The story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player to be brought up into the Major League show in 1947, has a particularly heroic, folkloric glow, and the impulse to cinematize it into an all-American chest-sweller was so strong that Robinson was egged into starring as himself in 1950’s ill-advised The Jackie Robinson Story. That didn’t work out, but although this Spielbergian version isn’t the film Spike Lee had wanted to make for years, 42 tells a necessary story, and reconstitutes a a slew of baseball legends and gives them props, from Chadwick Boseman‘s long-suffering Jackie to Lucas Black‘s egalitarian Pee Wee Reese to Harrison Ford‘s avuncular character turn as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. The telegraphed nobility, dumb as it is, can warm your baser nerve endings if you let it, which shouldn’t be hard for a fan.
The true tale of Jim Morris, a middle-aged high school science teacher who loses a bet with his students, tries out for the majors, and makes it. Though The Rookie was advertised as a kids’ movie, the script never condescends or collapses into silliness, and Morris’s tale is genuinely warming. Americans love the triumph of the underdog against all odds (and what’s more intimidating than growing old?), and The Rookie doesn’t disappoint in this regard: who would believe that a thirty-five-year-old rookie could throw a hundred miles per hour?
There are a few years that mean only one thing to baseball fans; ask a true aficionado what historic event happened in 1941, and instead of talking about Pearl Harbor, he or she will tell you that that’s the year DiMaggio hit in fifty-six consecutive games, a feat that’s never been surpassed or even matched. Likewise, 1961 conjures immediately the home-run race between Yankees legends Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, both chasing Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a single season. Still, 61*, an HBO movie, directed by Billy Crystal, is no idealized view—Mantle (Thomas Jane) is a tremendous talent, but also a womanizing drunk; the animosity toward Maris (Barry Pepper) is laid bare for us as well. It’s not a great movie, but c’mon, baseball movies aren’t about great cinema, they’re about baseball. Pepper and Jane are both fine in two pairs of big shoes, but who would have thought we’d ever see Anthony Michael Hall, the skinny nerd from Sixteen Candles, as Yankees pitching great Whitey Ford? Baseball fans will love the movie’s real footage of a time when athletes didn’t rely on artificial means to gain glory—just talent, dignity, hard work, and luck.
Jeremy Spear and Juliet Weber’s documentary Fastpitch portrays a neglected subculture that inhabits the vast badlands between American cities: fast-pitch softball, a rough game that challenges the batter with shorter mount-to-plate pitch visibility than in pro baseball, and attracts a thriving regional fan base. An ex-Yale ballplayer and artist pursuing athletic glory for the last time, Spear encounters all manner of titans in his season in the sun, including a Ojibway pitching menace and a Maori home-run champ, both of whom, like all of the players, are not pros nor obsessives, just working stiffs with a passion.
Could this be the saddest baseball movie ever? Coming from a 1955 novel, this subdued, grown-up drama simply waits out the last season of a low-IQ MLB catcher (Robert De Niro), who learns at the outset that he has a fatal disease. Emphasis is placed less on mortality or the game, and more on the day-to-day traveling life of pro players in the days before bazillion-dollar contracts and steroids. Viewers who were moved when Bang the Drum Slowly came out—and it’s tough not to be when the catcher, in his last game, looks for a fly ball that’s no longer there—keep it close to their hearts.
There may be people who love this weepiest of sports-legend biopics simply because they’re fans of Gary Cooper, or because they’re hardcore Yankee fans who’ll see any movie with the team’s name in the title, but let’s face it: most of us still get a lump in the throat at the sound of Lou Gehrig (or Cooper doing Gehrig), intoning into the ballpark’s vast echo, “Today-ay-ay, I consider myself-elf-elf the luckiest man-man-man on the face of the earth-earth-earth.” Most of us heard Cooper say it before we’d heard Gehrig (if we’ve heard Gehrig at all), and if the Iron Horse is still a universally beloved ballplayer, Pride of the Yankees has fostered that worship. Because it’s baseball, and it’s the movies, it’s not surprising that the legend supplants the original in the public consciousness. Cooper portrays Gehrig as a lovable, innocent bumbler: witness the earnest clumsiness as he wipes out on a pile of bats; the missed ball when wife-to-be Eleanor (the still underappreciated Teresa Wright) bestows a smile upon him; the aw-shucks waves to the roaring crowd. For millions of Americans, in the war years and after, this movie was a collective dream of baseball, in which a poor immigrant’s son can triumph and live a heroic life in the most democratic of sports. The movie leaves Gehrig at his final field appearance, sparing us the trial of his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Who’d argue that this isn’t as it should be? Does the film depict Gehrig as he really was? Of course not. Baseball fans love the game’s stories, names, stats, and legacies, and this is their Achilles tale, their Greek tragedy. Those same fans know, too, that this film offers opportunities to witness once-living legends Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, and announcer Bill Stern, playing themselves.