One of my favorite childhood movies growing up was 1993’s The Sandlot, which in hindsight, is interesting because a.) I’m not a baseball fan; and b.) I’m obviously not nostalgic for the 1960s, as I never lived in the 1960s. But, like all great sports movies or any movie in general really, the hook is different than what the movie is actually about. The hook here is baseball, obviously. But what the movie is really about is a coming-of-age tale between middle school kids. Relatable!
And yes, while I’m not a baseball fan, I did grow up doing exactly what happens in Sandlot: Playing baseball in a field and also, being terrified of the neighbor’s dog! Well, I wasn’t terrified. I’ve never been scared of dogs, but other people were. Just like the kids in the film, we imagined the dog being more ferocious and scary than it actually was. We also got into various hijinks like the kids in the film do, just different hijinks more befitting the 1990s than the 1960s. What’s weird to think about is that if the film was made now, their cultural reference point would be placing it in the 1990s! Perhaps Hank Aaron would be the equivalent of Babe Ruth, then? Which is great, given that Aaron passed the Babe in homeruns.
While I didn’t grow up in the 1960s, I’ve long considered myself as someone who should have been born of that era because I love a lot of the music and the aesthetic of that time. That said, I’m glad to be born within the last 30 years because, well, it’s the best time to be alive in human history and that’s no hyperbole.
I’m also not one of those people who can readily quote films. I love films and there are a lot of great quotes out there, but my brain doesn’t work to readily quote films, but Sandlot is one of the rare exceptions. I find myself randomly saying to myself or others Ham’s line to Smalls, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!” or “Foooor-ev-ER,” with the pursed, slow-motion lips like Squints does..
The thing with childhood films is that sometimes, they might not hold up to our adult brains! I can’t remember the last time I saw Sandlot, but growing up, I must’ve seen it a dozen or more times. I recently re-watched it, though, and I am more than happy to say it does hold up!
So, the film follows Scott Smalls, a nerdy fifth-grader in Los Angeles, who has difficulty making friends. He tries to join a group of boys who play baseball daily in the local sandlot and the sweltering heat, but he doesn’t know the first thing about catching a ball or throwing a ball. Naturally, kids being the brutal monsters they are, make fun of him, except for Benny, one of the boys who actually has “professional baseball player” written all over him and we later learn, does go on to do exactly that (with Smalls being the commentator).
And since this was a childhood film of mine, Benny was and will forever be one of my movie heroes. Because he was kind from the jump to the nerdy, outcast kid! He helped to ingratiate Smalls to the group. He also gives Smalls a better glove and hat.
To further ingratiate himself to the group, when Benny hits a homer over the fence to the scary dog, they are out of balls until Smalls mentions he has a ball. Smalls’ stepfather, Bill (who I didn’t know until I was an adult was Denis Leary, which after being a longtime Rescue Me fan, it’s weird to see him in this classic 1960s dad role, but he has the head for it!), is a baseball fan and has an autographed baseball from Bath Ruth himself.
Of course, Smalls being Smalls has no idea that this is a ball signed by Babe Ruth. He thinks Babe Ruth is some lady. Smalls ends up hitting his first homerun of said ball over the fence to the scary dog and then freaks out, realizing his stepfather is going to KILL him.
Before we get to the main thrust of what happens next, there are some fantastic side plots, like the kids going to the community pool, so that Squints can ogle the beautiful lifeguard, Wendy Peffercorn. He fakes drowning, so that he can kiss her during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That’s one of a few things in this film you would not see in a 2021 coming-of-age film, I don’t think. We later learn, despite the age difference, that they go on to have nine children. (A fun thing (not so fun for the kids) that is so noticeable during the pool scene is that apparently they shot the scene when it was rather cold, which is why you can notice all the kids shivering, despite it being a ridiculously hot day in storyline.)
Or when they challenge the more “professional” looking neighborhood team (they have uniforms and bikes!) and “Ham” and the head of the other team have a back-and-forth insulting match, which is hilarious, although even I don’t like that the ultimate insult was Ham telling the other that he “plays ball like a GIRL!” Another very quotable line, but also, doesn’t age well! They then go on to handily beat said team.
One of the best scenes is when they go to the local amusement park thereafter to celebrate their victory, take a bunch of chewing tobacco and then throw it up on the ride all over the other riders. Disgusting, and also, again, something you would not see in a film like that today. But it’s great! And it’s not like I went on to do chewing tobacco because of it.
And obviously, one of the best scenes is the sleepover in the treehouse (what a great treehouse!) where the group tells Smalls the legend of the the Beast, the scary English Mastiff that lives on the other side of the fence and eats all the baseballs and kills a bunch of people, legend has it. That’s where we get Squints doing the, “Foooor-ev-ER.” And Smalls not knowing what the heck a s’mores is, giving us the, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!” line. So, both my favorite lines in one dang scene!
Once the Babe Ruth ball is over the fence, we get a lot of fun scenes where the boys are trying to figure out a way to get the ball and they all backfire because the Beast destroys the gizmos they come up. It’s all ludicrous and fun as heck to watch, especially when they inadvertently blow up the treehouse. Yes, that happened.
Finally though, Benny has a dream where Babe Ruth himself visits him and tells Benny to “pickle” the Beast. That is, Benny is so great at evading pickles in baseball (where you’re stuck between two defensive players and their respective bases), why not do that to retrieve the ball from the Beast?
Benny is able to do just that: He puts on cool-looking shoes I definitely wanted as a kid, hops the fence, stares down the Beast, grabs the ball and does a death-defying leap back over the fence. Yay! Wait, the Beast comes hurling over the fence in an awesome moment where Benny goes, “Oh shit!”
The chase is on! And I’m getting goosebumps even remembering it in my head because it’s one of my favorite scenes in all of film. Yes, I said it! It’s just so dang fun and cool. Benny was the coolest and looked the part. And I love dogs. So, seeing this cool childhood hero of mine evading the dog as they run through the city in several comedic situations, like with a cake toppling over at a fair, through the silver screen at a movie theater and so on, was and is a blast.
Eventually, the kids realize the Beast is no beast, just a slobbery, lovely dog. They then meet the man behind the dog, Mr. Mertle (played by James Earl Jones, of all people), who used to play with Babe Ruth until a baseball to the head blinded him.
What a great film! If you also loved this film as a child, I can assure you it holds up as a blast to go back and watch. There’s no down moments in this film. It’s all fun and funny. The kids are all believable in how they act and talk. That’s the best part of watching any film centered on kids, is you want them to seem believable. So, credit and kudos to the scriptwriters behind the kids and the kid actors themselves.
For my money, this film crosses a number of “one of the best of” categories: it’s one of the best sports movies ever; it’s one of the best baseball movies ever; it’s one of the best coming-of-age movies ever; and it’s one of the best “cult classics” ever.
If you somehow have never seen the film, then you absolutely have to go out of your way to watch it, and also, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”