This article idea has been shamelessly stolen from the crew at Effectively Wild, the Fangraphs podcast.
We have all been told that baseball is “America’s Pastime.” And, American movies tend to feature things that represent America. So, baseball has made many appearances across films of all genres and eras. For example, here’s a baseball scene from a non-baseball movie:
Twilight is a movie and book series about vampires, not baseball. They could have easily played flag football, or soccer, or basketball, all of which would have given the vampires an opportunity to show off how fast they could run and how high they could jump. Yet, Stephenie Meyer chooses baseball as the way for the vampires to show off their insane athletic talents. Curious.
Here’s another example of baseball in a non-baseball movie, in a different genre and different era of media:
Of all the things to rebel against Nurse Ratched with, McMurphy (and author Ken Kesey) choose baseball. And, while the baseball game seems to be more of a symbol, representing the divide between McMurphy and Ratched, it’s still worth noting that Kesey chose to include baseball as the thing that McMurphy so badly wants to watch.
But, baseball isn’t the only quintessentially American sport! American football literally has “American” in the name. It’s only played in America. It doesn’t have a major worldwide competition like the World Baseball Classic, which would inspire fans and support in other countries, and has never been featured in the Olympics simply because American professional football is essentially confined to North America. (Rugby, while very similar to American football, doesn’t count.) Football appears to be more American than baseball, apple pie, and the Statue of Liberty!
As such, football has also appeared in many forms of American media across multiple genres and eras, because it represents America and its values. For example, The Blind Side is definitely a drama and also a football movie, while The Replacements is a comedy and a football movie.
With both football and basketball generating more viewership since 2010 and more people choosing those two as their favorite sports over baseball (a bad take, but that’s a topic for another time), baseball is clearly no longer America’s true pastime.
So, one might think that Hollywood would take notice of this and shift more of their sports scenes to basketball and football, as this would ideally represent more of America than baseball. But is this actually happening in practice? Are Hollywood executives taking note of this shift in American sports culture? Is baseball overrepresented in movies, relative to its actual popularity?
The Bad News
It’s virtually impossible to find an exhaustive list of every single American movie that features football, baseball, or basketball. Google and Wikipedia were only so helpful in my search. Sorry, dear reader, I’ll do better next time. Although, if someone were to have that kind of list available, I would love to comb through it.
The even worse news is that even if I were to only search through movies released in 2021, it would still take days and weeks to comb through every single movie scene and we’re barely halfway through the year. And, there are many more movies still to be released, which would take up even more time to comb all the way through. We haven’t even defined what a real baseball scene or reference even looks like.
The Good News
The good thing is, we can still do a little bit of research on the different types of sports movies, using whatever data we can find on Google and Wikipedia. For lists of each type of sports film (baseball, basketball, and football), I looked straight to Wikipedia, figuring that the lists would be of similar quantity and quality (ie the same types of movies for each sport would be labeled as “documentaries,” and so on).
Other sites (Baseball Almanac, for instance) put out their own lists of sports movies, but to keep it consistent, I drew from the same source (Wikipedia list) for each. Please note that these movies prominently feature sports as part of their plot. The methodology for this “study” may also be a little suspect, so bear with me.
Football has baseball and basketball beat in terms of quantity (the lists are linked here for those interested). There are 192 football films on the list, starting with Two Minutes to Go in 1921 and ending with the ESPN 30-for-30 film Al Davis vs. the NFL. There are 173 baseball films on its list, starting with The Ball Game (1898) and concluding with The Silent Natural (2020).
Perhaps most surprisingly, there is a surprising lack of basketball films, with 142. So, it would appear that football is appropriately represented in American film culture, as more football movies have been produced to correspond with 37% of Americans claiming that football is their favorite sport to watch — by far the most popular choice of sport.
Furthermore, Wikipedia claims that there have been 119 football movies (61.9% of total football movies) released since 1970, around the time when football became America’s favorite sport. However, baseball movies have been released at a relatively breakneck pace since that same year, with 131 baseball movies (75.7% of total) released since that date.
Why is that? Maybe Hollywood felt guilty about football surpassing baseball in popularity. Maybe people felt nostalgic for the old days of baseball when it was the best (and only) game in many American cities, which ingrained the sport in American culture so deeply that even as other sports surpassed it, Hollywood continued to rely on baseball as the most identifiable and compelling sport to audiences.
Either way, it is curious to see baseball movies being pumped out at a rate far higher than football movies, especially relative to baseball’s popularity in American culture. Before researching, I thought that football would have enjoyed a larger lead over baseball, as the NFL Films department had become quite prolific in its production of football films around the 1970s. This section of the NFL churned out films meant to glorify the toughness of football and mitigate some of the negative aspects of football, utilizing various kinds of game footage and film techniques to attract new fans to the sport.
If NFL Films could glorify football, why couldn’t Hollywood? Football was becoming more popular than ever, so it would seem prudent to cater films to fans of the growing sport as opposed to fans of the sport that was declining in popularity.
Furthermore, basketball has recently become a more popular sport — again, this popularity is based on the percentage of Americans that say it’s their favorite sport — than baseball, yet lags far behind the other two in terms of total movie production. Basketball briefly surpassed baseball as America’s second most popular sport in 1997 and since that date, there have been 101 basketball movies released, compared to 76 baseball movies and 88 football movies.
Why the change in movie production around 1997? If I had to hazard a guess, it would be the success of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who had just won their 5th title of the 1990s. Jordan was immensely popular in American culture and had just starred in Space Jam (1996), which reached large amounts of parents and kids. So, Hollywood executives may have wanted to capitalize on Jordan’s popularity and the NBA’s rapid growth during the late ’90s.
Despite basketball overtaking the other two sports in the number of films produced, it seems as though baseball is still overrepresented relative to its popularity. By 1997, football dwarfed both basketball and football as America’s number one sport, with some 30% of Americans identifying it as their favorite.
Basketball was polling at 17% and baseball was polling at 14%. Yet, baseball and football are not so far off in terms of movies produced since 1997, with just 12 more football productions since then. Baseball’s popularity has fallen further since then, with only 9% of Americans claiming it as their favorite sport. And still, baseball movies are still being churned out at a comparable rate to the other, more popular American sports.
So far, we’ve been looking at the total number of movies produced about each sport, regardless of genre. But what if we took out documentaries from each list? ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentaries dominate the list of movie productions and while 30-for-30s are certainly well-made, they are typically short films, which I believe make less of an impact on popular culture than a full-length movie can, especially because 30-for-30s are shown only on ESPN, while many of the other movies on these lists were released in theaters and thus have a wider audience and more cultural impact.
86 of the 144 (60%) total basketball productions fall under genres other than documentaries. 148 of the 174 (85%) baseball productions are not documentaries, while 148 of the 174 (77%) football productions are also not documentaries. It is interesting to see baseball relatively overrepresented in this way, as it appears that baseball has more often been told in a different creative form than the other two sports thus far.
I am not comfortable drawing big conclusions about baseball being overrepresented in all media forms, as we only looked at films that had their plot or a significant part of the story revolve around a sport. We did not examine TV shows, books, or music, each of which may lean towards representing one sport more than another, nor did we examine movies that have just a short scene or two centered around a sport.
However, in the very limited examination of the lists of baseball, basketball, and football movies, we found that baseball seems to have more films relative to its popularity in America, even as it has lagged behind other sports. Despite falling behind football and basketball in terms of popularity in 1997, the amount of baseball films produced has remained fairly close to the number of football films and doesn’t trail so far behind basketball, either.
And, baseball doesn’t seem to be going away in films. In the last year and a half, baseball scenes have popped up in blockbuster films like Sonic (2020), Tom and Jerry (2021), and A Quiet Place 2 (2021). Baseball was the main plot of Everybody Wants Some!!! (2016) and Spaceman (2016) as well. So, baseball fans can still look forward to seeing their favorite sport appear at the box office with some regularity.
So, to sum it all up: Baseball is overrepresented in terms of movies that rely on a sport as the main plot device. We can’t draw conclusions on baseball being overrepresented among all movie genres and all movie eras, because we don’t have a list of every movie with a baseball scene, ever. We definitely can’t draw a conclusion on baseball being overrepresented across all media forms.
But, one thing is for sure: baseball is a lot of fun to watch in movies and TV, just as it’s fun to watch actual baseball.
FYI: These aren’t my lists, so I apologize if your favorite movie isn’t included here.
The football movies averaged an Audience Score of 78% and a Tomatometer of 67%. Basketball movies averaged an Audience Score of 81% and a Tomatometer of 80%. The baseball movies averaged an Audience Score of 84% and a Tomatometer of 85%. So, if there’s any consolation for baseball fans who are upset with baseball’s declining popularity in America, it’s that baseball movies crush the other two in terms of ratings.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)