The golden age of baseball movies dawned 30 years ago this week

[David O'Keefe | Times files]
[David O'Keefe | Times files]
Published June 15 2018
Updated June 15 2018

"Walt Whitman once said, 'I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the America game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.' You can look it up.'' 

– Annie Savoy

Thirty years ago this week — June 15, 1988 — the movie Bull Durham, starring Kevin Costner, opened in theaters across the country. Thus kicked off the golden age of baseball movies. Over the next 10 months, three more classic baseball movies would be released.

In September of 1988, Eight Men Out, based on Eliot Asinof's fascinating and incredibly detailed account of the Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919, was released with an ensemble cast of young stars including John Cusack and Charlie Sheen.

In April of 1989, a screwball comedy that was a tad cliched and sappy, yet crudely funny came out. It was called Major League.

Then three weeks after Major League hit movie screens, Costner returned to put an exclamation point on the era and turned grown men into a blubbering pile of tears with Field of Dreams.

Not only was it the golden age for baseball movies, but the quartet of classics renewed interest in the genre, inspiring even more great baseball movies in the years that followed: A League of Their Own (1992), The Sandlot (1993), Rookie of the Year (1993) and Little Big League (1994).
But what was it about the four movies that made them so special and carved out a spot in not only in baseball history, but film lore?

Here's a look back at all four films:

Bull Durham

Orion PicturesKevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. [Photo provided]

Why it worked: It embraced everything that the minor leagues (and baseball) was known for, yet did it in a way that wasn't cliched. From what exactly is said when there's a meeting on the pitcher's mound to baseball groupies to those goofy minor-league promotions. It made viewers, for the first time, feel like they were really going inside the world of baseball. But it was more than a baseball movie. It was about religion and, mostly, relationships. The relationship between a man and woman, and the relationship between people and baseball. While wickedly funny and quotable, it was also poignant and, at times, sad. A perfect movie and, by far, the best baseball movie ever made.

Most interesting character: Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). The glue of movie who is everything baseball is: smart, funny, sexy and completely compelling.

Underrated character: Teddy, the Bulls radio announcer played by Garland Bunting, who in real life used to bust up moonshine stills for the state of North Carolina.

Best scene: When Crash tells Nuke to hit the mascot. When Nuke does, Crash tells the other team's batter, "I wouldn't dig in if I was you. Next one might be at your head. I don't know where it's gonna go. Swear to God.''
Best line: Sorry, but we had to edit some of this Crash Davis speech: "Well, I believe in the soul … the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot … opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.'' Annie responded: "Oh my.''

Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in ‘Bull Durham’ – TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

What almost ruined the movie: Tim Robbins' pitching delivery. Nothing can ruin a sports movie quite like an actor who doesn't look like a professional athlete. Robbins looked like he learned how to pitch a week before the film started shooting. His awkward delivery is noticeable, and almost messed up everything. Almost. Fortunately, Robbins' charisma overcame his pitching woes.

Cool fact: The film was shot in November (notice the players' breath in game scenes) and filmed at night to hide all the brown leaves on the trees around the stadium.

Eight Men Out

D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen and John Cusack (l-r) play member of the talented Chicago White Sox in ‘Eight Men Out’, an incisive depiction of the notorious ‘Black Sox’ scandal which rocked the world of baseball. Credit: The Moive Channel.

Why it worked: Because it never took sides in baseball's biggest controversy and it fully explained all the details of why the White Sox fixed the 1919 World Series. The players were sympathetic but not completely innocent. The attention to detail — from how everything looked (clothes, uniforms, cars, hotels, city streets) in 1919 to the baseball particulars — was spot-on. The viewer is transported in time and emerges feeling very conflicted and saddened by the greatest sports scandal of all-time.

Most interesting character: White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte. Underappreciated by this team, then blackmailed by bad guys, Cicotte's character, played exceptionally by David Strathairn, wholly explains how players could be bought to throw the biggest games of their lives.
Underrated characters: Sportswriters Hugh Fullerton and Ring Lardner, played by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel and John Sayles, who directed and wrote the screenplay.

Best scene: All the baseball scenes. It's incredibly difficult to recreate baseball scenes that look authentic, especially with equipment from a century ago, but Sayles made sure the baseball on the field was as accurate as the drama off the field.

Best line: Little kid to Shoeless Joe Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe. Say it ain't so.''

What almost ruined the movie: Nothing. Nothing came close to ruining this movie. It's that good.

Cool fact: D.B. Sweeney, the actor who played Shoeless Joe Jackson, played minor league baseball before injuring his knee in a motorcycle accident. He learned how to bat lefty so he could accurately play the Jackson.

Major League

Publicity still of Wesley Snipes, Charlie Sheen in Major League

Why it worked: Because it never tried to be something it wasn't. It was over-the-top, the baseball scenes were outrageous and, of course, you knew exactly how it was going to end: that the team would win, the guy would get the girl and everyone would live happily ever after. They weren't trying to re-create real baseball or portray real life. It was a goofball comedy with unrealistic scenes and scenarios and remained true to that concept that wasn't meant to be taken seriously. Even the side love story with Tom Berenger and Rene Russo worked. Major League wasn't trying to be a great movie and, because of that, it turned out to be a great movie.

Most interesting character: Harry Doyle. Hey, anytime Bob Uecker is around, he's the most interesting guy around.

Most underrated character: Team owner Rachel Phelps, played wickedly well by the late Margaret Whitton.

Best scene: Pedro Cerrano, played by Dennis Haysbert (the president in 24 and the voice of Allstate commercials), hits one fastball after another over the wall, leaving manager Lou Brown to wonder why no one else pick up on this guy. When he swings and misses at a curveball, Brown says, "Oh.''

Best line: Announcer Harry Doyle: "Juuuuust a bit outside.''

What almost ruined the movie: The dumb scene at the end when Jake Taylor called timeout in the batter's box and gave everyone the bunt sign. I know this isn't supposed to be real baseball, but seems like that scene was written and filmed (what an awful-looking bunt, too) in 20 minutes.

Cool fact: Like baseball itself, Major League had a steroid scandal. Sheen once told Sports Illustrated that he took steroids for a few weeks to get ready for the film. Sheen told SI, "My fastball went from 79 to like 85.''

Field of Dreams

Ray Liotta, left, and Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.” (Universal Pictures)

Why it worked: Because it romanticized baseball without being overly sentimental. (Okay, it did tug on the heart strings a little too hard, but it's intentions were in the right place.) Plus, the story was completely science fiction and fantasy (dead baseball players walking out of cornfield?) and yet somehow seemed … realistic. It reminded all of us of why we love baseball. No baseball movie ever had more heart.

Most interesting character: Archie "Moonlight'' Graham (Burt Lancaster is his final major film role). He showed how much baseball means in our lives, until we find more important things in this world.

Most underrated character: Annie Kinsella, the supportive wife played by underrated actor Amy Madigan.

Best scene: When Moonlight Graham steps off the field and back to modern day to save little Karin from choking on a hot dog.

Best line: "If you build it, he will come.''

What almost ruined the movie: Oh my gosh! The most emotional moment of the movie is when Ray plays catch with his dad, who was supposed to be this really great catcher. One problem: the dad didn't look like a baseball player. You could tell just by watching him catch and throw. He looks, I don't know, awkward, uneasy, unnatural. And the thing is, it wasn't as if the actor who played Ray's dad was someone famous brought in for their incredible acting skills. It was a bit part that could have been played by anyone. Why not get a guy who could throw and catch better? The other nit: in order to allow Ray Liotta to play Joe Jackson, the let Liotta throw lefty and bat righty even though Jackson was the opposite in real life. Good thing the rest of Field of Dreams is so good.

Cool fact: The book (Shoeless Joe) was different that the movie. In the book, the reclusive author was actually a real-life writer: J.D. Salinger. Also, in the book, Ray has a great relationship with his late father. It's his twin brother (who doesn't exist in the movie) who was estranged from his dad. I might have given a lot away there, but if you've never read the novel, you should. It's wonderful.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones.

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