SABR 50 at 50: Baseball Films and TV
As part of the SABR 50 at 50 project to commemorate the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, we present 50 of the most memorable baseball-related moments in films and television for the past 50 years.
In compiling this list we considered feature films, documentary films, documentary shorts, scenes from films, television series, scenes or skits from television series, and television commercials.
There were hundreds of nominations, and the quantity and quality of filmed baseball content keeps increasing. There is likely a great baseball documentary being made as you read this.
We invite you to read the list and the short description for each of the shows, along with selected video clips for each entry.
— Compiled by Mark Armour, with assistance from Jim Baker, Michael Bates, Michael Bender, Emily Hawks, Jeff Katz, R. J. Lesch, Bruce Markusen, Justin McGuire, Rob Neyer, Steve Roney, Gabriel Schechter, Tom Shieber, and Cary Smith.
Back in the 1970s, baseball stars were famous enough to carry national television ads, to appear on late night talk shows, and to star on TV shows. There was no bigger star than Johnny Bench, who has continued to be featured in TV commercials well into the 21st century.
Based on Mark Harris’s acclaimed novel, this was one of the first serious adult films centered around baseball. Directed by John Hancock, it centered on the relationship between a star pitcher (Michael Moriarty) and his catcher of lesser ability (a pre-stardom Robert De Niro).
Directed by Milos Forman, starring Jack Nicholson as a felon sentenced to a mental institution. In this scene, Nicholson’s character tries to lobby his fellow patients to watch a 1963 World Series game on television. The film won five Oscars, and is considered one of the greatest in movie history.
Chevrolet made several variations of this commercial in the 1970s. Setting aside the technical details, it’s nice to remember a time when baseball (as opposed to a baseball star) could be used to sell a product. In 2005 Car and Driver named this the best car commercial of all time.
A cult classic comedy starting Walter Mathau as alcoholic ex-ballplayer hired to manage a team of misfits in a competitive youth league. Also starring Tatum O’Neal as an 11-year-old tomboy pitcher, the film inspired two sequels, a television series (1979) and a remake (2005).
A comedy with an all-star cast, including Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Prior, about a team of African-American players from the Negro Leagues that went out on their own and barnstormed the Midwest. Loosely based on the story of Indianapolis Clowns, who employed comedy elements along with their ballplaying.
This long-running program showed highlights of the previous week’s baseball games, narrated for its first two decades by Mel Allen, and later by Warner Fusselle, Ozzie Smith, and others. The show was syndicated throughout the United States, and the theme song along remains a beloved piece of nostalgia for two generations of fans.
This iconic series (1972-1983) touched on baseball many times during its run, with this episode among the most explicit. Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, a surgeon who cared nothing about sports, bets his fellow doctors that the 1951 Dodgers would hold onto their large lead in the pennant race.
Loosely based on Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name, this film was directed by Barry Levinson, with an all-star cast that included Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, and Glenn Close. Praised for its realistic baseball scenes, many of them filmed at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium.
Not a baseball film, but a film about the World War II era murder of a black Army sergeant, and its subsequent investigation. The victim’s platoon was made up of many former Negro League players, and there is excellent baseball footage of the team that the group formed. Directed by Norman Jewison, adapted by Charles Fuller from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and starring Harold Rollins Jr. as the lead investigator.
Miller Lite launched its famous “Less Filling/Tastes Great” ads in the mid-1970s, many of them featuring retiring athletes. Among the most enduring is this 1984 classic starring Bob Uecker, surely one of the most quoted commercials in TV history.
John Hughes’s beloved teen comedy features the adventures of the title character and his friends skipping school and spending the day in Chicago. In this scene they are at Wrigley Field taking in a Cubs game.
Although baseball fans rarely agree on anything, everyone seems to agree on Bull Durham, which was written and directed by Ron Shelton, and starred Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. The film is part love story, part comedy, part love letter to the minor leagues, and is based on the lives of the players and fans of the Durham Bulls.
Although both Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book and this film take liberties with the historical record, it remains a well-filmed, well-acted, well-directed story of the Chicago White Sox players throwing the 1919 World Series.
A quip-filled comedy from the famed trio of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, the film culminates during a farcical Angels-Mariners game at Dodger Stadium during which the heroes are trying to thwart a plot to execute Queen Elizabeth II.
Most baseball fans have strong opinions about this film – either loving it for its themes and sentimentality, or hating it for its lack of realism and unrealistic plot devices. Either way, it needs to be on this list. Written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, based on W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe.
Part of a boom of baseball films in the late 1980s, this comedy was written and directed by David S. Ward. A box office hit that led to two less successful sequels, it focused on a down-on-their-luck Cleveland Indians team that bands together for an improbable chase for the pennant.
Three films, each first shown on HBO, that tell the story of baseball from the 1930s through the 1960s, entirely via 8 and 16 mm film taken by fans and players of the time. For most of us, it was the first time we had ever seen video of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and many more in vivid color.
Directed by Ron Underwood, telling the story of three mid-life New Yorkers who spice up their lives by participating in a western cattle drive. Hilarity ensues, including a classic scene in which the three stars (Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby) argue about baseball around a campfire.
Penny Marshal was inspired to make this film, a fictionalized story about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954), after seeing a short 1987 TV documentary with the same name. Starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, and Lori Petty, the movie led to renewed interest in the AAGPBL, spawning numerous articles and books, and an exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
When Homer Simpson’s softball team at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant looks to be on the verge of making the championship game, Mr. Burns hires a complete team of big league ringers to aid the cause. Many of the biggest stars in the game voiced their parts, including Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Wade Boggs, and Ozzie Smith. Airing in the third season of the show’s run of more than three decades, it remains one of the most popular in its history — so iconic that SABR recently produced a book about it.
This beloved sitcom references baseball many times, and George even worked for the Yankees for a while. This two-part episode featured Mets star Keith Hernandez, who is involved in three subplots: he and Jerry become friends; he dates Elaine; and he is accused of spitting on Newman and Kramer after a game.
Directed and narrated by David Mickey Evans, this coming-of-age classic tells the story of a group of young boys who form a baseball team in the summer of 1962.
Created by Ken Burns, narrated by John Chancellor, and airing over nine nights in September 1994 (during the baseball strike). Each episode (“inning”) was about two hours long, and used photography, video, interviews, and recitation of written work. Burns later created The Tenth Inning, covering 1994 through 2009, which aired in the fall of 2010, and Jackie Robinson in 2016.
An acclaimed drama about an MIT janitor (Matt Damon) who is found to be an unrecognized genius, and his relationship with his therapist (Robin Williams). In this scene, Williams’ character tells the story of how he gave up his tickets to Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. “I gotta see about a girl.” Written by Damon and friend Ben Affleck, and directed by Gus Van Zant.
A couple dozen major league all-stars invade the room of a young kid at bedtime, and stir up trouble.
Written and directed by Aviva Kempner, this documentary uses both archival footage and contemporary commentary to tell the story of this revered Tigers superstar, focusing on his on-field accomplishments and his Jewish faith.
Home runs were never more romantic than they were in the 1990s, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased down Roger Maris’s home run record. In this ad, pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, frustrated that they no longer get any attention for their heroics, decide to bulk up and become sluggers.
Billy Crystal directed this historical drama about his beloved 1961 Yankees, and the home run chase of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. The stars were Thomas Jane, Barry Pepper, and Tiger Stadium (which was modified post-production to stand in as Yankee Stadium).
A documentary on the 1968 Tigers, and how their great season helped a city wounded by the 1967 riots and racial tensions. Weaving contemporary footage with interviews with prominent Tigers, fans, and celebrities looking at back at a troubled time for the city.
In Judd Apatow’s classic romantic comedy, Leslie Mann’s character believes that her husband (played by Paul Rudd) is having an affair, so she tracks him down to a house only to discover that he is actually taking part in a fantasy baseball draft.
This drama follows the story of a teenage Dominican pitcher who is playing baseball in the US minor leagues. He struggles on the mound, and with being away from his friends and family, and begins to question whether this is the right path.
Luis Tiant returns to Cuba for the first time since he left to play baseball in the US 46 years earlier, and experiences complex emotional struggles with the life and people with whom he reconnects.
In 2009, ESPN launched their 30 for 30 documentary series, and the first film to deal with baseball explored the genesis of “Rotisserie Baseball,” which ultimately launched the multi-billion dollar fantasy sports business.
Picking just a handful of the ESPN documentaries was not easy, but we couldn’t leave this one out. The subject is Fernando Valenzuela, and the resultant mania that swept Los Angeles, the United States and Mexico in the spring and summer of 1981.
Based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 book, in which A’s general manager Billy Beane compensates for his small budget by using sabermetrics in drafting and trading for players. Whatever you might think of the book or film’s precise adherence to historical fact, there is no denying Brad Pitt’s performance, Aaron Sorkin’s dialog, or the riveting story.
Yankee fan Baldwin and Red Sox fan Krasinski go to absurd lengths to trash the others teams, from trash talk, to practical joking, to arson, in this six commercial series.
Following the seasons of the two active knuckleball pitchers – Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, this documentary also explores the recent history of the pitch and the fraternity of its practitioners. Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough, among others, tell their tales.
Two decades after Bo Jackson thrilled baseball and football fans with his extraordinary on-the-field heroics, this ESPN documentary retells his story and brings us up-to-date on the man himself.
The story of Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball, from his 1945 signing, his year with the Montreal Royals, and triumphant rookie year with the Dodgers in 1947. Despite a few minor inaccuracies, one can never have enough of Jackie, his wife Rachel, and their triumphant entry onto America’s stage. Chadwick Boseman (Jackie), Harrison Ford (Branch Rickey) and Nicole Beharie (Rachel) star.
A documentary film about the Portland Mavericks, an independent team in the Northwest League in the 1970s. Owned by the character actor Bing Russell, and with a roster filled with an colorful collection of characters – including Kurt Russell (Bing’s son) and Jim Bouton (trying to get back to the major leagues) – the film is a mix of old footage and recent interviews.
This ESPN documentary looks back at the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked San Francisco’s Candlestick Park just prior to the start of Game Three of the World Series. The quake was responsible for 63 deaths (none at the park) and billions in property damage, and delayed the World Series for 10 days.
It isn’t exactly clear what they are selling (a car?), or what is happening, but the look, the music, the style, and the baseball is a pretty fun experience.
Richard Linklater’s love letter to college baseball in Texas in the early 1980s, it follows a group of young ballplayers finding their way in college and baseball. Considered a spiritual sequel to his classic film Dazed in Confused, which was set in high school a few years earlier.
This FOX television drama focused on Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) as she becomes the first woman to play in the major leagues. The series dealt with the typical struggles a young pitcher faces when joining a big league roster in addition to her pioneering status. Well-reviewed by critics, it lasted just 10 episodes.
Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film was produced and directed by Denzel Washington. Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a middle-aged former Negro League player struggling with the realities of living as an African American in post-war America. Viola Davis, who played Troy’s wife Rose Lee, won an Academy Award for her efforts.
This ESPN short film centers on Greg Marino, a forger who became expert at faking the signatures of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and many others, putting hundreds of thousands of fake autographs into the market in the 1990s. The FBI spent three years investing (“Operation Bullpen”) before breaking the case, leading to several indictments.
This IFC comedy series starred Hank Azaria as a famous baseball play-by-play announcer making a comeback in the minor leagues ten years after a public meltdown cost him his career.
This Netflix special is a visual rap album presented as if it were written and performed by Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire during their late 1980s Oakland heyday. Featuring the music of Lonely Island, with Andy Samberg as Canseco, and Akiva Schaffer (who co-directed with Mike Diva) as McGwire.