instead of corn, it’s saved from it from Reagan-era maudliness by Robert Redford’s natural acting ability and direct smile—not to mention perfect hair. The cast includes Robert Duvall as a syndicated editorial cartoonist and columnist is one of the great examinations of morality and duty of a sportswriter, a Ruthian Joe Don Baker as a character called the Whammer, a chilling Barbara Hershey, and nubile Kim Basinger pre 9 ½ Weeks who’s counteracted by an angelic Glenn Close. Nominated for four Oscars, including for instantly recognizable Randy Newman score, the Natural was directed by Barry Levinson with costume design by Bernie Pollack that would make Ralph Lauren salivate. Wilfred Brimley sets the standard for the coach archetype as the perfect curmudgeonly manager, Pops.

The Bad News Bears

The Bad News Bears could easily steal first from Major League for sentimental reasons. Walter Matthau in hypebeast clothing as Coach Buttermaker savors cold beers and martinis in dusty San Fernando Valley while he sweetly interacts with Tatum O’Neal’s scene stealing fireballer—over 15 years before A League of Their Own. 70’s icon Jackie Earle Haley makes noise as a Harley-riding, chain-smoking juvenile delinquent Rolling Stones fan while its trio of towheads make this pre-PC relic set against a soundtrack from the opera Carmen captivatingly poignant.

Field Of Dreams

Nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, the first of Kevin Costner’s back-to-back baseball movies in 1988 and 1989, Field of Dreams holds up better than Bull Durham because of Ray Liotta and James Earl Jones, not its innate hokeyness of its misguided magical realist sentimentality that’s led to a real-life MLB game every year. The Game is better than the movie, though they should probably hold it in a Dominican cane field for veracity. A nostalgically nonsensical 80’s look at privileged 60’s culture makes the top five for a simple reason that I suspect is an experience shared with many others: I watched it with my 10-year-old son who ate it up while I cried.

A League of Their Own

The cast is king in A League of Their Own, with an enduring ensemble of Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna (who also contributed its theme, the haunting “This Used to Be My Playground”), Rosie O’Donnell, with Jon Lovitz at his smarmy best, and lushy Tom Hanks, who is responsible for one of its most repeated lines but also an endearing overall performance that hints at his future roles. ALOTO is both a great baseball movie, and like Major League, it works on its own as a comedy—when it’s not being a mawkish WWII melodrama.

Bull Durham

Bull Durham is undoubtedly the number one Boomer choice, but it doesn’t make it for here for its milquetoast dose of Kevin Costner. But you don’t watch it for his pedagogic speech making, and Susan Sarandon can be just as cringe, but rather for Tim Robbin’s hilarious Nuke Laloosh, a combination of Joe Burrow–like cocky vapidness and Rodney Dangerfield’s louche party time persona, with a pitch somewhere between Luis Tiant’s and Goofy’s. And the examination of sports interview cliches and the sprinkler scene still make it a must watch—as does its inclusion of John Fogerty’s classic spring training song Centerfield.


Brad Pitt is closer to Robert Redford than Kevin Costner and Jonah Hill does a great Wilfred Brimley in Moneyball, both of which helped it to six Oscar nominations. Beyond the acting though, its greatness lies in its behind the scenes at the look at the machinations of the major league front office, giving it the most verisimilitude of any flick on the list.

Eight Men Out

Directed by independent auteur John Sayles, who is also magnetic as real-life Chicago writer Ring Lardner (alongside another legendary Chicago writer Studs Terkel, who plays Hugh Fullerton), 1988’s Eight Men Out is the definitive account of the Chicago Black Sox scandal World Series cheating scandal of 1919. The cast includes multiple baseball movie-rs David Strathairn, also in League of Their Own, and Charlie Sheen pre–Major League—along with a cherubic John Cusack in between Better Off Dead and Say Anything. Filmed at the old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, it’s a fully enmeshing period piece that tells a timeless story of temptation, greed, and corruption.

Mr. 3000 and Mr. Baseball

Take your pick: Tom Selleck or Bernie Mac as washed-up meatheads with one chance for redemption. Mr. 3000’s sole premise is Mr. Mac as a baseball player, in this case, a Reggie Jackson–like misanthrope. The raison d’être of Mr. Baseball is better—a fish out of water in Japan—and Tom Selleck is at his Magnum PI best, but personally I’ll go grown and sexy with Bernie Mac and Angela Bassett, though I wouldn’t begrudge you otherwise.

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Nicholas Tamarin

A longtime journalist, Nicholas Tamarin lives in New York with his wife and his son Henry.

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