With Eastbound & Down’s series finale set to air this Sunday and the 2012 MLB season a few weeks underway, baseball is on the brain of many a sports-loving TV fan. With such a long and rich history, and such a strong place in American culture, it’s only natural for so many series to take it on, if only for an episode or two. Here is a sampling of the many great baseball-inspired episodes from American TV, the Eastbound & Down Memorial Top 10-
Honorable Mentions: My Boys, the ending of Band of Brothers, Psych (“Dead Man’s Curveball”), and Dragnet (“Robbery: Baseball”).
With the MLB (and NHL) on strike, Al and the rest of NO MA’AM are itching for some good old fashioned baseball. After a failed attempt to break into Wrigley Field, Al forms a nudie bar-sponsored team, the Chicago Cleavage, which soon becomes part of a national league. The Cleavage make it to the finals, but tensions flare when the owners sign a $3 million deal for the TV rights. With cameos aplenty from “out of work” ballplayers, this light-weight episode is a lot of fun in that decidedly Married… with Children way.
9. South Park, “The Losing Edge”
In a rare twist on the standard baseball episode, the children of South Park could not care less about the sport. They manage to bumble their way into the finals, outplayed by their opponents who want to lose as badly as they, and face the terrifying prospect of having to go to the national circuit, losing their summer break in the process. The parents’ fanaticism for the game contrasts the kids’ utter apathy, prompting the question of if baseball still is the national pastime.
8. Cheers, “Pitch it Again, Sam”
Sam gets called back up to the game to pitch one more at bat for his rival, Dutch Kincaid. The gang takes the trip up to New York, with Sam determined to finally strike out Kincaid- until he’s approached by Kincaid’s grandson, excited for his only opportunity to see his grandpa hit a homer. Will Sam take a dive? All the pitching may happen off-screen, but the sense of history and fun in this episode more than make up for that.
GOB may be terrible at real estate, but he’s a hot commodity when it comes to the annual Bluth/Sitwell softball game. When he’s lured away by Stan Sitwell under the guise of a new job, Michael couldn’t be happier, but when they realize GOB’s new job pits him against family in the game, loyalties are tested. This delightfully silly episode balances subtle and incredibly broad humor well, making it one of the most versatile episodes on this list.
6. WKRP in Cincinnati, “Baseball”
When Les was a kid, his mom made him take violin lessons instead of playing ball. So, with the help of his unenthusiastic colleagues, he accepts the challenge of rival station WPIG to a game. After a less than impressive showing all game, it comes down to a terrified Les standing in the outfield, praying the ball won’t come to him. The WKRP staff are far from athletes, but watching them scheme and strategize makes for one hell of a fun game.
5. Freaks and Geeks, “The Diary”
While only one of this episode’s storylines revolves around baseball, it’s a memorable one that many can relate to. Bill keeps being chosen last for baseball in PE and is constantly stuck in the outfield. The trauma of picking teams is common, universal, and will probably remain until some distant future where PE is no longer a required class. Bill’s frustration, acting out, and Coach Frederick’s eventual solution are hilarious, touching, and more than anything, absolutely truthful.
4. X-Files, “The Unnatural”
Everyone loves baseball, even aliens. Some of them are pretty good, too. This period piece, like so many of the best sci-fi stories, posits an intriguing what if and uses its genre trappings to explore societal issues. In this case, alien/human tensions replace baseball’s racial barrier and bounty hunters stand in, quite literally, for the KKK. Full of nice period touches and dripping with atmosphere, this episode revels in nostalgia and mood, and is one of the more successful serious takes on the baseball episode.
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”
Never has a manufactured triumph been more fun. When Captain Sisko’s school rival, Vulcan Captain Solok, comes to Deep Space Nine, he challenges Sisko to a game- his crew vs. Sisko’s. Of course, Vulcans have three times the body strength as humans, so it’s, for all intents and purposes, impossible for Sisko and company to win. By the end of the episode, friendship and a love for the game wins out, and really, that’s what a good baseball story’s about.
2. Simpsons, “Homer at the Bat”
Homer and Wonder Bat. After he helps the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s softball team to the finals against their Shelbyville counterparts, Homer is benched by Mr. Burns in favor of Darryl Strawberry. The rest of the team is swapped out as well, but a hilarious series of misadventures sees them all sidelined and our Springfield regulars back on the team. Everything comes down to the final pitch, with Homer at bat, in as a pinch hitter for Strawberry, and the ending both plays into and subverts our expectations in a perfectly Simpsons way.
Or, as this episode is remembered by so many Seinfeld fans, The Magic Loogie. Jerry’s hilarious recounting of the incident that, as Newman says, “changed us in a deep and profound way from that day forward”, is one of the most memorable scenes in one of the best comedies ever made. With its escalation towards the JFK homage at its center, it’s easy for some to forget not only the baseball setting of the loogieing, but Keith Hernandez’s role as the titular boyfriend. Seinfeld had many fantastic baseball episodes, but this is the one that stands out.
What’s your favorite baseball-inspired episode? Post your thoughts in the comments below!