Load up on some peanuts and Cracker Jacks on your way to the movies this weekend: 42, the latest in a long string of baseball movies, is about to slug its way into theaters.
42 tells the true-life story of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the man who broke baseball's color line by becoming the first black player to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. 42 offers everything you'd expect from a Hollywood sports biopic: Period trappings, dazzling recreations of bygone ballparks, and Harrison Ford delivering a grizzled supporting performance that has Oscar-bait written all over it. But for all its strengths, 42 is just the latest baseball-inspired blockbuster to step up to the box office plate, following in the footsteps of some hits (Moneyball) and some misses (Trouble with the Curve).
Though movies have been based on almost every sport imaginable, Hollywood has long had a special relationship with baseball, and for good reason: The sport commonly described as America's Pastime has been responsible for more big-screen hits than hockey, basketball, and football combined. Not every baseball movie has managed to hit it out of the park — but for every middling Ed, Summer Catch, or Little Big League, there's a whole roster of bona fide classics like A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams, and The Natural. Baseball has been the basis of everything from biopics to kids flicks; dramas to documentaries; and musicals to Madonna movies. If you build a baseball movie, audiences will come. But why does baseball have such a unique place in the sports movie hall of fame?
The enduring success of baseball movies can be attributed, in part, to the real-life sport's lasting popularity. Baseball has for well more than a century been an intrinsic part of American life, tied up with childhood dreams, hometown pride, politics, and even the metaphorical language we use on a day-to-day basis (not to mention throughout this column!). And of course, baseball remains incredibly popular today. Sure, TV ratings have fallen, but attendance at Major League games is as high as ever. Last year almost 75 million of us went out to the ballgame; that's 10 million more than showed up to see the country's other four major league sports combined.
But that's only part of the story. After all, these movies are popular around the world; even in countries where audiences don't know their RBIs from their ERAs, baseball films have flourished. And baseball movies haven't just busted blocks commercially. With the possible exception of boxing — a sport which shares baseball's innate ability to depict a quintessentially cinematic rags-to-riches story — no other sport can claim to have created as many critically adored or award-nominated movies.
The real explanation for the box-office dominance of baseball movies has less to do with the nostalgia, popularity, or history of baseball and more to do with the structure of baseball. Baseball, more than any other team sport, is inherently cinematic, offering ample opportunities for filmmakers to show both the strengths of an individual athlete and the power of working as a team. One incredible hit, or perfect strikeout, can turn an entire game around — but a game can't be won unless every player is working in tandem. Need an individual conflict? Give us a face-off between a pitcher and a batter. Need an ensemble moment? Show us how the team collaborates on an amazing play.
And it doesn't hurt that baseball also looks more cinematic than any other team sport; unlike the cookie-cutter courts of the NBA or the paint-by-numbers arenas of the NHL, the gorgeous, gargantuan ballparks of Major League Baseball make an ideal movie backdrop. Baseball may not have been invented by Hollywood, but Hollywood has certainly managed to make the sport's most cinematic qualities shine.
The best baseball movies aren't just sports movies; they're a cinematic language unto themselves, a collection of time-honored clichés and conventions that make up the language of baseball films, which is understood by audiences the world over, some of whom have never picked up a bat themselves. Baseball may be America's pastime — but thanks to Hollywood, it's also the world's favorite kind of sports movie.