One area where movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age lack in quality – and even quantity – is baseball films. It is rare that a genre from that time pales so much to recent films, but this one does, especially compared to baseball movies from the 1980s.
One reason is because other sports, such as boxing and horse racing, were far more popular than currently and there were ample movie choices during that time when it came to those subjects.
What baseball movies that were made during the period were usually underwhelming and not very factual biopics or fantasy stories. Here are some Golden Age baseball movies of interest:
- 1) “Fireman, Save My Child” (1932) – Comedian Joe E. Lewis is a baseball player, fireman, inventor, and also pretty annoying as the movie progresses. This is the first of a trilogy of Lewis baseball movies, and for his fans only. The baseball scenes are shot in California’s Wrigley Field.
- 2) “Elmer, the Great” (1933) – Based on the Ring Lardner play, this is the second Joe E. Lewis baseball film and very similar to the first. Instead of a pitcher, however, this time he’s the next great slugger. The baseball scenes are bad and filled with blunders. Watch for a pre-code four-letter word from Lewis very late in the movie.
- 3) “Alibi Ike” (1935) – This is the final, and best, of the Joe E. Lewis baseball trilogy. The baseball scenes aren’t any better, and there is the glaring mistake of claiming that a Chicago Cubs home game is under the lights. But the comedy and story are better than the first two, and there is also the presence of Olivia de Havilland in the second movie she made, but the first one released. The New York Times called the future two-time Oscar winner “a charming newcomer.”
- 4) “Home Run on the Keys” (1937) – This is a 9-minute musical short in which Babe Ruth helps write the title song, directs an orchestra, and “explains” the called shot from the 1932 World Series.
- 5) “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942) – Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the biopic of Lou Gehrig is easily the best film on this list and one of the greatest baseball movies ever. Gary Cooper is perfect as Gehrig, who died the year before the movie release at age 37, and was nominated for Best Actor. The movie is worth watching if for nothing else but to the see the “luckiest man” speech, one of the most famous scenes ever in a biopic. Several baseball players appear as themselves, most notably Babe Ruth. Gehrig, by the way, played himself, in a 1928 Harold Lloyd comedy called Speedy, which also featured Ruth, and starred in a 1938 B Western called Rawhide, where he played himself as a baseball player turned rancher.
- 6) “The Babe Ruth Story” (1948) – This has the dual distinction as one of the worst biopics and one of the worst baseball movies made. Babe wasn’t the best physical specimen, but rotund 42-year-old actor William Bendix is greatly miscast, although he was a New Yankees batboy in the 1920s. The film was rushed for release while Babe was alive. He died three weeks after watching it.
- 7) “It Happens Every Spring” (1949) – A scientist accidentally discovers how to make a baseball that is repelled by wood, so he decides to leave for St. Louis to pitch. The Disney-like formula has dated effects, and the premise really makes no sense. It’s interesting to see the normally debonair Oscar-winning Ray Milland as a baseball player, but he and Paul Douglas both look uncomfortable.
- 8) “The Stratton Story” (1949) – This is a biopic of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, who lost a leg in a hunting accident. James Stewart plays the title role, so that alone makes it worth watching. While there are some factual blunders, the baseball scenes and road life are pretty realistic, especially for a film this old. June Allyson played Stewart’s wife in three movies and their chemistry is probably best in this one.
- 9) “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1949) – This is much more a musical than baseball movie, and only an OK one, despite the presence of Gene Kelly, a big baseball fan who came up with the idea of the movie, and Frank Sinatra as baseball players. Esther Williams seems out of place as the team owner, and it would have been great to see original choice Judy Garland.
- 10) “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950) – This biopic, which came out four years after Robinson began his major league career, is very subpar. It doesn’t come close to delving into what Robinson went through – and wouldn’t in a 1950 film – or what he was like. The only reason to watch the movie is because Robinson plays himself.
- 11) “Angels in the Outfield” (1951) – Janet Leigh is a reporter who believes the Pittsburgh Pirates are bad because manager Paul Douglas is mean and uses bad language. The prayers of an orphan girl and a change in Douglas produces a different team. The movie features great cameos, including Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner, and Bing Crosby, who was a minority owner of the Pirates.
- 12) “The Pride of St. Louis” (1952) – This biopic of Hall-of-Famer Dizzy Dean is highlighted by a realistic script and a very good performance from Dan Daily. The movie focuses more on Dean’s relationships with his wife and brother/teammate than baseball, and the best part is his post playing career fame as an announcer. This isn’t as good as “The Pride of the Yankees” but still very much worth watching.
- 13) “The Winning Team” (1952) – This is a pretty good biopic of Hall-of-Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, played by Ronald Reagan, although a modern version would probably detail his off field problems in more detail. The baseball scenes are pretty good, but this is more a love story, with focus on supportive wife Doris Day.
- 14) “Big Leaguer” (1953) – This is an interesting movie that follows New York Giants wannabes through a training camp. It’s done somewhat in documentary style, with a few interesting subplots. Star Edward G. Robinson, as he always does, enlivens the movie, and Hall-of-Famer Carl Hubbell plays himself as a Giants front-office man.