The earliest example of a baseball movie is Casey at the Bat, made by Thomas Edison in 1899. According to the book Everything Baseball, the film was a dramatization that had no relationship with the famous poem by Edward Lawrence Thayer. This means that baseball movies, as an art form, are slightly more than a century old. And yet the greatest flowering of this medium took place within a 10-month period a quarter century ago.
Great baseball movies were made before the late 1980s, of course. Bang the Drum Slowly, The Pride of the Yankees and Take Me Out to the Ballgame were just a few examples of baseball’s ability to draw crowds to a theater. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Dizzy and Daffy Dean all appeared in movies, and actors such as Ronald Reagan, Fred Astaire and James Earl Jones all portrayed ballplayers on the screen. But for one reason or another, the summer of 1988 was the start of something we had never seen before and will probably never see again.
Bull Durham was the first to hit the theaters, in June of 1988. It featured probably the best romantic threesome in baseball history — perhaps even in movie history — with Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. It made “The Show” into a mainstream term for the majors, and it remains that way to this day. It gave us “The Church of Baseball” and let us see Max Patkin on the silver screen. It combined baseball and “the other national pastime” in a way that was pitch-perfect. And it was a big hit at the box office, which didn’t hurt either.
Following that up in September of 1988 was Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof’s book of the same name. It told the story of the Chicago Black Sox and featured a cast that ranged from John Cusack to Charlie Sheen to Studs Terkel. It told the darkest tale in baseball’s history, and made it come to life as only the movies can. It wasn’t a hit like Bull Durham, but it showed baseball’s past was ripe for the retelling.
In December of 1988, after the season had come to an end, came the funniest treatment of baseball ever put on screen with The Naked Gun. The baseball scene takes up the final chunk of the movie, and the sight of Reggie Jackson trying to do in the queen during a donnybrook on the field is cinematic gold. And if you still need convincing of this movie’s merits, I have two words: Enrico Pallazzo.
As the 1989 season opened in April, we were greeted by another great baseball movie, Major League. There was something of a Bull Durham feel to the Tom Berenger-Rene Russo romantic pairing, but it also featured Bob Eucker and Charlie Sheen in the cast. Sheen played Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn and, in a classic case of life imitating art, Mitch Williams also became known as “Wild Thing” as the closer for the Chicago Cubs. Charlie Sheen has since earned the “Wild Thing” moniker in his personal life, as well.
And at the end of this remarkable run came Field of Dreams in April 1989. Either you love it (as I do) or you hate it (as somebody probably does), but it’s the baseball movie to end all baseball movies. Playing catch (sorry, having a catch) with your dad in the afternoon sun; is there anything better than that? And don’t even get me started on the James Earl Jones speech about baseball. It’s three minutes of movie magic, plain and simple. It rocked my world in a way that no movie had before or probably ever will again.
Other baseball movies have been made since 1989, and there’s one coming out next month, as well. Hollywood will keep on bringing us baseball movies, because the game lends itself to all kinds of stories and yarns. But the golden age of baseball movies passed by in the blink of an eye, and all we can do now is marvel at how it all came together. And rent the DVDs, of course.