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Symkus column: America’s national pastime goes to the movies

Ed Symkus
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The Daily Herald

A year ago, this week, Major League Baseball was in full swing. Spring was already headed toward summer, and stadiums that were home to the most popular teams and attracted the most diehard fans were filing to near-capacity. The Tampa Bay Rays were in first place in the American League East, the Minnesota Twins held the AL Central spot, and the Houston Astros were on top in the AL West. The National League leaders were the Philadelphia Phillies in the East, the Chicago Cubs in Central, and the Los Angeles Dodgers out West. Not a day went by when there wasn’t a baseball game to watch on television.

Alas, here we are in 2020 with no starting date for players to take the fields, and only replays of historic games on TV.

There is, however, a good substitute while we wait this out: Baseball movies. They’re not up there in quantity with science-fiction, horror, romantic comedy, or animation, and the most recent solid entries were “42” in 2013, and “Trouble with the Curve” in 2012. But it remains a revered genre with a long history, and it was no easy task to pare down the voluminous catalogue of them to a top 10.

But here goes: My favorite baseball movies, in chronological order, all of which are available on Amazon Prime.

“It Happens Every Spring” (1949) - Back before there were video monitors in clubhouses and dugouts, college professor Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) accidentally creates a formula that causes baseball to be repelled by wood. He becomes a pitcher for St. Louis and strikes everyone out ... by cheating!

“The Bad News Bears” (1976) - Beer-loving Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a ballplayer who never got out of the minors, lands a job coaching the Bears, a no-talent Little League team, adds girl pitcher Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) and outfielder-with-an-attitude Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley), and turns the team around.

“The Natural” (1984) - You’ve got the fictional New York Knights, a 1930s team that can’t win a game; a magic baseball bat with a relationship to a lightning-struck tree; and rookie 34-year-old right fielder Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a man with a mysterious past and a talent for knocking balls out of the park. It’s a dreamy fantasy film.

“Bull Durham” (1988) - Writer-director Ron Shelton’s own background as a minor league player likely was the basis for this story of a veteran minor league catcher, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who is demoted to mentoring up-and-coming but sloppy pitcher Ebby LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). But distraction enters the scene: Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), whose hobby is having an annual affair with a minor league player. Who will she choose?

“Eight Men Out” (1988) - The true story of the bribe scandal involving the pennant-winning 1919 Chicago White Sox who, deciding they were underpaid, possibly committed the unthinkable at the World Series, leading to a Federal trial involving a gambling syndicate. John Sayles’ film is raw and gritty and terrifically acted.

“Field of Dreams” (1989) - Another baseball fantasy film, another baseball film starring Kevin Costner, this time as rookie corn farmer and longtime baseball fan Roy Kinsella who, as a boy, refused to play catch with his father. One day he hears a voice in his cornfield, whispering, “If you build it, they will come.” That “it” is a baseball field, which he does indeed build. Then the magic begins.

“Major League” (1989) - The Cleveland Indians get a new owner, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), whose only desire is to make the team lose, thereby lowering attendance, so she can move it to Miami. She begins filling the roster with bad players, including injured catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) and soon-to-be-paroled pitcher Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen). It’s a very goofy comedy.

“A League of their Own” (1992) - Based on real events in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during WWII, when so many male players were being drafted, scouts went out looking for women to keep interest in the game. The focus is on the Rockford Peaches, and their star sister players Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller (Geena Davis and Lori Petty), as well as the team’s manager, the now-usually drunk former player Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks). A sweet and funny movie.

“The Rookie” (2002) - Another based-on-fact story. Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) longed to be a ballplayer, until an injury in the minors shattered those dreams. Years later, age 39, working as a high school teacher and school baseball coach, he tries to motivate the team by telling them he’ll go to a professional try-out if they win their championship. They do, he does, and, yes, dreams can come true.

“Moneyball” (2011) - It’s the background story of how analytics (AKA sabermetrics) - or the practice of using data over raw talent - has changed the face of baseball. It’s told here through the eyes of Oakland Athletics real life General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and numbers man Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is partly based on A’s Assistant GM Paul DePodesta. For a movie about statistics, this one’s pretty exciting.

“Baseball” (1994) - Yes, this is number 11 out of 10, but it’s a must-see for baseball fans. Ken Burns’ 11-part documentary on the sport digs its cleats into the dirt and never lets go. Fascinating for the entirety of its 19 hours.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.