Best Sports Movies? [UPDATED]

For some reason, the question about which sports movies are the “best” or individual favorites has turned up in all sorts of places this week, I have no idea why. When it turned up during tonight’s Red Sox broadcast, I decided  it was time to give my list.

(The Red Sox and Rays are tied in the 7th, 4-4.)

Most sports movies are ethics movies, and my favorite five all fit that description.

1. “Hoosiers“(1986) The Gene Hackman movie about a tiny Indiana town’s surprise victory in the state basketball tournament (the actual 1954 team is above),  covers many ethics themes, including leadership, integrity, sacrifice , redemption, learning from past mistakes,  and moral luck. The basketball games are surprisingly realistic, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score, evoking bouncing basketballs on a court, is one of my all-time favorites. Favorite ethics moment: after training the team to obey him without question, and teaching them to play as a team, not individuals, coach Hackman tells his players with one play left in the championship game that they will use their star, Jimmy, as a decoy, and let another player take the final, game deciding shot. After a long pause, Jimmy tells him, “I’ll make it.” And like all good leaders, Hackman knows when to trust his subordinates. He let’s Jimmy countermand his order, and Jimmy indeed wins the game.

2.  “Rocky” (1976). A close second. Like many sports movies, this classic shows how actual victory isn’t always necessary for a competitor to triumph.

3. The Natural (1984) The film captures what is magical about baseball better than any other. It also embraces redemption, integrity, courage, hubris, and resisting corruption.

4. Breaking Away (1979) Yet another Indiana sports movie! Fathers and sons, overcoming adversity, ethics education, facing adversity.

5.  The Bad New Bears (1976) Many classic moments overcome some questionable ones. Once again, the losers win. Walter Matthau’s decision to play all the scrubs so they get to experience the crucial game even though he wants desperately to win for his own redemption mirrors a plot turn in “Hoosiers.” Brandon Cruz’s definitive up-yours gesture  to his unethical coach-father is both satisfying and dramatic, and like all great sports movies, the climactic final contest is perfectly scripted, directed and acted.

Honorable mention: “A League of Their Own,” “The Sandlot,” “Field of Dreams,” “Major League, “Rocky 3”

Amazing: all five of the top choices were made in a single ten year period.

The Red Sox won, 6-4.


38 thoughts on “Best Sports Movies? [UPDATED]

  1. Film buff trivia about “Hoosiers”; did you know that a high school basketball player named Gene Hackman played against and his team lost to the 1954 Milan HS team which won the Indiana state championship and, fictionalized, became the Hickory team depicted in the movie?

  2. Oh; that photo is a still from the movie. The real surprise championship team was from the real Milan not the nonexistent Hickory, IN and it was not coached by Gene Hackman.

  3. Okay, agree that Breaking Away belongs on any list of top sports movies.

    But how could you overlook Chariots of Fire and (IMO the #1 best all-time sports movie) Bull Durham?

    I WILL give props for snubbing Field of Dreams, which, as far as I’m concerned, was transparently manipulative pablum calculated to reduce grown men to tears.

    • I don’t consider Bull Durham a sports movie, and Chariots of Fire is too corny and sentimental for words. One of the worst Best Movie Oscars ever. Slow motion running through the surf? Gag me with a spoon.

      But I should have mentioned “Sea Biscuit.”

      • The MGM casino in Las Vegas had (I haven’t been there in 20 years so I’ll use past tense) a collection of film memorabilia on display. Including Gary Cooper’s “mirror-image” uniform from “Pride of the Yankees.” Cooper was right handed, Gehrig was left handed. Cooper tried, but could not look like he could hit left handed. So in every scene where Cooper-as-Gherig was hitting they dressed everyone in the shot in mirror-reversed uniforms, Cooper ran to third base, and they flipped the film.

            • Shoeless Joe was innocent. I first heard of him on Field of Dreams and researched the circumstances (so there, Author in Maine! There was redeeming value in what you correctly state about this movie)

              He took the money (unethical, but not illegal) and played to the best of his abilities.

              • Not at all proven, and Joe was part of the conspiracy. He knew the series was fixed, and did nothing. There have also been detailed studies of his performance that suggest that he did all manner of little things to lose—missed cut-offs, letting hits drop in, hitting safely when it didn’t matter, stranding runners in game situations. Taking a bribe to throw a game would get any player banned for life today whether he followed through or not. Note that in “The Natural,” Roy Hobbs gives the money back.

  4. Sandlot is my all time favorite. I never really cared for baseball, but I loved playing the game with my friends. We were often like those 9 boys, always just messing around, never really playing the game.

    Interesting note on sports movies and ethics. The movie Blue Chips (also filmed in Indiana) was filmed for about 45 minutes from my hometown. Every year we would go to that school and stage in that gym for a music competition. Our band director hated it. Turns out, he was the band director used in the movie, and because the producers (or whoever) decided to shaft the musicians out of pay. He couldn’t quit but decided to split the money he made (which was small anyway) just to make sure they got something. Anyway, he said it always left a bad taste in his mouth. Still, he has like 3 seconds of screen time in the movie.

    • Yer killin’ me, Smalls!

      One of my late father’s favorite sayings. We sent dad to be cremated in his favorite shirt that said that. Not sure if the ashes we just got back contain cotton from the shirt, or if they donated it to Goodwill (yech).

      Now that I think about it, I am not sure I WANT to know. Forget I mentioned it. Ever.

      This post with henceforth be “The Post that Never Happened”

  5. I love to see that you listed both “Hoosiers” and “Breaking Away”. I grew up about twenty miles from Bloomington and began attending I.U. a couple of years after “Breaking Away” was filmed.

    The young man who portrayed “Ollie” was a real player who was on a real “Hickory” team in the early 1980’s that should have won a championship but happened to have most of its players to catch the flu on the semi-state weekend. A high school with an enrollment of only about 120 in four grades, the team had one player who played at I.U., a second who played at Purdue.

    As a further note, “A League of their own” was filmed partially in Indiana.

  6. I may be stating the obvious, but Bad News Bears was written by Bill Lancaster (son of Burt) based on his experience of having Burt as a coach. Damn near perfect film.

  7. “it Happens Every Spring”–an old, old black and white flick starring Ray Milland a a young college professor who inadvertently discovers a potion that makes baseballs repel wood, so he goes off to play for the St. Louis Cardinals to make enough money to marry the dean’s daughter. Upon refelction, it does raise a number of ethical questions.

  8. I would like to nominate Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble with the Curve” as one of the best movies about baseball scouting. Maybe it’s just because I’m an Eastwood fan, but I love the film.

  9. Best line (or at least one of them) from “Breaking Away:” The townies are sitting on the hill overlooking the IU football practice field as the IU football team begins fall practice. One of the kids says to the other, “They get younger every year.” Best scene not on the car sales lot: The much adored Italian racing team member sticks his tire pump into the lead character’s bike’s spoke as he tries to ride with the Italian team members. Mrs. OB and I were living in Indiana when the movie came out.

  10. At the end of Hoosiers, the star, Jimmy, accepts the coach’s plan. He nods his head repeatedly as coach is outlining the play. Jimmy remains in a crouch as all four of the other players straighten up – literally standing up to the coach – looking like they’ve just heard the stupidest thing ever. Coach says “What’s the matter with you guys?” in the plural. It’s only then where you have the long pause, Jimmy looks up at the players on both sides, looks back at the coach and says, “I’ll make it.”

  11. A TRUE David-v-Goliath HS boy’s state basketball championship team was the 1949 Hurley (WI) Midgets.

    Back then, the WI State Tournament was a “winner-take-all.” There were no classes for population/enrollment differences between schools; the Midget’s tallest player was 6′ 1”.

    With only ~ 3000 residents, Hurley was a FAR north town near Lake Superior, an 11 hour (at the time) 270 mile trip to Madison.

    It holds a special place in my heart because I was married in Hurley (Where Highway 51 Ends And The Fun Begins!) and my Uncle-in-Law Clayton Corrigan was a pint-sized junior (#10, second from the left in front) on that team.

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