D. Stevens/Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection; Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection; Juergen Vollmer/Popperfoto/Getty Images
The weather is finally starting to thaw, the crocuses are poking up their colorful heads, and Major League Baseball season is upon us once again, on March 30. On opening day, everyone’s team is in first place, and hope springs eternal in Mudville. To help get you in the mood for the 2023 season, we cobbled together our pennant-winning list of 12 great baseball movies you can stream at home while you’re waiting for the home-plate ump to shout: Play ball!
Bull Durham (1988)
Before he was a director of timeless sports comedies such as Tin Cup and White Men Can't Jump, Ron Shelton was an infielder in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor-league system. So if anyone knows the truth of what it's like to toil in obscurity waiting for the call up to “The Show,” it's him. That hard-earned wisdom and eye for detail come through in every scene of this hilarious and eloquent love letter to America's pastime. Susan Sarandon's sensual, sage-like Annie Savoy supports her beloved team, the Durham Bulls, by having an affair with a different player every season. She's as much a mentor as a lover. But whom will she fall for this season? Will it be Kevin Costner's Crash Davis, a down-on-his-luck onetime major leaguer playing out the string in the bush leagues? Or will it be Tim Robbins’ Nuke Laloosh, the talented, loose-cannon rookie fireballer? Why not both?
This one lies a little below the radar, which makes it ripe for discovery for baseball fans who've already cycled through the more celebrated titles on this list. Algenis Perez Soto leaps off the screen as a 19-year-old pitching phenom in the Dominican Republic — an impoverished country where dreams of major league stardom are as plentiful as sugar cane. Nicknamed “Sugar” after the sweetness of the fastballs that whip from his arm, he earns a spot on a Class A team in Iowa only to discover that dreams rarely hold up in reality. Part sports saga, part immigrant tale, Sugar is an unexpected change-up of a film that shows us that the only thing that truly matters is a player's love of the game.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor headline this Bicentennial year classic about a barnstorming baseball team in the last days of the Negro Leagues. Tired of being treated as second-class citizens, Williams's Bingo Long forms his own team and travels to take on minor league white teams while adding a dash of Harlem Globetrotters-esque flash and style. Bingo Long doesn't shy away from tackling the third-rail issues of racism and segregation. But it also isn't afraid to leaven its message with heart, camaraderie and laughs.
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Based the Michael Lewis bestseller that's become a Father's Day staple over the past decade, director David Fincher's underdog story 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 based on statistics and gut intuition. Brad Pitt is excellent and understated as the team's maverick general manager, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is winningly crotchety as the team's manager, and Jonah Hill shines as the young front-office brainiac who cherishes math above all. As for Aaron Sorkin's script, it's pure hardball poetry.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Tom Hanks is like a human whoopie cushion as the hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing manager of the Rockford Peaches, an all-female baseball team whose roster includes Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell and Geena Davis. Inspired by the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was launched in 1943 when male players were off at war, director Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own may be light and breezy, but it also manages to be about something much bigger than baseball. It's about women finding their voices and independence and sisterhood through sports. Just don't tell that to Hanks’ crusty Jimmy “There's no crying in baseball!” Dugan.
The Natural (1984)
Maybe you've seen this one before, maybe it's new to you. Either way, who would want to pass up the chance to watch (or rewatch) Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs — an earnest and gifted country-bumpkin slugger whose career is cut short by a femme fatale (Barbara Hershey). Based on Bernard Malamud's mythic 1952 novel, the story doesn't end there. In fact, it's just getting started. Years pass and Hobbs returns for one last shot at twilight glory with the help of a good woman (Glenn Close), a curmudgeonly manager (Wilford Brimley) and a bat forged from a tree felled by lightning called “Wonderboy.” The Natural is so magical it belongs in Cooperstown.
Before he vaulted to superstardom as the Marvel superhero Black Panther, the late Chadwick Boseman established himself as one of the most gifted actors of his generation in a string of smaller films that emphasized emotion over special effects. Take this biopic about a different kind of superhero (a real-life one), Jackie Robinson. 42 (Robinson's uniform number) charts the inspirational and barrier-breaking story of the first African American player in the majors — both what he had to endure and how he managed to summon the quiet strength to overcome adversity. Anyone who saw Boseman as Jackie when 42 hit theaters back in 2013 knew that he was going to be a star. Sadly, his untimely death from cancer last year cut short a career that would have been a privilege to see where it went next.
Field of Dreams (1989)
No list of great baseball films would be complete without Field of Dreams. Sure, some may find its magical-realist, fathers-and-sons message as, well, corny as its Iowa cornfield setting. But this one of those “male weepies” that makes grown men so choked up that they can't help but reach for their hankies. Kevin Costner is stoic perfection as Ray Kinsella, a Midwest farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his field after hearing a ethereal voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” The ‘He’ turns out to be the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). Field of Dreams not only understands that die-hard baseball fans are a sentimental lot, but also that that sentimentality is nothing to be ashamed of.
Eight Men Out (1988)
Writer-director John Sayles turns back the clock to recount the story of baseball's original sin as a group of on-the-take Chicago White Sox players scheme to throw the 1919 World Series. Sayles assembled a terrific cast of actors (John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney) and non-actors (Studs Terkel as a hardened sportswriter), but the story is the star here. After all, this was the moment when America's pastime first lost its innocence (and unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last). But Eight Men Out isn't a cynical film — or at least an overly cynical film — it shows us the sacred beauty of the game while also showing us how much can be lost when human beings give in to temptation.
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The Rookie (2002)
Dennis Quaid is ideally cast as a high school science teacher in this heart-warming adaptation of a true story about a man who musters the courage to pursue his major league dreams long after most would have given up on them. Egged on by his adoring students, Quaid's Jimmy Morris stumbles and struggles at first, but he won't be defeated. The film's inspirational message isn't quite as heavy-handed as it sounds thanks to Quaid, who was 48 when it came out. The years of mileage on the actor's face (not to mention his palpable sense of regret and determination) make you root for his underdog hero like he was starting the seventh game of the World Series. The Rookie is an underseen home run of a movie.
Damn Yankees (1958)
While there are tons of baseball movies, there isn't exactly an overwhelming number of baseball-themed musicals. But Damn Yankees imbues the game with an infectious dose of Broadway razzle dazzle thanks to Gwen Verdon as a temptress named Lola who bewitches an aging baseball fan (Tab Hunter) into selling his soul to the devil (Ray Walston) so he can help lead his beloved Washington Senators past the New York Yankees to win the pennant. Even if you're not a die-hard baseball fan, Verdon's vixenish rendition of “What Lola Wants” will leave you tapping your toes through even the longest seventh-inning stretch.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Viewed today, the original Bad News Bears (it was remade in 2005) seems as politically incorrect as you can get. It's also a riot. This slobs-versus-snobs tale featuring a cast of pint-sized losers, malcontent rebels and foul-mouthed outcasts as the worst Little League team in Southern California crackles with merry prankster charm due to Walter Matthau as the team's boorish and blotto manager, Morris Buttermaker. Tatum O'Neal and Jackie Earl Haley give hall-of-fame child actor performances as a tomboy pitcher and rebel-without-a-cause slugger who turn the awful team's fortunes around. A movie this over the line could never be made today, which is a shame because it's a profane comic masterpiece.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.