Traditionally speaking, the Oscars and baseball have gone together like…well, like Alex Rodriguez and humility. Not very well at all.
There have been a few Oscar-nominated baseball movies over the years, but not very many. And there have been a couple notable snubs too.
It just wouldn’t be an Oscar post without a discussion of snubs.
With the Oscars looming, let’s remember the handful of baseball movies that did make an impression on the Academy. And note a couple that were perhaps unfairly overlooked.
Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Made just a year after the Hall of Famer’s death, this heartfelt biopic of Lou Gehrig just about nailed every element, setting a bar that few other baseball biographies have been able to cross. Gary Cooper’s portrayal of Gehrig may be a tad too aw shucksy for belief, but Cooper remains charming and ultimately inspiring as the Iron Horse.
Oh, and the coolest thing about this movie? Babe Ruth appears as himself. Babe Ruth is always awesome.
The movie struck a chord with both audiences and the Academy, snagging 11 Oscar nominations. It would win only one award though: a trophy for best editing.
Fun fact: Cooper couldn’t bat left handed for crap so they had to shoot all his batting scenes with him hitting righty, then flip it in post-production (which meant printing the word “Yankees” backward across the front of Cooper’s uniform).
The Stratton Story (1949)
Another inspiring baseball biopic, this time starring Jimmy Stewart as real-life White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, who came back to pitch in the majors after losing a leg in a hunting accident. The guy pitched on a wooden leg? How’s that for moxie.
This is pretty meat-and-potatoes stuff, but it was good enough to snag an award for best screenplay. Like Pride of the Yankees – like I said, that one pretty much created the formula – the movie features several cameos by real ball players, including Bill Dickey.
Fun fact: Ronald Reagan was set to play Stratton but Warner Bros. refused to loan him out, fearing the movie would be a flop.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
The Oscars seemed to forget that baseball existed for the entirety of the ’50s and ’60s, then came Bang the Drum Slowly, an adaptation of a 1953 novel about a benchwarming catcher who learns that he’s dying.
The story revolves mostly around the friendship between the dying catcher, played in the movie by a very young Robert De Niro, and a star pitcher played by Michael Moriarty. The movie again follows the rough Pride of the Yankees formula – a pretty durable formula to say the least – but substitutes male camaraderie for a traditional love story.
The movie got one Oscar nomination…not for either of the lead actors, who are terrific, but for the always-great Vincent Gardenia as the requisite crusty manager.
Fun fact: Bang the Drum Slowly is purportedly Al Pacino’s favorite movie.
The Natural (1984)
Naturally, The Natural would be on this list. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel was one of the big event films of 1984, starring the legendary Robert Redford as an aging one-time phenom rising from the ashes to lead an also-ran ball club on an unlikely pennant chase.
This one maybe lays it on a bit too thick at times – exploding lights! – but there’s no denying the effectiveness of the movie’s storytelling, and there are some fantastic performances sprinkled throughout. The crowd-pleasing flick picked up four Oscar nominations, including one for its beautiful cinematography and another for Randy Newman’s memorable score, but came away without a statue.
Fun fact: Robert Redford modeled his swing after Ted Williams.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams is probably number one on more lists of Greatest Sports Movie than any other flick. Some may find its mix of fantasy and sentiment a bit hard to swallow, but there’s no denying the basic charm of the story, which follows a failing Iowa farmer on his gently crazy quest to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield so the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson can come back and play one last time.
The wacky premise yields a movie that hits just about every button, sometimes a little too much on the nose you could argue. But there’s no arguing the movie’s place in history as a classic baseball film. The Academy couldn’t ignore this one, nominating the movie for three Oscars including best picture. It won zero.
Fun fact: James Earl Jones’ famous speech made him the unofficial voice of the sport…which is funny because Jones admittedly doesn’t know or care anything about baseball.
Bull Durham (1989)
1989 was the Year of the Baseball Movie. Field of Dreams was the four-hanky male weepie (or dude-chick flick if you prefer), while Bull Durham was the sexy comedy.
What separated Bull Durham from the pack – making it way more interesting than a more traditional, cartoonish baseball comedy like Major League – was its marvelous Ron Shelton script. Shelton filled his story of life on a minor league baseball team with details he learned from being an actual minor league ballplayer, and that extra layer of realistic observation is what really gives the movie its punch and texture.
There are great characters, especially Annie Savoy the Confucius of baseball groupies, and there are so many fantastic moments that still live in pop culture lore. Say “he hit the bull” to a baseball fan and he will immediately know what you mean. Shelton’s script deservedly received an Oscar nomination, though it did not win.
Fun fact: Ron Shelton has not entirely ruled out the possibility of a sequel.
Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995)
There have been some fantastic baseball documentaries over the years, most notably Ken Burns’ epic Baseball series, but surprisingly few Oscar nominated baseball docs. Apparently the Academy is no more interested in true life baseball stories than it is fictionalized ones.
They made an exception in 1995 by nominating Michael Tollin’s documentary detailing Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and the racism that rained down on him from people who didn’t want a black man breaking Ruth’s hallowed mark.
Fun fact: Denzel Washington was an executive producer on this, which possibly explains its nomination.
Most of the other movies on this list share one thing in common besides baseball: they all lay on the sentimentality to one degree or another. It seems most of the time the only way the Academy can stomach a baseball movie is if it has been slathered in syrup.
Moneyball broke the mold a little bit by straightforwardly presenting its subject matter, keeping the inspirational nonsense to a minimum. The film is essentially an underdog tale presented in whiz-bang fashion (the pacing and dialog possibly help you not notice all the cliches).
It tells the more-or-less true story of A’s general manager Billy Beane and his efforts to break through the conventional wisdom of old school baseball men and push his revolutionary analytical approach to scouting. It sounds way too dry and baseball-nerdy to succeed as a movie, but they pulled it off (partly by overselling the underdog angle).
The flick became a critical darling, picking up six nominations including best picture. It won zero.
Fun fact: Art Howe criticized Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of him, but somewhat retracted his negative remarks after the actor’s passing.
A short list that should have been longer. How did these movies not get nominated?
The Bad News Bears
At the very least, the original Bad News Bears should have gotten Walter Matthau a best actor nomination. Is there a funnier performance than Matthau’s portrayal of the drunken little league coach Buttermaker? The script and direction are tight as well, and the kid acting is some of the most hilarious, natural, non-Hollywood-kid performing you will ever see. This is a movie you can throw on any time and have a laugh.
Eight Men Out
John Sayles’ absorbing account of the 1919 Black Sox scandal seems like the kind of movie that would at least snag a best screenplay nomination, but it didn’t happen. You can also make a case that John Cusack deserved a supporting actor nod for playing Buck Weaver. This one might have been a little too literary and complex for the Academy who seem to prefer treacly, simplified fables and cloying inspirational biopics when it comes to baseball fare.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
This portrait of Jewish baseball legend Hank Greenberg might be the greatest baseball documentary ever made. Like the story of Jackie Robinson, the story of Hank Greenberg has significance way beyond baseball itself. So it’s not strictly a baseball documentary, it’s a work about a significant historical figure. So why no nomination for best documentary? Dumb Academy rules. But not for those rules, this might have won the Oscar.