The Sandlot (1993)
Dir. by David Mickey Evans
Starring Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Karen Allen and Denis Leary
Scott Smalls is a nerdy kid who moves to California in 1962 right at the beginning of summer. His mother encourages him to make friends, and he eventually encounters a group of kids who play baseball every day. They teach him how to play, and together engage in a series of hijinks over the course of the summer. Their adventures culminate when Smalls steals a Babe Ruth-signed ball from his stepdad to replace the one they were using, and accidently hits it into a neighboring yard patrolled by a notoriously vicious junkyard dog named The Beast. Now the group of friends has to figure out how to retrieve the ball before Smalls’s stepdad comes home from his business trip.
I don’t recall having seen this movie in the theaters, though it’s very likely that I did. I saw a lot of kid-oriented sports films at that age, despite not being interested in any sports myself. Where I really remember the movie is from middle school several years later. I had to take mandatory art classes for at least two years, and it seemed that by general consensus among the art teachers that this would be the movie that they’d show the class whenever there was a substitute teacher (or when the teacher didn’t want to actually teach that day). I probably watched the first half or so of the movie at least 10 times in class during 7th and 8th grade. This might be the first time I’m watching it since I was in high school, though.
Baseball season just started, and I felt like celebrating by watching what is probably THE classic kid’s baseball movie – at least among my generation. The Bad News Bears probably has a claim to the title, but it came out six years before I was born, while The Sandlot was when I was almost the same age as its characters. And despite only getting mixed reviews when it came out, it’s definitely seen as a classic in hindsight. Enough so for a lot of pro baseball teams to host Sandlot nights for the 25 anniversary a couple of years ago.
I was actually a lot like Smalls at that age. I was the dorky kid who read comic books and fantasy novels and had no real interest in sports. I didn’t really get into baseball at all until I was in my late 20s, when I discovered fantasy sports for the first time. But I still watched the family sports comedies that came out in the 90s, and I knew enough of the rules to get what was going on and understand the plots. And even I knew who Babe Ruth was.
Quite a few reviews, both at the time and retrospective, have compared this movie to A Christmas Story. It’s a comparison that definitely makes sense. Both films are fairly episodic tales of childhood nostalgia and growing up over the course of one season, narrated by one of the characters as a grown man. While the movie doesn’t lean quite as hard on its nostalgia as A Christmas Story did, its episodic nature definitely gives it the feel of childhood stories being swapped over drinks by old friends: “Hey, remember that time we all took chewing tobacco and threw up at the fair?”
That scene, by the way, is definitely one that I remembered after all this time, and is one of the more memorable ones in the film. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s one of the pantheon of great kid’s movie scenes in general. Gross-out humor can get tiresome quick, but a little of it placed strategically can be incredibly effective.
In fact, there’s a whole lot of lines and scenes in this film that have taken on life as memes and quotes out of context. That actually might be one way to define the staying power of a family movie, by how often it gets referenced by adults decades later. A Christmas Story gave us “You’ll shoot your eye out”, The Goonies gave us “Hey you guys!”, and The Sandlot has “You’re killing me, Smalls!” and “For-ev-er!”
The movie isn’t perfect, of course. Being a nostalgic look at the past, it clearly presents an idealized version of the early 60s that wouldn’t have existed in reality. For one, even in California there’s no way that they’d have allowed the black kid in the group to swim in the same public swimming pool as all of the white kids. Race is never actually brought up as an issue at all, even at the end when it is revealed that The Beast’s owner was a former pro baseball player. It’s highly unlikely that a Negro League ball player would have been on a first-name basis with Babe Ruth, especially during Ruth’s playing days in the 1920s (Ruth retired over a decade before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in MLB). Now, I’m not asking for this movie to become 42 Junior or anything. But it does present a sanitized version of the 60s, and I need to acknowledge that.
Speaking of that pool scene, that’s also the scene where one of the team members fakes drowning in order to get a kiss from the hot lifeguard. This is simultaneously A) extremely inappropriate and not cool, especially when viewed in 2021, and B) wholly believable as something that would have happened in 1962. Since this is both a period piece and a movie made 30 years ago, I’ll give it a pass.
Quibbles aside, this is actually both a great tribute to baseball and a classic coming of age kid’s movie. I do think it makes for a good companion piece to A Christmas Story, and it may need to join Major League as part of my regular first-week-of-the-season viewing.
-I mean, seriously. A kid in 1962 not knowing who Babe Ruth is would be a kid today not knowing Michael Jordan.
-Even before this rewatch, one of my long-running fantasy baseball teams has been named “FOR-EV-ER”