By David Templeton
“There are certain movies that are essential viewing for any true American baseball fan,” says acclaimed sports journalist and radio host Brian Murphy. “In fact, I would say that’s true, not just for American baseball fans, but for any American, period. If you are an American, and you have not seen certain baseball films, you should stop whatever you are doing right now and start watching immediately.”
And what, pray tell, are those essential films?
“The Natural. Bull Durham. Field of Dreams.
“Those are the pantheon films,” Murphy adds, pouncing on the word “pantheon” like Roy Hobbs knocking the cover off a vicious fastball. “There have been a lot of great baseball movies over the years, but those three are the essentials. They are things of beauty. They are pure and perfect. They are a cut way above the rest.”
Amen, brother Murphy. You can pass the collection plate now.
Brian Murphy is best known as the amiable, trivia-dropping co-host of the popular “Murph & Mac” radio show on KNBR 680 AM. A North Bay native, he covered sports for the San Francisco Chronicle for 15 years. He’s the author of several popular sports-themed books, including Worth the Wait (2011), Never. Say. Die.: The San Francisco Giants—2012 World Series Champions (2013) and The San Francisco 49ers: From Kezar to Levi Stadium (2014).
It’s a Sunday afternoon, not long after the San Francisco Giants soundly beat the New York Mets in a 6-1 victory that denied the reigning National League Champions a sweep at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Had he not been watching the game, Murphy admits that he might likely have been at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, where a six-week series titled “Baseball in the Movies” launched in April. Field of Dreams was first up, and the series continued with the film he missed today—Moneyball, the critically acclaimed 2011 docudrama about the Oakland Athletics and General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), during the dramatic 2002 baseball season.
“Actually, I’m not a big Moneyball supporter,” Murphy almost gleefully admits. “There’s a cranky group of us who didn’t love it as much as the critics did. Brad Pitt was fine. There were some excellent things about it. OK. But the thing is—I covered those games as a beat writer. I was there. And the movie just had too many transgressions, for me. It betrayed the truth of what really happened. I acknowledge it was a very entertaining movie, but I’d rank it a bit lower than those other pantheon films we talked about.”
Murphy offers a brief analysis of a number of classic baseball films, good and bad. Eventually, one title is mentioned—a film beloved by a certain generation of film and baseball fans, but not so much by Murphy. It’s 1993’s The Sandlot.
“The Sandlot, to me, is fine, it’s a diversion, a lighthearted romp through a nostalgic childhood,” he says. “But it’s not eternal, like those other movies. I know that’s not a popular view with some people. The Sandlot Mafia doesn’t want to hear it, and they’ll come after me hard on this. I respect it. They’re just defending their turf.”
As for the films being screened at the Rafael over the next few Sundays, Murphy says that, though each has its detractors, two are as hard to beat as the Giants in an even-numbered year.
“Everyone has their own opinion,” he admits. “The edginess and saltiness of Bull Durham, that’s just the ultimate tribute to the reality of baseball, the awkward comedy and the blue language and all of that. The curveballs and the fastballs, the Minor League catchers striving to get into the ‘Bigs,’ the baseball groupies, and the guys from the Caribbean using chicken bones to try and get out of slumps. That stuff is real, and we love the game of baseball because it has that stuff. But then there’s the other part of baseball that we love too, which is the incredible romanticism that we associate with the game.
“There’s that part of baseball that is timeless and ethereal,” he continues. “That’s the part of baseball that The Natural speaks to. If you are a sucker for romance, if you are moved by mythology, then The Natural is your movie. It’s damn near a Biblical allegory, you know?”
Murphy understands that there are those who feel such stuff is, um, a bit corny, that baseball has enough drama in the average nine-inning game that it doesn’t need The Natural’s heightened elements—lightning striking during major at-bats, the Excaliber-like bat named Wonderboy, the near-mystical woman in white standing up in the stadium stands and glowing with light.
“I get why people say that,” Murphy says. “They’re realists. So am I. I love facts and stats and all of that. And I still love The Natural!
“Sometimes it’s just necessary to surrender yourself to the profound. And for me, those are the three. Bull Durham for realism. The Natural for the epic mythology. And Field of Dreams standing in between them both, soaking up a little of each. That’s it, man. This is culture, American culture. For guys like me, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
‘Baseball in the Movies’ runs every Sunday through May 29 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. For movies and showtimes, visit rafaelfilm.calfilm.org.