The baseball movie went in decidedly different directions starting in the 1970s and '80s compared to what Hollywood had done 20 or 30 years prior. By the 1970s, movies about baseball had taken a considerably long break for reasons unknown. It took the 1973 movie Bang the Drum Slowly with a young Robert De Niro playing a pitcher to reignite interest in baseball movies after over a decade of nothing. Perhaps the disruption of America through the turbulent '60s didn't put enough people in the mood to celebrate baseball cinematically, despite the game itself still flourishing during the decade.
Ten years prior to Bang the Drum Slowly, there was a movie called Safe at Home, which had non-actor baseball greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris playing themselves. Perhaps their lack of acting ability killed the baseball movie for the above duration. But that movie was a bit of a set pattern in Hollywood where some baseball greats played their own selves in movies. In other cases, A-list actors played real-life baseball figures in movies meant to inspire kids that looked up to baseball players.
Real-life tales in baseball were the name of the game considerably in the '40s and '50s with such titles as The Pride of the Yankees on up to The Jackie Robinson Story. Only occasionally would there be a left turn into fiction or fantasy like Angels in the Outfield or Damn Yankees. By the time Bang the Drum Slowly came out, it changed the entire direction of baseball cinema into one that celebrated more fictional stories. When movies like the Bad News Bears franchise takes off, you know you're in different territory from several decades before.
Even The Natural with Robert Redford 30 years ago might be thought by outsiders to be the story of a real baseball player. When you look at abstracts about the movie, you see one key word jump out at you: Fable.
No one brought that truly to life than Kevin Costner in the 1980s. Other than Eight Man Out being the only true baseball movie story of the decade, most people preferred the fantasy view Costner brought. While his Bull Durham was more of a sexy comedy showing the possible raucous actions behind the scenes, Field of Dreams took baseball into the world of the near holy.
There really hasn't been a baseball movie like Field of Dreams since it was made. It was all the more of a feat considering those who don't even care about baseball can watch the movie and be moved by it. No one dared copy it, which is why all the movies that followed up until recently have been mostly comedies and mainly fictional characters and teams.
It wasn't until the movie 42 about the life of Jackie Robinson did baseball movies finally get back to where they were in the 1950s. The success of that has led to the idea that there's still plenty of inspiring real-life stories still out there yet to be told about baseball players. Could it be that Million Dollar Arm is a concerted effort to gain some respect back to baseball after being tainted by steroid scandals?
Million Dollar Arm as a Shot in the Arm for Baseball Biopics
Outside of 42, Moneyball may have to be given credit for showing the interesting stories that still reside within baseball amid all the scandals. Baseball movies have finally found a new niche and success in movies again. And it had to take going out of America to find compelling baseball figures that helped show not everyone is trying to cheat. Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel are an example of the old-fashioned ideal where natural talent paves the road to a successful baseball career. They also proved that India might be one of the few countries where a reality show has some sense of worthiness in finding real talent.
Whether Million Dollar Arm finds success or not will determine whether we'll be seeing more baseball movies that scout out real stories to tell again. Fantasy may be out and realism may be in going on the surprising amount of stories yet to be told. Regardless, will we see baseball movies depicting the brutal reality of steroids eventually? Movies haven't gone there yet, perhaps because baseball is still a sacred subject for many people who grew up with it in their lives.
Eventually, the movies and the public will need a catharsis on what's really happened to baseball in order to get back to the inspiring baseball stories with a 1940s and '50s sensibility.