Baseball Movie Tropes

Every film genre has a series of tropes, or clichés. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the films. It just means that they like to employ some relatively predictable devices from time to time. Baseball movies are no exception. When you’ve seen as many baseball movies as I have, it’s impossible not to notice the clichés piling up. Here are nine. Because the number nine is pretty sacred when it comes to the game of baseball:

The coarse, grouchy, elderly manager
Seemingly every baseball team in Hollywood is helmed by multiple variations of the same guy. He’s almost (but not) always old. He swears a lot. He’s always grouchy about everything. In the parlance of people in the game, the manager “has the red ass”. He’s pissed off and you’re always going to know it.
Examples: Morris Buttermaker (The Bad News Bears); “Skip” Joe Riggins (Bull Durham); Lou Brown (Major League); Pop Fisher (The Natural); George O’Farrell (Little Big League); Jimmy Dugan (A League of Their Own)

Newspaper montages
Baseball seasons are long. Teams play every day from April through the end of September at least. No baseball movie could withstand the weight of all of that exposition, trying to detail how a team is doing. The solution to this problem almost always involves newspaper montages featuring headlines. The newspapers occasionally spin. In at least one case (Eight Men Out), the newspaper is used to illustrate what’s going on off the field, when the “Black Sox” go to court.

Examples: Major League; Eight Men Out; The Natural; 61* 

Fans singing/chanting in unison for a protagonist
Call it the “Rocky” effect. As I mentioned earlier, baseball’s seasons are long. After 162 games of ups and downs, when baseball movies reach their denouement, fans simply must show their appreciation for certain players by chanting their name, or possibly singing for them. Or maybe… they’ll flap their arms like angel wings (whatever).
Examples: The Natural; Major League; Angels in the Outfield; 61*

The wily veteran
Lots of baseball movies revolve around underdog teams overcoming the odds and blah blah blah. Fun stuff. But they had to be bad first before they could learn to be good. And to learn to be good, they must have “the wily veteran” on their team. The wily veteran is a calming influence in the clubhouse. He teaches younger players about their mistakes, and helps them avoid future errors (no pun intended).
Examples: Little Big League; The Rookie; Bull Durham; A League of Their Own; Major League; Soul of the Game; The Natural; 61*

The cheap, petty owner/front office type
As teams are working hard to overcome long odds, as the underdog of course, there must be something standing in their way. Something other than the opposing team has to provide tension. Enter the owners and/or general managers. These people in the baseball universe are only concerned with profits. They hate seeing their players reach incentives; their teams winning the pennant; or their players stiffing the media. They always have an ulterior motive that lies detrimental to the team’s success, most often revolving around saving money.
Examples: Eight Men Out; The Natural; Bang the Drum Slowly; 61*

The nosy asshole writer
Writers have a job to do, and it involves digging as deeply as they can- no matter how personal the information they acquire- to get a story. They have to sell newspapers, after all, and dragging people into the mud sells. This isn’t always portrayed negatively. For instance, in Eight Men Out, the writers are working in favor of bringing negativity to light and cleaning up the game. All the same, their digging is a crucial piece of the film.
Examples: Eight Men Out; Cobb; The Natural; 61*

Scores featuring trumpets and french horns
American essayist Gerald Early once said, “I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball.” Mr. Early nailed it. Baseball is very much a uniquely American game, regardless of whatever advantage football has gained in popularity. And baseball movies love to play up this fact. They treat the game like Proust’s madeleine, using it to evoke memories of simpler times and childhood dreams. To drive it home, most baseball films employ swelling, sweeping scores that are heavy on the brass, especially trumpets and french horns.
Examples: Field of Dreams; The Natural; 61*

The space cadet
Baseball players are known as flakes. They have goofy rituals. They behave in odd ways. They say squirrely things, sometimes wise, usually “out there”. The stereotype is especially true of pitchers. The wily veteran has to teach somebody, and the space cadet is usually the recipient of the wisdom.
Examples: Bull Durham; The Scout; The Soul of the Game; Fear Strikes Out; Death on the Diamond

People dying or becoming hospitalized
Often, it’s used as a rallying point for the team. This isn’t always the case. When you get right down to it, it’s very odd that so many baseball movies feature people injuring themselves or, worse, dying. In at least two cases- Field of Dreams and Angels in the Outfield- many of the film’s characters are already dead before the movie has even started.
Examples: Death on the Diamond; Bang the Drum Slowly; The Natural; Major League II; Field of Dreams; 61*; Angels in the Outfield  


20 Comments

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20 responses to “Baseball Movie Tropes

  1. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Major League had at least one space cadet to choose from. Pedro Cerrano and his sidekick Jobu might qualify. Of course, even Cerrano doesn’t reach Jim Edmonds-level space cadetism.

    • The most obvious “space cadet” in that movie is Vaughn, with his wacky glasses, lightning bolt haircut, leather jackets, etc. But Cerrano works too.

      I almost included another trope for Cerrano and his kind- the hard-to-understand Latino. But there were only a handful I could think of.

      • The guy who met Kevin Meany

        The only reason I left Vaughn off the list is that the space cadet role is typically a supporting role–not a lead actor role. While Major League is an ensemble cast, it followed Tom Berenger’s character and Charlie Sheen’s character more than the others.

        • Nuke LaLoosh was a pretty major role. Steve Nebraska/Brendan Fraser in The Scout was the primary character (I wish I hadn’t seen that movie). Satchel Paige in Soul of the Game, etc…

  2. Dude

    Watching the clip of Ricky Vaughn still gives me the chills. Reminds me of the time I went to a Brewers game with my wife last year and the lights went out and everyone stood up. My wife was like “Uh, is it over? I thought there was more to play.” I just said “Sit tight, you’ll see…” Strike this mother fucker out.

    • Yeah, that scene kicks ass. Chills is a great way to put it. I love that it’s the old County Stadium circa 1988, too. Brings back great memories for me.

  3. Just a semantics question, but where does Ed (the 1996 film) fit into each of these categories? You know, obviously the greatest baseball movie ever….

  4. Interesting topic John!
    Since I’m French canadian Baseball isn’t even a sport we learn before walking, here it’s Hockey and in my case it was skiying/snowboarding that I learned before I could walk. So when baseball movies would go out I never really could connect with this sport… But I always loved the story of Field of Dreams and the funny elements in Major League (two summer classics IMO) and wait I was forgetting The Sandlot that I don’t know where you would put it in your categories but I saw at a young age…
    Some elements you pointed out could also apply to sports movies in general.

    • That’s a great point about other sports movies. Most coaches in sports movies seem to be grouchy, ornery old cusses, for instance. There’s always a wily veteran. Etc…

  5. Brilliant stuff! I do love a great baseball movie.

  6. Nice tropes!

    I don’t know if it’s a trope or not, but if you were to go into extra innings with a tenth entry, I would add “historical figures.” Of course, movies like “9 men out” and “field of dreams” and “61*” include them, but I’m thinking more of the movies that describe the careers, or some aspect of the careers, of players like Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, Grover Alexander, Piersall, Clemente, that guy with one leg – Stratton, and Jackie Robinson. And Pete Gray (one arm), if they ever made a movie about him.

  7. Joseph

    Minor correction:

    Basketball is a uniquely American sport. Baseball has it’s roots in cricket.

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