Ballparks have been the setting for some of Hollywood’s best loved sports films.
Baseball is such an integral part of growing up in the United States, that many actors have a natural feel and look when it comes to taking on the role of a ballplayer, even if they’ve never actually spent time on a diamond.
In fact, some of our most talented actors have been captured on screen as they roamed the infield, outfield, bullpen or dugout.
Here, in chronological order of the films as they debuted, are several Oscar winners who have portrayed baseball players on screen:
Gary Cooper – Oscar winner for “Sergeant York” (1941) and “High Noon” (1952)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)
The greatest of all sports biopics featured an actor who was quite an athlete in real life, though he never played baseball.
Montana native Gary Cooper was an avid outdoorsman and sportsman. He loved to hunt, fish, and ride horses. It was that last pursuit that gave him his trademark crooked gait, as he took advice from a misinformed doctor and rode his horses shortly after breaking his hip as a child.
By 1941, Cooper had established his on-screen persona as a quiet, noble hero. It earned him an Academy Award when he played World War I Sergeant Alvin York. Those qualities made him the perfect person in 1942 to play the similarly stoic Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig, who had tragically passed away the year before.
Cooper was reluctant at first to take the role, but Gehrig’s widow herself persuaded him. He’d never played baseball or had even seen a game in person (and was right handed, where Gehrig was a lefty) but soon became adept enough at it to resemble Gehrig.
Real Yankee players were cast in the film, including Babe Ruth. The most famous scene is when Gehrig steps up to the microphone at home plate in Yankee Stadium on July 4th, 1939, with Babe and his old team mates nearby, to deliver his farewell address.
No footage exists of the real-life speech, only written transcripts, so most people only know the movie version.
As is common in Hollywood, the speech was altered a bit to make it more dramatic. Gehrig’s line, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” came at the beginning of the actual address, but the screenwriters moved it to the end to give his exit (and he film’s finale) a more fitting emotional flourish.
Few people can avoid being moved after seeing Cooper deliver Gehrig’s speech then walk off through the tunnel with his wife, knowing that his days are growing short.
A decade after “Pride”, Cooper would win his second Oscar, for the film “High Noon”, but he is best remembered for his brief time in a Yankee uniform.
Ray Milland – Oscar winner for “The Lost Weekend” (1945)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “It Happens Every Spring” (1949)
Ray Milland grew up in Wales, so his exposure to baseball as a boy was limited. He moved to Hollywood as a young man, became a contract player for Paramount, and was often cast as British characters.
After his jarring 1945 portrayal of Don Birnam, an alcoholic wandering New York in Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” won him the Academy Award in 1945, Milland’s career as a leading man was on the rise. He received offers for roles written specifically for Americans. One of them was in 1949’s “It happens Every Spring.”
In that fantasy film, Milland played mild-mannered college professor named Vernon K. Simpson, who invents a substance that repels wood, and then realizes that it can be applied to a baseball and used to strike out batters. He subsequently quits his job to become a pitcher for Saint Louis, leading them to the World Series with his trick ball.
The MLB commissioner at the time, Happy Chandler, refused to allow real team names or logos to be used (only the names of cities appear on the uniforms) or to have actual players make cameos. He was concerned about the game being associated with cheating, even in a fictional setting.
Though the baseball scenes weren’t 100% accurate (shots of home games in Saint Louis were actually filmed in Los Angeles, with palm trees visible in the background, for example) audiences found the light comedy quite enjoyable. It usually pops up on TV in April for annual airings.
Milland made another baseball comedy two years later. In 1951’s “Rhubarb”, in which the title character, a feral cat, becomes the owner of a baseball team. Milland doesn’t take the field in that one, he plays the publicist for the team.
Unlike Milland, the cat did not go on to win any Oscars.
Frank Sinatra – Oscar Winner for “From Here To Eternity” (1953)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949)
If you’re going to make a baseball musical, who else would you cast but Frank Sinatra?
Old Blue Eyes, Sinatra, was a life-long baseball fan. His hometown, Hoboken, New Jersey, was the site of the very first organized professional baseball game, in June 1846.
By 1949, Sinatra’s music career was waning, so he turned to Hollywood. Director Busby Berkeley cast him, alongside noted hoofer Gene Kelly, as part of a vaudeville duo that also happen to be professional ballplayers.
Set in 1909, the fictional New York Wolves are inherited by a female owner. Sinatra’s character, Dennis Ryan, embraces the change, but his team mate and musical partner, Eddie O’Brien (Kelly) has doubts, and runs afoul of local gangsters in the process.
Only about a quarter of the action takes place at the ballpark, but Sinatra acquits himself well. He looks pretty graceful and fluid as a second baseman. The film is a fun romp, and did well at the box office (though the title was changed to “Everybody’s Cheering” for overseas audiences, who weren’t as familiar with baseball.)
Sinatra desperately wanted to establish himself as a serious actor, so in 1953 he took a risk and campaigned for the role of Private Angelo Maggio in “From Here To Eternity.” His work on that film was critically acclaimed, and won him an Oscar, launching the successful second act of the career of “The Chairman of the Board.”
James Stewart – Oscar winner for “The Philadelphia Story” (1940)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “The Stratton Story” (1949)
One of the most beloved of all Hollywood actors, Jimmy Stewart, had one of his biggest successes when he played baseball on screen.
Though Stewart is most commonly associated with the better known holiday season staple, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” that film was actually a flop. It was a small baseball movie that proved to be one of his biggest hits in an unusually lean box office period for him during the 1940s.
“The Stratton Story” is the film biography of pitcher Monty Stratten, a White Sox pitcher who is injured in a horrific accident, loses his leg and then defies the odds to climb all the way back to pro ball.
Hall of Fame Yankee catcher Bill Dickey makes an appearance in the film, which shot several scenes in real major league ballparks. Stewart does a decent job with his pitching form, not surprising since he was tutored by the real life Stratton. The producers wanted to cast Gregory Peck in the role, but Stratton insisted on Jimmy Stewart.
This was also the first on-screen pairing of Stewart and June Allyson, who would go on to play husband and wife in two other films, including a biography of big band leader Glen Miller.
Robert DeNiro – Oscar winner for The Godfather Part II (1974) and Raging Bull (1980)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “Bang The Drum Slowly” (1973)
Robert DeNiro had yet to develop the “DeNiro” persona in 1973. He was at the dawn of a film career that would lead him to become one of the most iconic and imitated actors in Hollywood history.
It was that same year that he appeared in one of his first screen roles, playing against type as a dim-witted catcher from the deep south, Bruce Pearson. Michael Moriarity plays his best friend, Henry, a pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths. Bruce happens to be dying, so when the team’s manager, Dutch, threatens to cut him loose (unaware of the diagnosis) Henry has it written into his contract that Bruce must stay for the entire season. The Mammoths reach the World Series, after which Bruce goes home to Georgia to die.
Given DeNiro’s legendary preparation and focus, it’s no surprise that he acquits himself well as a catcher (and as a Georgia native.) Some of the other actors aren’t as convincing, but a young Danny Aiello is a standout and looks like someone who’s played in more than a game or two.
Though the team is called The Mammoths, their uniform is modeled on the classic Yankee pinstripe look. The movie was shot in Yankee Stadium, just before George Steinbrenner bought the team and completely remodeled the ballpark. Shea Stadium in Queens also provides the backdrop for some scenes, as the producers worked their shooting schedule around dates when the Yankees and the Mets were on the road.
DeNiro would soon be on the annual list of Oscar nominees, but he was passed over for this film. Vincent Gardenia, who played his manager, Dutch, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.”
Louis Gossett, Jr. – Oscar winner for “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “Don’t Look Back” (1981)
Brooklyn native Lou Gossett, Jr. was such an excellent basketball player growing up that he was good enough to be drafted by his hometown New York Knicks.
A move to Hollywood led to a part alongside Sidney Poitier in 1961’s “Raisin In The Sun.” Gossett’s star rose from there. In 1977, he was one of the featured players in the landmark TV mini-series event, “Roots.” Five years afyer that, he made history by following in Poitier’s footsteps to become only the second African-American to win an Oscar. He did so for his role as a tough Navy drill instructor in “An Officer and A Gentleman.”
One year before the film that got the Academy’s notice, Gossett starred in a small biopic about the amazingly ageless Negro League ballplayer Leroy “Satchel” Paige. It was called “Don’t Look Back.”, which was a reference to one of Paige’s most famous quotes, “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.”
Paige’s career brought him acclaim as one of the best pitchers to ever play the game. Due to segregation, Paige didn’t make it to the major leagues until he was 42 years old, but his fastball was still speedy enough to strike batters out.
Sadly, while the storytelling in this film was sound, the ballplaying wasn’t. Gossett does a good job recreating Paige’s motion, but the director didn’t use any trickery to make the pitches look faster. Some of the other actors on Gossett’s team also look like it’s the first time they’ve ever held a bat or put on a glove.
Nevertheless, “Don’t Look Back” brought Paige and his fellow Negro League players to the attention of a new generation of fans. It still does to whoever watches it, and that is a very good thing indeed.
Robert Redford – Oscar winner for “Ordinary People” (1980) – won for directing
Portrayed a ballplayer in “The Natural” (1984)
As a high school player in Van Nuys, California, Robert Redford was a team mate of future Dodger Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. Some of that baseball magic must have rubbed off on Redford, as he starred in what many consider to be among the best of all baseball films, 1984’s “The Natural.”
Based loosely on Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a naturally gifted fair haired young pitcher whose promising career is derailed by a tragedy as a young man. He makes a comeback as a slugger at age 35, leading the fictional New York Knights to a miraculously spectacular pennant winning finish. (His ninth inning home run sailing into the light towers, causing a shower of fireworks like explosions as Hobbs circles the bases is still used regularly on the big screen at ballparks to stir emotions.)
No less than Hall of Famer Ted Williams praised Redford for his batting style and motion. The Hollywood star took it as a great compliment, because it was actually film of Williams that he studied while preparing for the role.
Director Barry Levinson added in touches of Greek mythology and Camelot myths to make this film feel grander than any other sports film that had been made up to that date.
To maintain authenticity, an old minor league stadium in Buffalo (since demolished) was used to stand in for a 1930s era New York City stadium.
Robert Redford never made another baseball film after that, which is a shame, because fans could have watched him swing for the fences over and over again.
Kevin Costner – Oscar winner for “Dances With Wolves” (1990) – won for directing
Tim Robbins – Oscar winner for “Mystic River” (2003)
Portrayed ballplayers in “Bull Durham” (1988)
All of the films on the list so far have dealt with major league teams and players. 1988’s “Bull Durham” had a different perspective, showing us life as a pro ballplayer in the minors, before making it to the “show.”
Kevin Costner plays Crash Davis, a veteran catcher at the end of his career, who is roped into being the tutor for an up and coming high priced phenom pitcher named Nuke LaLoosh (Robbins.)
There’s tension between the two, as the mentor/student relationship goes back and forth. Susan Sarandon (another future Oscar winner) complicated things as a character named Annie, who gets intimately involved with both Crash and Nuke.
Robbins was passable as the fireball tossing rookie with the quirky motion, but it was Costner who stole the show.
Kevin Costner is, arguably, the best equipped actor to have ever played ball on screen. He needed no training for the role. The switch-hitting star could often be found, before and after shooting, in the batting cage. He actually hit two home runs – one from each side of the plate – while the cameras were rolling.
The authenticity of this film goes beyond Costner’s prowess.
The writer/director, Ron Shelton, spent years as a journeyman minor leaguer. His experiences, good and bad, all made their way into the screenplay. About fifty actual minor league players were recruited to play the team mates and opponents of Costner’s Durham Bulls. It added to the realism.
Unlike Redford, Costner returned to the diamond twice more.
In 1989’s “Field of Dreams” he plays an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball field on his farm against the advice of his family and friends. His dream is rewarded when the ghosts of legendary players visit the field. In the end, Costner gets to have one last catch with his late father, reducing audiences and grown men everywhere to tears.
Ten years later, Costner played another guy at the end of his career, this time in the majors. In 1999’s “For the Love of the Game”, his Billy Chapel is a Tigers pitcher reminiscing about his life and career while in the midst of pitching a perfect game at Yankee Stadium.
In 2005, he took the role of an alcoholic former pro turned talk show host dealing with family issues in “The Upside of Anger.” Though he’s not shown playing baseball, he talks a lot about his passion for the game, which comes natural to Kevin Costner.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if he suits up again someday.
Geena Davis – Oscar winner for “The Accidental Tourist” (1988)
Tom Hanks – Oscar winner for “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994)
Portrayed ballplayers in “A League of Their Own” (1992)
One of the lesser known baseball stories is that of the women’s professional baseball league that thrived in the midwest during World War II, when many male players were off fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
Producer Elliott Abbott, writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and director Penny Marshall brought the story of those pioneering female players story to the nation’s attention with the 1992 film classic “A League of Their Own.”
Filled with characters, language, and tones that perfectly evoke that era, “League” was a masterpiece, aided largely by a cast that handled themselves well on the ball field. Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty and even pop star Madonna, at the height of her fame, all had to endure rigorous training with pros to make the baseball scenes look authentic.
Debra Winger was originally set to star as catcher Dottie Hinson, but she dropped out at the last minute. Oscar winner Geena Davis was hired. A natural athlete, Davis mastered the game in a short time and was soon out shining her co-stars.
To play the manager of the Rockford Peaches, Jimmy Dugan – who was based on a composite of Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson – Penny Marshall chose her star from “Big”, Tom Hanks. Unlike Davis, he had yet o win an Oscar. Hanks was known more for light comedy, so he was perfect for the part of the washed up, whiskey addled former superstar who wants no part of the new league and is coerced into the job.
The scenes when Davis and Hanks challenge each other on the field are perfect. Both are quite believable. When the real life All American Girls League reunites in Cooperstown at the conclusion of the film (with an actress that is a dead ringer for an aged Davis) it is quite moving.
It’s something that’s spoken, not done, in the film that has had the most lasting impact, however.
When one of his players breaks down into tears after a botched play, Dugan/Hanks screams, “Are you crying?! There’s no crying in baseball!!”
That line, delivered perfectly by Hanks, was voted as #54 on the list of most memorable movie quotes of all-time by the American Film Institute.
Not bad for a little baseball movie.
Tommy Lee Jones – Oscar winner for “The Fugitive” (1993)
Portrayed a ballplayer in “Cobb” (1994)
Ty Cobb was, no doubt, one of the greatest to ever play the game. He was, however, not so popular with some of his fellow players.
Cobb could be at times, according to accounts from his day, a cranky, outspoken, bitter, and even prejudiced person. He didn’t hold anything back, which alienated friends and fans alike.
To play Cobb on film, director Ron Shelton (of “Bull Durham” fame) chose an actor whose public persona is that of a wise yet cantankerous grump.
Tommy Lee Jones is a gracious man in person, but he is excellent at playing characters that don’t suffer fools gladly. Cobb fit that mold.
Since the majority of the film is told from the perspective of Cobb in the twilight of his life, there aren’t many scenes of Jones playing ball. Nevertheless, as the consummate actor and former star of Harvard’s football team, Jones trained hard to show Cobb’s skill and speed as a runner in the sole flashback scene. He actually broke his ankle and injured his leg sliding into base. For most of the film Cobb/Jones uses a crutch, cane, wheelchair, or just hobbles around slowly.
Hollywood biopics usually become the legacy of their subjects, fair or unfair. In this case, it’s the latter.
Most of “Cobb” is based on the stories of sportswriter Al Stump, played by Robert Wuhl in the film. Stump traveled with Cobb when he was older and did many interviews. After Cobb’s death, Stump printed stories that painted the Hall of Famer as a borderline evil monster, who would sharpen his spikes to injure opponents and who regularly insulted anyone who didn’t agree with his racist views.
Much of Stump’s work has since been discredited as fabrication, but it’s hard to rein in those myths, especially when they are immortalized on film forever.
There is a book coming out in May, meticulously researched and writen by award winning author Charles Leerhsen, called “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.” With any luck, this book will go a long way towards restoring some of the reputation that was tainted by the one sided Hollywood portrayal of “The Georgia Peach.” It’s well worth reading.
Burt Lancaster – Oscar winner for “Elmer Gantry” (1960)
Portrayed Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams” (1989)
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Oscar winner for “Capote” (2005)
Portrayed Art Howe in “Moneyball” (2011)
Jeff Bridges – Oscar winner for “Crazy Heart” (2009)
Portrayed Kyle Garrett in “The Open Road” (2009)
Tatum O’Neal – Oscar winner for “Paper Moon” (1973)
Portrayed Amanda Whurlizer in “The Bad News Bears” (1976)
Walter Matthau – Oscar winner for
“The Fortune Cookie” ( 1966)
Billy Bob Thornton – Oscar winner for
“Sling Blade” – won for writing (1996)
Both Portrayed Morris Buttermaker in
“The Bad News Bears” (1976 and 2005)