Usually the World Series ends just weeks before Election Day, which really matters. So it is good to have a little escapism beforehand. Whether your favorite team wins or loses is really not important in the great scheme of things, like life and death or war and peace. For the losers in baseball, there’s always next year.
1. The Bad News Bears (1976) with Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal, Vic Morrow, Brandon Cruz, and Jackie Earle Haley: A little league team with no talent can’t win a game. Desperate parents hire a former minor league ballplayer, Morris Buttermaker (Matthau), to coach the team. The beer guzzling coach recruits a girl (O’Neal), whom he had previously taught to pitch, and a motorcycle outsider (Haley) to field and hit. They miraculously make it to the climactic game at the end of the season against the Yankees. This one is a lot of fun.
2. Field of Dreams (1989) with Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earle Jones, Ray Liotta, Frank Whaley, Timothy Busfield, and Burt Lancaster: “If you build it, he will come,” says the Voice to the farmer (Costner). Build what and who will come? We learn early that he is supposed to build a baseball field, where he is now growing corn. (The field still exists as a tourist attraction in Iowa.) But we don’t learn exactly who it is who will come until the end. Others who come before the end include a professional ballplayer banned from the game (Liotta), a reclusive writer from the 1960’s (Jones), and a small-town doctor from Minnesota (Lancaster and Whaley). The farmer’s wife (Madigan) has a brother (Busfield) who has an investment firm that wants to foreclose on the farm because they can’t pay their debts because of the lost acreage used for the baseball field. This fantasy is super special.
3. It Happens Every Spring (1949) with Ray Milland, Jean Peters, Paul Douglas, and Ed Begley: A college professor’s experiment is ruined when a baseball is knocked through a window into his laboratory. The liquid he ends up with gets on the ball, and the prof discovers that the ball now repels wood. He takes a leave of absence and goes to St. Louis to become a major league pitcher. The prof (Milland) is the worst looking athlete you’ve ever seen, and the other ballplayers are the oldest major leaguers you’ve ever laid eyes on; so nothing here can be taken too seriously. The ethics issue of using a doctored ball to get to the World Series never comes up. However, this totally implausible comedy is much more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
4. Little Big League (1994) with Luke Edwards, Timothy Busfield, John Ashton, Ashley Crow, Dennis Farina, and Jason Robards: The owner of the Minnesota Twins (Robards) dies but wisely leaves the team to his twelve-year-old grandson (Edwards). The grandson promptly fires the losing and obnoxious manager (Farina) and decides to manage the team himself. He meets a lot of resistance until the team realizes it can actually win with the kid at the helm. Timothy Busfield makes up for playing the bad guy in Field of Dreams by playing the Twins’ first baseman and power hitter – as well as the love interest for the young skipper’s mom (Crow). Luke Edwards and John Ashton, who plays a coach, are reunited in this comedy after appearing together on television in 1989 as son and father in the much darker I Know My First Name is Steven. This is my favorite baseball film, and the outstanding cast almost makes you believe that this story is possible. This movie reminds you that the most important thing about baseball is that it can be fun. If only the real New York Yankees would relearn that, then it wouldn’t be so enjoyable to see them lose.
5. Max Dugan Returns (1983) with Jason Robards, Marsha Mason, Donald Sutherland, and Matthew Broderick: An impoverished high school English teacher (Mason) is a single mom trying to bring up her son (Broderick) with sound moral values. Her own father, Max Dugan (Robards), abandoned her many years ago and her own son never knew him. On a dark and rainy night, Max Dugan returns! Problem: Max claims that he is dying of heart disease and wants to get know his grandson before he dies. Another problem: Max has a suitcase full of money that he stole from the mob as a dealer at a casino, and he is also wanted by the law. A third problem: Max’s daughter has a new boyfriend (Sutherland), who happens to be a police detective. A fourth problem: Max keeps spending his loot on home improvements, which his daughter has a hard time explaining, considering her income. A fifth problem: Max’s grandson likes to play baseball, but he can’t hit worth squat. Solution: Max spends some of his ill-found wealth hiring Chicago White-Sox batting coach Charlie Lau to teach his grandson the “philosophy” of hitting – and that’s why this qualifies as a baseball film. Not a problem: This is a Neil Simon comedy, so you know you will be in for a good time.
by David Offutt, October 2006