At its best, baseball is the most dramatic of sports, its games unfolding in roughly three-act arcs over nine innings and propelled by individual performances in the service of a unified conclusion. At its worst, baseball is my hometown Colorado Rockies (I am eternally thankful for having grown up a St. Louis Cardinals fan).
Due to its structure, its theatrical environs, its one-on-one conflicts, its stretches of tension punctuated by action, baseball also translates well to cinema. With the exception of boxing, no other sport has served as the backdrop for more great films.
While there are more than a few good baseball movies, there are—appropriately, given the number’s significance to the game—three essential ones. The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham and The Natural not only capture the progression through primary levels of the sport, they also explore baseball’s parallels with society and its cultural impact. And to tie in the headline (which, yes, is cribbed from a four-act play despite all the talk of threes relative to baseball’s dramatic structure), these films also confront varying stages of masculinity, from the emergence and assertion of individual character, to the progressive exchange of strength for savvy, to efforts to tap dwindling reserves of vitality for one last hurrah.
The Bad News Bears
“A bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron.” This is how pint-sized powder keg Tanner Boyle bluntly assesses his Little League team, the Bears, a collection of misfits assembled in the wake of a city council member’s challenge to allow nonathletic and underprivileged kids otherwise left out of competitive sports an opportunity to play.
Though the team is coached by former pro prospect and current alcoholic Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau in fine curmudgeonly form) and its star is pitcher and lone female Amanda Whurlitzer (who knowingly calls Buttermaker “Boilermaker”), Tanner is the emblematic heart of the film itself. Bitter and bluntly honest, Tanner sees through the adult BS; he just wants a chance to play. Tanner has an early moment of grace, when he sticks up for Timmy Lupus (“it’s pronounced loop-us”), the booger-eating moron and subject of bullying by jocks who play for a well-funded rival team (the Yankees, of course).
Written by Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt Lancaster, who appeared in the beloved baseball movie Field of Dreams as “Moonlight” Graham), The Bad News Bears stages a class showdown between the Bears and the Yankees with humor, honesty and barbed observations about American competitiveness. The material receives an assist from the gritty, low-key approach of director Michael Ritchie, who never sentimentalizes the kids or their situations.
The players are certainly archetypes—the fat kid, the kid with the Napoleon complex, the brain, etc. But they also seem like a rambunctious group of real children with real self-doubts and real aspirations, unlike the snarky, cookie-cutter moppets who populate the subgenre of underdog sports movies spawned by The Bad News Bears and churned out by the Disney factory.
One of the many great things about The Bad News Bears is that it doesn’t need to have its heroes win the big game at the end. It is reward enough to see them embrace one another … and to have Tanner tell the Yankees what they can do with their championship trophy.
In a fine Eight Million Stories interview with Bull Durham writer-director Ron Shelton, interviewer-author Jon Zelazny observes that it’s a movie Billy Wilder probably would have loved, which prompts the following anecdote from the filmmaker:
A few months after (Bull Durham) came out, I was having dinner at a restaurant called The Imperial Gardens. A man came up and asked if I was Ron Shelton. I said yes, and he said, ‘Somebody would like to meet you.’ So I followed him—I didn’t realize at the time it was Stanley Donen, the director—and he brought me over to his best friend, Billy Wilder. Wilder looked up and said, ‘Great fuckin’ picture kid!’
That about sums it up. Like Wilder’s best films, Bull Durham works on multiple levels, and it is bursting with Shelton’s sharp observations as a former minor league player. But Shelton loves language and characters as much as he does baseball.
Bull Durham contains some of the richest dialogue of its era, and the cast (pun alert!) knocks it out of the park, from Kevin Costner’s fading minor league catcher “Crash” Davis to the late, great Trey Wilson’s hangdog manager (who delivers a marvelous summary of baseball’s elemental simplicity) to Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, who, torn between Davis and an up-and-coming—in more ways than one—young pitcher (Tim Robbins’ “Nuke” LaLoosh), reminds us, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”
Where The Bad News Bears and Bull Durham avoid or subvert cliché, The Natural embraces it. The Natural is baseball as American mythology.
Director Barry Levinson—one of our most underappreciated filmmakers—and the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel create visual poetry from the types of moments that make baseball magical and lend themselves to legends: Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, Willie Mays’ “The Catch” in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, a hobbled Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
There are those who criticize the film for deviating—wildly so at the end—from the Bernard Malamud book on which it is based, who are too cynical to embrace the film’s fairytale-esque allegory and romanticized spectacle. But Levinson maintains a consistent balance of chimerical darkness and light, and he pushes all the right buttons; if you don’t get chills when Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) shatters Wonderboy, the bat he made as a youngster from a lightning-split tree, and tells the batboy, “Pick me out a winner, Bobby,” you have lost your own sense of wonder.
The Natural evokes what we want from baseball and the transcendence the sport can achieve. As Annie Savoy paraphrases Walt Whitman in Bull Durham, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” (Don’t believe it? You can look it up.)