Baseball Movies, Visualized

There's nothing like a good baseball movie.

There’s nothing like a good baseball movie.

A few weeks ago, Alexandra Simon launched a retroactive review series here at The Hardball Times with a wonderful review of Sugar (2008), one of the very few baseball films I hadn’t seen. The most eye-popping line for me in Simon’s review was that Sugar registered at 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. That Rotten Tomatoes score places the film in some elite company, baseball film or otherwise.

After watching the impressive film, I then went down the rabbit hole of determining where Sugar fits in the larger context of all baseball movies. What I’ve developed is an infographic that breaks out baseball films by year, the top 10 baseball films both at the box office (all figures adjusted to 2015 dollars) and on Rotten Tomatoes, and a scatterplot that compares each film’s two categories.

My first step was finding a reliable list of baseball movies. Baseball Almanac has a very thorough list, which I used as my starting point. From there, it was a matter of culling the list, determining which films have box office data available. Box Office Mojo supplies plenty of data, so it served as my data source for box office figures.

Unfortunately, box office information is very limited prior to 1980, appearing only on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Box Office Mojo had figures for the three pre-1980 Bad News Bears movies but did not for 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly. As such, the sample set presented here does not go back prior to 1976. Unfortunately, this means all-time classics like The Pride of the Yankees, The Jackie Robinson Story, and Fear Strikes Out could not be included. This also means films that did not receive a theatrical release (HBO’s 61* and Soul of the Game, for instance) did not make the cut.

Once I had my starting list and eliminated films without box office data, the next step was collecting fresh and rotten voting totals for my sample set on Rotten Tomatoes. The final step was a little tricky. I had to eliminate certain films from the Baseball Almanac list. Several movies on the list included baseball scenes, but would not be considered “baseball” movies. There’s no objective way to do this, so it involved my own personal judgment. Examples of these types of movies: City Slickers, My Dog Skip, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Taking Care of Business and Naked Gun. I love many of these films for providing contributions to the baseball-on-film canon, but it would be a stretch to define them as movies about baseball.

This completed my full set, leaving me with data for 52 films since 1976. Here is how these films fall into place in the big picture.

Scatterplot

The scatterplot highlights outliers from the four quadrants and the most popular films, but we will revisit each quadrant — complete with each movie in the sample set — momentarily.

Next let’s break things down by year.

RTandBox

One of the first things that leaps out is verification of what I’d always suspected. The 1988-1994 period, and specifically 1988-1989, was the golden age of baseball of the movies. Let’s call it the Shelton-Costner effect, named for director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Cobb) and Kevin Costner (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams) — the Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow of baseball movies. Eighteen of the 52 films — 34.6 percent — come from the 1988-1994 window.

Finally, let’s take a look at the top 10 lists:

Top10

The 1988-1989 window provided us with the Nos. 1, 7, 8 and 10 films on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the Nos. 2, 7 and 8 in terms of box office totals. Expand the window to 1988-1994 and you can add the Nos. 1, 6 and 9 films to the box office list, and Nos. 13 and 15 to the RT list. The top five years for aggregate box office are 1992, 1989, 1994, 1993 and 1988.

Add it all up and 45.4 percent of all money spent on baseball movies at the box office since 1976 was spent in the 1988-1994 window. And none of this is skewed by years with only one film. Six of the seven years in the golden age featured two or more baseball movies There are only 17 years in the sample that satisfy that condition.

Now, let’s look at each individual quadrant of the scatter plot. For fun, I’ve named each quadrant after a baseball player who best represents each category. As it turns out, the average baseball movie (using all fresh ratings for the sample, divided by the total ratings for the sample) just happens to be 60 percent. That’s the exact threshold RT uses for its own fresh/rotten designation. The average box office for the sample is $44.18 million.

The Adrian Beltre Quadrant: Lots of Quality, Lots of Money

These are the films that excel both at the box office and in terms of critical acclaim. Like Beltre, these movies acquired a lot of money and provided very high quality in return. This category is where three films begin to stake their claim to the tile of the best baseball movie ever made — at least adhering strictly to our two very specific categories: Moneyball, Bull Durham and The Bad News Bears. Other films earned more at the box office, but none trumped their combination of critical acclaim and box office dollars.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Also apparent in this quadrant is the smashing success A League of Their Own had at the box office. For some perspective, the second-highest box office total comes from Field of Dreams, and it registers only 62 percent of the box office total of A League of Their Own. There’s no crying in baseball, but there are tears at the box if you’re a baseball movie hoping to compete with 1992’s hit. Fever Pitch also appears in this quadrant, which is somewhat of a shocker, but I’d rather just pretend it’s not there.

Beltre

The Ben Zobrist Quadrant: Lots of Quality, Limited Money

This offseason’s contract notwithstanding, Zobrist has provided 36.8 WAR in his career while collecting a scant $30.8 million. Like Zobrist, movies in this quadrant also supply a ton of quality without earning much money. It includes Alexandra Simon’s champion, Sugar, as well as my own personal favorite, Eight Men Out. Two other rather obscure films assert their high quality in this category, Ballplayer: Pelotero and the 2004 documentary, Up for Grabs. Shelton also strikes again in the Zobrist category, just barely, with Cobb coming in at 64 percent. Similarly, Million Dollar Arm starring Jon Hamm barely makes the grade at 62 percent. Just a few million dollars more at the box office and it would be a Beltre film.

Zobrist

The Vernon Wells Quadrant: Little Quality, Lots of Money

Wells’ seven-year, $126 million contract stands as one of the worst in recent memory, attributed to the fact that Wells provided little value for the large volume of money he was given. Such is the case with this quadrant. There are some fringe performers here — some beloved movies (The Sandlot), plenty of perfectly fine movies (For Love of the Game) and some family-friendly fare (The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Angels in the Outfield, Rookie of the Year). But for whatever reason, their critical acclaim doesn’t match their box office clout. The true dud of the bunch — the equivalent of Wells’ $26 million, 0.3 WAR season — is Major League II (with an appalling five percent RT score), the movie that essentially closed the door on the golden age of baseball movies in 1994.

Wells

The Aaron Miles Quadrant: Little Quality, Limited Money

Every team has a bench, or role, player who drives the home team fans batty. This player doesn’t occupy much playing time and does very little with opportunities when they happen. These players rarely make much money. In other words, these films profile as Aaron Miles — mediocre and occasionally putrid quality but not much box office damage. This quadrant encompasses the most films.

The sheer number of movies in this quadrant perhaps explains why there aren’t more baseball movies to sate our appetites. A whopping 46 percent of all baseball movies fall below $44 million at the box office and below the 60 percent rotten threshold on Rotten Tomatoes. But just like the Wells category, it’s not all doom and gloom. For instance, The Perfect Game is just a few percentage points away from qualifying in the Zobrist/underrated gem category. It’s one of the first movies I recommend when people ask for lesser-known baseball options that won’t disappoint them, particularly family-oriented movies. The Scout will drive baseball purists crazy, but it’s acceptable fare if you’re an Albert Brooks completist. Of course, this group also possesses the worst of the worst, total bombs both at the box office and with critics. I’m looking at you, Ed.

Miles

These quadrants are all well and good, but it’s important to remember one thing about all of these movies. They were made to be enjoyed. Whether or not a movie was successful at the box office or achieved critical acclaim is irrelevant if you enjoy watching it. If you’re a baseball fan — and if you’re reading The Hardball Times, you surely are — there is at least one aspect you can enjoy in every movie on the scatter plot. Aaron Miles may be tough to watch, but he’s better than no baseball at all.

References & Resources


John LaRue is a graphic designer, former minor league baseball media relations director, and data visualization enthusiast. His work has been featured in The Best American Infographics 2013 and I Love Charts: The Book. Follow him on Twitter @tdylf.
23 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David
6 years ago

How can Fever Pitch outscore The Sandlot on RT? Wendy Peffercorn > Drew Barrymore.

mustbunique
6 years ago
Reply to  David

Lotioning and oiling. I can’t take it!

mustbunique
6 years ago

The Sandlot is so close to that 60% line. Make an executive decision and bump it up. Please. Please? Thanks for pointing out that Angels in the outfield and Rookie of the year belong to a specific genre that may not grade well on the tomatometer. Those were great back in the day.

Very interesting overall to see that the height of baseball movies was around ’94. Loved that figure. Thanks.

Poor Man's Rick Reed
6 years ago
Reply to  mustbunique

That’s what I was thinking too. A drop off in box office dollars after the ’94 strike makes sense.

cubfan131
6 years ago
Reply to  mustbunique

Excellent points. My 10 year old self loved Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield. I also was a big fan of Little Big League which I didn’t see anywhere.

John
6 years ago
Reply to  mustbunique

Believe me, I would love to flip flop The Sandlot and Fever Pitch.

RE: Little Big League, if you go to the Miles category, it’s in the middle- 32 or 33% on RT, appx. $25M box office.

gdanning
6 years ago

Eight Men Out should get bonus points for the fact that the actors could actually play …

baseballfan123
6 years ago

How is the Sandlot rated so low? I would assume that movie was one of the top baseball movies of all time

bob
6 years ago
Reply to  baseballfan123

look at the number of reviews: about 40 which is much lower than the number of reviews in 2015 and i bet a good number of those reviews would be more favorable as the big knock on the film is being lazy and derivative based on the RT blurbs. Over time I’d say people just systematically downgraded some legitimate concerns offered in these reviews and upgraded their assessment on what everyone agrees the film did well. RT only captures a tiny sliver of time (right before a film is released) and that sliver of time means these aren’t uncorrelated opinions about the film.

Dan
6 years ago

I really did not like Moneyball, as I felt the movie grossly oversimplified things and was not a realistic representation. I can see how the general public would like it, but curious to see if others in this crowd had the same reaction I did – ?

Chris Mitchell
6 years ago
Reply to  Dan

I kind of felt that way too, but it didn’t ruin the movie for me. I thought it was as realistic as it could be while also appealing to the other 99.9% of the population.

3cardmonty
6 years ago
Reply to  Dan

I liked it a lot the first time I saw it but on repeated viewings I started to be bothered by the portrayal of Beane. He’s rude and nasty to everyone around him and throws multiple childish tantrums. I find it hard to believe that an executive in a professional environment really behaves like that, and I’m not sure why the viewer is supposed to root for him.

Lanidrac
6 years ago
Reply to  Dan

I just didn’t bother with it, as I’m not an A’s fan, and I’m not interested in the story of an ownership group that still hasn’t managed to deliver so much as an AL Pennant.

Rally
6 years ago

How sadly fitting that Angels in the Oufield ended up in the Vernon Wells quadrant. If you haven’t seen it you might believe it stars Vernon, Josh Hamilton, and Gary Matthews Jr. and has a Brewsters Millions type plot where a GM has to give away a tremendous amount of money while getting no return on the field.

Grant
6 years ago

Where is Little Big League, that is one of my favorite, being a Twins fan and all. The Sandlot is getting robbed hardcore by RT, should be well above 60%. Also Rookie of the Year should be higher, anything with Gary Busey should be higher.

Brewsters Millions is a classic, almost forget about that as a baseball movie, damn you RT and your tough critics.

BJSG
6 years ago

Love Field of Dreams and 42.

Does Major League Back to the Minors feature a Delorean?

Paul G.
6 years ago
Reply to  BJSG

Does Major League Back to the Minors feature a Delorean?

No, Scott Bakula.

“Is this Detroit?”
“No, you’re in Hell.”

Poor Man's Rick Reed
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

And some of the WORST CGI curveballs and line drives you’d ever hope to see.

Paul G.
6 years ago

One thing to keep in mind is that the budget matters. I film that makes $100 million with an $80 million budget is a disappointment and if it makes $60 million it is a failure (though it probably makes up for it in DVD and rentals). A film with a budget of $5 million and a box office of $20 million is a big success. Pure box office numbers can be misleading.

Rotten Tomato ratings can also be contaminated with the biases of the reviewers, though that is probably less impactful on baseball films than some other genres.

bob
6 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

much more importantly it doesn’t attempt to adjust for inflation

RT ratings also reflect a small sliver of time and people’s opinions on films change a decent amount as they age and fresh sets of eyes see them again.

Lanidrac
6 years ago
Reply to  bob

Good point about inflation, but since this an attempt to judge how good the movies are rather than how successful they were, I think gross box office numbers were actually the way to go. Who cares if they didn’t have much to work with if the movie still stinks?

John
6 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

To clarify, all of these box office figures are adjusted for inflation. They’re represented in 2015 dollars.

Adam
6 years ago

I’ll never know why “The Natural” isn’t #1 on every best baseball movie list.