With the unexpected and unqualified financial and critical successes of first Moneyball and now 42, it seems we've entered a Golden Age for baseball movies about things that actually happened. And thanks to the wonders of CGI, a filmmaker's palate is now more expansive than ever when recreating old-time baseball. And there are reportedly more such movies coming, including films about the death of Ray Chapman and the famous Family Swap of '73 (although the latter seems to be on the back-burner, at best).
Still, I got to wondering which subjects might make for the best movies as the studios cast about for material to satisfy what seem to be the public's rabid cravings for well-made baseball movies. And so I turned to some people who think about this stuff even more than I do ...
Allen Barra: The funniest baseball movie never made is the story of Bill Veeck; he even left us with a great title, Veeck as in Wreck. Start with this: Bill Murray has wanted to play him for years. Think about it: as Eddie Gaedel's coming to bat, can't you hear Murray touting him as "The best damn midget who ever played big league ball?" (Who would play Eddie? Can't you just see Peter Dinklage glaring up at the pitcher?)
Max Patkin, "The Clown Prince of Baseball," could be played by Robert Wuhl, Satchel Paige by SNL's Jay Pharoah (he's 6-2 and young, but he plays older very convincingly). And so on. The only problem would be finding an actor to play the young Veeck in flashbacks, but Jason Sudeikis could do it.
Imagine the chaos of Disco Demotion Night (video), as they blow up the crate of disco records and fans storm the field!
Here's another, I think the best Negro Leagues story never told: Effa Manley, the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Let's call the movie Black Ball: The Effa Manley Story (the Black Ball, of course, having double meaning). Effa's life is fascinating from birth; there are several stories about her parentage, but my favorite is that she was the daughter of a black seamstress and a white Philadelphia stockbroker.
Picture Nicole Beharie (Rachel Robinson in 42) as the young Effa and Don Cheadle as her husband, Abe, who initiated her into the world of baseball. In her later years, when her husband becomes ill and she takes over sole ownership of the Newark Eagles and winning the 1946 Negro League World Series, Effa could be played by Viola Davis (nominated for an Oscar for The Help).
You could get into this movie some things you couldn't in 42, such as owners like Branch Rickey helping bring out the demise of the Negro Leagues (there was no love lost between Mrs. Manley and Mr. Rickey). You could also show the breaking of the color barrier from the inside with characters like Larry Doby (let's have him played by Donald Glover), who played for Manley in Newark.
Extra Added Bonus? Birmingham's Rickwood Field, the country's oldest standing professional ballpark, can play all the Negro League parks.
Allen Barra's new book about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle will be published next month.
Bill James: With a little luck, there is a very powerful movie within the story of Cap Anson. Anson was the giant figure of 19th century baseball, the elephant in the closet, so to speak. I have compared him to John Wayne -- a large, loud, blustering man, the ultimate take-charge cowboy who brooked no nonsense from anyone and had a broad definition of nonsense.
In a very real sense, it was Cap Anson who invented Major League Baseball -- not the "baseball" part of it, but the "major league" part. Before Anson, the National League teams competed with one another by trying to steal the best talent on the other teams. Anson's innovation was to scour the other leagues, and to take away their best players. The practice of doing this drove the quality of the National League up, and the quality of the other leagues down, which created the "layers" of quality that define professional baseball to this day. Anson was responsible for many other innovations and inventions in the early days of the game, and he was, for a time, the greatest manager in the game.
And there are so many stories about him, stories that we know are true. In the 19th century, teams kept horses at the park to pull the lawn-mowing equipment. The horse who did this for Anson's team hated Cap Anson, for reasons unknown, and one time the horse got out of its little pasture and chased Cap Anson all over the playing field, in full view of the spectators.
Anson was a theatrical man who loved to play dress-up. There are dozens of stories about Anson appearing in public in costume. One time the press was talking a lot about his age, so he dressed up in a "old person's costume" -- white wig and a cane -- and came to home plate in that regalia. And, in a time when many athletes drank heavily and were finished by age 30, Anson was still a very good major league player when he was well past 40. It does reflect something remarkable within the man. In winters and after his retirement as a player, he was a professional actor, appearing on stages and in vaudeville for many years. "A better actor than any ballplayer; a better ballplayer than any actor"; that was his slogan.
But the story of Cap Anson is not a cheerful story; it is, rather, a tragedy with many light moments. We all know for what Cap Anson is most famous now. He was the Alpha to Jackie Robinson's Omega. But that's an important story, too: to get people to understand that the evil of racism does not originate in a desire to be evil, but from a warped understanding of propriety. Cap Anson was a racist, and he was a bully, and he was proud and stubborn and obnoxious, and at the end of his life he was widely admired but impoverished and almost without friends. It is a story with an arc, a story with a destination. It might work, and that is as much as one can say for any movie idea.
Bill James works for the Boston Red Sox as Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations.
Bob Costas: Here's the movie I'd like to see, although it would be a tough one to do well: a biopic of Barry Bonds. It's a more complex story than just the great ballplayer turned superhuman by steroids and setting bogus records in the process. It's much more than just his talent and defiance, and more than just his general unpopularity and pockets of support. Bonds is highly intelligent and has many of the qualities -- good looks, a winning smile, humorous when he wants to be -- to have been overwhelmingly popular, had other forces not been at work within him. His dad, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, etc. are all are spectres in this story in one way or another.
Was there massive ego, resentment, hubris and duplicity involved? Of course. But he was/is also capable of compassion and generosity. He had unbending will and extraordinary athletic discipline, and an ultra-keen baseball IQ. All part of a compelling and conflicted personality.
I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who famously said, "Youth is wasted on the young." With the help of performance-enhancing drugs, Bonds turned that axiom on its head, achieving greater physical prowess in advanced athletic age than he ever had as a younger man. He was then able to combine that with all the accumulated baseball knowledge of a long playing career and an entire life spent around the game. A kind of perfect storm. Inauthentic to a large degree, but also fascinating. If some combination of screenwriter, director, and actor can get to the heart of this nuanced story, it would make a hell of a film.
Among his many notable feats, Bob Costas hosts MLB Network's Studio 42.
Brian Kenny: How about a guy who:
1. Played with Ruth and Gehrig on the Yankees;
2. Was captain of the Gas House Gang;
3. Was the manager of the Dodgers when Jackie Robinson broke into the majors;
4. Was suspended by MLB for consorting with gamblers (and marrying a starlet?);
5. Jumped to the arch-rival Giants for the Shot 'Heard Round the World, Willie Mays' debut, and the '54 World Series sweep of the 111-win Indians;
6. Took calls from Frank and Dino in the dugout;
7. Managed the '69 swoon of the Cubs; and
8. In his final managerial stint, famously told Jerry Reuss he took him out because "I didn't want the married men in the infield killed."
Leo Durocher seems like an interesting guy to me. One of the first real baseball books (not including kids' books) I read was Ed Linn's Nice Guys Finish Last. Durocher is a fascinating trip into the very real world of old-time baseball, with many of its hard-living, hard-drinking characters. What a movie that would make.
Don Zminda: The Baseball Movie I Would Like to See ... I thought about this a lot last night, and the one that appealed to me most was a film based on G.H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season. It's a great story about the 1908 National League pennant race, with amazing characters: John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Iron Man McGinnity, Luther Taylor, the Cubs of Tinker, Evers, Chance, and Three-Finger Brown. Then there's the insanely passionate fans and writers, the umpires and league officials, the vilification of Fred Merkle, the exploits of Harry (The Giant Killer) Coveleski, the clumsy attempt to fix the final game against the Cubs ... it's nonstop action from beginning to end.
And if you want to take it beyond that game, the story ends with the Cubs winning their last World Series for the next 100-plus years (and counting) ... over Ty Cobb's Tigers. Cinematically it works on a lot of levels: the passion, the trickery, the recreation of America in 1908 ... and I'm seeing the screen scrolling at the end, where they tell you what subsequently happened to McGraw, Merkle, Coveleski, Harry Pulliam and the other key players. I think this has the makings of a great movie. (Well, I'd line up to see it, anyway.)
Don Zminda is the Vice President / Director of Research for STATS LLC and the editor of Go-Go to Glory: The 1959 Chicago White Sox.
John Thorn: Well, gosh I would like to see a movie about Albert Spalding, his World Tour, his romances, his illegitimate son who was farmed out, renamed, and adopted; his shrewish wife and the Theosophical movement and Madame Blavatsky (and Abner Doubleday!) and the fraudsters who tried to hijack the history of baseball. But that's just me, and to be expected, I suppose.
I could go on, but in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I already have. Another great story would be John Ward and the Players' Rebellion, the marriage with Helen Dauvray, the adulteries and divorce, the intersection of baseball with the sporting and theatrical and political cliques.
If early baseball does not set your spine atingle as it does mine, I think a GREAT picture could me made of Ted Williams's life. In Seasons of the Kid, back in 1991, Richard Ben Cramer, Dan Okrent, Mark Rucker and I produced a damn fine psychobiography, and this is the way to go. I'd open the film with Ted's head in a vat, narrating and setting the scene. The title of Cramer's essay -- "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" -- might be the film's title.
John Thorn has written many outstanding baseball books, and currently serves as Major League Baseball's Official Historian.
Joe Posnanski: Well, of course the next big baseball movie should be about Buck O'Neil, right? Morgan Freeman as Buck. I have it all plotted out.
The trouble with making a great baseball movie -- and I thought the 42 people did a great job with this -- is that it's very difficult, almost impossible, to recreate the way great baseball players played the game. That's why the Babe Ruth movies have all been terrible. The Ruth story, essentially, is a baseball story. And no actor can bring to the screen the power and essence of Babe Ruth as a baseball player.
I mention this because I think Roberto Clemente's life would make for an amazing movie. But, again, how will you recreate Clemente on the field? How can you bring to the scene his arm, his energy, the way he ran, the way he swung the bat? I thought the 42 people did it brilliantly. One, Chadwick Boseman got many of the little details right (the way he held his bat, the way he ran). Two, they mixed the camera angles so you never got too much of one look. Three, the CGI effects of the baseball stadiums and the high-speed pitches were so gorgeous and striking that you forgave the small flaws. And four, they focused much off the action away from the field or away from the baseball itself. I don't know if you could do that and pull off Clemente.
But he's the obvious choice, I think.
Bob Feller would also make for a great movie, though I'm not sure what the second act would be. Josh Hamilton would make for a great and gritty movie, but I'm not sure what the ending is. Pete Rose would make for a great movie but I don't think people leave the theater cheering. You could always try to do Babe Ruth again.
Truth is, Jackie Robinson is the best and most important story in baseball history ... and it's a pretty long way down to No. 2, I think.
Joe Posnanski is NBCSports.com's Senior Baseball Writer, and his fine books include The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America.
Michael Schur: Baseball's infinite season and ponderous pace suggest two categories of movie: (a) comedy, and (b) weepy romantic tear-jerking emotional father-kid-psychological-journey Americana sincerity festival. There hasn't been a funny baseball movie -- an intentionally funny baseball movie -- since Major League. That was the Golden Era of funny baseball movies, in that there were two in two years (with Bull Durham). It's time for another.
I should add that if you played Field of Dreams for me right now, at 8:41 AM on a Saturday, I would start crying, and I would not stop until the last headlight on the last car in line had faded from view. I love those movies, unabashedly. I probably would've cried at Trouble With the Curve if I hadn't been so annoyed at the basic premise that I refused to see it on principle. But baseball is funny. Not metaphorically funny; actually funny. It's weird and goofy and attracts odd personalities and has a thousand nooks and crannies perfect for comic situations. I'd like someone to remake Alibi Ike maybe, or find another Ring Lardner story that could translate to modern times. There is crying in baseball, despite what Jimmy Dugan says, but enough is enough. Baseball is ridiculous. Time for laughing.
Michael Schur is the co-creator and Executive Producer of television's Parks & Rec.
Richard Lally: Idols who suffer precipitous falls long have held a twisted fascination for me, so my screenplay would assay the life of Shoeless Joe Jackson, after the Black Sox scandal had tarnished his name. Our leading character is an ill-educated man whose genius for hitting and catching a baseball had made him one of the most popular figures in the country, and then he agrees to participate in a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series and trades the sunshine of universal adulation for the darkness of widespread condemnation. My film would pick up where John Sayles's film left off, long after Jackson's barnstorming days had ended. What was it like to awaken every morning bearing the mark of Cain? That's what my movie would ask. How did Jackson's neighbors, family and friends treat him? How did he react to the vicious taunts and damning silence that often greeted him in public?
The screenplay would explore whether Jackson ever found the courage to confront the act that ultimately defined him; or did he have to tell himself lies to make it through each day? From what we know of Jackson, ending the film in typical Hollywood fashion, on a note of redemption, would render the story false. Instead, the final scene would take place in the liquor store Jackson owned near the end of his life. Ty Cobb, his former rival as the best hitter in the American League, is buying a quart of whatever the Georgia Peach was imbibing back then, and Jackson waits on him without showing even a hint of recognition. After a few moments, Cobb leans over and asks, "Don't you know me, Joe?"
"Sure I know you, Ty. I just didn't think you wanted to know me. I lot of them don't." That single moment perfectly captures the shame Jackson probably carried to the grave. Life must have been hell for him, and journeys through the lower depths often make for high drama.
Scott McCaughey: Has there really never been a proper Roberto Clemente movie? His story seems ripe for the telling. Clemente came into baseball with double trouble -- a "black" Puerto Rican, dealing with both language and color barriers in the late 1950s. Clemente's flair for style both on and off the field, as the swingin' '60s became the '70s, would play well on the screen. And the absurd, courageous, tragic circumstances of his last ride (as so well chronicled in David Maraniss's biography) deserve to be depicted dramatically on the big screen. Yes, we know how it ends, but that didn't stop La Bamba or The Buddy Holly Story from knocking it out -- at least commercially -- of the proverbial park. As for who would play Roberto ... I wonder if Yoenis Cespedes can act? He's got the other tools.
Rob Neyer: My sincerest thanks to everyone for participating. I wouldn't mind seeing someone get Babe Ruth right, if only to wash the sight of Big John Goodman out of my eyes. Ball Four might make a good comedy, especially since the actual book already contains more funny lines than you could squeeze into a screenplay. But what I would really love to see is a movie about Charlie Finley's A's. The Mustache Gang. You could focus on just one of their World Series appearances, and get in Finley and Reggie and Bowie Kuhn and a bunch of other wonderful characters. Oh, and the street clothes!