Since the 2020 Major League Baseball Opening Day (March 26) came and went without the thwack of a single bat, here's how you can still enjoy the national pastime from the comfort of your living room. Cracker Jack optional.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Gary Cooper (High Noon) got an Oscar nomination in this poignant, lump-in-the-throat biopic about legendary New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, killed at 37 by ALS (from then on known as “Lou Gehrig's disease"), though brain injury from hurled baseballs may have been the true culprit. Gehrig was a lefty, so right-handed Cooper was filmed in reverse, with a backwards number on his jersey. Cooper taps into the heart of a gone-too-soon hero. Babe Ruth appears as himself.
The Rookie (2002)
Dennis Quaid has appeared in his fair share of sports movies (Breaking Away, Everybody's All-American), but director John Lee Hancock's beautifully sentimental true story about a high school science teacher who musters the courage to pursue his major league dreams long after most would have given up on them is an underseen home run of a film. As Jim Morris, the perfectly cast Quaid was 48 when this film came out, and the mileage on his face — and soul — only make you root harder for his underdog hero. A gem.
The Natural (1984)
Maybe you've seen it before, maybe it's new to you. Either way, who in their right mind would pass up a chance to watch Robert Redford at the peak of his matinee-idol prime as Roy Hobbs, an on-the-rise baseball phenom whose career is cut short by a mysterious femme fatale (Barbara Hershey). But the story, based on Bernard Malamud's 1952 masterpiece of a novel, doesn't end there. In fact, it's just getting started. Years pass and Hobbs returns for one last shot at glory with the help of a good woman (Glenn Close), a curmudgeonly manager (Wilford Brimley, who else?) and a bat forged from a tree felled by lightning. A magical movie in every sense of the word.
These days, Chadwick Boseman is best known as Marvel's Black Panther. But before he was the most famous superhero from Wakanda, the actor grabbed moviegoers’ attention as a real-life superhero: Jackie Robinson. Directed with old-fashioned flair by Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale), 42 tells the inspirational story of the first black player in the majors — what he had to endure and how he somehow managed to summon the quiet strength to overcome unimaginable adversity. Anyone who saw this film when it hit theaters knew that Boseman was going to be a star. Harrison Ford delivers a solid assist as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey.
Eight Men Out (1988)
No matter how many black eyes baseball receives, it always finds a way to bounce back stronger and more resilient than before. It happened with the McGwire-Sosa-Bonds steroid era and even the recent Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. In the glorious Eight Men Out, writer-director John Sayles goes back to baseball’s original sin — when the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. The cast of actors is phenomenal (John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney), and even the nonactors (Studs Terkel as a hardened sportswriter) soar.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
If you can overlook the young Robert De Niro's less-than-convincing athletic prowess behind the plate, this gut-wrenching melodrama about the die-hard friendship between a star pitcher (Michael Moriarty) and his terminally ill catcher (De Niro) is definitely worth a watch. It's baseball's answer to the sob-inducing gridiron classic, Brian's Song. Moriarty and De Niro are both great as the brotherly battery mates, but top honors go to the always wonderfully cranky Vincent Gardenia as the team's put-upon manager. If you're in the mood for a good cry with your balls and strikes, this is the ticket.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Tom Hanks is the hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing manager of the Rockford Peaches, an all-female baseball team that managed to put together Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, and brilliant, scene-stealing Geena Davis. Inspired by the actual All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, started in 1943 when male players were off at war, it was penned by the screenwriters of Parenthood and Splash and directed by longtime Dodgers fanatic Penny Marshall (Big). A League of Their Own has all of the smart comic spirit of those previous smash hits. Somehow managing to be both whimsical and about something, this is a film that still holds up brilliantly thanks in no small part to one of Hanks’ most famous lines: “There's no crying in baseball!"
Field of Dreams (1989)
Some may find Field of Dreams's Iowa cornfield setting a bit, well, corny. But true baseball fans tend to be a sentimental lot by nature, so it's easy to give in to the mystical spell this classic casts. In the middle chapter of his baseball trilogy (bookended by 1988's Bull Durham and 1999's For Love of the Game), Kevin Costner stars as Ray Kinsella — a Midwest farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his field after hearing a voice instructing him, “If you build it, he will come.” Lots of people come, starting with such unexpected guests as the most famous ballplayers of 1919. This is the kind of movie for which the word “enchanting” was coined.
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Richard Linklater, the director of the classic ‘70s-set, slice-of-life high school comedy Dazed and Confused, taps into that same vein of Me Decade nostalgia for this rambling, ambling tale about the camaraderie of a college baseball team getting ready for the season. There isn't a ton of actual baseball in the film, but Linklater and his young and mostly unknown cast give you a real sense of what goes on in the clubhouse rather than on the field. Not only does Everybody Wants Some!! get at the Peter Pan spirit of the guys who devote their lives to playing a kids’ game, it also has one of the best movie soundtracks of the past decade.
Bull Durham (1989)
In what's more an eloquent love letter to baseball than actual movie about what happens on the field, Susan Sarandon's sensual, sage-like character, Annie, supports her beloved team by having an affair with a different player each season. Should it be Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a down-on-his-luck one-time major league player now forced to play in the low minor leagues? Or should she become the lover and life coach of the talented, loose-cannon rookie fireballer, Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins)? Why not both? Funny and original, with a backspin of lovely melancholy, this may be the great American movie about the great American game.
Billy Crystal, a lifelong baseball nut, directs this made-for-HBO drama tracing the neck-and-neck race for the single-season home run record between Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris during the 1961 season. Thomas Jane (as Mantle) and Barry Pepper (as Maris) make you believe that you're watching real flesh-and-blood sluggers rather than actors pretending in pinstripes. If it feels like a movie made by a filmmaker who lived and breathed with his ear glued to a transistor radio and his eyes peeled to every newspaper box score back in the summer of 1961, that's because it is.
Based on Michael Lewis's brainiac nonfiction best seller, director Bennett Miller's film chronicles the outside-the-box thinking of the small-market, small-payroll Oakland A's in the early 2000s as they followed a new approach to cobbling together a winning team on the cheap. Brad Pitt is pure charisma as the team's maverick general manager, Billy Beane; Phillip Seymour Hoffman glimmers as the team's manager; and Jonah Hill soars as the young front-office brainiac who puts his faith in statistics. All of them turn Aaron Sorkin's script into a sort of macho poetry.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
A giddily politically incorrect slobs-versus-snobs tale featuring a cast of pint-sized losers, rebels and outcasts as the worst little league team in Southern California during the year of the Bicentennial. Walter Matthau is comedy gold as the team's drunk and uninterested manager. Meanwhile, Tatum O'Neal and Jackie Earl Haley jump off the screen as the tomboy ace pitcher and rebel-without-a-cause slugger who turn the awful team's fortunes around. As un-PC as ever, the movie seems daring and edgy and profane in a way that would never allow it to be made in the same way today. And yes, that's meant as a compliment.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor head up the cast of this raucous John Badham comedy about a barnstorming baseball team in the waning years of the Negro Leagues. Full of flash and fun, the film isn't afraid to tackle the issue of segregation head on. It's a breezy comedy that beneath its surface has a lot on its mind.
Major League (1989)
Few fans are as familiar with heartache as the Cleveland Indians’ fans. So not surprisingly, it would take a fictional film to turn them into winners. Populated by a motley crew of past-their-prime players, superstitious sluggers, journeyman veteran and a fireballing closer named the Wild Thing (Charlie Sheen), the Indians of Major League are a team you can't help but love. Especially when they start winning against the wishes of their villainous owner. Bob Uecker, as the team's sarcastic announcer, is a font of quotable catch phrases ("Juuuust a bit outside").
The Sandlot (1993)
Imagine The Bad News Bears crossed with Stand By Me and you'd get something like this beloved coming-of-age classic. Baseball movie MVP James Earl Jones (see Field of Dreams and Bingo Long elsewhere on this list) adds the requisite amount of heart and gravitas, while a group of mostly unknown and never-to-be-seen-again kids remind you of the youthful joy this sport brings to each new generation of fan.
The perfect prescription for the baseball lover with a lot of time to kill. This riveting 11-part documentary series (each episode is roughly two hours) is a surprisingly brisk and informative, feel-good slice of nostalgia about America's pastime. Even if you saw this nonfiction epic when it first aired on PBS back in 1994, there's something new to sink your teeth into. Ken Burns went back and added two more episodes covering the ‘90s to the present. And they're every bit as great as the ones that came before them.