Monday, July 10, 2017

Every Yankee-Themed Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

It's Summer, which means Summer blockbuster movies. As good a time as any to look at movies about the New York Yankees.

Which are must-see, and which are a must-to-avoid?

The following only includes films that are actually about the Yankees as a team, or individual Yankees. It doesn't include newsreels, documentaries (of which there have been many), shorts (such as the ones Babe Ruth made in 1932, like Just Pals) or movies in which the Yankees are the bad guys (Major League, the U.S. version of Fever Pitch, and, in a way, The Bad News Bears).

Nor am I including films where the Yankees are only tangentially involved, including Speedy (1928, Harold Lloyd is a Yankee Fan cabdriver who takes the Babe to Yankee Stadium and stays for a game, and Lou Gehrig is also in it). Nor am I including cameos, so if you're a Red Sox fan looking to see me rate The Other Guys, which has Derek Jeter playing himself getting shot, forget it.

16. The Babe Ruth Story. 1948. William Bendix, best known for the early TV series The Life of Riley (and its catchphrase: "What a revoltin' development this is!") was shaped like the Babe, but that was about it. It's not the worst baseball-themed movie ever, but it is absolutely ridiculous. As Bob Costas has remarked, Lou Gehrig has it all over Ruth in one regard: The movies about Gehrig are good, while the movies about Ruth are all awful. Well, maybe not all of them.

15. Safe at Home! 1962. Somebody thought it was a good idea to capitalize on the previous year's chase of Ruth's single-season home run record by Mantle and Maris. Maybe the idea was good, but the execution thereof was not. Talk about a revoltin' development: They almost broke Bendix' record for worst movie involving the Yankees!

Later that year, Mantle, Maris and Yogi Berra had cameos as themselves in That Touch of Mink, with Cary Grant and Doris Day spending a minute in the Yankee dugout with them. Art Passarella, former umpire better known as the ump on the game show Home Run Derby, plays the ump who throws all 3 Bronx Bombers out of the game. Between them, they speak exactly 17 words, and it's still better for them than Safe at Home!

14. Babe Comes Home. 1927. Hard to tell about this one, since it's considered "lost," though still photos survive. It was apparently about an hour, give or take a few minutes. Most likely, as with the next item on our list, it was the Babe doing what Elvis Presley -- another "King" who ended up getting fat and dying too soon on an August 16 -- would later do: Play a barely fictionalized version of himself. We may never know how good it is. But it had to have been better than The Babe Ruth Story.

13. Headin' Home. 1920. It's a silent hour and 11 minutes of Babe Ruth, riding the first crest of his New York fame, playing a country bumpkin (which he, in real life, most certainly was not) who wins people over with his hitting. By the standards of the time, it's about average. And it's still better than The Babe Ruth Story.

12. The Babe. 1992. Following the NBC film Babe Ruth was a mistake. This might as well have been a remake of The Babe Ruth Story. John Goodman may be the only actor who's ever had to lose weight to play the Bambino. He's a great actor, but nobody could take seriously a 39-year-old, 275-pound man playing the strapping 19-year-old athlete the Babe was as a rookie in 1914.

And this movie doesn't even pretend to tell the truth: It's about the myth, not the man. We see the Babe hanging manager Miller Huggins off the caboose of a speeding train (which never happened, or he would have gone from Yankee Stadium to Sing Sing). We see the Babe promising to hit a home run for a sick kid (which happened, but very differently). And we see the Babe pointing and hitting a home run to the spot where he'd pointed (which is a misinterpretation of something that actually did happen). Aside from sweeping shots of current Yankee Stadium in the opening credits, Wrigley Field in Chicago stands in for the pre-renovation Stadium.

Perhaps, someday, someone will make a good movie about Ruth. This isn't it, even as a tribute to the myth.

11. Babe Ruth. 1991. By far the best movie about Ruth, which isn't saying much. This NBC TV-movie stars Stephen Lang, who would also appear in The Bronx Is Burning as the leader of the Omega Task Force, the NYPD unit focusing on the Son of Sam. (ironically, Lang had also played a New York serial killer, in the 1990 film The Hard Way.)

Good jobs are done by the actresses playing the Sultanesses of Swat: Trini Alvarado as Helen Woodford, and Kelly McGillis as Claire Hodgson. Bruce Weitz (Belker on Hill Street Blues) is great as Huggins. And Cleveland Municipal Stadium stands in for the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium.

10. Insignificance. 1985. Four icons get together under odd circumstances in 1954, and although they are not named, you know who they are. Gary Busey plays "The Ballplayer," obviously meant to be DiMaggio; Theresa Russell is "The Actress," Joe's then-wife Marilyn Monroe; Tony Curits is "The Senator," Joe McCarthy -- definitely not to be confused with the man of the same name who was Joe D's former manager -- and Michael Emil is "The Professor," Albert Einstein.

There is no baseball action, and as for levels of (in)significance, Joe might as well have not been in this film. That, alone, doesn't make it a bad film. But I wouldn't recommend it even to fans of Marilyn or Einstein.

It's also worth noting that most film portrayals of DiMaggio are in movies about Marilyn, most recently by Jeffrey Dean Morgan in 2015's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. He was played by Michael Nouri in 61* (great job, if only onscreen for a minute) and Christopher McDonald in The Bronx Is Burning (good acting from the man who played Mel Allen in 61*, but I would never have mistaken him for the Yankee Clipper).

9. Rawhide. 1938. Although also a Western, it has nothing but a title in common with the 1950s TV series that helped launch Clint Eastwood to fame. Lou Gehrig plays a fictionalized version of himself, who ends his legendary streak to go West and become a cowboy, and ends up saving ranchers from a criminal enterprise, much as Tom Mix, or later Roy Rogers or John Wayne, would have done. Lou was a better actor than the Babe, but that's like saying Chase Headley is a better 3rd baseman than Randy Velarde.

Aside from a cameo as himself in the 1937 gangster flick Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, Joe DiMaggio did no acting, although he did lots of TV commercials for the Bowery Savings Bank and Mr. Coffee.

8. Joe Torre: Curveballs Along the Way. 1997. A quickie USA Network film based on the 1996 season and Torre's even-quickier memoir Chasing the Dream, Paul Sorvino makes a convincing Torre, but the film is more about him than the team.

Interestingly, while several Torre family members, George Steinbrenner, Bob Watson, Reggie Jackson, Don Zimmer, Mel Stottlemyre, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, Mariano Duncan, and even Ted Turner, Torre's boss when he was manager of the Atlanta Braves, are portrayed in this film, there is no character based on Derek Jeter. Nor is there one based on Mariano Rivera. Maybe they were key figured in the 1996 title, but, at the time, they weren't considered that significant in Torre's story.

7. Everyone's Hero. 2006. A cartoon set during the 1932 World Series, focusing on the theft of Babe Ruth's living bat (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg). Our hero (Jake T. Austin), who's in New York, has to get her back to the Sultan of Swat (Brian Dennehy) in Chicago in time for him to call his shot. Joe Torre does the voice of the Yankee manager of the time, Joe McCarthy. It's fluff, but it's fun fluff.

6. The Scout. 1994. Albert Brooks plays a scout that the Yankees banish to the Mexican League after one of his signings goes bust. He finds a hotshot pitcher played by Brendan Fraser, who comes with his own problems.

This film is totally fiction, and it's a comedy. Judged on that basis, it's all right. Yankee Stadium looks great. And George Steinbrenner does all right playing himself. But if you're looking for Yankee glory, well, look elsewhere.

20th Century Fox scheduled it for release on September 30, 1994, just as the Playoffs were supposed to begin, but then came the strike, and, despite the success of Ken Burns' nostalgia-tugging Baseball documentary miniseries on PBS, nobody was interested in spending $4.00 to watch a baseball movie. It would have been better if they had waited a year to release it.

5. The Pride of the Yankees. 1942. Gary Cooper looked like Gehrig, but he didn't sound like him, and had never played baseball before. They had to make a reverse Yankee uniform for him, so he could bat righthanded, and have him run to 3rd base, and then flip the film. (This would also be done for Anthony Michael Hall in 61*: Though he looked and sounded like Whitey Ford, try as he might, he couldn't look right throwing lefthanded.)

This movie isn't really about baseball, or about a baseball player. It's a rags-to-riches story, and a romance, and (spoiler alert) a tearjerker, and the guy involved just happened to have been one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived.

Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel and Mark Koenig play themselves. The footage of the various 1930s American League ballparks is priceless. And while the Lou Gehrig Day speech isn't word-for-word -- the key line is at the end, not near the beginning -- it's very close to what Gehrig actually said, and it's still very poignant. Until the 1970s, this was probably the best baseball-themed movie ever made.

4. Casey Stengel. 1981. Charles Durning does a terrific job as the Ol' Perfesser in this CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame film, even though, physically, he more resembled Casey's mentor, John McGraw. He admitted that speaking "Stengelese" wasn't easy: "It's my first role in a foreign language!"

3. A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story. Based on Eleanor's memoir My Luke and I, this is a better movie than The Pride of the Yankees, because it shows Lou (Edward Herrmann) and Eleanor (Blythe Danner, a.k.a. Gwyneth Paltrow's mom) honestly dealing with Lou's domineering mother, instead of treating her like a laughable character like the '42 film does. It also shows the final effects of the disease that now bears Lou's name, which the Hays Code (1934-68) would never have allowed.

Honorable Mention. The Sandlot. 1993. Ruth is name-dropped and nickname-dropped. A ball he signed is the movie's "MacGuffin." Art LaFleur, who also played disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox player Chick Gandil in Field of Dreams, plays his ghost in a dream sequence. And a photograph of him and Gehrig appears near the end, with the face of a young James Earl Jones, playing an ex-Negro Leaguer, airbrushed over a well-known image of Ruth and Gehrig flanking Jimmie Foxx.

Like I said: Perhaps, someday, someone will make a good movie about Ruth. This is a very good movie with a character based on Ruth, but it's not about him.

2. 61*. 2001. Billy Crystal directs the story of Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) chasing Ruth's single-season home run record. While some reporters are composites, and a few mistakes sneak in, most of the details are right on. With help from computer-generated imagery, Tiger Stadium in Detroit stands in for the old Yankee Stadium.

The language is a little off-putting, and I sure hope the way Mel Allen (Christopher McDonald) treated Phil Rizzuto (Joe Grifasi) in the broadcast booth wasn't real.

And, as Crystal admits, he showed Mickey, "warts and all," and there's lots of moments where Number 7 is far from heroic. Along with scenes where he seems like the biggest hero on the planet.

Nevertheless, the era is captured beautifully, and everybody looks like a ballplayer. (Crystal had former Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Reggie Smith, conveniently a switch-hitter who could teach hitting either way, as an on-set coach.) Not quite the best movie about the Yankees, but the best tribute to the Yankees ever put on film.

There's been movies made about the 1961, 1977 and 1996 Yankees. But not 1927 (Ruth and Gehrig in "Murderer's Row"), or 1941 (DiMaggio's hitting streak). The 1977 one is the best of the bunch.

1. The Bronx Is Burning. 2007. Based on Jonathan Mahler's nonfiction book about New York City in 1977, this 8-part ESPN miniseries weaves together the Yankees' season, the City's Mayoral election, the NYPD's hunt for the Son of Sam, and the various weird things that happened in the City in the sizzling Summer of '77, from the heat wave and the blackout, to the disco culture and the "human fly" who climbed the World Trade Center.

Much of the real footage, including the WPIX and ABC telecasts, is used. This led to 2 mistakes that the trained eye could catch. One scene shows Lou Piniella getting thrown out at the plate against the Kansas City Royals, and having a fit at being (correctly, I might add) being called out. That happened in Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series. The way you can tell is that 1978 was the 1st year in which the Royals had their names on the backs of their uniforms. In 1977, they didn't. The other is that an overhead shot of Anaheim Stadium shows the football bleachers already erected, which didn't happen until 1979.

Also, the Miller Lite beer commercial with Billy and George is depicted, but it wasn't filmed until a year later, after Billy had "resigned." Those mistakes didn't bother me. Nor did the fact that, while most films made about the Yankees since the 1976 renovation of the old Yankee Stadium have had to use other ballparks to stand in for The House That Ruth Built, this film took place after the renovation, yet still used a minor-league ballpark (Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Connecticut) and CGI to simulate Yankee Stadium as it looked in 1977.

Nevertheless, I have 2 complaints about this film. One is that the only music in it was Ramones songs. I would have had no problem with having a Ramones song or two in it, but there were other key musical acts that year. Maybe putting the Eagles' "Hotel California" in over scenes of Los Angeles as the Yankees went out there to play the World Series would have worked.

My other complaint is that the film not only took Robert Ward's word for it that what he wrote in his SPORT magazine article on Reggie happened word-for-word, but that they cast Ward to play himself. The real Reggie was so angry about this, and the other ways he was portrayed, that he wrote a new memoir, Becoming Mr. October, in an attempt to set the record straight. Both Reggie and Ward are still alive, and each man still stands by his version of the story.

Despite those things, this is a great film. John Turturro was both scary-good and downright scary as the tormented, and tormenting, Billy Martin. Oliver Platt doesn't look much like Steinbrenner, but he had everything else right: The voice, the mannerisms, the clothes (George didn't always wear a navy blue blazer over a white turtleneck), and the combination of outward bluster and inward vulnerability. And Daniel Sunjata, as the series went further along, became more and more convincing as Reggie. Three guys who all had something to prove: To the public, to each other, and to themselves. And were a lot more like each other than they were willing to admit.

Joe Grifasi, who played Rizzuto in 61*, did a better job as Berra here. (Rizzuto, who died around the time the miniseries premiered, is heard on the broadcasts, but never seen.) The aforementioned Christopher McDonald made 3 brief appearances as DiMaggio. Mantle and Ford were also briefly shown in the movie, drinking with Martin at the bar where Ward interviewed Reggie, but while Tom Wiggin played Ford, I can find no reference to who played Mantle.

Kevin Conway played team president Gabe Paul. Erik Jensen was Thurman Munson. Mather Zickel was Piniella, Alex Cranmer was Graig Nettles, Loren Dean was Fran Healy, and Leonard Robinson was a hilarious Mickey Rivers. Charles S. Dutton plays Yankee broadcaster Bill White, conducting postgame interviews for ABC after the World Series win.

Unlike in 61*, the real reporters' names were used. Josh Pais played Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News, and the real Pepe (who has since died) had a cameo as a reporter trailing Steinbrenner. Louis Mustillo played Maury Allen of the New York Post, Alan Ruck played Steve Jacobson of Newsday, and the real Allen (who has since died) and Jacobson (still alive) not only served as consultants (as did Nettles and Healy), but stood alongside their portrayers during the clubhouse celebration after the World Series was won.

There's lots of great performances in the non-Yankee parts of it, too, although only file footage is shown of the Mayoral race. I guess it was too much to ask to find actors who could play beleaguered incumbent Mayor Abe Beame, the brilliant but dour Mario Cuomo, minority candidates Percy Sutton and Herman Badillo, and such over-the-top figures as Bella Abzug and the eventual winner, Ed Koch. The scene where Billy and Reggie discuss the race is both funny and poignant.

But Michael Rispoli was perfect as Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, and Sean Martin Hingston as his Post rival for Son of Sam coverage, Steve Dunleavy.

And great jobs were done by Lang, Dan Lauria, Nestor Serrano and Casey Siemaszko as the Omega cops. Paul Marini, playing Berkowitz, is shown only in shadow, and file footage of Berkowitz' arrest is shown.

This is in contrast to the only other major feature film about New York in 1977: Spike Lee's 1999 Summer of Sam, which cast Michael Badalucco as David Berkowitz, and the aforementioned John Turturro as the imagined voice of Harvey, the dog of neighbor Sam Carr, whom Berkowitz claimed told him to kill. The real Breslin both opened and closed that film.

Summer of Sam mentioned the Yankees in passing -- including a character stupidly presuming that Reggie might be the killer, because of the Number 44 and, before the nickname-producing letter arrived, the killer was tagged "The .44-Caliber Killer" -- and doesn't really depend on them for the plot, so I can't include it in this ranking.

But if 61* is a majestic home run into the upper deck like Mantle used to hit, The Bronx Is Burning is a multi-run bottom-of-the-9th inning rally. Because of how good it was, and because of what those late 1970s Yankees meant to me then, and mean to me now, it remains the only DVD of a film I have ever bought on the day of its release. It is the best movie yet made about the Yankees. Anyone who wants to beat it, I look forward to your effort.

*

Oddly, in spite of all the drama they've produced, there aren't many movies about the Mets. But Crystal did wear a Mets cap in City Slickers, apparently because they were willing to give him permission, and the Yankees, for whatever reason, weren't. (By the time he made Mr. Saturday Night, they'd changed their mind, and allowed a character based on Mantle to be shown from the back, in his Number 7 uniform.) And Frequency (1999), a sort-of time-travel story, has the 1969 World Series as a plot point.

"I'm still here, Chief."

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