Ranking The Best Baseball Movies of All Time
If you love movies like Moneyball and Bull Durham, explore the sports genre elements that make these classic baseball movies.
(Ken Burns’ voice.) Ah yes, baseball—America’s pastime. There’s nothing sweeter than the sound of the yarn ball hitting a wooden bat on a hot summer day. It’s man-versus-man in exhibition to see who will hit a home run and who might strike out. (End Ken Burns’ voice.)
As far as sports genre films go, the baseball film might be the deepest—and most celebrated—sub-genre of them all. From The Natural to Major League to The Sandlot, baseball films can range vastly from period dramas to slapstick comedies to heartwarming coming-of-age films.
Yet, like all other genre films (specifically sports genre films), the baseball film can still be formulaic and reliable in how it shares many of the same icons and tropes found in other genres.
So, for aspiring sports filmmakers, let’s look at some of the greatest baseball films of all time and see what filmmaking lessons we can learn from each one.
OK, before we dive into the crux of our list, we do have to shout out some notable baseball sports films for their filmmaking significance. This is a vibrant genre, and you could easily make a list of 20+ movies worth watching, researching, and enjoying.
However, for the sake of this article, we’re going to focus on narrative baseball films, which means documentaries like No No: A Dockumentary (which expertly tells the story of the infamous baseball pitcher who pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD) don’t quite make the cut.
We also have to leave off Ken Burns’ 9-part docu-series Baseball. However, it should, of course, be considered required viewing. We’ll also shoot past a few of the more kid-focused baseball films that were quite popular in the 1990s, like Angels in the Outfield and Rookie of the Year—yet for those who grew up with them, they indeed hold a great deal of nostalgia and joy.
7. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Now, moving on to the best baseball genre films of all time, we start with a pick that might turn some heads as many might not know it as a “baseball movie” per se. However, once you dive into Richard Linklater’s teen comedy film, amongst other themes, at its heart, it’s really about the endless adolescence of America’s pastime.
It also—perhaps better than any film—really gives filmmakers a glimpse into how baseball culture is very much intertwined with the experience of “growing up.” Linklater, best known for Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, is a master of exploring these specific themes in a loose style that focuses more on developing authentic characters and relationships than following a strict film plot formula.
There’s no “big game” at the end of this film, but if you want to learn how to write characters and cinematically establish ethos, give this one a watch.
6. Moneyball (2011)
Another modern baseball film (at least when compared to this specific sport’s heyday in the 80s/90s), Moneyball is perhaps one of the best-written baseball films (or film’s about baseball—depending on how you want to look at it) ever.
Directed by Bennett Miller and penned by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball includes many of Sorkin’s writing tricks and quirks. Similar to The Social Network and other films written by Sorkin, it moves very fast and focuses on witty dialogue and sharp conflict. However, unlike other, more-forgettable baseball films, it doesn’t dumb things down for the audience.
Based on its subject matter (the story of the first GM to introduce analytics to front offices), it is quite heady and informative in finding a way to tell a universal story that still feels very much inside baseball.
5. Field of Dreams (1989)
Now we’re moving into the golden era of baseball cinema with our first (of what could be many) films that explore baseball’s place in American culture. Featuring Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams is another example of how an excellent baseball film doesn’t have to be strictly about baseball. Instead, baseball (and, in this case, a magical baseball field) is more the background to a story about family and belief.
Speaking of Americana and Ken Burns’ Baseball, Field of Dreams should be required viewing for anyone interested in exploring the zeitgeist of baseball in America.
Along with Costner’s character’s love of the game (owing to his relationship with his father—a theme throughout baseball films) it also has James Earl Jones as reclusive author Terence Mann (a nod to J.D. Salinger). Jones’ character gives great poetic insights into why baseball is indeed so romantic for writers and filmmakers alike.
4. The Sandlot (1993)
Depending on when you were born, The Sandlot might be your pick for the best baseball movie of all time if you grew up watching it at summer camps and sleepovers. It’s also a perfect example of how the genre lends itself very well to kid-friendly entertainment while remaining a fun watch for adults or non-sports fans alike.
Sharing many similarities with films like Stand By Me and shows like The Wonder Years, The Sandlot explores the sport’s nostalgia through a kid’s eyes, yet with the narration of a grown-up adult looking back at his youth.
The Sandlot is a film about growing up and friendship, yet it still does a great job of exploring how this sport can be a catalyst for both. If you didn’t grow up with this film but would like to make a baseball project with kids in mind, this is where you should absolutely start.
3. A League of Their Own (1992)
Arguably regarded as Tom Hanks’ best role (or at least most iconic line), director Penny Marshall‘s period comedy-drama telling the story of a rag-tag group of women in the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) is about as classic as they come.
Similar to The Bad News Bears or any number of rag-tag ensemble misfits cast together as a team story, A League of Their Own follows this specific sports genre formula to the T. However, unlike many of these cash-grab comedies, Marshall’s film has something to say—and it also really respects its subjects and the sport itself.
Outside of the fun rag-tag comedy elements, A League of Their Own is an important film for anyone interested in baseball history or women’s empowerment. It’s also a nice reprieve from the male-dominated nature of much of the baseball film genre (and the sports genre) overall, as it has strong characters, great performances, and tons of heart.
2. Bull Durham (1988)
Going back to another Kevin Costner film, Bull Durham is regarded by many as the best baseball movie (if not the best sports movie) of all time. Yet, unlike many of the other picks on the list, you could also easily make the argument that Bull Durham is actually more of a romance film—or even a rom-com.
This is because, at its crux, it’s a story about a complex but comical love triangle between Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis, Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, and Tim Robbins‘ Nuke Laloosh.
Again, baseball is at the heart of the narrative, though, as it centers on the real-life minor-league baseball team called the Durham Bulls. Yet Ken Burns and Field of Dream’s fictional novelist Terrence Mann would be proud of the folklore in the film, particularly through the exploration of sport and poetry by Susan Sarandon’s character.
Along with our top pick below, let Bull Durham be a lesson that every baseball film needs another, more profound story at its core. And the better that is, the better your film will be overall.
1. The Natural (1984)
It’s a tough call to choose between many of these films as to which is truly the greatest baseball movie of all time. But regardless of personal preference, it’s hard to deny the lasting impact of Barry Levinson’s The Natural. Starring Robert Redford as the iconic slugger-with-a-dark-past Roy Hobbs, The Natural is about as important to American cinema as The Godfather and Star Wars in its impact and legacy.
Redford’s tragic hero lead owes quite a deal to past Shakespearean-protagonist films like On the Waterfront or Raging Bull. Yet, the film’s uplifting messaging and reverence for the sport at its core gives its lead character (and the audience) hope in something more significant.
Whether you watch it as a fascinating period piece of pre-World War Americana, a sly love revenge-and-love story, or simply for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s ever-lasting exploding light home run trot sequence, The Natural is everything a baseball film should ever inspire to be.
Feature image via Sony TriStar.
Hopefully, these films have given you a glimpse into what it takes to make a memorable and loveable baseball genre project. If you’d like to read up on some more filmmaking theory, tricks or resources, check out these articles below.
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