Commentary

Baseball movies … they're back!

'Million Dollar Arm' lands in what might be a new golden age of baseball films

Originally Published: May 16, 2014
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Decades later, you still hear these lines repeated around the bar, in the stands and at company softball games, as well as inside major league clubhouses and dugouts.

"There's no crying in baseball!"

"Just a bit outside."

"If you build it, he will come."

"Candlesticks always make a nice gift."

"Losing is a disease."

[+] EnlargeThe Natural
Juergen Vollmer/Getty ImagesIn 1984, Robert Redford played Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" and ushered in a series of classic baseball movies.

By the way, that last line is not from a Cubs manager. Baseball movie fans will recognize it from "The Natural," the 1984 film starring Robert Redford that began baseball's first golden era on the silver screen.

From 1984 to '92, Hollywood released five of the most popular baseball movies ever made: "The Natural," "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," "Major League" and "A League of Their Own," plus the critically praised but commercially unsuccessful "Eight Men Out." If you adjust their box office receipts for inflation, "The Natural," "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams" and "A League of Their Own" all grossed more than $100 million in 2014 dollars, according to IMDB, while "Major League" came very close ($95 million). The original "Bad News Bears" and "The Rookie" are the only other baseball movies that cracked that mark. (No revenue information is available for 1942's "The Pride of the Yankees.")

Helped by the performances of such past and future Oscar-winning actors as Redford, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, James Earl Jones, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins, those golden era movies still resonate. Cleveland reliever and film major John Axford calls "Bull Durham" an iconic baseball movie "filled with one-liners that baseball players still use all the time."

We also hear the music all the time. When a player hits a dramatic home run, the stadium loudspeakers often play Randy Newman's theme to "The Natural" while we picture Redford circling the bases. (Never better than in NBC's mix of film and real life after Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.)

[+] EnlargeMadhur Mittal
AP Photo/Disney/Ron PhillipsActor Madhur Mittal plays one of the two pitchers from India in "Million Dollar Arm."

This weekend's release of Disney's "Million Dollar Arm," which is about an agent's search for pitchers in India, raises the possibility that we might be seeing a second golden era of baseball movies. After all, Hollywood has produced several relatively successful baseball films in the past three years, including the Academy Award-nominated "Moneyball" in 2011, "Trouble with the Curve" in 2012 and "42" last year. The appeal of those three movies attracted major stars such as Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford.

So is baseball ready for its close-up again? Ummmm, maybe. But don't count on it.

"There is no chance of another wave like that, because the business has changed dramatically since I made mine and others made theirs," says Ron Shelton, the writer/director of "Bull Durham," "Cobb" and others. "The foreign market was a very small part of the equation. And now it's the biggest part.

"Nobody cared if 'Bull Durham' didn't do well in the foreign market as long as it did well domestically. I've been trying to get another baseball movie made for 10 years. It's pretty much driven by the economic equations now."

Shelton says the earlier wave of baseball movies was mostly coincidental, and St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press film critic Chris Hewitt agrees.

"I think it's cyclical, honestly," Hewitt says. "There have been good baseball movies since then -- 'The Rookie' and the Jackie Robinson one wasn't bad -- and there's at least one every spring. I do know that, prior to 'Bull Durham' and 'Major League,' baseball movies were considered 'box office poison.' Studios thought then the key to reversing that was finding baseball movies that would appeal to women."

Well, it worked. Sarandon helped turn "Bull Durham" into a lasting hit. Showing that women could play baseball also translated into fans. In terms of both actual and inflation-adjusted dollars, "A League of Their Own" is baseball's highest-grossing movie, with $108 million in 1992 box office receipts, or roughly $182 million in 2014 dollars.

"I tried to put a woman in the middle of my movies because I needed to get the women into the theater," Shelton says. "It's not as shameless and mercenary as I just made that sound, but a sports movie has to appeal to a broad range of people. And the sports guys will go to a movie with a chip on our shoulders, because we know what the real thing is, so we want to see how a guy's swing is. So I have to convince the hard-core guys with chips on their shoulders and their wives and girlfriends who didn't want to come in the first place."

Maybe Jon Hamm should've been seeking female pitchers in India in "Million Dollar Arm."

More specifically, perhaps he should've been looking for girl pitchers -- "Bad News Bears" pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer, where are you? -- because Hollywood is geared to younger audiences more than ever these days. Robert Wuhl, who played the pitching coach in 1988's "Bull Durham" and co-starred with Tommy Lee Jones in 1994's "Cobb," says movies of that golden era were made to appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience than most films now are.

[+] EnlargeRobert Wuhl
AP Photo/Krista NilesRobert Wuhl, a "Bull Durham" veteran, has an idea about the state of the baseball flick.

"In the movie business today, I'd say eight out of 10 films are geared to the young franchise, so you're playing toward a younger demographic," Wuhl says. "For the most part, baseball movies aren't geared for the age 12-to-24 demographic, I don't think. They may appreciate them, but I don't think that's the target audience."

By "franchise," Wuhl is referring to movies with mega-sequel potential, usually involving superheroes ("The Avengers"), vampires ("Twilight") or book series ("The Hunger Games").

Baseball movies have had very few franchises. "Major League" spawned two sequels, each less successful than the previous, but the only really successful baseball movie franchise was the "The Bad News Bears" series. The 1976 original took in $134 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, led to two sequels that combined for an inflation-adjusted $100 million, prompted a TV series and a 2006 remake that made another $40 million.

So perhaps Hollywood just needs to make a movie about an underdog team of mutant Little Leaguers being saved from certain ruin by David Wright as Captain America.

"Or vampires," Wuhl says. "If 'Million Dollar Arm' does really well, there will be some sort of sports movie where somebody is going to cross over with a zombie or a vampire. I guarantee it. 'Hey, what if the guy was a vampire?' Because you're making movies for an audience that is that young, that goes for that sort of thing. That's 85 to 90 percent of the audience. And it transfers overseas."

[+] EnlargeMajor Leagues
Look for the Major League/Major League II Double Feature DVD in stores July 15th©2014 Paramount Pictures. ©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Inc.Corbin Bernsen, Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen turned "Major League" into a major hit in 1989.

Which brings us back to Shelton's earlier point. Hollywood isn't as focused primarily on the American market as it was 30 years ago. The foreign market is an enormous part of the business now, which is why we see so many comic book movies. Spider-Man or Iron Man fighting a supervillain translates much better overseas than Aaron Sorkin dialogue, no matter how brilliant that dialogue might be.

"Traditionally, baseball movies do not travel well overseas because they don't understand baseball at all," Wuhl says. "That's a big reason you don't make [a lot of] baseball movies now -- because there's no foreign market. And the foreign market is where the business is all headed. 'The Avengers.' 'X-Men.' 'Godzilla.'

"Maybe 'Million Dollar Arm' will, because it's got a lot of Bollywood attached to it. There is a possibility of that having some foreign market sales."

Much of "Million Dollar Arm" is filmed in movie-passionate India, and the movie is based on the intriguing true story of the two pitchers who became the first athletes from that country to sign professional baseball contracts in America. The buzz about it has been promising, and we'll see whether it draws in audiences here or in India.

But how well the movie does at the box office and with the critics is only part of the equation. The other part is whether it will have lasting resonance with fans the way those baseball films of the golden era do. Despite their relative success, the recent baseball movies have yet to reverberate that way.

For instance, "Moneyball" has some terrific dialogue, courtesy of Sorkin's screenwriting. But how often do you hear lines from that movie repeated, other maybe than Ron Washington telling Scott Hatteberg and Billy Beane that playing first base is "incredibly hard"? (In real life, 'Wash' used a somewhat earthier adjective than "incredibly.")

[+] EnlargeJohn Hamm
AP Photo/Disney, Ishika MohanThat's Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein in "Million Dollar Arm." Much of the movie takes place in India.

" 'Moneyball' is for women who want to look at Brad Pitt, and fantasy baseball geeks," Wuhl says.

For that matter, have you heard anyone repeat a line from "42" or "Trouble with the Curve" recently? And will fans be quoting Hamm's character in "Million Dollar Arm" at the end of this summer, let alone decades from now? Or even be watching the movie decades from now the way many fans still watch "Bull Durham" or "Field of Dreams" or other classic baseball films?

There is a scene in "Million Dollar Arm" in which Hamm's character, agent J.B. Bernstein, and his girlfriend, Brenda, are sitting at home and watching Gary Cooper/Lou Gehrig's famous "Today, I consider myself ..." speech at the end of "The Pride of the Yankees." Brenda, played by Lake Bell, weeps during the speech and asks J.B. why he isn't crying, too. Bernstein replies that he did cry -- the first 35 times he saw the scene.

Which just goes to show that Tom Hanks was wrong in "A League of Their Own," that there is crying in baseball. Meanwhile, here's hoping that, like "The Pride of the Yankees,'" "A League of Their Own," "Bull Durham" and "The Natural," Hollywood produces some more baseball films that make fans cry and laugh and memorize quotes and watch them again and again and again.

So cross your fingers that Shelton gets the green light for his movie about a Yankees pitcher reinventing himself in a Latin American league.

"I hope I can call you one day and say, 'OK, we finally beat the model. We've got another one coming out.' "

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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