Baseball might have lost a ton of ground to football in popularity, but it’s still America’s pastime. And frankly, the tide can change quickly in football (only three NFL teams haven’t made the playoffs in the last 8 years), but in baseball, a chance to win the World Series doesn’t come around all that often. Just ask me, my father or my grandparents — three generations of Cubs fans.
Alleged curses aside, without a salary cap in Major League Baseball, the teams that generate the most revenue can stay on top, hence the New York Yankees, which makes it incredibly difficult for a team with a low payroll, such as the 2002 Oakland Athletics (as seen in this weekend’s new film “Moneyball,” read my review) to make a run at a pennant. The only way to beat the system is through scouting: acquiring young talent to bring up through the minor leagues. That method is what Billy Beane and Peter Brand, the main characters of “Moneyball” played by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, tried to undermine and nearly did with the 2002 A’s.
A special team in baseball must defy greater odds than in nearly every sport. That’s why we get a lot of baseball movies and especially why few movies get made about a professional level sports team that aren’t baseball movies. The movies have given us a number of memorable baseball teams and here are some of the best.
10. The Kekambas – Hardball
Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood’s very own Kekambas come in at 10 simply so I can make fun of whatever idiot thought it a good idea to cast Keanu Reeves as a kids’ baseball coach. The best way to describe “Hardball” is “’The Bad News Bears’ for black kids.” As we’ve known for years, the only way to reform kids that grow up in tough families in even tougher neighborhoods is organized sports and who would coach them but someone who has to with a gambling and drinking problem? Fortunately, “Hardball” has a bit of heart for all these cliches and what’s not to love about a Kekamba … ?
9. The California Angels – “Angels in the Outfield”
Whether the original 1951 film or the ‘90s remake at the height of the “ragtag kids in sports” movies era, it’s hard not to root for the Angels (or Pirates if we’re talking the original, but I’m not) so that a little kid’s family will get back together. Can you believe that kid was Joseph Gordon-Levitt? I can still hear him say to his dad “when will we be a family again?” And his dad’s unfair response, “I’d say when the Angels win the pennant.” So with some heavenly help and ‘90s CGI, Danny Glover’s untalented bunch look to do the impossible. You’d think with Neal McDonough, Tony Danza, Adrien Brody and Matthew McConaughey they’d be pretty good anyway, but I guess they were rookies back then … except Danza.
8. The Chicago Cubs – “Rookie of the Year”
Even if you don’t know anything about baseball, you should know that the best way to distract a pitcher and get him out of his rhythm is to chant, “pitcher’s got a big butt!” over and over again. Oh, Henry Rowengartner. I think I’m proud that this goofy comedy centers around the Cubs … Anyway, the Cubs here are a pretty likable bunch once they accept Henry. Daniel Stern is hilarious as Brickma and John Candy is great in the booth calling the plays. Credit to Gary Busey too.
7. The 1961 New York Yankees – 61*
Maybe not so much the team, but two players make the ’61 Yankees one of film’s most memorable teams. The story of two teammates, Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper), slugging it out for Babe Ruth’s home run record and the surprising hostility they faced in attempting to do so, is one of the more underrated baseball films and should have warranted a theatrical release. Billy Crystal directed one of his few films ever and he hasn’t stepped behind the camera since.
6. The New York Knights – “The Natural”
Not a huge focus on the team here so much as the player, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), but the New York Knights are one of those memorable fictionalized baseball teams and the excellent story based on the novel by Bernard Malamud helped them ride to prominence.
5. The 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox – “Field of Dreams”
The infamous Chicago “Black” Sox, who bet on the World Series they played in because the payout would be ridiculous if they lost, were also the subject of the movie “Eight Men Out” starring Charlie Sheen. In “Field of Dreams,” Shoeless Joe and Co. are there to make the film better/more awesome, reminding you of everything nostalgic and wonderful about America’s pastime.
4. The Cleveland Indians – “Major League,” “Major League II”
Whether you’re the No. 1 fan of “Wild Thing,” the speedy Willie Mayes Hayes or the spiritual slugger Pedro Cerrano, no baseball movie has a better team cast of characters than “Major League.” The quirks are hysterical and if they weren’t enough, Bob Uecker’s commentary makes it all funnier.
3. The Bad News Bears – “The Bad News Bears” (1976)
The original rag-tag sports team is still the best. The filth that comes out of these kids’ mouths would have any parent outraged and the way their coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Mathau) treats them would today result in a law suit, but no story better champions the values of youth sports when all is said and done.
2. The Durham Bulls – “Bull Durham”
Ah, the minor leagues, home of washouts, hopefuls and — lollygaggers. Crash Davis and “Nuke” Laloosh (Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins) pretty much hit opposite ends of the spectrum: one is a smart journeyman vet of the minors without the talent to breakthrough and the other all brawn and no brains. The perspective on baseball that “Bull Durham” showcases has few equals.
1. The Rockford Peaches – “A League of Their Own”
If we’ve learned anything from baseball movies, it’s that — you guessed it — there’s no crying in baseball. Most of these movies focus on characters, but “A League of Their Own” is a team story with several effective character-driven side plots. The Rockford Peaches are the only cinematic baseball that can claim to be completely unique. The dynamic of all the other teams has been replicated to some extent with varying degrees of success; the Peach stands alone