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Academy Awards (plus others) for Baseball Movies

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(Editor’s note: another article that I essentially wrote in Feb of 2011 but never got around to publishing; this has been a good couple of weeks of cleaning out the drafts).

Right around the time of the Academy Awards in 2011, Jim Caple wrote a fun pre-2011 Oscar review of historical baseball movies from an Academy Award perspective (where he picked the 6 major Academy Awards for baseball movies).  Caple’s awards for the “major” Oscar nominations were:

  • Best Picture: “Bull Durham
  • Best Director: Barry Levinson for “The Natural
  • Best Actor: Walter Matthau from “Bad News Bears
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon from “Bull Durham
  • Best Supporting Actor: Vic Morrow from “Bad News Bears
  • Best Supporting Actress: Madonna from “A League of their Own

(Other interesting movie links related to baseball I’ve stored over the years: Caple subsequently wrote a Moneyball review in September of 2012, and SBNation posted a list of the Greatest Baseball Movie Lines in history around the same time.  Here’s a recent link 50 Fun facts about sports movies that includes some Baseball trivia, and here’s a list of the Top Grossing Baseball movies of all time; the leader isn’t that surprising).

Being a fan of baseball movies myself, I’d quibble with some of Caple’s winners ( you have to see his list of “nominations” to really argue) but the article is a great read.  And it got me thinking: what other “Award Categories” for Baseball movies make sense to debate?

Here’s my Categories, and here’s a great list of baseball-themed movies to choose from.  Its a bit dated but gets most of the major films you need.   I fully admit that I have not seen every single baseball-related movie in the history of Hollywood, so feel free to debate the nominees that I’ve selected below.


Best Baseball Action Depicted

Nominations: Bull Durham, Major League, The Natural, Eight Men Out, 61*

Discussion: Eight Men Out was a fantastic period piece and did a great job.  Major League was a baseball movie for sure, but wasn’t nearly as good in terms of action as Bull DurhamBilly Crystal‘s pet project 61* did a great job as well.  I loved The Natural, its old-time baseball stadium shots, and the old school uniforms.  This is a tough call, but the winner goes to the one movie among all of these that was actually directed by a former minor league ball player. Winner: Bull Durham.  (Note: I considered and didn’t use Moneyball because of the actual footage intermixed in, and the general lack of baseball action in the movie).


Best Actor as a passable Baseball Player

Nominations: Kevin Costner (any of his several baseball movies), Robert Redford (The Natural), Randy Quaid (The Rookie), Thomas Jane (61*), Charlie Sheen (Major League), Dennis Haysburt (Major League), Jon Cusack (Eight Men Out), Ray Liotta (Field of Dreams).

Discussion: I nominate Liotta only because of the fact that Shoeless Joe Jackson batted lefty and Liotta spent months learning how to hit lefty for the role, only to have the director discard his abilities.   Similarly, Jon Cusack learned how to hit lefty and several of the baseball action scenes depict him swinging and hitting baseballs for long drives.  Quaid did an admirable job as Jim Morris and is quite an athlete, but did a far superior job as a quarterback in “Any Given Sunday.”

Dennis Haysburt deserves special mention by creating his iconic character, Pedro Ceranno.  He looked realistic at the plate and running the bases.  Redford was clearly a player, talking in the past of how he fashioned his game after fellow San Diego native Ted Williams, and his baseball scenes both hitting and pitching in the Natural are fantastic.  He comes in a close third.

The award comes down to Costner and Sheen.  Sheen (per his IMDB page) was a baseball pitcher in high school and could throw mid-80s naturally.  He looks great on the mound.  But for me, the fact that Costner could legitimately switch hit, played a convincing catcher throughout Bull Durham and a pitcher in For the Love of the Game give him the award.  Winner: Kevin Costner.


Worst Actor attempting to pass as a Baseball Player

Nominations: Tommy Lee Jones (Cobb), Tom Berenger (Major League), Tom Selleck (Mr. Baseball), Gary Cooper (Lou Gehrig), Tim Robbins (Bull Durham), John Goodman (The Babe), Brendan Frasor (The Scout).  Wesley Snipes (The Fan or Major League).

Discussion: Apparently actors love to do sports movies, because they all think they can, you know, play sports well.  Every guy who used to play pick up basketball thinks they can do “White Men Can’t Jump” and every guy who played little league thinks they can be in “Bull Durham.” I list a number of guys here, all of whom struggled in some way or another to appear athletic in a baseball movie.  In all fairness, most of these guys did decently well.  Berenger was in a tough spot, appearing as a catcher who threw like a girl.  Robbins did a pretty good job and was athletic enough to pass.  But the winner is most likely Gary Cooper, who apparently was so un-athletic that they gave up having him appear to be lefty, let alone make him look like Lou Gehrig.  This topic recently appeared again in some popular baseball blogs, with the researcher doing some pretty in-depth analysis to determine if this is actually a hollywood myth.  In any case, the Winner is Gary Cooper.


Best Movie Coach/Manager

Nominations: James Gammon (Lou from “Major League“), Tom Hanks (Jimmy Dugan from “A League of their Own“), Trey Wilson (Joe Riggens from “Bull Durham“), Wilford Brimley (Pop Fisher from “The Natural“), Walter Matthau (Bad News Bears), Philip Seymore Hoffman (Art Howe in “Moneyball”).

Discussion: A great set of character actors and performances here.  Lou from Major League has some memorable lines but wasn’t much of an acting job.  From a purely acting/role preparation perspective its hard to argue with Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the legendary Jimmie Foxx.  Pop Fisher was a good ole grandfather but didn’t exactly test the range of Wilford Brimely.  Hoffman is a fantastic actor in his own right, but by all accounts Art Howe isn’t even remotely like the character he played.

Walter Matthau probably put in the best pure acting job.  But the late Trey Wilson’s fantastic portrayal of the manager of the Durham Bulls, including his interaction with Crash Davis, his shower scene speech and his fighting with the umpires were legendary.  Winner: Trey Wilson.


Best Biopic of a player

Nominations: Cobb, Pride of the Yankees, Hustle, The Babe, The Rookie

Discussion: Honestly I didn’t really care for any of these movies that much.  The most recent of them (The Rookie) was interesting but not really that well done frankly.  Dennis Quaid was just a hair too old for the role and isn’t that good of an actor.  The Babe and Cobb were the two best shots, but both were such bad movies that one cannot pick them as the winner.  I think sentimentality dictates the winner here.  Winner: Pride of the Yankees.


Best Representation of Actual Baseball Events

Nominations: Eight Men Out, Soul of the Game, 61*, The Perfect Game

Winner: Eight Men Out. Doesn’t romanticize the events, presents them relatively slant-free.  I liked 61* in this respect, but Billy Crystal didn’t have the budget he really needed to compete with the excellent period piece about the Black Sox scandal.


Best Baseball Movie to trick your Wife into seeing

Nominations: How Do You Know, Fever Pitch, Summer Catch

Winner: Fever Pitch, but do you really want to see any of these movies?


Best Baseball Movie to take your kids to see

Nominations: Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield, Little Big League, Air Bud: 7th Inning Fetch, The Sandlot

Winner: Air Bud 7th Inning Fetch.  Any movie where a dog gets to play baseball is a winner in my book.


Creepiest Baseball Movie to see

Nominations: The Bad News Bears, The Fan

Discussion: I put in the “Bad News Bears” as slightly “creepy” since our ideals of parenting, racial relations and what-not have changed so much since this movie was made.  So there are many parts that will make you cringe.

Winner: The Fan:  Robert DeNiro plays an obsessed fan of SF Giants outfielder Wesley Snipes.  This wins almost by default, since I can think of no other thriller/suspense baseball films.


Worst Baseball Movie

Nominations: Major League III Back to the Minors, Hustle, The Benchwarmers, Hardball

Discussion: There’s some pretty bad movies in here.  But nothing was as insufferable as the third edition of the Major League franchise.  It was bad enough that they made the second edition, with Omar Epps badly attempting to recreate Wesley Snipes‘ character.  But it went downhill in the third; the writing was bad, and all the leading stars from the first two installments declined to participate, leaving Corbin Bernsen and Dennis Haysbert as the last remaining characters from the original.  Winner: Major League III.


Best Drama

Nominations: The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees, Moneyball

Discussion: Moneyball is the late entry here, garnering several Academy Award nominations and getting major Academy street cred by virtue of being written by Aaron Sorkin. I’m a sucker for old school tear-jerkers like the rest of them, meaning that Bang The Drum Slowly gets a nod.  Field of Dreams doesn’t hold up as much for me (though I fully admit I cannot watch the last scene without crying).  Up until Moneyball’s release, the winner for me was the excellent The Natural, despite its modified ending from the classic novel of the same name.  Winner: Moneyball.


Best Comedy

Nominations: Major League, Bull Durham, A League of their Own, Mr. 3000, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

Discussion: There’s three very quality finalists here, if I may immediately cut the Bernie Mac vehecile Mr. 3000 and the obscure Bingo movie.  Lets talk about them one by one.

A League of their Own depended on the slapstick sexual references from Madonna for its comedy most of the time, with thinly-veiled references to her nude portrait book or the fact that “most of america has seen her naked.”  Major League was a great comedy and had a great setup.  But for me nothing matches the subtleties and quality of the writing in Bull Durham.  Winner: Bull Durham


I KNOW this will generate discussion and disagreement.  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

Off Topic: ranking the ESPN 30 for 30 series

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Photo courtesy of ESPN Films, the producers of the series.

For me, the ESPN “30 for 30” series was one of the best creations of TV over the past few years.  The documentary approach to sports journalism has been refreshing and (in most cases) great TV.  When sports programming can keep even a passing sports fan (my finacee) interested and asking for more, you know its been done well.

I listen to almost exclusively podcasts in the car these days, and one of my favorites is the “Firewall and Iceberg” podcast recorded by the lead TV reviewers Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg from www.hitfix.com.  I first learned of reviewer Alan Sepinwall by his appearances on Bill Simmons‘ podcasts (which are first in line to listen to when they get released) and really enjoy his reviews online and their podcasts.

I happened to be perusing the hitfix.com site lately (I was looking for the name of a show they were extolling on the latest podcast) when I came across this link: Dan Fienberg’s rankings of the 30 “30-for-30” shows.  While I did appreciate most of his comments, I didn’t necessarily agree with the rankings he came up with for the programs.  Since i’ve seen every one of the series, I thought i’d go ahead and do my own rankings.

Disappointing or Unwatchable

  • “Marion Jones: Press Pause”   As most critics have noted, this essentially turned into a glorification of Marion Jones and never once delved into her steroids usage, why she did it, or touch on any of the real issues involved with her.
  • “Without Bias” – It essentially was a step-by-step review of the story of the player without adding much analysis to the story.
  • “Straight Outta LA” – Unwatchable, I turned it off halfway through.  Ice-T‘s not much of a filmmaker.
  • “One Night in Vegas” – Another really weird documentary, especially with the gangsta-poem readings at the beginning and end of the show.  I find it really difficult to glorify the death of a rap star who essentially talked his way into being a target.
  • “Silly Little Game” – Re-enactment of the first group of people to play fantasy baseball; it sounds as interesting as watching the first accountants come up with regulatory principles in a room together.
  • “The House of Steinbrenner” – This wasn’t so much a documentary as it was a glorification of a franchise that has used its superior financial might for the entire century.  Poor Yankees fans; your stadium has been replaced with a Billion dollar monstrosity that has $4,000/game seats and is guaranteed to skew the revenue system in baseball for another 50 years.  Awesome.

Watchable but could have been done better

  • “The Birth of Big Air” – Matt Hoffman certainly is an interesting character but I don’t really consider extreme sports of any kind to be “real” sports.  Yes they’re difficult feats of athletic prowness … but so is ballet dancing.  Yes, i’m difficult to watch most olympic sports with :-)
  • “The U” – Too long, and gets bogged down in the year-to-year machinations of the program.
  • “Unmatched” – Such an uncomfortable documentary; I came away from watching it with the interesting storyline that Evert and Navratilova were such friends … but the tone of the story and music choices had me essentially waiting for the lesbian coupling that seemed to be so pushed by the filmmakers.  Ugh.
  • “Little Big Men” – Good story, but there’s been so many American little league winners, as well as the dilution of the field, that this story loses its impact.
  • “Guru of Go” – Perhaps combining both the story of Hank Gathers’ death AND the basketball system of Paul Westphal confused the story.
  • “The Legend of Jimmy the Greek” – one of the very first ones shown and certainly an interesting story, but the re-enactment voice over ruins the story.
  • “June 17, 1994” – Brings bad some strange memories.  I loved the never-before-seen footage of sportscasters but I thought the story could have done with actual images and story telling.
  • “Run Ricky Run” – Another weird documentary.  Hard to feel remorse for a drug using athlete though.
  • “Muhammad and Larry” – This was perhaps the most depressing of the series.  Ali was so brain damaged by the time he took this fight, it seems almost criminal now that he was allowed to fight.  The story drags though, using weird fillers for most of the time and not really showing the fight itself.

Interesting watches

  • “The 16th Man” – Good, but so was Invictus.
  • “Jordan Rides the Bus” – I love Ron Shelton‘s work but you cannot help but wonder how good this would have been with actual participation from Michael Jordan.  You come away from the story with the thought that Jordan actually had talent and that he worked at his baseball craft.
  • “The Pony Excess” – Lots of interviews, great detail.  Probably a bit too long though.
  • “Tim Richmond: To the Limit” – I thought it was really interesting that NASCAR turned out to be so introspective about the clear mis-treatment of one of its own … all in the name of fear over his illness.  Read his wikipedia page for some really interesting notes about his essentially be framed for his positive drug test.  I cannot imagine this news breaking in Nascar or any other major sport today.

Good to Very Good

  • “Fernando Nation” – If you don’t remember just how amazingly dominant Fernando Valenzuela was when he came to MLB, check out his baseball-reference page.  In his rookie season he threw EIGHT shutouts, and started the season 8-0 with 8 complete games, and only gave up FOUR earned runs in his first 8 starts.  That’s a heck of a start to the season.  The story telling related to the treatment of the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles was also interesting to learn about.
  • “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” – Another that really could have used involvement of the principal character of the story.  Nonetheless, the substories related to the high school rivalries and politics of the Tidewater area were fascinating, if not necessarily substantiated.  Having lived in Virginia at the time, the amazing part of the Iverson story was that he was named both the Football and the Basketball player of the year in the state … as a Junior.  He undoubtedly would have done the same as a senior.
  • “King’s Ransom” – Interesting story telling from a great director in Peter Berg.  The involvement and discussions with Gretzky on the golf range really gave this story its life.  Unlike the story of LeBron James moving cities and destroying a franchise, Gretzky’s departure clearly altered the direction of the Edmonton Oilers for the long run.
  • “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” – Some criticized this documentary, but just for the interview with the incredibly egotistical Donald Trump make this for me.
  • “Into the Wind” – Such a moving story. Steve Nash‘s involvement was really special in telling this inspirational Canadian pride story.

The Best of the Series

  • “Four Days in October” – A great documentary if only for the fantastic interviews with Pedro Martinez.  I found the footage of the Red Sox players facing a 3-0 deficit fascinating, and the drama of the games in retrospect makes the Boston comeback even more amazing.  Update: After several re-watches, I moved this up in my rankings.
  • “The Band that Wouldn’t Die” – Most say this is the best of the series.  I feel they’re getting starry-eyed by the director (Barry Levinson) versus the actual story.  But this obscure story is a highlight of the series and is a great example of the richness of American sport as a subject matter.
  • “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks” – One of the absolute best stories.  The interviews with Reggie Miller and Spike Lee make this one of the best of the series.
  • “The Best That Never Was” – My father immediately recalled who Marcus Dupree was, and this story was an interesting tale.  My biggest takeaway was the 100% positiveness of Dupree, even today.  He’s not angry or sad about what his life has become (he’s a truck driver in rural Mississippi).  On the contrary, he’s grateful for everything he had and all the opportunities he got.
  • “The Two Escobars” – the footage, interviews and story told here was fantastic.  I only wish it was not 100% subtitled.
  • “Once Brothers” – Another great story, told through the eyes of the very human Vlade Divac.  It could have used a bit more subtext into the politics behind the split of Yugoslavia for those of us who get lost in the mid 80s politics.

If I had to give a best and worst, I’d probably go with “The Two Escobars” for best and “Marion Jones” as the worst.  I can’t wait to see the stories they have in the pipeline.  Steve Bartman should make for a great story to tell.  The great news is that the series will continue and some of the original ideas proposed will be explored.  Again referring to a Bill Simmons podcast, here’s some of the original series ideas kicked around that may still be turned into documentaries:

  • 86 masters
  • 89 ws earthquake
  • Tysons-robin givens Relationship
  • doc and darrell
  • title 9
  • dream Team
  • fab five
  • wwf/ andre the giant (couldn’t be done b/c Vince McMahon owns all the film)
  • 94 rangers
  • kerri suggs
  • scott norwood/scapegoats (delayed b/c of the Bartman film)
  • racism in sports
  • franchise relocation (pushed off b/c of the Levinson Baltimore Colts band story)
  • pete rose

Here’s to a great series and many more great documentaries.

5/11/11 Update: ESPN’s 30-for-30 site now allows you to rank the series yourself, which I did and ranked them as such:

1.Two Escobars
2.Band/Wouldn’t Die
3.Reggie Miller
4.Marcus Dupree
5.Four Days Oct.
6.Once Brothers
7.No Crossover
8.Who Killed USFL?
9.Fernando Nation
10.King’s Ransom
11.Into The Wind
12.Jordan Rides/Bus
13.Pony Excess
14.Tim Richmond
15.The 16th Man
16.Muhammad / Larry
17.Unmatched
18.Birth of Big Air
19.Little Big Men
20.Jimmy The Greek
21.The U
22.Guru of Go
23.June 17, 1994
24.Run Ricky Run
25.Without Bias
26.Steinbrenner
27.Silly Little Game
28.Straight Outta L.A.
29.One Night/Vegas
30.Marion Jones

After submitting my rankings, I could see how the rest of ESPN nation had these ranked and was rather surprised.  As of 5/11/11, here’s the rankings overall:

1 The U
2 Pony Excess
3 Marcus Dupree
4 Reggie Miller
5 Run Ricky Run
6 Two Escobars
7 Without Bias
8 June 17, 1994
9 Once Brothers
10 No Crossover
11 Muhammad / Larry
12 Jordan Rides/Bus
13 One Night/Vegas
14 Four Days Oct.
15 Who Killed USFL?
16 Straight Outta L.A.
17 King’s Ransom
18 Guru of Go
19 Jimmy The Greek
20 Steinbrenner
21 Band/Wouldn’t Die
22 Into The Wind
23 Silly Little Game
24 The 16th Man
25 Fernando Nation
26 Little Big Men
27 Birth of Big Air
28 Unmatched
29 Tim Richmond
30 Marion Jones

“The U,” which I thought was only mediocre, led by a fairly large margin over #2.  My #1 film “The Two escobars” was in the top 10, but was 3rd in overall #1 votes.

Post publishing edit: on 8/13/17, SI.com’s Media writer Richard Deitsch published his list of hte best 30 for 30’s.   Many of his best list are those done well after this list was created.

“Marion Jones: Press Pause”
“Without Bias”
“Straight Outta LA”
“One Night in Vegas”
“Silly Little Game”Watchable but could have been done better
“The Birth of Big Air”
“The U”
“Unmatched”
“Little Big Men”
“Tim Richmond: To the Limit”
“Guru of Go”
“The Legend of Jimmy the Greek”
“The House of Steinbrenner”
“June 17, 1994”
“Run Ricky Run”

Run of the Mill
“The 16th Man”
“Muhammad and Larry”
“Jordan Rides the Bus”
“Four Days in October”
“Fernando Nation”
“The Pony Excess”

Good
“No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson”
“Once Brothers”
“King’s Ransom”
“Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”

Great
“The Band that Wouldn’t Die”
“Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks”
“Into the Wind”
“The Best That Never Was”
“The Two Escobars”